Resources for Writers

I’ve been culling my frequently visited sites, favorite YouTube channels and podcasts, and browsing my Twitter feed…all in the name of research, of course (not at all because I’ve been slacking off or procrastinating getting back to my writing, not at all…).

I’m really excited to share with you just the beginning of a long list of resources that I’ve found over the years. And I’m not just talking books, I’m talking everything from Twitter #s to Authortube to Websites and more.

Computer and resources written in book

I will say that this is not a complete list, I’m still going through all of my digital “stuff” and finding more all the time, I’ll probably update this once a month here on out to keep staying relevant as well as continuing to post what I’ve found to help my own writing.

If you have any you love, I’d love to hear about them in the comments so I can check them out and add them to the lists!

Websites

Books

Facebook Groups

YouTube (AuthorTube) Channels

Twitter #s

Podcasts

Creativity Help

The Importance of Self-Editing

As a teacher and a freelance editor, one of the biggest things that I notice is the lack of writer’s wanting or even knowing how to self-edit.

For my students, it is usually coming from a place of procrastination or stress with their workload. For others, it can be similar places of overwhelm and a hope that by passing it on to someone else, their job becomes just a little bit easier.

The thing that I have to tell both students and clients, however, is that when you fail to self-edit, it really hinders your growth in the craft of writing.

Image of woman editing document

When you look back at your work and check for plot holes and character issues, you help develop your sense of those things for your next project.

Similarly, your ability to write well and get better at some of the writing craft portions of your project need work as well. Things like how to structure/format dialogue or how to stay in the same verb tense can help you write cleaner, better, faster drafts as you learn.

Although it is kind of a drag and takes a lot of time for those who may not feel very confident with the technicalities of writing, learning how to self-edit can save you time and money in the long run, so I strongly suggest it.

Because of that, I’ve developed a quick workbook that covers the top five areas that I think most writers should be able to tackle on their own. These five areas are also the most problematic things that I see and fix for others, but that could be done by the author at a *free* price tag.

If you sign up for my monthly newsletter below, you can download the free workbook and continue to get lots of updates and access to future freebies before they’re available here or on social media.

Leslie Arambula’s self editing workbook
https://mailchi.mp/ae7f7d5384c7/lesliearambulanewsletter

If you do download it, I’d love to hear your feedback or see how it has helped you in your own writing. Leave me a comment below or reach out on social media!

Sign up for my newsletter and receive the free workbook today!

Writer’s Notebook: A Mixtape of Words

When I was growing up, people used to make mixtapes. They would record a variety of songs onto cassettes so that all of their favorites would be ready to go any time they wanted without having to wait to hear it on the radio or purchase a full album for only one song.

Later, things progressed to CDs and people used software to download songs they liked and created mixtapes that way.

Peter Quill guardians of the galaxy music
Say what you want about Peter Quill, but his music is the best part of the movies

However, when during my MFA program, one of my teachers assigned us a project where we got to make a mixtape, but the catch was that this wasn’t about songs, it was just about words.

This activity was so much fun that I’ve continued to use it with my own students and to add on to my list as the years pass. It makes a great addition to their writer notebooks, where they usually jot down story ideas or character sketches, because unlike the longer ideas and sketches, this mixtape is usually short. It’s just about collecting, not necessarily about processing it just yet.

Additionally, by collecting this mixtape of words, you might find yourself becoming better acquainted with your own voice and style since you are just pulling things that you like and find interesting. As you’ll see in a bit, mine is pretty eclectic, but there are a lot of humorous play on words types or vivid imagery examples that really draw me in.

Awesome mix vol. 2 guardians of the galaxy
What better name for a mixtape than “Awesome Mix”

I encourage you to try creating your own mixtape of words by collecting and writing down the lines that you hear, snippets of things that you see or watch, beautiful phrases, or just words that make you giggle. Either way, this can be a fun exercise to help you pay attention to the world around you, to play with words and phrases, and later, you can even come back and use some of them in your own writing.

In the class that I took, I took a phrase from one of my peers’s lists and incorporated it into a poem that I wrote. I’ve included part of my own mixtape below to give you some ideas.

My Mixtape of Words

Holding fate’s palm against my own

Greening the cube

“The most intense form of pretentious dishevelment”

Today’s menu: eat it or starve

Antistalking

“Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a fake thought and a real one.” -Anna Staffe

Yuck fou

Intensity intensifies (tv caption)

Rainbowitis 

Aggressively screams “meow”

Meraki

“We are but dust and shadows”

The finest of pleasures are always the unexpected ones.

Rattle the stars

“Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” -Mike Tyson

infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way

“To embrace her was to embrace a piece of night tattooed with fire.” -Octavio Paz

Check your f***s at the door and boldly be you

Hurt people just hurt people

Om mani padme hum (Om the jewel in the lotus Hum)

Stuck on the plateau you have created

You can’t buy love, but you can make it

We don’t wear black to the cemetery

“Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds.” -Albert Einstein

We think we’re chasing the outcome, but we’re really just chasing the feeling

A Scottish prick in a fast car 

Tropical plants a retired jester has mixed up 

Plasma hippie

Abrasive baby

Domineering curtain

“…baffled and bemused upon a stumppocked scene of profound and peaceful desolation, unplowed, untilled, gutting slowly into red and choked ravines beneath the long quiet rains of autumn and the galloping fury of vernal equinoxes.”

Evolve anyway

What would you include in your mixtape? I would love to hear some examples in the comments or find me on social media!

What I Learned About Myself in 2019

As the year comes to an end, I love using this time to reflect on how far the year has taken me.

Here, I wanted to share a few of the things I learned about myself this year. If you’d like to see my reflections and resolutions that I set out with for 2019, you can see one of my previous blog posts under the Lessons Learned category on my blog page.

Also, this New Year marks the end of a decade! If you’re interested, I’ve just released my Decade In Review Workbook on Etsy. It’s all about looking back and planning for the next decade!

1. I’m not an everyday kind of writer

As you can see from my NaNoWriMo chart this year, writing every day is just not something I’m great at. I really need those days in between my writing sessions to contemplate what I want to write next.

While I start off with a good idea of my scene goals and intentions, I still need to “see” the scene play out in my head and make that all connect to the rest of the story.

That process takes time. It is often me trying different scenarios until I feel the one that pushes me to the keyboard and I know is the right one.

NaNoWriMo daily word count
My daily word count from NaNoWriMo is like the world’s most awesome rollercoaster

2. Reading influences my writing A LOT!

When I set out to revise my YA fantasy, I knew I wanted to write my character to be that teenaged, angsty, and snarky voice. So, when I went to start rewriting, it just happened to coincide with my reading of Rick Riordan’s The Apollo Trials.

It was so much fun to read in the voice of his main character (Apollo turned teenaged human) because of the sass and witty voice that he was able to convey.

This helped me make breakthroughs as I found. My own inner sass coming across into my main character’s voice. From that point on, I try to pair my writing with books that feature something that I love in them. For my current WIP, I’m reading books like Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch and Joe Abercrombie’s Before They Are Hanged.

Before they are hanged by joe abercrombie
The action, pace, and gritty characters of this book inspire me to slow down and get details right
Truthwitch by Susan Dennard new cover
The world building and characters really inspire me from this book

3. The writing community is amazing

I started my Instagram and website just over a year ago and I can’t believe how many cool friends I’ve found by joining the online writing community.

Whether it is people on Instagram sharing work and feedback and support, or Twitter word sprints, or even places on Facebook that I can join a group to learn about the business side of writing, I’ve learned so much and met so many people.

Not only that, but I’ve been so blessed to have met and been able to interact with the authors of some great books like The Dark Wood, The Letters She Left Behind, and The Stolen Kingdom.

The stolen kingdom book cover Bethany Atazadeh The letters she left behind by cl Walters coverThe dark wood by Sydney Mann cover

4. I can get a lot done when I want to

Tackling an author platform, working as a full-time teacher, having three kids and a husband to spend time with, editing and beta reading on the side, and writing my own stuff keeps me extremely busy. Plus, let’s not forget binge eating sweets and playing video games!

However, I realized that I could get it all done if I was realistic about my expectations for each facet of my life. Learning to plan goals and organize my thoughts was a huge part of it. The other part is allowing myself grace and knowing that progress is progress, no matter how small it may seem now.

5. The only thing holding me back is ME

On the days I didn’t want to write, or the times I missed posting a blog or social media post, I realized that I could have, but I didn’t want to.

No longer was I able to look objectively at my life and say “Well, it was because of (insert excuses here).” If it really meant that much to me, I MADE time for it.

As I look forward into 2020 and the next decade of my life, this single realization of me being my only barrier is what I’m using to launch myself into greater and newer spaces.

What about you? What did you learn this year? I’d love to hear about it!

Writing in Different Environments

Most of us are creatures of habit. We have our writing spaces, like a desk, the couch, the kitchen table, a comfy chair, etc. and we like them as they are.

But sometimes, we need to shake things up in order to get our creativity flowing again. I recently read a great article about environmental factors that affect creativity, and it had me thinking about how some environments get me into the flow of writing a lot faster than others.

So, here’s a short list of ways you can spice up your writing environment and see if it helps you at all.

Writing at a table
Moving to a new environment can spark new ideas

Try writing…

  • At a local cafe/Starbucks (the ambient noise and bustling atmosphere…and the caffeine…really help me)
  • The library
  • In your yard
  • At a different writing surface in your home (if you usually write at a desk, try the kitchen table)
  • Standing up instead of sitting down
  • With headphones in
  • On paper if you usually type (or vice versa)
  • On a notebook that is one size smaller or larger than you usually use
  • In a different font (I heard Comic Sans is actually helpful for drafting for some reason)
  • Change the color of your text
  • Try a different word processor (Scrivener, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, OneNote, Evernote, etc.)
  • At a book store
  • On a loose piece of paper
  • On your cell phone’s note taking app
  • Dictating your work to Siri or whatever AI you have available
  • During a different time of day than you usually write
  • With the windows open

Any other ideas that you have? What does your writing environment look like? Let me know in the comments.

Writing outside
Getting fresh air can be a nice change of pace

Catching Up During NaNo

Last year during NaNo was the first time (if I remember correctly) that I didn’t find myself falling behind shortly after NaNo started.

I’ll never forget the pressure of feeling like I needed a good 5k day to catch me back up, or even that feeling of being 10-15k behind as the month wore on.

Luckily, in most cases, I was able to get a lot of words pushed out in just a few days and closed the gap, even if it came down to the wire and ended up putting my at 50k right at the end of November.

Here are two things that helped me catch up in those instances.

Save the Date stamped in Planner
Setting dedicated time aside can help you catch up

Dedicated writing days

For me, working a full time job and having three kids means that I don’t have a lot of spare writing time. But, I was able to pinpoint at least a Saturday morning chunk of time most weeks to write for two or three hours in a row.

This helped me tremendously! I was able to get so much done. I think that being behind helped me for two reasons.

1. I had the pressure of feeling “behind” (that stinkin’ NaNo stats chart!)

2. Even though I hadn’t been able to sit down and write, I’d been thinking about my story

This second one is so important. When I finally got down to write, I knew so much of where I wanted to go, what I wanted to happen, and the words just flew out and onto the screen. Were they perfect? Heck no! But they were there, they were saved, and they were enough to keep the momentum going

Anything Goes

When you get stuck, sometimes it is really hard to move past a certain plot point or scene because you just can’t figure out the “right” move. However, in drafting, sometimes we have to throw in a wild card every now and again to keep the story going so we can either 1. Make the new wild card work for us or 2. We identify why something isn’t working.

The way that I like to do this is to think of the most crazy, random thing that could possibly happen and throw it in. For example, writing a science fiction story? A UFO attacks or your character stumbles upon a really cool laser rifle. Fantasy? A pack of centaurs charges through or your character is now indebted to a gnome. Contemporary? Maybe your character gets a sudden text that their mom/dad/grandma/best friend is in the hospital.

The key to this is remembering that in drafting anything goes and we are truly just telling ourselves the story. Sometimes we have to coerce that story a bit and get the wrong words out before we can identify the right ones.

Word Sprints

Sprinter on track with her game face on
Get your sprint face on and write it all out

I’ve talked about word sprints quite a bit, but the reason I do is because once I started sprinting, I realized that timing myself was the key to pushing past my inner editor and just getting words written.

I typically do word sprints on Twitter, either with The Mini Pens, the official NaNoWriMo account, or just people in the writing community who are sprinting.

I am also a patron of author Bethany Atazadeh and she hosts sprints in her Patron Discord Group. But all kinds of authors are hosting events, sprints, and more during NaNo. Check out a few of them below:

Brittany Wang’s NaNo House Cup

Authortuber’s write-ins with Mandi Lynn, Natalia Leigh, and Brooke Passmore

Kim Chance’s weekly sprints on Facebook

So, how do you catch up? Have you tried sprinting or any of the groups that I mentioned here? I’d love to know of more events or opportunities to sprint in the comments.

Pacing Yourself

NaNoWriMo burnout is real.

Yes, it is just the first week, but I think it is important to talk about pacing yourself before you actually burn out.

Plus, this doesn’t just happen during NaNo either. For me, it happens during October, when holidays, birthdays, school grading, Preptober, and more are all stacked on each other.

For you, it might just be each week or month when the bills need to be paid, the fridge needs to be restocked, and a pile of laundry keeps staring you down every time you come into a room.

The real question is, though, how do you pace yourself?

Self Care Sundays

Now, it doesn’t actually have to be a Sunday, but dedicating a weekly self care day can be extremely beneficial. And the best part is that you don’t have to do the same kind of self care every week, but if you are a ritualistic type of person, you totally can.

For some, this might look like taking a nice long bath. For others, maybe a walk through the neighborhood park. Or for some, activities like working out, game night with friends, or popcorn and a movie with family can all be considered self care.

The important thing is that you are scheduling time for you. Time to relax. Time to not work. Even if it isn’t a whole day and is just an hour or two, by setting yourself some scheduled time to detach from your tasks and to do list, you’ll probably be more prepared to tackle the rest of it afterwards.

A Venn diagram of what defines self care
I love this image from glaad.com because it sums up self care so nicely

Learning to say “no”

I did a whole post about how saying “no” was an epiphany moment for me. The point is, that when you take the time to say “no” to things that don’t mean something important to you or are a responsibility that you absolutely HAVE to deal with, then you are essentially saying “yes” to the fact that you are more important than adding another stressor to your plate.

I sometimes joke that I no longer have too much on my plate, that I’ve upgraded to a platter, but more and more I’ve been paring back. Most of the time, when we say “yes” to things that we feel like we have to do, or we do it out of fear of disappointing someone, we are hurting our morale and mental health as well.

Let me be clear, though, saying “no” to feeding your dog or taking your kids to school are not the kinds I’m talking about. Those are the HAVE to’s that you have responsibility for. I’m talking about taking on a project at work, or setting yourself an arbitrary and stressful deadline just because. Find the things that you can say “no” to and do it.

Find a productivity method that works for you

Sarra Cannon on Heart Breathings uses the Pomodoro Technique to focus her work. Other writers use word sprints of their own making. And some people use to do lists, planners, phone reminders, etc. to make sure that the time that they have to get things done is spent solely on that–getting things done.

Social media, family, notifications, bills, cleaning, etc. the list goes on and on with things that we can use to distract from getting our work done. And many times, if we don’t go in with a plan, we let those distractions in and it eventually ends up making us procrastinate, stress out, and rush our productivity. This is probably the biggest factor leading to burn out because it is so sneaky that sometimes we don’t even realize what is happening until we are two hours into YouTube videos about food hacks we’ll never try.

Web tools and other media outlets graphic
There are so many tasks that we feel we have to get done, but many actually decrease our productivity

So, browse the internet for an app that can help you…

Stay focused
  • Carrot punishes you for procrastinating and rewards productivity with point you can redeem for prizes, plus it’s sassy
  • Cold Turkey will temporarily block distractions that may prevent you from getting work done (Mac OS only)
  • Forest sets timers like the Pomodore Technique so you can stay productive and monitor your time better
Automate smaller tasks
  • IFTTT (If this, then that) app helps you set up pathways that will take some of the menial tasks off of your plate. I use it to automate posting new IG and blog posts to Twitter and Pinterest so I don’t even have to worry about that
    Buffer app allows me to schedule social media posts ahead of time, so that I don’t have to log on and post in the moment, my captions, hashtags, and photo are ready to go whenever I need or whenever I schedule
Streamline productivity
  • Trello helps me create digital cork boards where I can organize and place info and access them from anywhere. I use it all the time to plan out social media, work on editing notes, plan stories, and more.
  • Pocket allows you to save important sites, articles, etc. for viewing later. Instead of getting lost in it now, you can create a list to look at later.

Last Minute NaNoWriMo Tips

I’m so excited to get started with NaNo. If you’d like to see how I did last year, check out my NaNoWriMo 2018 post.

This year, I’m starting fresh: new idea, new characters, new world, new everything! It is exciting but also incredibly terrifying.

So, before NaNo officially begins tomorrow I wanted to give you a few last minute tips that can help you on your own NaNo journey.

Name Lists

The last thing you need when trying to bust out as many words as possible in the time that you have is to come across a character that jumped out and interrupted your flow and you find that you don’t know that character’s name. Well, one solution that I’ve come across over the years is to pre-write a list of names that fit within the world and that you like. Then, whenever you need one, either for a place, a character, or a country/city, you have a list to pull from and check off as you go. That way, you never stall on figuring out just the right name, instead you can push forward and worry about “rightness” for that name later. 

Name lists can help you write faster
This years name list for my WIP

Snacks

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing my stomach rumbling or taking a break and feeling like there is nothing quick and easy. If you stock up on a few grab and go type snacks for November, even if you want to take a break, you won’t feel overwhelmed with having to make anything difficult. 

Some of my favorite go-to snacks include popcorn, tea, leftover Halloween candy since they’re bite sized, and cereal. Whenever I find myself getting up from my desk, I grab one of these, and often times, I’ll even stay at my desk, grab something out of my desk drawer and snack on it while rereading or contemplating the next scene.

Get your favorite snacks ready
Get your favorite snacks ready

Using Brackets

This is an oldie but goodie. Like the name list above, sitting and figuring out just the right  way to describe the setting or figuring out the elaborate heist plans take a lot of time. And, during Nano, you don’t always have the time, especially those of us who are trying to squeeze writing in between family, careers, and sanity. 

Using brackets are a great way to get the gist written down, without being stuck on something that you can figure out during the second draft. For example, if you can’t figure out how to describe the moment, you might say something like: and then he said [something witty, but really condescending]. And then you can move on!

 

Avoiding Backspace

This is huge! During my first NaNo, I would actually hide my writing by moving the window off of the screen and just typing. By not looking at what I was typing, I wasn’t tempted to go back and change things, fret over the right word, or self-conscious about getting it just right. Basically, it prevented my inner editor from having any ground to stand on. And I found myself breezing through words without trying to press the backspace or delete button every time I made a typo or every time that I noticed something. Instead, I plowed through, then let spell check clean things up a bit during revisions. 

Get rid of your delete button
This seems a little extreme, but whatever works!

Word Sprints

Sprints are a great way to stay motivated and write with others, it is really the reason that I’m able to get so many words done. The focused, short periods of writing really work for me and I love adding in fun and motivational gifs along the way.

You can find me @leslie_arambula on Twitter and I’ll typically be on during the evenings and the weekends. I’m on PST, so my morning sprints will probably be around 8am PST and evening ones around 4 or 5pm. 

Similarly, if you search #writingsprints #amwriting #nanosprints or similar hashtags or accounts, you’re sure to find people sprinting all day long, no matter the time zone. This, more than anything has been the difference in getting my words done and it is truly the camaraderie of these sprints that make NaNo the fun event that it is.

 

Give yourself grace

Above all, the best last minute tip is to remember that this is just one month of your journey as a writer. It is not the be all, end all of your career. Keep doing your best, but remember, that not all books can or should be written in 30 days. 

And, as always, I’d love to hear from you and sprint with you! Reach out to me on social media or in the comments below. Tell me about what you’ll be writing this November, NaNo or not. You can see my current WIP under the My Writing tab.

 

Setting Scene Goals and Intentions

When I first sat down for NaNoWriMo 2012, I realized that although I had plotted out my story, had an idea of where I wanted things to go, and had crafted characters that I liked, I had no idea how to write a scene!

I had outlined chapters and their progression, but how do you accomplish that chapter without knowing the scenes that you are going to add in and what they need to accomplish in order to truly make the chapter that you had imagined?

Well, one of the things that changed my writing completely from that first NaNo to the past few years was not only plotting using a little bit of each of the methods I’ve talked about in my previous post about plotting methods, but it was to figure out the scene goals and intentions as well.

Yes, but/ No, and

I first started thinking about this when I heard about the “Yes, but/No, and” concept on the Writing Excuses podcast. It takes this idea that in each scene, the character has a goal and whether or not they accomplish it can fall into two categories: “Yes, but….something unexpected happens” or “No, and….now they also have to deal with ____.”

This concept totally floored me and I began writing my notecards on Scrivener to include a goal and the Yes, but or No and, answer to that goal. It helped tremendously.

Setting scene goals with yes, but no, and method
Here’s an example from my old WIP. Just this much gives me enough to get the scene started

Intentions

Similarly, when I read Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, the concept of setting scene intentions went right along with this. The book deals with two types of intentions (similar to goals).

1. Plot-based intentions

These intentions are the overarching intentions that your character is striving towards throughout the plot. In a given scene, your character should be aiming towards these overarching intentions. Otherwise, your scenes will feel removed from the overall plot of the story.

2. Scene-based intentions

These are the more immediate, reactionary intentions that a character has in a scene. For example, if your character’s goal is to survive in the wilderness without food or shelter (plot-based intention), the scene-based intention may be to set up a shelter or start a fire before night falls.

Setting scene intentions
I love these guiding questions when considering how to set up my scenes

By combining the “Yes, but/No, and” and scene intention strategies, I feel so much more prepared when it comes time to start a scene because I know exactly what is driving the character both as a part of the story as well as just temporarily, but I also know the conclusion and how it will help raise the stakes or resolve things by understanding the outcome.

Emotional Dominoes

Finally, the piece that tied everything together was listening to Susan Dennard talk about “emotional dominoes” that your story must follow. By considering the logical progression of emotions and change that the character goes through, I was able to tie in not just plot and scene-based goals and intentions, but make sure that they tied in with character development and a logical progression throughout the story.

Whew! I’m exhausted just thinking about doing this for my new project, but I can guarantee that I’m going to do it because I feel so much more prepared to tackle each and every scene when I do these things ahead of time.

What do you do? I’d love to hear about what you use for scene goals and intentions in the comments below!

Three Plotting Methods

It’s almost NaNoWriMo time! I’m so excited, but also incredibly terrified. I finished a draft last year, and am starting with a brand new world, cast of characters, and storyline. I’m even attempting a dual POV, which I’ve never done before.

So, my panicking is driving me back into the books for plotting methods. I’m here to share with you three of my personal favorites.

But before I do that, I want to make sure you understand that plotting methods can work for you whether you are a plotter, pantser, or hybrid plantser.

For the plotter, these methods can help you feel confident you know where you are going before you even begin.

For the pantser, these methods can help you after your draft to make sure you’re hitting the right beats in the right places.

For hybrid plantsers, these methods can help you identify rough lightposts as you draft and then a more structured method for revising after your draft is complete.

Alright, now that that is handled, here are my favorite three plotting methods:

The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell
The classic story structure of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth

1. The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell

This is probably the most classic plotting method, also knows as the monomyth, and if you google “how to plot” you will probably end up finding this method right off the bat.

A number of stories have followed Joseph Campbell’s method which he reverse engineered from classic stories. Despite this, it holds true for many, if not all, modern stories as well.

This focuses on the journey that a character takes through toils, a victory in a dire crisis, and then returning to their “home” a changed person due to their journey.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel beat sheet
While confusing at first, this beat map can really help organize your story

2. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

I love this book. It was a huge eye opener for me because it really broke down the methodology behind why story plots follow the basic templates that they do.

Brody provides TONS of examples in here but also breaks down genres like Monster in the House and Guy with a Problem. Each of these genres follow the same traditional plot, but with a few specific items added into the mix.

So far it has been super helpful in helping me write two POVs with different genre types while still maintaining focus on the overall plot of the novel. I’ve also used it in figuring out where to revise my other project.

Plot your novel by Sarra Cannon
Sarra’s workbook combines a variety of plot methods into one cohesive structure

3. Plot Your Novel by Sarra Cannon

Sarra does an awesome job of outlining both the character creation method and the overall plot in her workbook.

One of the things that I love the most is that Sarra has taken a few different plotting methods and blended them into one. It leaves you with a detailed breakdown of what needs to happen in Act 1, Act 2 (part 1), Act 2 (part 2), and Act 3.

One revelation for me was that there isn’t just an inciting incident for your character, there is a key incident as well where he/she becomes locked in this new trajectory. This separation was a revelation for me when I tried to revise my work last year.

There you have it! These are my top three plotting methods. What do you think? Better yet, what do you use when plotting or revising your work? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

World as a Platform for Theme

When we initially sit down to create a story, we might think about the character first, or possibly the setting.

But by the time we get invested into the characters and setting, we sometimes realize that what we have thought of doesn’t fully mesh together well with the plan we have for the actual plot and message of our story. Check out my own project to see the plot and setting I’m trying to use to establish my theme.

When thinking about setting, it is important to realize that it is essential to the overall plot not just because it makes events plausible and understandable, but because setting and world provide many stories with the platform to play out the plots and themes that the author truly wants to write. Check out this video that really got my brain going about worldbuilding!

Fictional worlds all in one map
This is a fun map, wish I lived in this world!

Hunger Games

This is one of the best examples I found when thinking about theme and world.

Suzanne Collins didn’t just set out to write a story about a young girl fighting to the death in an arena. She told the story of a rebellion and the girl who was the spark that started it.

Katniss speaking up with Effie at the first Reaping of the Hunger Games series
Collins created a world that allowed her message possible

In order to do this, though, Collins had to first create a world that would allow that sort of story to play out and have the impact that she intended. Imagine if she’d set this story in the past, maybe Victorian London. Or maybe in the present, in the neighborhoods of Chicago or New York.

Katniss’s situation and rebellious tendencies would look completely different and the way that her story played out wouldn’t be the same.

Instead, Katniss’s is in District 12, a regulated, down-trodden area of the country. Collins built this world for Katniss. She built the need for her to use a bow to provide for her family. She built a gate for Gale and Katniss to get through in order to hunt. She made the Capitol and the people in. And then she made the Games. A place where children killed each other for sport and nobody was able to speak out against it, it was just a fact of life.

All of these things played a part in the choices that Collins made to create her world because they lent themselves to the overarching themes of rebellion, hope, and tragedy that come through in the books.

A scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The forest is the only place this kind of craziness could have happened in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Divergent cast in the Allegiant movie
Think about the world of Divergent and how that lent itself to telling Tris’s story

What about yours?

  • What themes are playing out in your story?
  • How does your world add to that theme?
  • How would the theme be different if the world was different? (Here’s an article about the Seven Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding)
  • What, if any, changes do you need to make in order to allow your world to be the platform on which you tell your message?

What Makes a Well-Written Character?

Creating lovable, well-written characters can seem daunting. I know that for me, I try to start off by planning most of it with my character worksheets, but by the time it comes to write them into my story, I am sometimes overwhelmed with making sure I get enough of them onto the page to really get the readers excited.

I recently asked my students to respond to this question, and I was surprised in a lot of ways about the ways that they differentiated between well-written and poorly-written characters.

So, I wanted to share with you, since these are the same students who are reading the YA books that are out on shelves today, and potentially may be your target audience. I’ve condensed their lists into a few very succinct points.

Frodo and his quest to destroy the ring
I have always loved the story of Frodo and the ring, especially with how much heart Frodo shows throughout the books.

Well-Written Characters

  • Are relatable
  • Have depth to them
  • Are imperfect
  • “Feel” human
  • Have reasons behind whether they are static or whether they grow a lot or a little
  • Come off as realistic
  • Have reasons for what they do, whether they are the antagonist or the protagonist

I love this list. It was clear that for my students, being able to imagine the character as a real person, who only acts because of reasons that the character feels are meaningful is so important.

But, as writers, how do we do that?

Well, let’s take a quick look at what my students decided showed a poorly-written character and then we’ll come back to that question.

From Celeana Sardothien to Aelin
** No spoilers** The journey that Maas’s MC takes in becoming her true self is amazing throughout this series and makes me love her. She is still a wise-cracking, kickass lead, but has grown so much.

Poorly-Written Characters

  • Lack personality
  • Have no growth and no reasoning for it
  • Are idealized inserts of the author’s imagination (Mary Sue’s)
  • Have no impact on the audience the book was sold to
  • Sound scripted when they speak

Most of these seem to directly coincide and contradict the previous list, which makes sense. But again, how do we do that?

Well, here are just a few ideas that I got out of reading my students’ responses:

  • Identify who your target audience is and really get to know what they are interested in. So many times, YA characters read like adults because it is adults who are writing them. In many ways, this can be successful as readers tend to “read up” in age, but what about that group of kids who are 11 or 12 looking for someone who is 14 years old? And how does that 14 year old truly differ from a 16 or 17 year old?
  • Make your characters well-rounded. It may not seem important to state that your character plays video games or has never finished reading a book before in his/her life, but those kinds of details make him/her relatable and interesting. Without details like that, your character becomes just a pawn in the plot that you have captured in your book instead of a fully realized person that the readers can imagine going to the grocery store or sitting in a dental chair getting a cavity filled.
  • Give them REASONS. Nobody wants to get off of the couch once they’ve settled in, until they realize the remote is on the kitchen counter. Similarly, your character won’t go from happy to sad to yelling over a dropped candy all in one scene. If they do, they have to have a reason. So give them one. If not, you lose your street cred with your audience in them believing that this is a real person. Especially if you don’t show them stretching out trying to reach the remote before finally getting up, because, let’s be honest, we all do that.
  • Making characters real and believable means life-like, not exactly true to life. For example, take a look at a conversation in real life, and then transcribe every single word over. Your book just doesn’t have the time (and your readers the patience) to stumble over every “um” or “wait, let me go back” in the dialogue. Make it realistic, but not exactly like life or you’ll find much of the dialogue feels unnecessary and skippable.
  • Lastly, nobody’s life is perfect. There should be complications and consequences. In your story, your protagonist is probably special in some way or another, but even Superman had his bad days. Don’t fall into the Mary Sue trap of your character being too good to cheat, lie, steal, or get in some major trouble when it is logical for him/her. Once free pass is a miracle, too many and your readers will feel like you’re handing out free passes and will lose interest. It’s nice to be the good cop, but its the bad cop who makes the person change.

Well, I hope that helped! Let me know what you think makes a well or poorly-written character in the comments!

Making Prompts Work for You

Last week, I talked about different types of writing prompts in the hopes that it will help anyone looking for help getting ideas for their stories to realize that there are a ton of options out there for you.

This week, I wanted to dive into a few helpful tips and tricks that I’ve learned throughout my own journey in figuring out how to make prompts work for my own writing flow and style.

Prompts are not writing jail

First and foremost, even though prompts are ways for you to get your creativity flowering, they aren’t meant to be restrictive to the point that your creativity actually ends up locking up in your mind. Instead, think about the prompts as suggestions, a gentle nudge in a direction, so whether you select one, or are assigned one, feel free to experiment and figure out how this prompt can lend itself to your personal style and interests.

Change up the order

Next, even if the prompt is meant for a first line, or the picture is of a castle, that doesn’t mean that your first line needs to be that line or that your character starts at the castle or ends at it. Play around with order and use that first line as the ending, or even write around it and make it something in the middle.

Add in twists

Even when a prompt seems to indicate something, one way to make it work for you is to add in an awesome twist. This is where prompt writing really ends up hitting its stride because you can give a group of 100 people the same prompt and the best ones will probably be the ones that added a twist or changed it and made it unique in some way.

Step out of your comfort zone

Even though I said at the beginning to make the prompts work for you, sometimes what we really need is to be taken out of our comfort zone for a little bit because our comfort zone has lost some of its spark. So, when a prompt asks you to step out of your zone and try a new genre, or even including a line of dialogue that is so different from the style you usually use, TRY IT! There’s a lot to be learned from making a great story, but there is even more from stretching our creative expectations and possibly even failing in our own eyes.

I hope that some of that was helpful to you. If you want a few ideas or prompts, don’t forget to check out my previous blog post since I added a couple of prompts for each type as well as a few plot and title generators at the end.

A Few Types of Writing Prompts

I absolutely love writing prompts. That’s why I use them in my classroom and have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to them. I have written a number of stories using prompts, but I’ve come to realize that not everyone likes them or uses them like I do.

Some of my students mentioned that they really disliked prompts because they felt like improvisation, on-the-fly type writing that didn’t resonate with them.

So, I wanted to start off by defining a few of the types of prompts with you. Next week, I’ll go over how to make prompts work for you and how, no matter whether you like them or not, you can use them to get your fingers typing or writing.

There are multiple types of prompts

One thing that people may not realize is that prompts come in a variety of shapes and forms. Here are just a few of the most popular types of writing prompts, many of which end up overlapping.

First Line

Just like the name indicates, these types of prompts give you the first line of your story. It is then up to you to interpret that and contextualize it into something larger. This can be really helpful for when you are staring at a blank page and feel stalled.

The ability to type/write something down that you didn’t have to stress about can be a great motivator to keep going. And, if you find the right one, it can be a great launching pad for a story that you love.

Premise

These types of prompts indicate a story’s overall premise or a specific situation that you place your characters in. Similar to the first line prompts, this can be a great starting point because you have some direction to get your creativity flowing.

Unlike the first line, though, this type of prompt allows you a little more flexibility since you aren’t tied to anything but a feeling, idea, or situation.

Found on Pinterest
Found on Pinterest

Picture Prompts

These are my favorite, which is how I get wrapped up in Pinterest bunny holes so often. A picture prompt can be anything, really, but there are some that are specifically staged and designed to help writers come up with stories.

While at first, picture prompts may seem restrictive, it can be really open-ended. It could be an “explain what happened” or even a “tell the story of” and many times, people instinctively place their POV as the person/object in the picture. However, it can be equally challenging and fun to imagine, setting up the photo, or seeing the events as a third-party bystander.

Found on Pinterest
Found on Pinterest

Dialogue

Dialogue prompts either give you a single line or possibly a short conversation between two or more characters. Most of these are fairly general and could relate to a number of characters and situations, but give just enough to get your brain started in a specific direction.

I sometimes find it hard to make the dialogue fit the character that I have in mind, but other times, it is that specific dialogue that gives birth to the character that develops onto the page.

Random

These types of prompts ask you to pair random things and create stories out of them. For example, maybe it is a “select three objects from this list and create a story using all of them.” Other times, it might be a genre, and some objects. And then at other times, these types of prompts are just a single word: an emotion, an object, an exclamation, etc. Another really fun one is also to just get a titled created for you and then have to write the story to go with it.

These are a lot of fun because they remove a lot of the choice for you and just allow you to create situations and scenes that you may never have even imagined.

Where to find prompts

1. Google (especially photos)

2. Pinterest (oh, how I love/hate you)

3. Story generators (here are a few: 1, 2, 3)

4. Title generators (here are a few: 1, 2, 3)

Stay tuned for next week’s post on how to make writing prompts work for you!

Finding Inspiration Through RAFT Writing

Put simply, RAFT writing is a creative writing exercise that was designed to make you consider different perspectives and formats for your writing. I use it all the time with my students and many of my students had a hard time grasping the concept the first time, but found it more and more interesting the more that we used it in class.

Role

The role that you are using for this exercise can differ greatly from writing as yourself to writing as an object or character from a book.

Audience

This is who the piece of writing will be directed towards. I like using things like a specific person or group of people instead of just thinking of “readers” or “everyone.”

Format

This is the way that you will actually write, and can include stories, conversations, scripts, letters, texts, advertisements, and more.

Topic

This is the what you are writing about. While this may seem super important, as part of this exercise, it is actually the least important component of RAFT writing. This is because the goal is to attempt to use perspectives and formats that we may not be comfortable with.

Now that we’ve gone over a few of the basics, here’s a few examples:

This is a pretty simple one, but check below for more examples.

R: postal worker

A: one of the residents on your route

F: dialogue exchange (no exposition necessary)

T: please leash your dog

As you can see, this one is very different from the above. It may also spark a new creative nugget from your mind, maybe not with the actual “plot” but with the dialogue or the way that you have to adjust your tone and language being an employee dealing with a client.

Here’s another example:

R: lion

A: him/herself

F: journal entry

T: a day in the life

These sorts of formats can be a lot of fun, I especially like thinking about what characters would write in their journal at the end of the day. You can really make those things come alive.

More options

In the end…

This exercise is all about having fun. It is a great way to loosen up your writing muscles and not feel tied to a project or idea that you are really invested in.

For me, I use these when I’ve stepped away from something for a while and need to get back in the chair without feeling like I am stressed out over the draft that I’m working on.

I hope they help you as well. If you write something, I’d love to see it in the comments!