Creating Tension

A few days ago, I posted a question on Instagram about how other authors add tension to their stories. Most of the responses that I got went something like this:

-Identify what you character wants

-Then, use what your character needs as an obstacle to keep him/her from that want

Sounds simple enough, right? In theory, yes. But when it comes to actually sitting down and crafting scenes and plots that have tension, what do you do? Well, whether you’re trying to create tension that is romantic, mysterious, or anything in between, there are number of ways (this is NOT an exhaustive list) that you might try to do that.

Below are some things you might to try in your story, along with some examples from well-known novels.

1. Changing POV

This one is super simple if you are writing from multiple perspectives and it can happen at the end of a scene or chapter, which makes it pretty flexible. Basically, when you leave one character and instead take the narrative to a different character (maybe a different world or country, at the very least a different interpretation of what is going on), it creates tension because your reader will want to know what happens next. This is really fun to do, especially when you end a scene dramatically, like a gun going off, or in the middle of an argument, and then cut to something else entirely. When done well, you can leave your reader hanging (in a good way), giving them time to think the worst and driving them forward.

However, you have to be careful not to go from something riveting to something incredibly dry or a perspective that readers really dislike. If you do it right, you can transition from storyline to storyline, ramping up each one, leaving off, and then picking back up later to push your reader forward.

In Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas, she uses her almost 1,000 page series finale to balance a huge cast of characters and a ton of different plot lines, many of them starting off in different corners of the world. When you read a chapter from Dorian’s POV, and then jump to Aelin or Aedion, we are left hanging on to Dorian’s thread and must push on to find out what happens to him next. Maas does this really well in that we never really feel like we’re picking up a “dead” thread because she leaves us just enough hope at the end (or dread) to know that the wait will be worth it.

2. Make it confusing

You’ve probably heard about an unreliable narrator before, but basically it is a character whose lens is the lens we see the story through. However, this character may not be entirely trustworthy in the way that he or she represents themselves, the world, or other characters. It makes it hard for readers to tell what can be taken at face value, and what should be taken with a grain of salt. Similarly, you can add that sense of interesting confusion by creating scenes that are hazy around the edges, or a character who is experiencing something with their thinking “blurred” in some way by injury, alcohol, etc.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle. In one of the scenes, the characters throw a party and the chapter is told in fragments and bits and pieces, not a cohesive thread to follow. By doing this, readers are able to see the important things that happened, but are not sure what to believe and what could be an alcohol-induced vision. Also, this scene comes at a pivotal point in some of the characters’ relationships, so the indirect way that we get some answers in this chapter actually end up raising more questions.

3. Leaving off on a question

Whether stated or implied, when you leave a chapter or scene with an unresolved question, the tension rises. Sometimes the question is “Is (character) dead or alive?” or “Which character got shot when the gun went off?” But other times, the question is something as simple as “What does that text from Character B mean?” or “Is going to say ‘hi’?”

One example of this is at the end of The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien. While this is a pretty dramatic example, we are left with questions like “Is Frodo dead?” and “What will Sam do now?”

4. Raise the stakes

This is a pretty generic term in storytelling that basically means make the consequences steeper. Add more. Make it bigger. And so on. It is really easy to think that breaking out the life or death situation is the perfect way to add this type of tension, but it doesn’t need to be that big, especially not if you’re only in the first act and you’re still wanting to add more tension in the rest of your book. It’s pretty hard to come back from a death threat and still retain a sense of genuine tension if you keep playing on that same fear. But not all characters fear death, or at least you shouldn’t threaten them with death in order to really create tension.

Take The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example. In one of the chapters, Gatsby is convinced that it is the time to tell Tom that Daisy is leaving him because she is madly in love with Gatsby and always has been. However, we see Daisy teeter back and forth between the confession and sticking to her status quo. The stakes here are raised for both her and Gatsby. For Daisy, this would mean a divorce, the loss of her high society lifestyle, and more. For Gatsby, if this moment doesn’t work out (although he is confident that it will), everything that he has done, dreamed, and built his life on the past years since meeting Daisy will mean nothing. Neither of these characters would die if worse came to worst here, but the tension is intense. We, as the reader, can see just how much they both have to lose, and understand that Gatsby, at least, is going into this situation at a disadvantage. The stakes have been raised from having fun together and “playing house” to life-changing decisions.

5. Speed things up

Speeding things up in your story will almost always work to bring tension. I mean, as a writer, what’s more inspiring than a looming deadline to get those creative juices flowing? The same thing works in your story. If you set things in motion, and then put a timer on it (I’m looking at you, action movies with bombs in them), things will start to heat up on their own. Just knowing that your plot and character involve obstacles is good. Making those obstacles things that have to be overcome in just 24 hours? Cue tension.

If you’ve ever picked up a Rick Riordan book, like The Lightning Thief, you know that Riordan is a big fan of this one. In that first book, the whole plot takes place within a two week span. And it isn’t just because Zeus said, “I’m planning this cool party and would like my lightning for a stellar light display,” (but that could work as a deadline in a different kind of story), it is literally, “if I don’t get this back by this day….WAR!” Like I mentioned in the parentheses here and other points above, you still have to figure out what the deadline for your story needs to be. What will make your characters worried? Or act out of desperation to accomplish?

6. Anticipation

This is one that I love, especially in YA or coming of age stories. The reason is, it’s so true to life. Imagine yourself in years past, thinking about something that is going to happen soon. Maybe its a party, or graduation, date night, buying a car, or even getting your paycheck. You may daydream about what outfit to wear, or maybe what the new leather will smell like, or, hey, even just the financial security of paying your light bill this month. But then– it doesn’t work out. Maybe you get paid, but not as much. Or the party you are excited about is cancelled. Or when you go to walk across the stage, they forget to say your name. Building something up in a story by having a character anticipate it like this always ramps up the tension for me as a reader because I know something will probably go wrong, that’s just the nature of storytelling.

In Stephanie Garber’s Caraval, the main character Scarlett has been corresponding with her betrothed, only known as the Count. In the letters that they’ve exchanged, she has enough to believe that he is the man of her dreams, that he will take her from her abusive father and give her a life of happiness. I’m not going to spoil anything, but you can bet that the Count shows up later on in the book and we get to see the reality and compare it to Scarlett’s anticipated version of her husband-to-be.

7. Uncertainty/Diversion

This one is always fun for me to read. It’s like a slap in the face, in a….good way? Anyways, this one can be the opposite of the one above, where a character is really uncertain about something in the future and their anxiety can translate to over-emotional actions and irrational fears. But, it can also be done by diverting the attention to something in order to bring it back in the end and bite you for not paying more attention to it (thus, the slap that you….like?). What one character focuses on is totally dependent on that character, and sometimes you need to take advantage of the misdirection that that allows you to have with the reader.

The best example of this that I can think of is from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. We spend the first little bit with Katniss and are introduced to her family and lifestyle along with information about the games. We are horrified to see how many time her name and Gale’s will be in the Reaping because of how the provide for their family. And then, when Effie calls out the name, it is none other than Katniss’s sister, with her measly one entry. I mean, what are the odds?! But by diverting our attention with Katniss’s uncertainty and anxiety, it is a shock when we all realize that even though Prim should have been “safe” maybe we should have been worrying about her a little more after all.

8. Interruptions

Last but not least, there’s the good ol’ interruption scene. Think of almost any sitcom or soap opera and there’s probably a “caught in the act” scene where one (or more) characters are caught, sometimes in the worst possible way, by someone interrupting their scene. But it doesn’t always have to be a jewel heist broken up by the haphazard security guard who finished his rounds five minutes early. It can be as simple as a secret being shared only to have someone new walk into the room.

One of the recent examples that I’ve seen of this strategy is from Cassandra Clare’s Lord of Shadows. Two characters are able to live out their secret passion and love for one another away from their “real” lives and are enjoying the blissful secrecy of it. But, when a concerned warlock shows up and interrupts their little love shack (not mid-shimmy, mind you), it brings reality slamming back into their lives. This is a great way to give characters, and readers, the feel for the “what if” factor, but then to take it away like the Grinch stealing Christmas all over again which makes us all just realize that “yes, we want the ‘what if,’ so give it back!” And we will keep going and reading to see if it ever happens.

Whew! That was a lengthy one. But I hope it was helpful in some way. Keep in mind that these don’t all work for every story, so be choosy and see what works for yours. Also, they can be interwoven and used together to continually ramp up the pressure and tension in your story in a number of ways that keep your reader interested and your characters fuming.

If you’ve got other ideas, please comment them here or on my original Instagram post about tension to keep the conversation going!

Until next time, happy writing, friends!

Gift Ideas for Writers

Whether you’re shopping for a Valentine who has a love of losing themselves in a world of their own creation or you are the wordsmith shopping for some awesome gifts to yourself, here’s a few ideas that you might like to help you get into the mood to write. The list is broken down into the five senses to help you figure out what gift would work best for the writer you’re shopping for.

Smell

Whether it is a candle, a diffuser, or just some incense, setting the mood for writing by focusing on scent can be really handy and immediately immersive. Think about smelling freshly baked sugar cookies that are waiting to be pulled out of the over. That can be a great start to a scene rich with delicate, delicious details (and maybe some alliteration 🙂 ).

Incense burners come in some really awesome options.
Who wouldn’t want to know what Sherlock’s study smelled like?!
Diffusers can be both cute and functional!



See

I know that when I write, staring off into space accounts for at least 50% of what I spend my time doing. And you know what the worst thing to look at is? A pile of laundry or maybe the butt crack of some unknowing patron at the local coffee shop or library. Instead, here are a couple of ways that you might have something more inspirational to feast your eyes upon.

For a transportable option, try a motivational notebook!
Because another living thing suffering with you is always helpful to see.
Inspiration for when imposter syndrome sets in.



Taste

This one is not only yummy and nice, but kind of important for health reasons. Eating stuff and self-care and all that jazz. But feasting on a whole box of Valentine’s Day chocolate might cause more harm than good, so try these alternatives.

What’s a writer without a little tea?
Vegan and top 8 allergy friendly option
Protein in a bag…need I say more?



Touch

Feeling comfortable can keep you in the zone a lot better than having to run around to get socks or a blanket or some pants that don’t make you reconsider your size (just me?). Also, for those of us who are very tactile people, fidgety, touchable things can actually help us hone in on what we’re working on.

Comfy and honest…
Inspirational story cubes!
For those who need to fidget away the writer’s block.



Hear

Music is my go-to for immersion. I’ll put on video game playlists or nature sounds or even coffee shop ambiance (while in the coffee shop). The key is that I can control both the atmosphere and the volume, especially when the really nasally voice of the couple next to you may suck your muse right out of the space.

You can even boss this speaker around (or you can say please).
A great alternative to music.
These are the pair I use and I love them!



Well I hope this post helped you get ideas for your special someone (even if that special someone is yourself!).

Post contains affiliate links.

Time to marinate

I was looking at the new NaNoWriMo website that they are trying to launch and I ran across my old NaNo projects. The first year that I participated was way back in 2011! That’s almost 8 years ago!

And you know what else I saw? The novel that I had tried to write (and failed dismally at only 8.871 words for all of November 2011), was the SAME EXACT ONE that I am finishing up as my current WIP!

This blew my mind because 8 years?!?! It has been 8 years since I first had the idea to write about this world and these characters, and yet, I never really got past that first 8k despite multiple attempts to revise it and rework it over the years. This past November, however, I won NaNo and even submitted the first 80 pages of that same story to my Master’s program as my Creative Writing thesis. So what changed?

Did my story magically get better? Definitely not.

The true difference was time. Not only did the past 8 years of *failure* allow me to rework and marinate on the story in my mind, it also allowed me to improve my own writing skill so that the story in my mind somewhat resembled the story that ended up on the page.

In 8 years, I had written various scenes about these characters, never really finding my groove. And then, when it came time to pick a project for my thesis, I was terrified of choosing this one and stalling again, basically forcing me to spend more money to pay for an extension and postpone my actual degree (and did I mention more money?).

But, I wrote it. And I got feedback on it. And it changed. And grew. And developed. And suddenly, all those scenes I’d tried in the past had a place, even if it wasn’t in the way that I had originally tried to force them.

So, what’s my point? Let your story settle. Let it rest. Especially when it is something that you can’t seem to figure out. Save it somewhere, stow it away, occasionally brush it off and try again, and one day, it just might end up being the thing you wanted it to be.

Reflections and Resolution

Wow! How did 15 days of 2019 already slip by? Well, I had intended to do this post earlier, but here we are.

I watched Kim Chance’s video collaboration with Megan Olivier on YouTube about reflections and resolutions and wanted to do them for myself! So, I hope you enjoy as I look back at 2018 and forward to the rest of 2019.

Reflecting on 2018

1. What was your standout writer moment/memory in 2018?

I’ve been working on my Master’s in Creative Writing for the past year and a half, so on December 2nd, I submitted 85 pages of my current WIP as my thesis. About a week later, I got the email that my work was accepted, no edits required! On December 30th my degree was officially approved and I am DONE with school! That whole waiting process and then the email back was amazing and terrifying at the same time.

2. Name one way you surpassed your own expectations.

Using NaNo as a way to boost my word count before my final thesis was due, I was able to add quite a lot to my WIP. However, half way through, I got feedback from my midterm reader that forced me to start from page 1 and change the POV and I ended up changing my MC as well. Despite that setback, I still won NaNo and got my thesis done on time. Plus I am loving my story even more thanks to those changes.

3. Name something new you’ve experimented with this year (e.g. writing at a different time of day).

I loathe first-person POV. Well, I did anyway. Or maybe I just thought that I did. When I tried it out for the first time after getting feedback, I immediately failed and sank back into third-person after only two sentences (and I didn’t even realize it until I finished the scene!).

4. Is there anything you weren’t proud of this past year that you’d like to improve upon?

So far, my writing journey has been just that….mine. I am not great at putting myself out there, but I started my Instagram account, signed up to lead word sprints, and started this website at the end of 2018. I’m hoping to get even better about getting out into the writing community this year.

5. What’s the biggest struggle you’ve had to overcome this year and what advice would you give to writers in the same position?

Being a full-time teacher, a mother of three kids 6 and under (the youngest one with medical issues that we deal with on a daily basis), just getting my Master’s done was a chore. The thing that got me through it, however, was that it was something that I loved. I would not have been able to make it through each day and each assignment if it had been a topic that I wasn’t devoted too. In fact, it was often the writing that offered some reprieve from the stress in my life.

As far as advice, I think that the greatest piece of advice I can give is that if you are going to load things on to your plate, make sure that they bring you joy. If they don’t, it will be a difficult (and probably miserable) time, and for what? You’ve only got each day as it comes, so make sure you are happy with how you spend them.

6. What’s the most important lesson you learned this year?

I was never the kind of writer who let people read my work. Even now, I am hesitant and choosy about who does read it and when. However, being in a program that forces you to submit and get feedback was a great way to thicken my skin and make sure that I understand the feedback process, both giving and getting. I’ve learned not only how to not take it personally, but also how to weed through feedback for the gems that can actually help make my writing better (because, let’s face it, there are some bad ideas that gets tossed into feedback sometimes).

Resolutions for 2019

7. Do you like to set resolutions for yourself? How do you usually set goals throughout the year?

I typically set resolutions for myself each year, but have struggled with keeping them and making them last longer than a month. Instead, I plan to focus on a single statement and each big decision I make and each month approaches, I’ll evaluate ways to make that statement meaningful. This year, my statement is: Be Brave.

8. What projects are you looking forward to working on in 2019?

I’m finishing up my current YA novel and look forward to the editing process (am I weird for that?) so that I can polish my story up. I am really excited to getting in touch with some beta readers and getting some feedback on the overall story.

9. What’s your biggest writer goal/resolution for 2019?

In the context of my 2019 statement, my goal is to be brave enough to reach out. Reach out to betas. Socialize with the writing community. Submit my work to contests and publications.

10. What steps do you plan to take to achieve your resolutions and goals this year?

I’ve started a Submissions Tracker where I can list out the places and dates of my submissions throughout the year. I’m hoping that when I look back at it each month and at the end of the year, I’ll be proud of the number of times I’ve put myself into the ring for consideration.

Also, I’m building my platform by trying to post more regularly here and on Instagram in order to engage more people, both readers and writers alike. My hope is to build up a network of people that are genuinely interested and invested in my story.

11. Name something new you’d like to try this year (even if it scares you!).

Ideally, I would like to submit my novel to an agent sometime in the fall. Just typing that causes some anxiety because it has been a story I’ve tried and failed to write over the past five years (maybe more) that is finally coming to fruition.

12. How can you make 2019 your best writing year ever?

My first Instagram post says it all…

Writing after a hiatus

First thing I want to say is that no matter who you are, writing each and every day can seem like a really difficult thing to accomplish. And for many many many people, it is. Whether it is your job, your family, or just life in general (I’m looking at you Elf on the Shelf), it can sometimes be really difficult to stay on top of writing every day, especially for those of us who don’t consider writing our full-time job. However, you can (and probably should) take a break every once in awhile. For some, just getting through the day, or a week, or more can take all of our energy and focus, leaving us nothing left for writing. You know yourself best, so although “Write everyday” is passed around like candy in the writing community, feel free to not listen to it when you need to. For those of you who do manage to write every day, there might still be something for you in this post. You see, no matter how long you step away from your story, whether it is a few hours or a few months, getting back into it can be overwhelming and daunting at times.

This year, I used NaNoWriMo as a way to hit 50k, but also to finish my thesis for my Master’s program. It was exhausting to say the very least. So, when November ended, I took a break. A whole week off of writing anything besides blog posts and Instagram captions. And now I’m faced with that hard turning point where I need to get started writing again, and it is not always easy. So, here are three things that I’m doing to help me get started again.

1. Leave yourself a note

Okay, so this one is actually for before you take your break, but it is a pretty helpful one if you can get into the habit of doing it. Whenever you are about to stop for the day or just for a few minutes, leave yourself a note about where you wanted to go next. This can be just a few lines, a sentence, or even bullet points. The point is, that you are thinking ahead and don’t want to lose your momentum in your story.

When you come back to write the next time, these little notes can make it so much easier to remember where you were at when life (or fatigue) pulled you away from your story. This is also a really cool way so that you aren’t forced to go back and reread a ton and you won’t be staring at a blank screen, waiting for something to hit. One secondary tip for this one would be to just start typing. So, add to a bullet point you made before. Or adjust the wording of what you wrote. Or maybe you just want to delete it and write up a few new ideas that you want to incorporate. Whatever it is, at least your hands are moving and before you know it, you’re back in it.

2. Make your space comfortable

The goal of getting back to your notebook or computer is to be there for awhile, so making the space you choose to write in enjoyable for the long-run is probably a good idea.

For me, that usually means getting some kind of beverage (coffee, tea, wine, whatever), my computer, and my headphones. The headphones are for blocking out my environment (both the coffee shop variety as well as the screaming, running children one I call “home”). The beverage is there to make sure I stay even when I’m stewing on words in my mind. It’s nice to have something to grab (that isn’t my phone), take a sip of, and sit back and enjoy while I’m figuring out where I want to take my story next. That and they’re yummy. Snacks are also a great way to make me stay at my writing spot, especially when they are chocolate.

3. Start small

So, maybe you’ve got your notes from last session, your nice beverage and playlist, and you still can’t figure out where to start. Start small. Grab a 3×5” notecard or even a sticky note, and start there.

Writing on something that isn’t technically attached to your story is a mental “win” sometimes. We get so caught up in making sure we don’t do anything “wrong” or at the very least dont’ damage what we’ve already written that we fail to ever start. Secondly, writing in a different way/style might help your brain get kickstarted into writing mode. And if it’s horrible and you hate it, throw it out! Getting the wrong words out is just as important as writing the right ones.

Creating Characters


Scroll to the bottom for this FREE Character Planning Guide!

As I talked about in my previous post about reflecting on this year’s NaNoWriMo journey, I realized that I didn’t sit down on November 1st with enough information about my story. This led to a number of really difficult days where the words would come because I was not only writing, I was brainstorming as well, and it is hard to write characters and scenes that I haven’t thought about a little beforehand.

The major area of weakness that I found was in my characters. Part of this was because I revamped my characters half way through November after getting some valuable feedback (see the post about Killing Your Darlings here), but part of it was because I went in thinking I knew these characters when I really didn’t.

To fix that, I created a Character Planning Guide that helped me dig deeper into who my characters were, but also helped me fix some problems of similarity that I had unintentionally written into my cast of characters.

Goal

The whole reason that I created this guide was so that I thought more deeply about my characters prior to writing them. However, I quickly realized that I could use this guide for characters that I had already written about as well. In fact, I could use this guide in multiple places of the writing process depending on the needs of my story and characters.

How it works

Each page is based on a different category like name, age, physical appearance, etc. On each slide, there are questions that you can consider for creating your characters. As you can see, the Name page to the left has questions that you may not ever think about when naming your characters, but can cause issues for readers. For example, one question asks you to consider whether all of the character names are the same length. If they are (and you don’t have a specific, good reason for that), then it make all of the character names too similar for readers and can prevent them from easily identifying and separating characters as they read.

Also on each page, I added some examples. So, the Name examples include ones from The Fellowship of the Ring. As you can see, there are a number of lengths, variations, and sounds going on in those names. Some of them are tied to their race or forefathers, and others we don’t learn much about. However, it makes it easier to see that these are different characters, especially with such a large cast. However, two of the antagonists (Sauron and Saruman) always confused me when I would read. The world is dense, the characters are many, and to have two similar names both be on the “evil” side, it was hard to keep straight the first time I read the trilogy.

Putting it all together

As you can see to the right, the overall goal of this is to use the questions and categories to not only create characters, but to compare them as well. If you have too many characters that have “J” names, or everybody has perfect, chiseled bodies with no scars or other defining characteristics, it can be hard for your characters to come off as genuine and diverse for readers.

To the right, I created just a paired-down comparison from Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End to show how a few of the categories for the main characters are similar, like age and physical appearance (and for good reason since they are both going through similar things and connect with each other throughout the story), but they are also different in personality and even speech patterns. This makes it really easy to differentiate the two boys as well as identify which POV you are reading from because they are unique.

NaNoWriMo 2018

November has finally come and gone, and with it, another NaNoWriMo season. Writing 50k words in one month seems daunting enough, but adding in my Master’s thesis project and life in general, it was pretty rough. In the end, though, I accomplished everything that I set out to accomplish in November, including winning NaNoWriMo and submitting my thesis for review.

After it was all said and done, there are two lessons that I learned along the way that I would like to share with all of you.

Have a better plan

October was awesome for me, I started writing my thesis/NaNo project because I knew 50k wasn’t going to be “The End” for this story. So, I looked at one of my favorite resources, the Better Novel Project website, to get some ideas on how I wanted to structure my story. I outlined, I planned, I brainstormed. And then half way through the month, I drew a blank.

What should I name this character? What does he/she look like? How do I make her as fierce as she needs to be? Why is she that fierce to begin with? And above all else, how do they get to x, y, and z of my outline?

It was rough. Even though I knew from the Better Novel outline that I wanted to hit certain milestones in my story, I didn’t know how my characters were going to get there. It seemed like every time I wrote something, they were winding down paths of nothingness, and all of it was just meh.

So, I spent a little bit of reflection time, while working on pushing out words that were mainly about world building, and created a Character Planning Guide (check it out on my Freebies page).

Finally, I had something that made sense to me to create characters with. I was always horrible at the fake interviews of my characters, and creating one out of nothing left me with a character who fell pretty flat on the page. However, once I dove into the questions and examples that I found and used to create the Character Planning Guide, things went much smoother. I could totally see where I had lumped characters together, or places that I could afford to stretch some of their backgrounds or personalities so that they made sense in my story.

I’ll go further into that whole situation in a later post, but the one thing that I learned was that I, for one, need a better plan before November 1st hits. An outline helped, but finding more specific details and information about my characters ahead of time would have saved me a lot of stress and headaches in the trenches of NaNoWriMo.

Sometimes, the fastest way forward is to go back

Half way through NaNoWriMo, I had to submit a draft of my project for midterm feedback as part of my Master’s program. I was pretty excited to submit the 52 pages that I’d written so far, and although I knew I needed to cut some fluff, I was pretty proud of it.

And then I got the feedback. Don’t get me wrong, my reader loved the story and was excited for it, but she offered two HUGE revision suggestions. First, go from multiple perspectives, where I had the main character, the antagonist, and the sidekick each with his/her own POV chapters, down to a single perspective, that of my main character’s. Secondly, she recommended that this story would be much more impactful if I went from third person POV to first person.

I freaked out. I never wrote in first person! And I had always imagined this story from different perspectives and had scenes that I was really excited about in the alternate POV chapters. So, I reflected. I stopped writing for two days (see Nov. 15 in the bar graph above), I did research and compared the feedback to other books in the YA genre. And you know what, she was right. So I decided to give it a try. I’ll be honest, within my first 15 minutes, I’d switched back to third person again. But after a quick fix, I tried it again.

That’s when I realized that the story that I wanted to tell in this first person POV was actually a different character all together, and I loved her POV. So, I went back to the beginning, and started from Chapter 1. I changed my main character and her best friend, I removed the alternate perspective scenes, and I reframed the story. And I am ten times more excited and happy with this story than I was before. So, I learned that even though I wanted to push forward, going back and even scrapping some of my words/pride meant that I ended up with a better story in the end, and that’s what it is all about.

Killing My Darlings

In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
― William Faulkner

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
—Stephen King

This November I’m double dipping in the creative well. My NaNoWriMo project is also my thesis project for my Master’s in Creative Writing. So, last week I had to submit the fifty pages that I had written and in order to get feedback from my midterm reader. However, when I got the feedback, I wasn’t very happy. Now don’t give me wrong, the feedback wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. In fact, this feedback would require a complete rewrite of those fifty pages. So, in honor of those fallen pages, I decided to write this blog post about killing your darlings. William Faulkner famously said the line and Stephen King perpetuated, it but basically what killing your darlings means to me is getting rid of things that you may think are important but are really just things that are special to you not the story itself. Today I’m going to share three things that helped me when it came time to kill my own darlings.

  1. Making a list of feedback points: Because I didn’t want to just go heavy handed with a red pen throughout all that I had done, I decided to make a list. I pointed out what areas she had commented on, and what she said about those things and it help me to see an overall picture of where my areas of weakness were. From there, I could really see if there was a common thread (which there was) as to why she thought my story wasn’t reading at the age that I was writing it, why my story wasn’t progressing fast enough at the beginning of the book, and where the areas were that my protagonist didn’t really connect with my readers. From there, I decided to tackle one thing at a time. I lumped things up together and made a new list of things like point of view or character voice which were now large things that I could look for as I reread instead of specific comments at certain spots. This really helps me to have a new lens to focus each time that I reread so that I wasn’t just making marks as I went along for everything, but I was looking for specific things.
  2. Listing pros only on a T-chart: Getting feedback on your work is always hard, and there were a few comments (especially the ones about point of view) that I was really having a hard time getting on board with. What I did was I create a T-chart where I compared what the positives were of either my version or the feedback version, in order to see whether I was simply avoiding changing things because I was attached or if it was a valid thing for me to keep. For example, my story was originally written in third person with multiple viewpoints. So the first thing that I did was I made a T-chart comparing multiple viewpoints versus a single viewpoint. In my mind, I was very clear that I wanted multiple points of view for this story because I thought each character had something to add and that the things that they went through were important to the overall story. When I did this, it became clear to me that although each of the scenes that I had written for my various viewpoints, outside of the main character’s, were interesting and fun, they weren’t really necessary to drive forward the plot in a way that kept readers invested. In the end, I decided to change it. So, I’m going to write a single perspective for my story. The second large change that was suggested was going from third person to first person. Now, I’m a third person kind of gal and when I go to write I automatically use third person. This was a no-brainer for me. I was more comfortable with third person and it Just felt easier for me. However, when I made the T-chart it didn’t really help. Which leads me to my third and final point…
  3. Researching: By making a T-chart, I was able to decide on going from multiple points of view to one perspective by thinking of what was best for my story. However, I still couldn’t decide whether first person or third person would work best for my story. So, I decided to do some research. I looked up what genres did best with first person. I researched which of the most popular YA and MG books were written in third person and which ones were written in first person. I also looked at the writing styles of various books like the Percy Jackson series versus the Harry Potter series, Divergent versus the Hunger Games, and tons of others that fit the type of story that I was trying to tell. Because looking at point of view was all about character, I tried to decide which of these styles would fit best with the character that I was trying to write, but also which point of view would allow my readers to really see the personality of my main character, especially now that I had decided to take out all of the points of use from my other characters.

Samples of notes I made for myself after receiving feedback on my WIP

In the end, both of the major changes that were suggested through my feedback were things that I decided to go ahead and do. The process wasn’t easy. In fact, many of the scenes that I had to cut are still things that I hold on to because maybe they’ll come into play later on and I still want to have those written down.

I want to clarify by saying that I didn’t make all the changes that were recommended because not all of them fit, but when it came to those two, I went ahead and had to kill my darlings.

One thing that I did do after receiving this feedback and making the lists was spend a day where I didn’t write anything at all. I didn’t look at it. I didn’t change it. All I did was marinate on my thoughts and the decisions that I was going to make and it helped me a lot when it came time to write. Even though I immediately jumped back into third person on accident, I was able to quickly clarify where I was going and what I wanted to accomplish. Now that I’ve fixed it, I’m even more excited about my story and about my main character (who I had previously had concerns about as she wasn’t as interesting as the side characters were). I’m thankful for the feedback. My decision to go ahead and look at my story subjectively, take criticism, process it, and ultimately change things that I love, has made my story better.

NaNoWriMo is hard!

NaNo is hard! I’ve participated a few times over the course of the past few years and the first year I failed and gave up after only 10,000 or so words. This year, though I’m on a streak of two years of winning, so I’m hoping to keep it going.

Today I’ve officially launched my author platform, so my Instagram and Twitter accounts are going to heavily revolve around writing and NaNo. So follow me @Leslie_arambula on Twitter and @authorlarambula on Instagram.

Anyways, in the hopes of spreading some tips to anyone also working on a project for NaNo, here are 5 ways to stay motivated throughout the month:

1. Join a group

Nothing says accountability like joining a group of likely driven and motivated people. There are tons of groups that you can join on the various social media platforms, but there are likely some local groups that you can write with too. However, I know that sometimes getting out there can and finding these groups can be really hard, time consuming, and confusing, so here are a few of the groups that I’m a part of:

  1. CalWrimos: When I selected my group on the NaNoWriMo website based on location, I got paired up with this awesome group. We chat on the Discord app, so sprints, and a Facebook group where we share ideas, motivation, and generally just be goof balls. 
  2. The Mighty Pens: This group raises money while we write, much like a jog-a-thon or marathoner seeks sponsors. The really cool thing is that New York Times Bestselling Author Susan Dennard is one of the leading ladies of this group, and tons of other industry people offer up prizes for people who hit donation amounts throughout the month. 
  3. Local groups: Check the NaNoWriMo site for your location, or reach out on social media or through your local library to see if there are groups that meet face to face and hold Write-Ins. These can be great ways to meet new people and get out of the house, or possibly even find your next critique partner for when you finish your draft.
  4. Facebook groups like Plotter Life: This group is tons of fun and we’ve all sorted ourselves into Hogwarts houses and are competing for the House Cup (words written each week = points)! A little bit of friendly competition can definitely help spark some words!

If you’re more interested in grouping up in short bursts, like for sprints only, here are a few hashtags or users to follow on Twitter:
#NanoWordSprints
#writingsprint
#wordsprints
@NaNoWordSprints

2. Set up incentives

November is tough. We are winding our way to the holiday season, there are dinners to plan, presents to buy, and don’t even get me started on wrapping them! And through all this, I’m supposed to produce 50,000 words?! 

Writing 50,000 words during any month is a feat of monumental proportions for almost any writer, but with life and holidays going on around you, not to mention working, family, and just being a human, it can be really easy to lose sight of any one aspect of your life. With that said, make sure you are taking care of yourself. 

Whether it’s a mug of tea or a tall glass of water, stay hydrated!
Don’t forget to get up and walk every once in awhile (this might actually help shake a few ideas lose).
Staying up late helps gets words done, but don’t forget the value of sleep and how it can actually stimulate your imagination and take you out of your brain fog. 
And last but not least, don’t forget to relax! It sounds simple, but just like we set aside time to write, we need to set aside time to relax as well. Your family would probably like to interact with you this month, and although words don’t write themselves, a little R & R can be really helpful.

3. Take care of yourself

When I tried to lose a few pounds over the summer, I set myself up with a number of escalating rewards for every 5 pounds that I lost. I only lost 5, but I love my new Bluetooth headphones! The point is, that when you set a reward for your mini goals throughout the month, you can look at your list of rewards, or a photo of whatever it is you are going to “get” when you finish off that last 1,000 words of the week and hopefully be inspired. It is also a great way to keep your sanity because you have something tangible as a result of what you wrote. Some really cool ideas include:

-a fancy new pen
-(another) new notebook
-comfy socks
-a manicure/pedicure
-dessert before dinner 🙂
-a new bookish candle, bookmark, etc.
-a night off
-a bubble bath
-a new set of headphones
-new outfit
-ask your partner for a night off of dishes/dinner
-set it up so you and a fellow writer can treat each other to a beverage of your choice for each milestone
-movie night
-a new book off of your TBR list
-or anything else that makes you happy!

4. Find prompts

If you look anywhere around you, you can probably find something to write about. However, we don’t always see it that way. Here are a few of my favorite places to find inspiration:

1. Spotify playlists (I love faerie music and also video game soundtracks)
2. Pinterest (just type in your topic/genre and let the visual stimulus flow; if you type in writing prompts, prepare to be amazed!)
3. Eavesdropping and people watching (not in a creepy way, but using real people as models can be really helpful in crafting realistic characters)
4. The news (self-explanatory)

5. Cut yourself some slack!

At the end of the day, and especially at the end of the month, whether you have 50 words or 50,000 words, you are THAT much closer to finishing your story. Those are 50-50,000 words that you didn’t have in October, and you are laying the path for the next 50-50,000!