Why you’re not writing: Critical Introspection

So a lot has happened in the last month for me, some good, some meh. On top of starting a new job, moving to the land of bugs and sunburns, and preparing for the Midwest Writers Workshop next month, I’ve been struggling – and I mean STRUGGLING – to put words to paper with this rewrite.

I’ve tried not to discuss my WIP here on the blog, but for the sake of what I’m attempting to say in this post, you’re going to learn a bit about my current book’s protagonist, Kjersten (pronounced like Kiersten, know as KJ to family and close friends).

Throughout KJ’s journey, she goes through a lot of growth as a person. She learns that she can’t take responsibility for everyone or everything, accepts that people have to be allowed to make their own mistakes, as well as learns to let people see her gooey center and learns to trust/rely on them.

These lessons don’t exactly come in delicious packages of delight. It’s a difficult journey paved with mistakes and irrevocable loss.

As is life.

I realized last night that I’m avoiding the upcoming chapters of the rewrite because I’m avoiding putting KJ (and myself) through that journey of growth again.

You see I spent the vast majority of 2011 in Baghdad, Iraq, as a military photojournalist/graphic artist. Due to the nature of the MOS (military occupation specialty), I saw more of the country than many of my fellow service members. Along with that, I worked a lot closer to the flagpole than most 19-year-old female specialists should without a proper leadership buffer. Shit happened. It left scars. PTSD is a bitch.

Anyhoo, when Soldiers – specifically Guardsmen – return to the States, society expects you to just keep moving. Get a job. Find a place to live. Because these things are so god damn easy. You have no opportunity to address the fact that you just spent a year of your life in a war zone. The majority of the people around you can’t relate to what you went through and it fucks with your brain. It starts to feel like the deployment didn’t actually happen, like it was all a bad dream that has somehow rattled your psyche to the point where you have emotional/psychological scars and triggers that you can’t even begin to predict. Like I said before, PTSD is a bitch.

Over the last couple years, I’ve worked incredibly hard to overcome this feeling of a disjointed reality, but it’s a constant battle. I would never wish this kind of thing on anyone, let alone a character who I’ve spent so much time with getting to know and telling their story. So that’s why this rewrite is kicking my ass. Now that I know this, I can continue forward.

So here’s the thing [aka the purpose for this post], none of that growth would have happened without some serious introspection. I think it’s an important part of our growth as human beings to stop every once in a while and truly, critically introspect on our thoughts and actions. If we all did this, the world would probably be a more compassionate, understanding place.

Just some food for thought.

4 Tips in Killing Your Darlings

So last week, I talked about improving your narrative and touched on the idea of killing your darlings. Because this is what I’m currently [painfully] dealing with in my own rewrite, I thought I’d share a little of what’s been working for me.

Tip No. 1 – Identify Your Darlings

Killing your darlings is a little difficult when you don’t realize what they are. Please know I’m not trying to offend your genius, but sometimes your darlings sneak up on you. My most current darling came in the form of a two-sentence moment that had hung on to the MS since draft two.

Now into draft six, I’ve been dredging through Chapter 3 for a bit because I’ve been trying to keep this moment for whatever reason. In the words of YouTuber Grace Helbig, “I don’t know.” Once I realized that it was a darling, it was cut into the graveyard of manuscript outtakes.

Tip No. 2 – Have a Manuscript Outtakes Document

I did not come up with this idea, but it is a concept that I wish I had adopted earlier. The gorgeously talented J.L. Gribble, debut novel Steel Victory comes out this week – order a copy NOW, gave me the idea a few weeks ago during a critique session.

This does a couple of things: 1) You’re still hanging onto your darlings, so killing them from the MS is a little easier, 2) If you do ever have an opportunity to use them, they’re there at the ready, and 3) If by some chance you do get published and acquire a fan-base, you now have outtakes to share with them as easy promotional items.

Tip No. 3 – Follow Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules on Writing

Specifically (and I mentioned this last time) that each sentence should either develop character or advance plot. It took me a while to understand what this really meant because in my little baby writer brain, I looked at my MS and said “but it does develop character; it does advance plot.” In reality, I was focusing on the wrong things, making the beginning narrative slow and boring. It “technically” did what I needed it to – develop the relationships of my two main characters and set the stage for what’s up against them – but I was focusing so much on what made my characters who they were instead of who they are in the moment that the plot was stagnant. This is a hard concept to wrap your head around, but once it clicks, you’ll see the improvements in the writing.

See the full list of Vonnegut’s Rules here.

Tip No. 4 – Have a Trusted Writing Buddy

I think I’ve developed a strange dependency on my uber talented group of writer friends because I know without a doubt that my writing would not be improving without them. Going back to what I was saying before about my headache that is Chapter 3, that darling I didn’t realize was a darling – yeah, my friend and CP Chelsea was kind enough to tell me, “I think that’s going a little far.” Which of course hit a switch in my head, causing an immediate ::face:palm::. I had been struggling with the writing because I was trying to keep something that didn’t belong there. I was trying to save a darling.

Once I transferred said darling over to the graveyard, it opened the way for me to concentrate on the plot movement and figure out how to close out the chapter (which will hopefully happen tonight).

I hope these tips help you as much as they’ve helped me. What about you? Do you have any tips on killing the darlings in your WIP? Share them in the comments below.

Happy Writing!

Leveling Up: What happens when your writing improves mid-WIP

So most of us are in a continuous state of evolution and growth. From personal to political, we’re constantly changing. This is a good thing.

Except when you’re at the forefront of the latest draft of your WIP and you have no idea whether or not what you’re writing is going in the right direction. I want to pull my hair out. This is a thing.

I’ve been writing fiction most of my life, but that doesn’t mean it was good fiction. My first full-length novel ended up in the dark abyss of projects that will never EVER see the light of day. It was written in Middle School, very few things written that young are worth reading without MAJOR revisions, usually a total rewrite.

Over the years, I’ve gone through numerous growth spurts in my writing skill level. From Middle School to High School. High School to College. College to Military. Military to Private Sector. These were all gradual evolutions that I managed to pass through without grow pains. But this latest one, after my first experience with beta-readers, is KICKING MY ASS!

The notes that I received from the betas weren’t harsh enough to warrant a total rewrite, but that’s pretty much what’s taking place. Since writing the vomit draft of the current WIP, I’ve been trying to polish my skills in the narrative arena. I’m great with dialogue, I’m great with pacing, I’m pretty solid on the plotting front, but narrative – a well-crafted, well-rounded, says-everything-you-need-it-to-and-communicates-to-the-reader-what’s-in-your-head narrative – is my nemesis.

Luckily, I have a wonderfully talented and patient group of writer friends who are helping me smooth out some of the kinks. Safe to say I owe them all a giant gift basket when all this is said and done. But here’s what I’ve learned so far in my epic battle with a properly fleshed-out narrative:

1. Take your time. I know how excited you are for the next plot point or big character moment, but when you’re sitting there, revising your work, really sink into each moment. Doing this may create some needed world building or reveal a character gem you had either forgotten or hadn’t discovered yet.

2. Apply Kurt Vonnegut’s rules on writing to your work. Here’s a link. A friend of mine introduced me to these rules a few months ago, but it took a beta-read for them to sink in. If you followed the link, I want to single out rule No. 4, “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.” Be meticulous in your placement of information. It’s painful when you first start doing this, but the new draft is totally worth the frustration.

3. Be merciless in your revision. I know we’ve all heard the phrase “kill your darlings,” but I feel the need to bring it up here. I don’t mean kill your characters, the phrase really goes quite deeper than that. Maybe everyone else knew this and I was the slow one, but here’s my two cents anyway. “Darlings” refers to everything in your manuscript, from characters and plots to sentences and word choice. It doesn’t matter if it is the best paragraph you’ve ever written in your entire life. If it doesn’t do anything to support the narrative, axe it.

I’m sure I’ll rant about the pains of writing narrative in future posts, but this is it for now. I’m off to go slave away on the WIP. 🙂

Happy Writing!

Transitions: Difficult on and off the page.

Well I made it to Florida and began my new job as a Director of Marketing (I feel super grown-up, guys!). Last week was definitely a culture shock going from fast-paced DC to Destin’s more relaxed way of life. It’s not bad, just different. I promise I’ll get back to actually blogging about the writing craft soon (because I’ve learned SO MANY THINGS in the last couple months – Thank you, Chelsea and Hanna!). But until my feet are firmly planted in this new chapter of my life, my brain is consumed with trying to maintain my writing habits amongst my new schedule/work load.

Which brings me to this week’s topic: transitions.

While I’ve been slaving away on the post-beta rewrite for the WIP, I’ve noticed something curious about my transitions – they’re getting better.

In the previous draft, many of the transitions were jump cuts from one scene to the next, which in truth, is kind of a lazy form of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for jump cut transitions (definition below), but most of the time, they’re wasted opportunities to show the reader how your characters are responding to the world around them.

Now, transitions are difficult to write in general, and for a plotter like me, they’re frustrating bouts of space that keep me from jumping into the next juicy piece of plot. But here’s thing, if you don’t allow your protagonists an opportunity to process what’s happening to them, your readers won’t be able to sympathize with your character’s development.

So take a breath, slow down and let your readers enjoy those quiet moments with your characters.

Happy writing!

Jump Cut Transition: I stole the term “jump cut” from my video-editing peoples, which refers to an edit where the action isn’t continuous from one frame to another. For the print medium, I use it to describe when you leave an extra space in the formatting to show that you’re moving to another location/time in the story.  

Trust me, you want a beta reader.

So last Tuesday I jumped onto Google Hangouts and discussed my current WIP with the four poor saps I convinced to beta read it. I cannot begin to express how eternally grateful I am to these wonderful people for taking the time to review my work. Their notes were everything I needed them to be and so much more. To repeat what I’ve said to two of the four (because this is the only phrase that comes to mind to describe how I feel): I feel like I’ve just won the expansion pack to my favorite card game.

But seriously, if I’m able to pull off what I’m aiming for, I am beyond excited to read the next finished draft. Granted, I may be a walking, talking zombie when it’s finished, BUT [I hope] it will all be worth it.

I know that the concept of having your first novel read from someone other than yourself is a very exciting, stressful, albeit terrifying notion. But I’m here to tell you it’s not as scary as you might think. You just have to go in with a gracious heart and an open mind. Honestly, the scariest part for me was pressing “send” and the minutes leading up to the critique. Once we were in the flow of the conversation, I bounced with excitement and my mind raced with ideas.

Now I’m not saying you should just throw caution to the wind and send your MS to just anybody. You should definitely vet your betas. My four betas covered a wide range of genres/audiences, which provided a really well-rounded review of the piece. All four were also novelists (don’t know how I got so lucky), which helped identify why some things were/weren’t working.

Below is a list of things I need to improve:

  1. World Building. The problem with creating a complex world with it’s own political/social structure is that sometimes you forget to clarify the rules of said world because your focus is on your protagonist. Your fictional world has to come across as vibrantly on the page as it does in your mind.
  2. Round out Secondary Characters. So this is one of those “DUH” moments where I knew the complexities of the characters, but the reader didn’t. As the writer, it is vital to communicate the intricacies of the characters important to the MC’s story. Otherwise, they fall flat against the backdrop, which is no good. Show the reader how awesome your cast of characters are! (Yes, I did scribble that on my notepad during the crit session.)
  3. Making the wrong promises. One of the podcasts I listen to, Writing Excuses, discussed the importance of the beginning narrative making the right promises to the reader. In the beta draft, the beginning narrative focused more on the MC’s trauma than how her current actions are driven by it. Focusing on the trauma set up the story to be a Who-Done-It, which was not what the novel was about.

Here’s the deal, the above list really isn’t that daunting. Sure, it means more work, BUT the MS will be so much better for it. I’m already knee-deep in revisions and I can already say I am loving the changes. Mind you, I’m saying this now at the forefront of the new draft, I could easily turn into a raging revision troll if left to my own devises.

Happy Writing!