Behind the Story: Deciding Between Standalone or Multiple Books

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:
Standalone to Multiple Books: Making the Decision

When I set out on my current Work-In-Progress (WIP), I was resolved to write a standalone novel.  I am doing an adaptation of a classic piece of literature.  That classic is one, admittedly long, book.  Therefore, I would write one book.  I thought a standalone novel was a good place to begin for a new writer, and I didn’t want to jump on the series bandwagon.  One book.  I could handle one book.

But as I started writing, I began to worry.  My word count was high.  And climbing.  I am not a verbose wordsmith either.  My scenes are quick.  Rarely do I write more than three sentences of description.  I like action.  In fact, while I’m praised for my fast pacing, my advisors and critique partners often want more description.  So the fact that my word count was so high made me nervous.  Because I knew I would need to eventually go back and flesh out descriptions and close plot holes that I sped past.

I was less than two-thirds through the first draft when I hit the max word count for a typical Young Adult standalone novel.  (YA typically falls between 55k and 90k.)  And so I knew I had to do some serious thinking.

Why had I tethered myself to this one book idea?  Mostly, it was because I wanted to be identical to the classic novel I was adapting.  Was that a wise decision?  Can I consider another option?

And when I thought about it, multiple books actually made more sense.

  • My one book is very much divided into three distinct parts.
  • There are three completely different settings.
  • Each part ends with a devastating event.
  • Each part ends with both a resolution as well as a cliffhanger.
  • Each part begins with my character grappling with change and new conflict.

I had three books.  Easily.  In fact, three books made so much more sense.  So I gave in.  And the good side is: I have almost an entire trilogy drafted.  Not just outlined.  Drafted.  And that rocks.

The tough part: it’s all a little more overwhelming.  Because a part of every writer wonders why anyone would want to read their book.  And now I have to persuade a reader to not just invest their time and money in one book, but three.  And that’s more pressure.

But I love my story.  I love my characters.  I love my setting.  And I know this story isn’t like anything else that’s out there right now.

So I’ll ignore the pressure and doubts.  And keep writing.  Because deep down: I just love this story.  And I have to write it.  Even if it takes me three books.

Have you ever had a story evolve beyond your expectations?
Let me know if there is a “Behind the Story” topic you would like to see… Happy Writing!

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Behind the Story: Getting Organized

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:
Getting Organized

I love using planners.  In college, the first thing I’d do after the first full week of classes is fill out a planner/calendar with all the due dates for the semester.  Often things would be color coded.  I liked to see everything all laid out in one document.  I’ve gone through similar phases with blogging and planning out my posts for the month.

But here is my frustration: planners don’t often have what I’m looking for.  Occasionally I’ve found one.  I really liked a line of planners Vera Bradley made for awhile.  But when I went shopping for my 2015 planner, I could not find what I was looking for.  I like to have both a monthly spread and the weekly spread.  For example, I want to be able to see the whole month of January and then immediately following a full calendar for there to be a smaller weekly breakdown.  Apparently, I am alone in this desire because finding a planner laid out that way is a challenge.

So I resolved this dilemma by making my own darn planner.  Right now it’s in a file folder, but I might move it to a three-ring binder.  I wanted to share the pages I created in case this is a design that others may find helpful.  Below are links to the PDF files.

Month Planner

This page features a write-in calendar, a place to list books I read that month, and a place to record my writing word count for the entire month.

Weekly Planner

This page features two weekly spreads where I can record:

  • Daily word count
  • Blog post published that day
  • What book I am reading

There is also a spot at the end of each week to record what my biggest accomplishment of the week was.  Sometimes we all need to recognize our efforts and give ourselves a pat on the back!

I love that I’ve been able to customize a planner for my own uses.  And this was way cheaper than buying one!

Feel free to save or download the pdfs to use yourself!

How do you stay organized?  Do you use a planner or calendar system?
Let me know if there is a “Behind the Story” topic you would like to see… Happy Writing!

Behind the Story: Journaling Your Writing

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:

Journaling Your Writing

I wanted to share something I started doing as part of my writing routine that’s been helpful for me.  Perhaps it will be helpful to other fellow writers as well!  I’m calling it journaling because that’s pretty close to what it is. Here is what I include in my journaling:
  • Today’s Date
  • Brief Description of Where I Left Off in My Novel
  • What Scenes I Know Are Coming Up Next
  • Surprises While I Was Writing
  • My Final Word Count For the Day
I don’t write a ton for each entry.  A typical day looks like this:
Write Tip Pic
I want to explain what each part does for me, and why this has been a useful tool:
  • Today’s Date: Helps to hold me accountable for writing each day.  And it’s useful in tracking my own productivity.  I also give myself gold star stickers on a calendar for each 1k I write, and if I forget to “star myself” then I can go back here to check.
  • Where I Left Off: I always begin my writing day by re-reading the last scene that I wrote.  I usually try not to do any editing.  Rereading gets me back in the zone and refreshes my memory.  And then writing a brief blurb of that scene in my journaling helps me focus on what about that scene was important.
  • What’s Next: Listing the scenes that are coming up next can serve as an outline, menu, or brainstorm session.  Sometimes it’s a reminder of what’s on my agenda.  Sometimes I can kind of pick from the menu based on what I think comes next organically.  And sometimes I have no idea what comes next and I brainstorm some possibilities.
  • Surprises: This is probably the part of my journaling I love most.  Whenever I sit down to write, something will usually come out that I was not expecting.  An unplanned plot point or an emotional burst from a character or a new quirky secondary character makes himself known.  My favorite part of my writing day has become writing down the surprises, and often I want to explore that surprise more the next day.  I also think it might be fun to share with readers someday… “This character came out of nowhere!” or “I was never planning to do that!”
  • Word Count: This holds me accountable for my writing most of all.  I try to write a 1,000 words a day… no matter what.  It’s a high goal, but honestly, the hardest part is making the time to write and getting your butt in the chair.  Once I’m started, I usually make it.
Not only has this journaling been helpful, but I also think that somewhere down the road, this is going to be a sentimental keepsake.  Being able to look back and see how my story unfolded… I wish I’d done this from the very beginning.
Now I have a beautiful use for all those awesome journals/notebooks that people give me as gifts  🙂
Any other writers do some form of journaling?  Anyone plan to give this a try?
Let me know if there is a “Behind the Story” topic you would like to see… Happy Writing!

Behind the Story: Writer’s Block

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Writer’s Block

I’m going to surprise a few people with my opinion, but…

I don’t believe writer’s block exists.

I don’t believe there’s any mystical force that takes hold of your brain and prevents you from churning out words.

I don’t believe in muses or creative juices running dry.

Instead, I believe there can be things you’re not doing as a writer that inhibit your ability to create.  But I think this inability to create is self-inflicted and can also be self-cured.  Below are reasons I’ve identified for why writers find themselves unable to write:

1. Exhaustion or Poor Health

Even if you’re just sitting at a desk, writing takes energy.  Your brain has to be rested and fully-charged in order to take part in the creative process.  If you’re not taking care of yourself, then your ability to create can be affected.

Are you getting enough sleep?  Are you drinking enough water?  (Your brain is 80% water and dehydration can cause headaches and sluggishness.)  Are you exercising and getting fresh air?

I understand that sometimes taking care of yourself can fall to the back-burner when you have a full-time job or deadlines to meet, but taking care of your health is important.  I’m not perfect in this area either.  I definitely stay up too late, much too often.  But I’ve also noticed that I do my best writing when I’m rested and healthy.

2. Lack of Brainstorming, Planning, Outlining

I don’t know why writers think they can always sit down at a computer and words will magically flow out of them.  That the story and the characters will mystically take control.

Of course, I’ve been writing and had a scene surprise me, or a character behave differently from what I’ve planned.  But you can’t rely on your subconscious brain to tell the whole story.  The story is coming out of your brain.  Therefore, if your brain has neglected to think about where the story is going to go next, then of course you’re going to get stuck.

Sometimes you have to sit down and think about what’s coming next in your novel.  When I get stuck, I make lists.  I make lists of conflicts or bad things that could happen.  I make lists of things my character still needs to learn before the end of the book.  I make lists of what I know still needs to happen before the climax.  Always, before I’m even done with my list, I get unstuck and know what I want to write next.

Brainstorming, people.  It’s awesome.  I make my middle schoolers do it.  You should, too.

3. Lack of Research/Too Much Research

I kept research separate from brainstorming because I think it’s an entirely different beast.  I’ve seen writers get burned on both ends by this one.

Research can help get your creative juices flowing, whether it can inspire a setting or give you ideas of conflicts your protagonist might encounter.  If you aren’t doing any sort of research, then you’re limiting yourself.  You’re limiting your writing to your own experiences.  There are countless times where a little research has gotten me unstuck creatively.

However, at the same time, some people end up doing a whole lot of research and very little writing.  You have to limit yourself in your research.  I like to come up with a set list of questions that I need to answer, and if I catch myself straying too far in my research, I can easily get myself back on track as well as know when I’m done looking stuff up.  I also try to not research when I’m in the middle of a writing session because it will interrupt my groove.  I’ve taken to leaving comments/notes to myself in my story of things I need to look up when I’m done, rather than pause to search the internet.

4. Laziness and Lack of Self-Motivation

“I don’t feel like writing today.  I’m not in a creative mood.”  Sound like a writer you know?

I love writing.  If I could do it full-time, I’d be the happiest girl in the world.  However, are there days that I don’t feel like writing?  Of course.  Are there days where I’d rather watch a Downton Abbey marathon or curl up with a book I’ve been dying to read?  Yes.  Writing is still hard work, and sometimes I just want to relax.

However, I make my butt get in the chair, even when I don’t want to, and I write.  Usually the first twenty minutes are rough.  But after I’ve gotten down a couple hundred words, I will usually make it to a full hour and maybe even a thousand words.  If you want to be a writer, you have to write more often than just “when the mood strikes you.”  And there’s seriously no better feeling as a writer than to sit down thinking “you’re not in the mood” and then to crank out a scene that you LOVE.

If you struggle with motivation, there are several things you can do.  You can set up a reward system for yourself.  I love buying myself a bouquet of flowers for my desk when I’ve met my word count goal for the week.  You can set up a calendar and give yourself a sticker for every day that you sit down to write.  You can allow yourself a favorite warm beverage or piece of candy… but only if you’re writing.

Some people work better by limiting something until they are done or rewarding themselves with activities.  For example, I’m not allowed to go to this website until I have this many words.  Or I can’t watch this TV episode until I finish this scene.

I also find that setting up a schedule to write at the same time each day, and then recording in my planner how much I accomplished is helpful.  I like routine and I like keeping track of my progress.  I’ll record my word counts for the day as well as time spent brainstorming or researching.  I’ve also recently started recording time spent blogging, in part to make sure I’m balanced in how much time I’m spending on writing vs. blogging.

I hope this post helped you in offering strategies for being successful as a writer, especially if you find yourself struggling in any of the above “blockages.”

What are your opinions on writer’s block?  Do you disagree with me?  Did you find any of my tips or self-cures helpful?

Let me know what other writing topics you would like to see on Behind the Story!

Behind the Story: Emotion Part 3

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Emotion
The past two weeks I’ve been discussing emotional plots and emotional journeys from a writer’s perspective.  For previous posts:
What the Experts Have to Say
Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies
By Deborah Halverson
Pages 98-99 examine the differences between plot driven stories and character driven stories.  
Plot driven stories “put the action first” and “have an episodic feel to them as the characters move from event to event” and are often described as “page turners.”  Plot driven stories tend to appeal to boys and are often the following genres: adventure, fantasy, mystery, crime, thriller, and sometimes historical fiction.  One warning about plot driven stories is that characters can sometimes become stereotypical because the author wants to move the pace along instead of spending time on characterization.
Character driven stories “spotlight your main character’s emotions and psychological development” and “what happens isn’t as important as how the character reacts emotionally to what happens.”  The following genres are often character driven: contemporary-issue books, chick lit, multicultural stories, and coming-of-age themed books.  Some warnings for character driven stories are to beware of telling instead of showing, not to be afraid of action because it can reveal more about your character, and  to beware slow pacing from too much emotional wallowing and self-analysis.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression
By Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
This is a very cool book.  Emotions are arranged alphabetically into entries similar to a dictionary or encyclopedia.  You can look up an emotion and it will give you:
  • definition
  • physical signals
  • internal sensations
  • mental responses
  • cues of acute or long-term feelings
  • what this emotion could escalate to
  • cues of suppressed feelings

It’s really an amazing little book.  Especially if you feel like you are overusing the same response for an emotion.  For example, your character keeps having stomach fluttering when she’s nervous.  If you look up nervousness, you get 33 physical signals and 11 internal sensations that indicate nervousness.  So awesome!
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
By John Gardner
Gardner presents an interesting exercise for using description of setting to convey the emotions of the character.  His exercise: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, or war, or death.  Do not mention the man who does the seeing.”  Gardner says that a talented writer should be able to conjure a powerful image that evokes everything the man is feeling using the barn as a focus.
Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults
By Cheryl Klein
Klein has a short but wonderful chapter in her book titled, “Four Techniques to Get at the Emotional Heart of Your Story.”  My favorite part of the chapter was where she said, “Every scene has to have a point, and often it is an emotional point.”  When you’re revising a manuscript, and perhaps asked to cut scenes, you can ask yourself if this scene is a plot point or an emotional point.  She even goes so far to say that writers will often cut off after the action and right before the emotional point is reached.  This made me wonder if I had any scenes where emotions weren’t dealt with because I cut out too early.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel
By James N. Frey
Frey has a great section titled, “Inner Conflict and the Necessity Thereof.”  Basically, he writes that inner conflict is necessary for good fiction.  He gives several classic literary examples to illustrate his point.  He says that Godzilla doesn’t have the makings of dramatic fiction because there is no inner conflict.  Giant green monster tearing up your city, of course you kill him.  There is no internal battle of wills.  In Hamlet on the other hand, the prince wants to kill his father’s murderer but has an internal struggle against it.  This internal struggle is what grips the reader and makes great dramatic fiction.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts on emotion!  Let me know in the comments if you have another writing topic you’d like to see featured!

Links to Previous ‘Behind the Story’ Posts:

Behind the Story: Emotion Part 2

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Emotion
Last week’s post was all about how a story has an action plot and an emotional plot.  To see last week’s post, click here.  This week’s post is about how I revised a draft to improve the emotional plot as well as a discussion of emotional filters.
Emotional Journey
So what’s the next step after identifying the emotional journey of your protagonist?  Conveying that journey.  As I said last post, I’d left myself some breadcrumbs.  Some clues.  But I had to hunt for those breadcrumbs, so surely my reader isn’t going to be able to follow me down that path.  I needed to construct a clearer path, so that my reader could see the journey or change that my main character went through.
In the case of revising “Rebel Angel,” I had to go back into the story and look at how Vera behaved and reacted to situations.  In the beginning of the story, I needed her to show off her rebellious and cavalier attitude, but hint at her own internal struggle with being a failure as an angel.  As I moved to the middle of the story, I had to continue her rebellious attitude, reveal frustration with her mission, and show moments where Vera revealed she cared about her job.  In the ending, I needed Vera to make a desperate shift as she becomes determined to do her job and embracing her role as a guardian angel.
Vera was a bland character in the first draft, so I had to go back and add lots of snarky dialogue, eye-rolling, and a devil-may-care attitude.  I decided that I needed a mentor figure for her to butt heads with, but also to give her that boost of confidence she needed when she became desperate.  Vera also became a more real character to me, flawed and fascinating.  The first draft was around 20 pages, and the second draft was 40 pages.  But the story felt so much more whole after that revision.  It had the action, but it was also an emotional journey.  And even my favorite action-packed novels have characters who grow and change over the course of the book.
Exercise #2

Outline general behaviors, attitudes, fears of your main character at different points in you story that will reveal a progression or growth in their emotional journey.  (Like I did above for Vera the Angel)

Again, I’m a fan of charts, so you might find this format helpful:
Emotional Filter
Here’s another tricky bit in conquering the emotional plot of your story: the emotional filter.  At least, I find it tricky.  Because as much as my characters feel like real people, I am not them.  When I write, I don’t suddenly inhabit their body and mind and let it take over me.  I don’t suddenly see the world as they live it.  Maybe some writers write this way, but I don’t.  I’m very much conscious of the desk, my computer, my cup of tea, and the words coming out of my fingertips.  I’m conscious of the fact that I’m writing, and I’m thinking about where I want the story to go and what words will get me there.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, emotional filter is a writing term, especially important in first person but also close third, that is used in revising writing to remind a writer to see a scene from the character’s emotional perspective.  I tend to struggle with this because I’m not thinking as my main character as I write.
I usually have to go back after my initial drafting and insert emotions and inner monologue.  Sometimes I’ll have some breadcrumbs of emotions to work with, but usually it’s something I have to go back through and add.  As I’ve become aware of emotions being a weak point for me, I think I’ve gotten better at weaving them into my first drafts.  But I know that looking at my emotional plot is going to be one of the major points of my revision when I do finally have a complete first draft.
Three ways to convey what a character is feeling:
  1. Inner Monologue: Dive into what the character is thinking and give the reader direct thoughts.  This is also an excellent way to slow or freeze the narrative for dramatic effect if it is a particularly important or poignant moment.
  2. Dialogue: Convey the emotions through what that character says.  Could your character be confused?  Were they blindsided?  Have them stammer and ask questions.  Is your character angry?  Have them speak tersely or shout.
  3. Action: Little ticks and behaviors can convey emotions.  A clench of the fists, a gasp of breath, a twirl of the hair, a glance at the floor.  I would say that actions are best used in combination with dialogue or thoughts in order to give the reader a full picture of what the character is feeling.

Exercise #3

Write what might seem as a small/insignificant moment, but then convey that this moment has emotional weight for your character.

Exercise #4

Find a scene that is lacking an emotional filter and revise by adding emotions and inner monologue.  Show a before and after of that scene.

Return next week for what I found the experts had to say about emotion and some great writing resources!

Behind the Story: Emotion Part 1

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Emotion

I have strong tastes when it comes to what types of books I enjoy reading.  Note the word “enjoy.”  Reading is my form of escape, and as much as I can, I try to keep reading as something that I do for pleasure.  Due to my personal tastes, one of the biggest categories/genres of books I don’t enjoy is the problem novel.  Characters dealing with emotional issues and internal conflict aren’t fun for me to read.  They stress me out.  Reading about people with serious, real life problems is not how I choose to spend my evening curled up on the couch.  Have I still read some of these books?  Yes.  I’ve read works by Ellen Hopkins (Impulse) and Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak and Wintergirls).  Can these books be important?  Yes.  Do I know students who have loved these kinds of books?  Yes.  But novels dealing with emotional issues and internal conflict are not my cup of tea.

What I do enjoy: conflict, action, suspense, plots with twists and turns.  Give me a quest.  Give me a battle between good and evil.  Give me dire stakes to save the one you love.  That’s my kind of story.  And therefore, that’s what I tend to write.  I’m a conflict and plot driven writer.  I plan out my books by the obstacles and challenges I intend for my characters to face.  And I love writing this way.  It’s great.

However, the wisdom of one of my professors pointed out that a novel can’t be just action.  A novel has an action plot and an emotional plot.  Typically, in my first draft, I have the action plot down.  It’s my emotional plot that needs some help.

At first, this whole realization of an emotional plot kind of blew my mind.  I didn’t really know what to do about it.  It makes sense when you look at my reading preferences.  Was I a total failure at this emotional stuff?  But then I looked at the first drafts of my stories, and I realized that I’d left myself clues as to the emotional plot.  Like breadcrumbs I didn’t know I’d trailed behind me as I was munching my way through the forest.

My first step to remedying my weak emotional plot, was to gather the clues I left myself and piece together the emotional journey my character goes on over the course of the story.

I find it helpful to identify both the action plot and the emotional journey.  Sometimes it’s helpful to see how they fit together.  And if you’re someone who is good at the emotional stuff, then it might help you to outline your action plot.

For example, here is the action plot and emotional plot of my novella “Rebel Angel”:

The action plot is composed of events or challenges in the physical world, whereas the emotional plot should be showing how the character grows and changes over the course of the story.

Exercise #1

Identify the action plot and emotional plot of your novel.  I find the chart helpful, but you may use any format that works for you.

Return next week for more about emotional plots and more writing exercises!

Links to Previous ‘Behind the Story’ Posts:
Pacing and Description Part 1
Pacing and Description Part 2
Pacing and Description Part 3
Choosing Character Names