writing advice

3 Secret Weapons for When Your Plot Hates You

Writing LUNAV took me about three years, give or take: that time frame includes at least five full rewrites. 

Writing LOST BOY, FOUND BOY -- which is literally a fourth the length of LUNAV -- took me a full year, most of which was time during which it just sat, partially done, in my notebook, antagonizing me.

The plot for LOST BOY, FOUND BOY hated my guts. Hardcore.

With LUNAV, I wrote chaotically. I wrote scene after disconnected scene, and then -- hence all the rewriting -- figured out what shape my plot wanted to take and wove them together.

With LOST BOY, scenes wouldn't come to me. I knew where I wanted to go, plotwise. I knew the elements I wanted to include. I knew what Peter's main emotional journey was going to be, I knew the subplots. I knew how the lesbians were going to fall in love. I knew everything about the damn thing.

Except I couldn't, for the life of me, write it.

Because the plot hated my guts.

But I had secret weapons. Granted, it took me a year to figure them out, but when I did? 

Score one for Jenn, score zero for that pesky plot.

What were my secret weapons, you might ask? Read on, dear reader. Read on.

1. Call a Truce (aka, take a break)

As writers, we often feel like we've failed when we take a break from our characters, our worlds. We feel like we're letting someone -- or the entire world -- down. We feel like not writing means we're not worth it as people.

But you are -- we are -- worth it, even when we're not writing, I promise.

Given that we often feel those things, though, it's tempting -- and I tried to do this so many times -- to say "oh look, I gave it a break: I didn't think about or look at my draft all weekend." And good try, but... no.

Gotta be longer than that. 

To really cleanse our minds, we've gotta turn to different projects: and sometimes, those projects are best not being writing at all. For me, it's the gym (it's always the gym, for me). It's also fan fiction (lots and lots of fan fiction).

I put LOST BOY down for, oh... eight months? I had no choice. I kept trying to force it, and the more I tried, the worse it got. 

I only came back to it when...

2. Talk it Out (with a reader, not a writer)

For me, a friend who's not a writer was actually most helpful. That's not a knock on my wonderful writer friends! It's just... the friend who isn't a writer listened to me moaning about LOST BOY, and the fix was pretty immediate.

She tilted her head and pursed her lips and said the most obvious thing in the world: obvious to her as a potential reader, not as a fellow writer empathizing with my pain about pacing and point of view and other such plot agonies.

As a potential reader, she shrugged her shoulders and made a passing statement that not only transformed and clarified how I was thinking about the project, but that also renewed my passion to dive back into a project that had been causing me so much emotional grief.

Suddenly, the project was new again; suddenly, I liked it again. Don't underestimate the power of liking what you're working on. It's so important, every time.

And, for those of you who're wondering: all she said was, "okay, so Tink is the computer." And... it all went from there.

3. Set a Liveline (get it?)

A liveline for yourself, you know... a deadline, except without... death.

Seriously, though: for me, telling my editor (or someone else to whom you feel accountable) that I was working on this project and could send it to him by xx date really lit a fire under me. And, because I'd set the date myself, it was something that I felt in control of, something that I was excited for. 

Saying to myself, "okay, you've marinated on this project for almost a year now; you've had a truly transformative conversation about it (in addition to a lot of non-transformative conversations about it!), and now you're excited about it again. Great! So... finish it by this date."

For me, it was invigorating and exactly what I needed.

You might notice that very little of this was about the plot itself. And that's intentional. So much of writing is in our own minds, in our own senses of self-worth; in our own feelings. Yes, it's a craft, and there are lots of craft-oriented strategies -- storyboarding comes to mind, as I've written about on here before -- but there's something about addressing our emotions as writers that, to me, is extremely helpful in the actual writing process. 

What about you? How do you get through when your plot hates you?

5 Things You Need to Know about your Characters (That You’ll Probably Never Tell Your Readers)

So, it's the new year.

And you've promised yourself you're going to finish that novel, flesh out that short story, develop that video game... except your characters seem to hate you. They won't tell you about their lives and even if you have the best idea for a plot, they keep shrugging their shoulders in the ultimate expression of meh.

Oscar Issac, wearing a blue button down and a black jacket, answering an interview question by raising his hand in the air and saying "meh." Gif from https://cdn-enterprise.discourse.org/tnation/uploads/default/original/3X/4/1/411c1cd1fc04964cb6712fd84b5b65f833f3974e.gif

Oscar Issac, wearing a blue button down and a black jacket, answering an interview question by raising his hand in the air and saying "meh." Gif from https://cdn-enterprise.discourse.org/tnation/uploads/default/original/3X/4/1/411c1cd1fc04964cb6712fd84b5b65f833f3974e.gif

Except you really need them to work with you. You really do. 

So you keep trying to force them to muddle through the plot you have planned, or you keep trying to cajole them into revealing where they want to go and who they want to have a torrid love affair with next.

I've been there. Trust me. I know. Writing LOST BOY, FOUND BOY was a year-long exercise in, "seriously, Peter? Talk to me, man. Tink? What about you? No? Why? Why do my characters all hate me.

If you're anything like me, you might want to take a break from your actual narrative at this point and spend some time getting to know your characters better. Chances are, once you do, they'll help you bust through any plot devices you're having trouble with, because they'll be that much more multi-dimensional.

So, without further ado: 5 things you need to know about your characters (that you'll probably never even tell your readers: not explicitly, anyway).

1. What do they want in this scene? 

Yes. In every. Single. Scene. 

What do they want? Why do they want it?

Clear answers.

In every. Single. Scene.

It's okay if your character doesn't know: hell, we often don't know what we want, or why we want it, in the scenes of our everyday lives. But as the author, you should.

2. What Hogwarts House are they in?

And be careful, here. Hogwarts Houses are always super interesting to me: the only reason Harry wasn't in Slytherin, remember, is because he chose not to be. You can choose, at the tender age of 11. 

So, the question gets more complicated: would the House you think your character would be in now be different than what it would have been or will be when they're eleven? Why? What changed? What stayed the same?

Not a Harry Potter person? No judgment (mostly). The basics here are about knowing what qualities your characters value in themselves and what they value in other people. Does your character think it's better to be kind or to be correct? To have lots of friends or to have a small handful of intimate chosen family? To be on the front lines or in the background? Where are the complexities? The 'yes ands'? The conflicts of values? 

This is where your characters get rich in development.

3. What do they do in their down time?

In book cultures of chosen ones and plucky teens saving the world, we often forget the mundane, the "boring", the "oh my Rao I just want to go home and sleep."

Forget what they need to do to survive, for a moment: what do your characters do to thrive?

Or, what would they do if they weren't wrapped up in whatever intensive plot you have lined up for them?

4. Why do they like (or dislike) x person?

We love chemistry in our books, don't we? Two characters meet eyes across the room, and bam. An OTP is born.

And I'm all for that. I'm all about that.

But what sparks that chemistry (or the hatred, or the ambivalence, etc.) between two characters? What, indeed, keeps it going (or not)?

Sometimes, my favorite questions about my characters are the simplest ones. Someone asked me the other day, "What does Evelyn like the most about Sadie?" And I had to scratch my head and think about it for a hot minute. Hell, I'm still thinking about it. 

Because it was a beautiful question. And I can write an entire prequel and/or sequel as an answer to it. Make sure those things shine through, even if you're not writing about them explicitly. 

5. What is x's relationship with y?

What I mean by that is this: imagine a scene with four characters in it. Let's choose mine, for funsies. Sadie, Evelyn, Zaylam, and Jorbam.

Sadie and Evelyn are dating each other (or at least, they want to; even if they won't admit it yet). Zaylam, Sadie, and Jorbam are hatchling mates who grew up together.

And, Sadie is the POV character.

Great.

But.

What about how Jorbam and Evelyn interact? Jorbam and Zaylam, when Sadie isn't there? Evelyn and Zaylam? The three of them, without Sadie? 

Fleshing out relationships between multiple characters, in multiple combinations -- even if you don't give a massive amount of tangible detail to your readers about these "side" relationships -- is extremely, extremely important, and it makes for a much richer narrative. 

My favorite scene in all of the Harry Potter series, for example, is a small one, an almost insignificant one, in THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. Ginny is sitting on the floor in the common room, reading a newspaper with her back against Harry's knees. Some of her brothers are there, too, playing wizards' chess. They're all teasing each other and having side conversations with each other and something about Harry having a hipogriff tattoo. They're all doing their own things: but they're doing it, intimately, together. It warms my heart, every time.

Similarly, my favorite scenes in Grey's Anatomy are ensemble scenes: I love the relationships that aren't the main focus of the show. Alex and Cristina. George and Cristina. (I just really love Cristina, okay?) Burke and Alex. 

So, like in HARRY POTTER, one of my favorite Grey's scenes is a really basic one. An ensemble scene, where they're all studying for their boards, and they're all having side conversations and little nervous and excited mannerisms. They're all living their own, full, independent lives, and you can tell from how they're all doing their own thing: but they're doing it together.

It's those little things -- those tiny interactions between characters whose relationships aren't what the story is about -- that can make or break rich worlds and sweeping plots.

Build them out, even if it's just in your own notebook or google doc of character files. 

It'll show up in your writing. I promise.

Pro tip: these questions are especially important for characters who aren't your POV (point of view) characters. Make sure you're always, always, always thinking about the motivations and backgrounds of your "side" characters and love interests. Even if you don't go out of your way to explicitly tell your readers about it: trust me. They'll know.

And your stories will be all the richer for it.

The Sweet (and Stressful) Sound of Character Development

Ahh, tumblr. The home of wonderful and wonderfully important questions!

A great Anon with an unfortunate computer issue asked: "Hi Jenn! I was wondering if you had any character development sheets you used, or any that you really liked? I used to have one I used often, which helped round out my characters, but lost it when my computer got a virus and had to be wiped. Can't wait for your book!"


Oh my! I’m so sorry about your computer virus: boooooo.

I don’t use worksheets, per se, but I do have a bunch of exercises that I love using, especially when I’m feeling like I’m in a writing rut.

First, I absolutely love writing lists of “20 Things Readers Will Never Know about X Character.” I don’t like the idea of keeping secrets from readers; that’s not what the exercise is about for me. For me, it’s about all the little things that make a person… well, a person! Little facts about their first crushes, their friendships, their random fears, random incidents that they’ve experienced, that might not directly show up in the book, but will probably show through in their behavior and feelings somehow.

For example, think of headcanons that fans often make about TV show characters or book characters. For example, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books has difficulty conjuring a Patronus, but can handle basically every other spell no problem.

Because of this, I have long-since believed ("headcanonned") that Hermione experiences some form of depression, like me: conjuring a Patronus Charm involves the ability to wipe your mind and body clean of fear and doubt and overwhelming sadness and just focus on a happy memory inside you. Hermione has so much trouble with that, consistently. But, nothing in the books ever says this about her flat-out.

Hermione Granger, in a buttoned-up coat over a hoodie, takes a deep breath and sighs, looking from one side of the Quidditch Pitch to the other, sitting alone high up in the stands. Gif from https://media.giphy.com/media/YbWZxkCmwxvZ6/giphy.gif

Hermione Granger, in a buttoned-up coat over a hoodie, takes a deep breath and sighs, looking from one side of the Quidditch Pitch to the other, sitting alone high up in the stands. Gif from https://media.giphy.com/media/YbWZxkCmwxvZ6/giphy.gif

So, if I were writing a “20 Things Readers Will Never Know about X Character,” I might write a lot about Hermione’s experiences with depressive episodes before Hogwarts and even during her Hogwarts years.

Then again, if it were me, I would explicitly discuss it in the books, as well, because representation is soooo important! That said, the “20 Things” exercise is such a great way to learn about your characters that it might become a “20 Things I Need to Make Sure Readers Know about X Character”!!! (Just make sure you weave the information seamlessly into the narrative so you’re not just info-dumping information about them!)

And, I also like writing fan fiction about my characters.

For example, with LUNAV, my debut novel, it’s set in a fantasy world, right? So, sometimes I wonder: what if Sadie and Evelyn went on a date in this world, in this very restaurant? What if they were students in New York City? What if they were my students? What if they met in a coffee shop in this world instead of in a forest full of snow and magic in the land of Lunav?

Those are super fun to write, and they give a lot of insight into who these people are, and how their environments shape them, and what the cores of their personalities are. Just like a well-written fan fiction AU, it takes a lot of knowledge of a character to keep them consistently in character even when you’re writing them in a completely different situation than the ones they usually find themselves in.

I know those things aren’t worksheets, but I hope they’re helpful anyway!! Feel free to ask more questions: this was a great one!

Your characters are going to be amazing :)

How Do I Plot? Storyboarding and Collaborative Plotting of Plots

Over on my tumblr, a wonderful Anon got right to the point and asked: "how to develop stable plots." And this is what I said.


Ahhh, a great and difficult question!! I’m gonna give you a novel-length answer. Hope that’s okay!

Stable plots come about in different ways for different people. Some people like to plot every last detail out in an outline or on a visual storyboard before they even start writing. Those wonderful people are way out of my league: storyboards only happen way later for me.

For me, I honestly write novels in a series of scattered scenes; the overarching plot might have a vague idea in my mind by the way I start connecting these scenes, but ultimately, my biggest lift when novel-writing is about somehow weaving all these scattered scenes together.

This involves plugging in transition and connective scenes, and then doing a huge edit that, in truth, is more of a total rewrite. That way, I can smooth out the writing style and pacing, as well as making sure I’m not repeating information or such from the stitched-together scenes.

How did I do this with my debut novel LUNAV? I wish I still had the pictures from my old phone, but alas.

I storyboarded! I got index cards and colored markers, tape and my living room wall (my fiancee was delightful about letting me do this; she even encouraged it and was central to helping me figure it all out!).

What did I do with said markers and index cards? Stable plotting! (And I think this storyboarding can work even for those of us who outline before we write, too, by the way.)

Basically, I made an index card describing each scene briefly and posted them to the wall in chronological order.

A wooden door drawn in a storybook starts to emit a golden glow from its handle, projecting out of the book and over Henry's shoulder. The teenage boy wearing a black coat and signature red-striped scarf, turns to watch the stream of light touch a keyhole on a wooden desk drawer behind him. From the ABC show  Once Upon a Time.  Gif from http://68.media.tumblr.com/c0c40113a3beb0c0b228b75ffd97a117/tumblr_inline_nm0hoocTk41ss1lam.gif

A wooden door drawn in a storybook starts to emit a golden glow from its handle, projecting out of the book and over Henry's shoulder. The teenage boy wearing a black coat and signature red-striped scarf, turns to watch the stream of light touch a keyhole on a wooden desk drawer behind him. From the ABC show Once Upon a Time. Gif from http://68.media.tumblr.com/c0c40113a3beb0c0b228b75ffd97a117/tumblr_inline_nm0hoocTk41ss1lam.gif

Underneath each scene, I posted three index cards. On these cards, I used different color markers to indicate important things about the scene: the color codes were “world-building”, “character development”, and something like “relationships.” For each category, I wrote about what the scene conveyed.

For world-building, I wrote things like “Lunamez massacre discussed” or “Dreaming explained.”

For characters, I wrote things like “Jax backstory” or “Sadie passes as a boy in the human Inn.”

This way, if I gave Jax a backstory in two different scenes, I would see it immediately. Similarly, if I never talked about Jax’s history, I would notice that, as well, because his name would be missing from the “character” index cards.

For plot-specific things, I also drew arrows between each scene/each pair of index cards. If I couldn’t draw that arrow -- if the scenes didn’t make sense next to each other, if the pacing was wrong, or I needed to move the cards/scenes around -- I knew something was amuck with my plot.

This storyboarding really helped me, because it combined the parts of me that learn visually (storyboard), from reading (the written words on the index cards), and kinesthetically (being able to touch and move the cards as though I were reaching into my world and moving my characters and settings around).

Of course, this method won’t work for everyone because we all have different processes, but it reallllly helped me.

As much or more than the board itself, it helped me to show my friends the storyboard. They were able to find holes that I couldn’t (because I was so close to it), in ways that would have taken much longer/might have been harder to spot reading the entire novel.

Wearing a blue plaid shirt and tie, Winn Schott from  Supergirl  offers a high five to Barry Allen, in his Flash suit with his hood down, as Supergirl watches them both. Gif from http://68.media.tumblr.com/c0c40113a3beb0c0b228b75ffd97a117/tumblr_inline_nm0hoocTk41ss1lam.gif

Wearing a blue plaid shirt and tie, Winn Schott from Supergirl offers a high five to Barry Allen, in his Flash suit with his hood down, as Supergirl watches them both. Gif from http://68.media.tumblr.com/c0c40113a3beb0c0b228b75ffd97a117/tumblr_inline_nm0hoocTk41ss1lam.gif

Collaborating about my plot with my friends and my fiancee was -- and still is -- indescribably helpful. They are not only patient with my oddities and writing insecurities, but they are beyond indulgent, insightful, and creative with their assistance. I couldn’t do it without them!

So, I suppose, I’m saying: storyboarding may help, whether you’re an outliner or a scene-jumper like me. And, friends who are writers/who love reading and who love you are absolutely invaluable.

Feel free to reach out with more questions: this is a great one!!

You got this :)

How do I Dialogue? The Strife of the "Said" Tag

Over on my tumblr, a wonderful anonymous reader/writer asked me:

Hi! :) I have some problem when writing, not in dialogues, those are the easiest part for me, but like after the dialogues, I always feel like I'm repeating the entence "she said" or "he said" wayyy too many freaking times, and it bothers me a lot. How do I kinda replace the word "say" and not make it appear 500 times in my 1000 word story? xD Thanks! And I cant wait for your novel to release :D


Hello my dear! Ohhh, dialogue tags. What an important question!!

Two things: the first is, check out this cool page about other words you can use for “said.” Remember that you probably want to convey action and emotion with your dialogue. The only thing “said” tells us is, literally, that someone… well, said something: which, mind you, is important!

But, other words – that more directly describe the way something is being said – can often be super helpful, and that’s where the link above can be very nifty.

The second thing: remember that you don’t always need dialogue tags. The goal with good dialogue is to have everyone communicate – as we all do in real life – with different cadences, with a voice all their own. So making sure your characters have their own rhythms and tendencies when speaking can help us as readers know who’s talking without necessarily having to be told. Relatedly, it’s fun to let readers see what characters are doing while they’re talking, and this can provide a lot of great alternatives to “said.”


Take this bit of dialogue, for example, from this delightful scene between true loves Emma Swan and Regina Mills in Once Upon a Time:

 

Regina Mills from Once Upon a Time looks up from her desk, hand delicately under her chin, with hopeful eyes, asking Emma Swan, "Is that a root beer?" Gif from https://68.media.tumblr.com/4cb1e6a038cbed831a81e00745b19d0f/tumblr_nkciynSO561sfomgxo5_250.gif

“How do you feel about kale salad?” Emma asks.

“Like someone found some place other than Granny’s for take-out,” Regina answers.

“I’m fine with her grilled cheese, but I know it gets to you,” Emma says.

“You eat like a child. Is that a root beer?” Regina asks.

“Two! I got you one. Thought you could use a break,” Emma says triumphantly.


Okay. Awesome. My heart is melted like that grilled cheese that Emma didn’t get because she knows it hurts Regina’s stomach be still my fangirl heart.

But, still. As written, it doesn’t convey everything that went on between them in that scene, does it? So, lets try it without once using “said”/”says” or synonyms for it.

“How do you feel about kale salad?”

Regina doesn’t bother looking up, either at the salad or at the woman who’d placed it there. “Like someone found some place other than Granny’s for take-out.”

Emma ignores her distant, distracted quip as she struggles to crack open the bottles she brought with her.

“I’m fine with her grilled cheese, but I know it gets to you.”

Regina scoffs with soft eyes and finally glances up. “You eat like a child.”

She pauses, then, and nearly gasps, her mask of disinterest finally gone. “Is that a root beer?”

“Two!” Emma quirks a small grin, holding up one bottle in each hand like she’s Henry, trying to be casual while proudly presenting his science fair project. “I got you one. Thought you could use a break.”

You see what I mean?

More melty-grilled cheese for Emma and warm fuzzy someone-notices-what-I-need feels for Regina, and more overall feels for us.

Sometimes, we need those actions, those facial expressions. And, it does two things at once: injects deeper forms of communication into the scene, and eliminates that pesky “said” repetition.

Remember, most of communication is held within the unspoken: don’t be afraid to put that in your writing!!

Have a great time, dear writer: you got this :)

And if you've got any more dialogue tips, feel free to toss them below here!