Wordy Wednesday: Not Writing

Hey there! Short post tonight because I owe you like five different recap posts (and the less time I spend on this Wordy Wednesday, the more time I’ll have to finally catch up on those). Sorry!

However, quick recap of what’s happened in the past couple weeks:

  • Road trip! Hannah and I celebrated our graduation with a road trip to Nantucket. (And I’ll recap it very soon, fingers crossed!)
  • Physical therapy! I went in to get my knee and shoulder looked at and the therapists have all concluded at this point that, structurally, my body is very screwed up, so it looks like I’m going to be in physical therapy a few times a week for the next couple months while they try to fix me. (Upside: maybe no more pain soon?!)
  • And that is it. In large part because the events of the past few days, mostly in Orlando but also elsewhere, have honestly been too much for me and I kind of just shut down for a bit there. I can’t put into words what I’ve been feeling, and I’m not even connected to what happened, and I can’t (and don’t want to) imagine what those who are involved are feeling. It’s just… no. This isn’t okay. This is so very much not okay.

Anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post–about, well, not writing.

While I’m not actively working on a draft of a novel right now, I am working on doing my reverse outline (as part of Zero Drafting) for The Novel That Refuses To Be Named. I’ve been working on this for a little over a month and a half now, and I’m up to something like sixty pages of handwritten notes (and I am very far from being done). The amount of time I’ve been dedicating per day so far has ranged from 12+ hours, when I really get sucked into it, to only a few hours, when I’m pushing through a rough patch.

So: that’s been my life for over a month now. Constantly in the heads of my characters, in their world, not doing a ton in my own world.

Then it came time for my graduation road trip with Hannah and, with it, the horrifying realization that I wouldn’t be able to outline for hours on end during the week of the trip because (gasp) I’d be too busy having fun.

This honestly was a concern for me at this point two weeks ago. Like, I was excited for the trip of course–we’d been talking about going on a road trip for over a year–but also WHAT IF I TOOK A WEEK OFF FROM WORKING AND ALL MY IDEAS DRIED UP AND I NEVER FINISHED MY NOVEL?

Then we actually left on the trip, though, and I began enjoying myself, and I realized my fears were entirely unfounded–because instead of having fewer ideas, it was like each mile of highway our car ate up gave me another. And while I didn’t spend the week actively outlining, by the end of it I’d figured out sooo many things about The Novel that I wouldn’t have been able to at home.

All this to say: sometimes it’s good to put down your pen and paper and go be part of the world.

Who knows, the solution to your next plot dilemma might be buried (like mine) on a street on a bike ride to a lighthouse in Nantucket.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Raising the Stakes

It’s been a busy week.

I had my first day of work at the bookshop Thursday, then promptly found out that my roommate Hannah needed someone to go to Chicago with her for an emergency trip to the Brazilian consulate (don’t ask). So I traded off Ch1Con Chat duties for the night with the incredible Kira and off we drove to Chicago.

We spent a good part of Friday running back and forth between the consulate and other places, then we got our reward for enduring all of that: a few free hours in downtown. We ate lunch in the cafe in Millennium Park with the Bean as our view, then took the river walk to Navy Pier, where we sat for a while and watched the boats and waves. Afterward, we took the water taxi back to the Magnificent Mile, and from there spur-of-the-moment decided to do a river boat architecture tour. We finished the afternoon with stops at a candy shop and Garrett Popcorn for provisions for the long drive home, then headed back to Michigan.

Despite the fact that in total we were only gone for around thirty hours (and we spent almost half of that in the car, another seven hours or so sleeping, and the entire morning doing the emergency consulate stuff), it was a fun trip. We listened to the Order of the Phoenix audiobook on the way there and back, and got to hang out for the first time since winter semester ended, and yeah.

Then on Sunday my family decided to go into downtown Detroit for the day to celebrate my brother’s recent birthday (HAPPY TWENTY-FOURTH, DUDE), so we hit the Detroit Institute of the Arts to see the special Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo exhibit, then wandered around Campus Martius and Greektown and got dinner. And it was a really wonderful day.

However, what both those trips meant was that come Monday, I was insanely behind on everything. So I’ve been playing catchup with all my various jobs and responsibilities ever since. Fingers crossed that in the next couple days, I finally get there (because then next week is BEA/BookCon, which means I’m going to get behind again).

Anyway. This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

So this week in my screenwriting class, we’re sharing something called our “five minute pitch.” (The name is pretty self-explanatory.)

I’ve pitched projects a billion times before, between telling literary agents at conferences about my novels and sharing ideas at meetings. But doing the five minute pitch for class was honestly terrifying, because here’s the thing: We haven’t worked on our scripts at all yet.

AT. ALL.

We’d just finished sketching out some quick character profiles and our loglines, and all of a sudden our professor wanted us to have our entire plot ready to go–with all the twists, subplots, and character development fleshed out.

I’m a pantser and a procrastinator, so of course I went into class (assigned to pitch first) with next to nothing prepared and just winged it. And it went pretty well for me making up the story as I went.

However, in the critique afterward my class pointed out a pretty big flaw in my idea. This is a flaw I regularly run into, and probably the fact that my class got the very roughest draft of the plot for my screenplay made it even more apparent than usual.

I’m bad at stakes.

Not always, of course. Within stories themselves, my here-and-now stakes are generally pretty solid. (In the case of my screenplay, a girl’s best friend has been kidnapped and if she doesn’t find her fast, the kidnapper will kill the BFF.) But my why-is-this-story-happening stakes often need help.

Generally, we call this type of stakes “motivation.” Why is someone doing something? Why would they approach the issue in this specific way? What do they hope to obtain from it or fear will happen if they don’t succeed?

It’s that last question that transforms a character’s motivation into a form of stakes, but it’s the combination of the three that I have trouble with. In order for a motivation to feel realistic and justifiable to a reader/viewer, it has to be a single thing that realistically and justifiably answers all three questions.

When pitching my screenplay idea, I talked about how the kidnapper wanted vengeance on the BFF for something she’d done in the past. So, technically I’d answered the first question–but my pitch didn’t really cover the other two, and I hadn’t really thought about those yet.

And, unfortunately, my answer to Question #1 wasn’t the greatest, either.

“The stakes aren’t high enough,” my professor cautioned. My classmates offered ideas for ways I could make the kidnapper’s motivation stronger by making the BFF’s past mistakes worse.

And sitting there in front of the class, furiously taking down editorial notes, I realized something: The mistakes I’d already assigned the BFF were deplorable, so it wasn’t that they weren’t realistic or justifiable motivation for the kidnapping. It was that they weren’t for a kidnapping in fiction.

If this story was happening in real life, the best friend wouldn’t need to do as bad of things to justify someone kidnapping her. The kidnapper wouldn’t need as much riding on her decisions. Real life allows for chance and illogical actions and spur-of-the-moment choices (like Hannah and my one day road trip). But while real life certainly thrives on order, fiction needs it to survive.

You don’t need justification in real life, because it’s really happening. That’s justification enough. But because fiction is, you know, fictional, the reader/viewer no longer is required to believe what you’re telling him/her. So it becomes your job to make it just oh so painstakingly without a doubt believable that s/he has no choice but feel that what you’re telling him/her is the truth.

And this is the part that I’ve had issues with in the past. I know how to justify things IRL; it’s a whole other story to do it in fiction.

The easiest way is to quite simply raise the stakes. Make what’s going on bigger, worse, harder to come back from.

In one of my novels, I was dealing with an organization of dastardly vigilantes that the government wants to shut down. I originally had them at only a couple hundred members, which my critique partners immediately said they couldn’t believe. (“Why would the US government care about an organization that small?” they asked.) (Because, yeah, the real life United States totally wouldn’t care about a couple hundred unknown people running around with guns, killing whoever they felt like.) So I upped the number by a couple hundred. Then, when that still wasn’t believable, had to up it again.

Your in-story motivations have to be larger than life. They have to be impossible to disprove or disagree with. You have to move beyond realistic and justifiable–to indisputable.

So: raise the stakes.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Change of Plans

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

My plan for last night involved me, my bed, and a good book.

It’s been a long week. We’ve long reached that point in the semester when both midterms and spring break have passed and the only thing worth looking forward to is a summer break that’s still over a month away. So yesterday I was ready for a night off from homework/revising/Ch1Con stuff/internship applications/job applications/blog post writing/etc. I was ready for tea and pajamas and snuggling under a pile of blankets.

Then around three PM my phone started blowing up with text messages.

One of my friends, who’s super into astronomy-related stuff, had found out the Northern Lights were supposed to be visible only a few hours north of us that night, and would I like to come along to see them? No promises how far we’d have to drive or if we’d get back in time to sleep before morning classes or if we’d see the Northern Lights at all. But there was the promise of adventure. And the potential of seeing something incredible.

So at ten PM I ditched the book, threw on my warmest coat and hat, and off a group of us went to traverse the state and chase something we’d only ever seen in photographs.

I didn’t know everyone in the car going into the trip, but we couldn’t get the radio to work so we ended up spending the entire ride north sharing stories about ourselves and our friends. We got lost on back roads and in sleepy silences.

The Northern Lights are easiest to see if you’re in a clear, dark place, so we dodged around lakes, searching for one large and secluded enough to give an unobstructed view of the sky.

Around twelve thirty, we finally found the perfect place: a massive lake in a state park in the middle of nowhere. We pulled down a teeny, tiny road leading to a boat launch on park grounds, ignoring the signs warning us that visitors weren’t allowed in after ten PM, and found ourselves in a parking lot that brushed right up against the lake with only a single orange street light glowing against the sky.

We bundled out of the car and walked as far from the light as we dared. We took in the absolute silence–the kind you only get at night in winter when there’s no wind and you and your friends are the only people for miles. We looked up.

No Northern Lights. But the stars were dazzling.

Hundreds and hundreds of pinpricks of light interrupted the inky blackness. The sky curved away from us, a dome for once not obstructed by buildings. We spun in circles, huddled close, pointed out constellations and planets. We took in our universe. We let ourselves feel small. We remembered we were parts of something so, so huge and amazing.

We went chasing the Northern Lights and instead we found the stars.

I’m telling you this story not because I had a really great adventure last night (even though I did and definitely suggest getting out of civilization to look at the stars once in a while). I’m telling you this because when I woke up yesterday morning, I had no plans whatsoever to go on a road trip in the middle of the night to the middle of nowhere. I wanted to sit home and get caught up on the books I’ve been neglecting. I wanted to go to bed early.

Essentially, the opposite of what happened.

And the fact that last night did happen, and I now have this story to tell you, proves that sometimes the best things not only are those you didn’t plan for, but are things contrary to the plans you did make.

So, how does this pertain to writing?

Don’t be afraid to change directions with a story. Don’t be afraid to make a bad guy good, or completely rewrite your opening on a whim, or start a new project. Don’t be afraid to enter a contest, or try out a new style, or totally destroy your protagonist’s world.

Make plans. Plans are wonderful. But don’t let them restrict you from writing the best story you possibly can.

And don’t be afraid to put aside working on your writing (whether it be actually writing, or just getting caught up on your TBR pile) every once in a while to have an adventure.

Who knows. Maybe you’ll end up with a new story to tell.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Five Steps to Being Amazed

Step 1: Drive five and a half hours to Chicago after not having driven in over a month, through rain and snow and hail and wind. Don’t make a single stop while doing this, between home and the city.

Step 2: Bask in the fact that you’re still alive.

Step 3: Go to your cousin’s high school show choir competition (which is why you drove to Chicago) and realize that:

  • a) High school show choir really is like Glee, believe it or not. (Well, the performances are any way. There’s probably way less drama in real life.)
  • b) High school show choir makes high school theatre look like a piece of cake. (Also Known As: Show choir would totally whip your butt into shape, and as a certified member of the Sit-on-the-Couch-All-Day committee, theatre’s suddenly looking a whole lot easier.)

Step 4: Get to the hotel you’re hosting an event at this summer (yes, all you WIC’ers — I’m totally at the WIC hotel right now!) and decide that it’s the most beautiful hotel you’ve ever seen, namely because the pool is the temperature of bathwater and there’s a way to — thank God — hook up your laptop to the room TV, meaning that the TV can be used like a giant computer monitor. Which saves a WHOLE LOT OF TROUBLE.

Step 5: Sleep all the way coming back home from Chicago, for five and a half hours through rain and snow and hail and wind, with a deliciously full stomach after eating at one of your favorite Chicago-area restaurants. (Bliss. 🙂 )

~Julia