Wordy Wednesday: Falling Back in Love with Writing

I spent this past weekend home with family and some fun things happened during that:

  • Friday night, my cousin was an extra on Hawaii 5-0! Super proud to be able to say I knew him when. (He played a SWAT officer. Check it out.)
  • Saturday I went to afternoon tea with my mom and aunt and grandmom at this place that was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-themed. It was super fun and if you’re ever in Michigan and looking to have a tea party, I highly recommend it: www.madhatterbistro.com
  • Aaand finally, Sunday, we did our annual family 5k! (Well, my mom, aunt, and I did. My dad did an entire half-marathon because, unlike the rest of us, he’s actually athletic.) Then that night we sat out on our back patio and watched the eclipse while eating caramel apples and listening to the crickets, which was a perfect last dose of summer before the weather turned cold this week.

  
All in all, a very good weekend (even though I spent the entire thing not being able to breathe out of my nose).

Now, it’s Wednesday—which means, you guessed it: Wordy Wednesday time.

This week we’ve got a writing process post.

I haven’t talked about it much on here yet, because it’s still so small and who knows if it’s actually going to go anywhere, but for the past couple months I’ve been working on a new WiP.

This has been really hard for me, because writing has turned into such a strange thing over the course of college: I haven’t finished a novel since freshman year and almost all the writing I’ve done since then has been for something (school or NaNoWriMo, mostly) rather than for myself. (Like, I’ve been writing because I’m required to turn in x-amount per week or whatever, rather than because there are actually certain ideas and characters I’m dying to work on.)

It’s weird starting something just because I feel like it. No deadlines. No word or page count requirements. Just a Word document and me and what little time I can carve out of my week.

It feels good, in a weird kind of way. Like when you’re working out and your muscles start to burn and you know you could stop if you chose to, because no one is requiring you to do this, but you keep going out of sheer force of will. If you’re running a marathon or something, you know you have to keep going because you’re required to. But no one’s requiring anything of this, or me.

I’m finding that it’s important to have projects like this. I get so burned out writing things out of obligation rather than want. After a while, the words simply stop working.

Writing just-for-fun, on the other hand, is reminding me what it’s like to WANT to write. What it’s like to really like it, again. It’s been so long since I wrote for myself that I’d honestly forgotten, and remembering that sort of thing—actively feeling that sort of thing—is so, so important in creative industries like this.
Doing something creative for school, or a job, or even an activity as simple as NaNoWriMo is dangerous. It’s easy to run yourself dry. To lose that spark that made you want to take up writing (or whatever it is you do) in the first place.

I’d gotten to the point this summer where, if people asked me if I was a writer, I just kind of shrugged and said something along the lines of, “Technically? But I haven’t written anything in a long time.” Which isn’t true—in the year leading up to this summer I’d written 50k of a novel, about half a play, at least a dozen short stories, the first act of a screenplay, and over a hundred blog posts. But I’d written all of those out of feeling like I needed to, rather than wanted to, and that made all the difference. “Writer” had become a job description—a surface description—rather than something I was at my core.

Of course, it’s also important to have the projects that do have strings attached. Because they pull different things out of you, they stretch different muscles. It’s good to work under pressure—it teaches you to really create something out of nothing, to work through blocks and climb over walls. But not everything can be that way. It’s just not sustainable.

So, I’m learning to write for fun again. I’m re-teaching myself what it is to enjoy things like blogging and NaNoWriMo, which used to be projects I did for fun but that had started to feel like chores.

I don’t want to lose writing. It’s too important to me. I’ve put too much into it and care too much for it. With this WiP, I’m doing my best to take writing back. I’m going to make it my own again.

If you’re going through a similar process right now—if writing has started feeling like a chore rather than something you do for fun—hang in there. Take some space, take a breath, and remind yourself what you loved about writing when you began. Try to get back to that. You can. You will.

We’ll make it through together.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

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Wordy Wednesday: Character Flaws

Another week, another Wednesday.

The semester’s begun to settle into a routine, which is both nice and weird, because we only started this time two weeks ago but it already feels like we’ve been in school for months. (I’m also as tired as if I’ve been in school for months, but I think that’s a different problem.) (Like, for example, how I stood in front of my sink, staring at my tooth brush, for a solid five minutes last night because I had to muster the effort to actually pick it up.)

It’s also weird, because in the past week I’ve both applied for graduation and had my senior portrait taken, and THERE IS NO GOING BACK NOW. What even.

Why we’re actually here today, though: this week’s Wordy Wednesday is another writing process post. (And the last of Ariel‘s brilliant suggestions from this summer! Someone want to give me more ideas of things to talk about? I’ll pay you in hugs and writing tips.)

Let’s talk character flaws.

Character flaws are annoying, because they’re necessary to make your character relatable, but take ’em one step too far and, oh no! Now your character is unlikable instead.

Personally, I don’t mind unlikable characters. Some of my favorite protagonists are the unlikable ones. (Think Katniss, Sam from Before I Fall, etc.) But, as the term “unlikable” connotes, a lot of people, well, don’t.

So, how do you strike that balance between too perfect and too flawed? From my experience, these are a few things that work.

Cannot Be Static

I already talked about character arcs a few weeks back, so I’m not going to go into too much detail with this one. But basically your character should change in some major way between the beginning and ending of your story, and this change should be in direct relation to a flaw that in some way defines both the character and the plot.

Flaws are annoying when they’re static. (Look at what’s been happening on Once Upon a Time with Rumpelstiltskin, season after season, for Example A.) However, when flaws are dynamic–when they grow and morph and your character works to overcome them–they become interesting. They propel the story forward.

Characters stop being relatable, and start becoming unlikable, when they don’t overcome their flaws. The reader is there for a journey. Give them one.

Should Affect the Climax

This also falls under the category of character arcs, but your protagonist should have one or two major flaws that come to define him or her, and because of that these flaws should ultimately come to define the story as well. This means they need to affect the climax.

Generally, your protagonist should have to make a choice:

Option A – Everything’s (pretty much) guaranteed to be okay, but s/he’ll never overcome the flaw

Option B – There’s a good chance everything will fall to pieces, but s/he’ll have a chance at overcoming the flaw

See every rom-com ever for an obvious example of this. (Rom-coms are wonderful in general for studying stuff like this, because they’re so formulaic. I mean, ultimately they’re just doing the same things as all other stories, but they do them much more obviously.)

Would Be Okay in Moderation

Something that makes flaws so interesting is that they’re only flaws in excess. Literally anything becomes a flaw in excess.

This is a major component in what makes character flaws relatable to readers. Because while we might not have a certain trait as extremely as our favorite protagonist does, there’s a good chance we have a lower dose of it and it’s because of this connection that we connect with the character as a whole.

For example, as I mentioned, Katniss is one of my favorite characters ever. A large part of this is because of how independent she is. I can relate to that, because I HATE having to rely on other people. Take independence too far though, and you end up alone. Which is, you know, lonely. And ultimately a detriment to Katniss when she’s in the Games.

So look at your own flaws. The parts of you you’re afraid to leave unchecked. Try writing a character with them, but at an extreme.

Like not everyone is ever going to a person, not everyone is ever going to like a character. Some people simply don’t have to deal with certain flaws, so they don’t connect. But chances are, someone out there WILL share those sorts of traits with your protagonist and s/he’ll really love your story.

However: Some Can Be Smaller

Your character should have more flaws than those that affect his or her arc. Some can just be small things that add some more depth to your character. You can play these up for comedy, or just sort of weave them throughout as background information, or whatever feels right. These don’t necessarily need to be things your character overcomes. The biggest thing is that they’re there.

As humans, we’re all so extremely flawed. We have big flaws and little ones. They take shape in different forms (maybe you’re afraid of something and it’s holding you back, or you’re too brash instead). The point is that each person contains countless little idiosyncrasies. They’re what make you you.

So give your character that same kind of depth. While a certain trait or two should define the story, your character should be bigger than just those things. That is what ultimately makes a character likable.

And now, I’m going to leave you with “Flaws” by Bastille. Because every time I type “flaws” it starts playing in my head. (This is possibly one of my own flaws.)

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Don’t Burn Out

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

Happy Wednesday!

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I wrote a post for The Book Creators on balancing writing with school. Since then, I’ve found it’s a topic a lot of people are invested in* (because, let’s be real, SCHOOL). I’ve also been finding myself a little tiny bit extremely stressed by my schedule for the semester.

I’m not going to go into all the details of what I’m up to, because a) that would be boring and b) it would likely result in me rolling around on the floor moaning. But I will tell you that yesterday I was either doing homework, at class, at a meeting, or working from 7:00 AM until 10:00 PM. Straight. And I honestly should have done more when I got home last night, but I hadn’t had a break since Saturday afternoon, so I decided to hang out with my roommate for a bit then crash early instead.

The last part of that paragraph is important. I’d been working nonstop for about three and a half looong days. And although I enjoy (most of) what I do, after that I was tired and out of it and heading in the direction of depressed.

In my Book Creators post, I mentioned avoiding burnout. Last night, I needed to take my own advice.

You can only do so much before you’ve done too much. It can be hard to justify taking breaks to yourself and others when there’s still so much to be done. Like, last night I was wondering why I deserved to go to bed early when I should’ve been reading for my internship, or working on homework, or—at the least—cleaning my sorta gnarly room. However, this kind of thinking is toxic. I was at the point where my brain NEEDED rest.

Let me say this plain: If you NEED a break, you DESERVE a break.

It doesn’t matter how often your best friend or your boss or that really annoyingly successful kid from your high school takes breaks. Everyone’s bodies and brains work differently. You take a break when YOU need one.

And everyone relaxes in different ways. You might like going for runs, or hanging out with friends, or binge-watching Netflix alone in your room with a plate of nachos. It doesn’t matter what works for you, as long as you’re aware of what it is and make time for that activity.

I’m doing a lot better today. After going to bed early last night, I naturally woke up early too, so I decided to work out before my shower. Also because I was up early, I had time to make my lunch before leaving for the day, and because of THAT, between classes I had time to hike all the way out to the Arb (our local nature preserve) to eat by the river and relax. And even then I finished eating earlier than I otherwise would have, so now I’m fitting in this Wordy Wednesday at 1:00 PM instead of midnight.

Today is a really good day, and it’s happening because I let myself take that break last night. And the funny thing is, even though I still have all that work looming over me, I’m far less stressed about it now than I was at 10:00 PM last night.

Burnout is real and it is scary. Don’t let it happen to you.

Now, I’m off to hike a little more in the Arb before I have to leave for class. Because that’s a way I relax and you know what? I deserve it (and you do too).

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

*The wonderful and talented Joan He and Ava Jae have made awesome reaction posts/videos with some of their own tips. Check Joan’s post out here and Ava’s here.

Wordy Wednesday: Non-Cliche Cliches

A couple quick things before we get started:

  1. Yesterday was my last first day of school! (Unless of course I get a masters someday, which is THE HOPE, but we’ll see.) It feels so weird to be a senior in college. When did this happen? WHEN?
  2. My first post on the collaborative writing blog The Book Creators went up Monday! I talked about balancing writing with school. Read it here.

It’s only the second day and things are already insanely busy. Here’s to surviving.

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

A while ago my wonderful critique partner Ariel Kalati suggested I talk about crafting non-cliche romantic subplots.

This is an interesting one, because “cliche” itself can be such a moving target. (Check out a post on that right over here.) But romance is certainly one of the easiest parts of fiction with which to fall into writing cliches.

As mentioned in that other post, everything has been written before at some point. EVERYTHING. So it’s less about doing something original (which is impossible) as much as doing something unoriginal in an original way.

For instance, look at people. There is literally nothing about us that is original. You’re left-handed? So is 10% of the world’s population. In as few as fifty random people, there’s almost a 100% chance that someone else with share your birthday. And I can’t tell you how many classes I’ve shared with other Julias/Julies. (Answer: almost all of them. And Julia/Julie weren’t even super popular names the year I was born.)

But it’s not our individual traits that make us who we are, but the conglomeration of all of them. Sure, there are tons of other lefties, and people born on April 21st, and people named Julia. But the number of people who share those traits with me go way down when you combine all of them. And they go down further when you consider other things too, like how I’m allergic to chocolate, or how I’m obsessed with books, or how I’m a vegetarian.

Cliches are like this as well. So I believe it’s fine to begin with something that might be “cliche,” as long as you build from that in order to create something original.

You can do this in a few ways–and they don’t just apply to romantic cliches, but cliches in general.

So, ways to write cliches without being, well, cliche.

Twist Cliches

This is the easiest one. Take a cliche and twist it in some way. Maybe you’ve got star-crossed lovers, but they’re in space. (Ex: Beth Revis’s Across the Universe.) Or, for example, one of my novels has a pretty big focus on a love triangle, but it’s the male love interest to my female narrator at the center, rather than the more traditional “female narrator juggles two equally hot boys.”

The point is that you’re taking something familiar, then changing a key aspect about it. (This is the general principle behind a lot of retellings going on these days. Study them. They’re popular for a reason.)

Play with Cliches

Instead of just changing one thing, turn a cliche on its head. Maybe make the reader believe you’re following a well-worn path, then BOOM: plot twist. You’re actually doing something else entirely. (I’m going to avoid giving examples for this one, because spoilers, but this can be such a fun one. You literally use reader expectations against them in order to create a less predictable story. It’s diabolical.)

Justify Cliches

If you’re using a cliche, you need to have justification for it. Why can your story not function without it? (Because come on now, if your story can function without a cliche, WRITE WITHOUT THE CLICHE.)

And this shouldn’t just be justification in your head. It needs to be on the page. Show the reader why your story can’t function without the cliche and, more than that, why your cliche-infused story needs to be told. (Because a bad story needing a cliche to function is one thing; a good one is something else entirely.)

A really good example of an author doing this is Stephanie Perkins in her Anna and the French Kiss trilogy. All three romances have technically cliche elements (love triangles and miscommunication and parental disapproval oh my!). But the stories are larger than their cliches and they wouldn’t function without them–so, the cliches work. Which leads me to my last method:

Build on Cliches

Even if you’re doing a full-on Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers bit, your story needs to be greater than the cliche. Other things need to be going on. Your characters need to be original and dynamic and real.

How many times have we known people whose real life relationships legitimately felt like they were out of a novel? Chances are, when this happens you don’t look at your friends all like, “Uck. I’ve totally heard the one about the meet-cute with the new guy at school before. Your life is so cliche.” No, you know the people involved, which means the individual details you’ve gathered over the years come together to define your friends, and by extension the relationship, so that it feels unique and fresh instead.

Feeling cliche and being cliche are two different things. It’s the feeling you want to avoid more than anything else. So figure out what feels right to you and run with it.

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What are your tips for avoiding falling into cliches?

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

P.S. Sorry this is going up after midnight. I have no good excuse. It’s just the whole getting-used-to-being-back-at-school thing. (So much fun, amiright?) If you’re back this week too, best of luck!

Wordy Wednesday: Character Arcs

This past week has been insanely busy. Wednesday, a couple friends and I hit the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibit at the Morgan, then Hannah and I saw Finding Neverland on Broadway (and met Matthew Morrison whoo!). Thursday Hannah and I saw a show by the Upright Citizens Brigade. Then Friday morning we left for a weekend staying with Hannah’s extended family in the Hamptons, where we swam and ate good food and learned to play backgammon.

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Amagansett is officially gorgeous.

Back in New York City Monday, I spent the afternoon in Central Park, visiting the zoo and the Balto statue, then grabbed dinner and hung out with Ch1Con team member Ariel. Yesterday I wandered the Flatiron District for a while and spent the afternoon reading in Madison Square Park. Aaand today I hung out by Gramercy Park for a while, then made one last visit to the Strand and the High Line before finally hitting Laduree for the first time this summer.

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Five-year-old me is proud of this moment.

It’s funny, because looking at the past couple days, mostly what I’ve been doing is wandering and reading in pretty places. I had all these grand plans for my last week in New York City, involving hitting all the big touristy things I haven’t done yet this summer. But I’ve realized that all I really want to do is enjoy the little things I’ve loved about New York one last time, like the hum of the city around me while lying in the grass in Madison Square and the dry, warm scent of paper and glue filling my lungs while getting lost at the Strand.  


 It’s the little things, I’m realizing, that you fall in love with about places. And I am going to miss all these little things, so desperately, when I leave on Saturday.

But in the meantime: this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. And in honor of my last day of my internship being tomorrow (well, last day interning in person anyway), let’s talk about an issue I’ve noticed in quite a few of the manuscripts I’ve critiqued this summer: properly constructing character arcs.A “character arc” is how a character changes between the beginning and ending of a story. Usually it focuses on one trait that somehow comes to define your character, and it is due to resolving some sort of issue with that trait that the character manages to overcome whatever the plot throws at him/her in the climax.

This doesn’t mean only one of your character’s traits matters, or that other traits don’t come into play with the plot. But–in general–the overall focus will be on one, maybe two. (For a really obvious example of this sort of thing, look at Pride and Prejudice.)

The concept behind character arcs is simple enough, but they can be strangely hard to get right. So, here are a few of the defining characteristics of a character arc and how to write one.

Should Follow Dramatic Structure

A character arc is basically a subplot specific to your character. So, like all plots, it should at least loosely follow dramatic structure.

By gradually increasing the tension surrounding the character arc until you reach the climax (using stuff like the inciting incident and rising action), you draw your reader in and help make your character more relateable and interesting. (After all, no matter how cool your plot is, the reader won’t care unless s/he cares about the characters.) For some help with figuring this out, try plotting your character arcs on a dramatic structure chart.

Example: Let’s say your story is a romance about a girl who’s afraid of commitment. She’d start out dumping a good guy due to this fear, then a series of events would show us her meeting a new guy, him convincing her to give him a chance, them slowly falling for each other (but all the while her carrying her fear and it growing inside her, etc.)–until something happens where she ditches the boy out of this fear, only to find the strength within her to give him a second chance at the climax so they can ride off into the sunset together.

Your Story Begins When the Character Arc Does

This might sound like an obvious one, but if the growth your character experiences is him overcoming vanity, he should already be vain when the story begins. This isn’t something that should wait to present itself at the catalyst or the turning point at the end of act I or something. It needs to be there, on the page, from page one.

Obviously there’s a good chance your character existed before he became vain, but the story didn’t. Whatever trait you choose to focus your arc on, it needs to be something that defines your character from the very beginning, so it’ll matter more when the transformation of the trait defines the climax.

Should Both Influence and Be Influenced By Plot

As mentioned, a character arc is basically a one-person-centric subplot. Because of that, like all subplots, it should both influence (and be influenced by) your overarching plot. Except more so if you’re dealing with your chief protagonists, because their character arcs, in part, should be the plot.

For example, back to that romance about the girl afraid of commitment: Without that fear of commitment, we wouldn’t have a plot. The plot (her getting together with the boy) revolves around her getting over her fear in order to resolve itself. However, if it weren’t for the plot (the relationship with the boy and, in particular, whatever happens that leads her to temporarily ditch him), she never would get over her fear in the first place.

Plot and character arcs are a symbiotic relationship. They can’t survive without one another.

(Almost) Every Character Should Have an Arc

Obviously if someone’s in your MS for five seconds, an arc is unnecessary. But all your supporting characters–protagonist and antagonist alike–should have some semblance of arcs. Even if said semblance is subtle. Even if your MS is in first person POV and your narrator doesn’t notice some side character’s arc (and thus the reader doesn’t really see it).

The point is that every character should be thought out enough–be real enough–to have an arc.

And there you have it. A few of the elements that go into writing character arcs.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

P.S. Sorry this technically went up on Thursday! WordPress and I had a bit of a spat.

Wordy Wednesday: Writing with “Series Potential”

So, obviously the Paper Towns premiere yesterday was a highlight of this week. However, I got to do some other fun stuff too since last Wednesday. Thursday I explored the High Line park for the first time, which was as gorgeous and cool as everyone says it is. Then Friday Camryn (yes, that Camryn), Ariel (yes, that Ariel), Ariel’s best friend, and I went on a pizza tour of New York, then to the Hunger Games exhibition in Times Square. (Yes. That exhibition.) And it was all amazing.

We learned so much about the making of the Hunger Games film adaptations, saw so many costumes and props, and nerded out in general over the series.

  
I also spent a few hours this afternoon in the Museum of Natural History, then read in Central Park, and I hope I never fall out of love with this city (not that that’s probably even possible).

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. (Thanks to Ariel for suggesting the topic!)

If you’ve ever queried a novel you hoped would become the first in a series, you’ve probably heard about the myth of “series potential.”

Basically, while you can hope someone will pick up your novel as a series, you can’t pitch it as that, because it sounds cocky. (Also, you know, it’s just easier in general to sell a single book than a series when you’re a debut author.) So instead you have to pitch your novel as being a standalone that you could expand into a series, if someone really wanted you to.

This is easier said than done, though. A book that stands alone that could also naturally flow into a longer series is like a cat that could also be a dog. (They’re things that look similar on the surface, but are very, very different at their cores. So now try smashing those into one thing. You get a whole new species.)

Of the five novels I’ve completed, I wrote three with the hope that they’d parts of series. These are some of the ways that I’ve gone about writing with “series potential.”

Make the Novel Stand on Its Own

This is the most obvious thing, and also one of the most important things for series in general. The novel needs to be able to stand on its own, with a plot that resolves and completed character arcs. It should follow dramatic structure. It shouldn’t read like the prologue to another book. It really does need to work as a standalone.

Every novel you write should read like it is the story you mean to tell. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get to make that story one element in a larger picture. But when you zoom in so the first novel is all you see, it shouldn’t feel like you’re missing something or looking at the wrong place.

Leave Loose Ends

On the other hand, you also need to make the reader want more. So, leave loose ends–just not in any way central to the story you’re telling. Maybe you leave a very minor subplot unresolved and touch on it again right towards the end, to remind the reader it’s there. Or maybe your protagonist’s character arc is complete at the end, but it’s clear s/he still could do a lot more growing in the future.

You don’t want a big cliffhanger ending. But you do want the cliff to be right there waiting, should the agent/editor choose to push the series over the edge.

Hint Towards More

This corresponds with leaving loose ends, but is slightly different. Whereas loose ends hint towards something specific, it also helps to hint towards the potential of more books in general.

I know this is a movie (and at this point kind of a dated reference; goodness, I’m getting old), but let’s look at The Incredibles. It’s a really solid example of a standalone with series potential.

At the end, the Incredibles meet the Mole and we get that shot of the heroes going off to work. It gives us an idea of the direction their lives are going and the fact that they could potentially have more stories to share in the future. However, it doesn’t give us anything specific; we know a future movie wouldn’t be about them facing the Mole, because:

a) we’re already seeing him at the end AND (and the “and” is the important part here)

b) it’s not some big “aha!” plot twist that we are

This tells us that the Mole doesn’t matter. He’s a stand-in for super villains in general, letting us know that facing many more people like him will be the fate of our heroes.

This kind of ending is the epitome of “series potential,” because it promises your protagonists have future stories to share without making the promise of sharing them.

Aaand yeah. That’s all I’ve got for tonight.

What are your tips for writing a standalone with series potential? Is there anything I missed?

Thanks for reading!

 

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Trust the Reader

This week has been busy. Thursday night I went to an LGBTQ YA panel at McNally Jackson, which was definitely one of the highlights of my summer. I got to see Lindsay Ribar (The Fourth Wish) and Michael Barakiva (One Man Guy), meet Becky Albertalli (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda), Adam Silvera (More Happy than Not), and Dahlia Adler (Under the Lights)–and also hang out with some kind of cool people.

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I mean Camryn, Amy, and Mark are all insanely cool. But John lowers the group average significantly. 

It was so great to get to see Amy again, and meet the others in person for the first time. It’s always so weird and awesome meeting internet people.

Friday I attended the ticker tape parade along the Canyon of Heroes for the US women’s soccer team, in honor of winning the World Cup(!!), followed by the ceremony at City Hall. (Of course I watched that part on the jumbotron from across the street, but still. Super cool.)

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Saturday I finally caught my first Broadway show of my two months in NYC: a matinee of Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Darren Criss. Afterward I read in Central Park for the rest of the evening. (I like it here.)

IMG_9358Aaand now I’m back at work for the week (although I still found time to check out the Strand yesterday and start reading Go Set a Watchman, so yay).

ANYWAY. Now that I’ve gushed endlessly about my week: This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

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Between internships and helping friends, I’ve critiqued a good number of stories at this point. Probably somewhere between twenty or thirty full novels, along with who knows how many novel openings, random scenes, and short stories. And through all of these, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that writers generally have a tendency to over-explain things to the reader.

I’ve talked before about trusting the reader, but always as more of a smaller part of a larger picture. But this is important, so I figured it was time it got its own post.

If you’re a writer, chances are you’re also a reader. And if you like to read, chances are you’re a pretty awesome person. And if you’re a pretty awesome person, chances are you’re also, you know, not unintelligent.

And what does all of this together mean?

Chances are, you’re trustworthy.

I don’t mean this in, like, the traditional “you can trust that there human with your innocent, adorable, very kidnappable children” kind of trustworthy (although, chances are, readers are also not the type of people who would run around offering candy to random five-year-olds, because hello, why do that when it would cut into your reading time). But I do mean that readers are trustworthy in the way that we don’t need absolutely everything explained to us in explicit detail.

This is often easier to figure out from a macro perspective than a micro one. You don’t have to go through the step by step process of your protagonist getting ready for the day for us to understand that things have happened between her waking up and leaving for school, right? That’s common sense.

Despite this, a lot of the writers for whom I’ve critiqued–especially those who’ve given me the privilege of reading their earlier drafts–haven’t expanded this idea to the micro level in their writing. The line-by-line level.

The reader doesn’t need the author to explain that “he fell down.” Down is the traditional direction of motion when you fall, so the word “fell” inherently implies a movement downward. (If “he fell up,” it’s a different story, because it no longer follows the traditional meaning of the word.)

Similarly, we don’t need to know that a character “screamed in horror” if she’s just spotted herself in the mirror for the first time after a bad makeover, or that someone “wrinkled his nose at the smell” while taking out the trash. The scene dictates these things already for us.

Descriptions like these bog down writing, because they’re redundant. The reader doesn’t gain anything from them, so instead they work against the writing. Make the scene run slower; make it feel less interesting; make it easier for the reader to get distracted. (These words are basically empty calories that don’t even do you the service of tasting good.) (Like those crappy potato chips you eat so you won’t look pathetic at a party where you don’t know anyone.)

Of all the issues writers can run into, I think this is one of the hardest ones to fix. Not because it’s an inherently difficult issue to pinpoint (see examples above), but because it’s easy to second guess yourself.

The manuscript I was revising the past year was neck deep in redundancies like these and I thought that because I had learned how to recognize them, I’d be able to get rid of them SUPER EASILY. But then I started wondering, “Will the reader actually get what I’m saying if I don’t point that out, though?” and “What if it’s not obvious enough?” and “What if the sentence is confusing without this?”

It’s easy to be afraid of messing up. When you over-explain things, you know you’re in the clear. No matter what, the reader will get what you’re saying. But you also run the risk of losing the reader to boredom, or annoying the reader, or any number of things.

So, I took a chance and cut all my little “explaining” descriptions. Sent the MS to my critique partners.

And while occasionally someone had a question about what I meant by something, or wanted more of an explanation behind an action, generally they didn’t miss those redundant explanations. At all.

Readers want your writing to make them feel smart. You know this–you’re a reader. So make them feel smart by treating them like they’re smart. (Spoiler: they are.)

Let us fill in the blanks. Allude to things. Tell us steps A and C and let us figure out step B. Be careful not to lay too many hints to what’s going to happen next, because chances are we’ve already figured it out.

Trusting the reader is key. It allows the reader the chance to find a plot twist surprising; to flip through your pages at a hundred miles an hour, because the writing flies by; to fall in love with your characters and world and you.

Books are about trust. By picking up a book, readers take a risk. They choose to trust an author.

Trust them back.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Red Herring 101

How is it already Wednesday?

My family met up in Washington D.C. for the Fourth of July this weekend, which was really cool. We got to see all the big monuments, watch the parade (from in front of the IRS building, but whatevs), and ogle the fireworks as they lit up Lincoln. We saw the flag Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” about, ate lots of unhealthy (and delicious) food truck food, and ultimately had a really good time.

I’m not going to see my mom again until Ch1Con–and my dad or brother until the very end of August–so it was nice to get one last hurrah with them this summer.

Since then, I’ve been on my own in NYC, mainly just working and trying to get my life in order. Things should maybe settle down a little bit soon, though? (I’m so looking forward to the weekend to finally get this insane list of tasks done.)

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

So, I have a fascination with the red herring. It’s one of my favorite plot devices, because it’s so CONNIVING. The author purposely leads the reader astray.

Also, it appears in basically every genre (because every story is a mystery, remember?).

ALSO, it’s become weirdly difficult to execute.

There are a lot of bad red herrings in the world, these days. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book and immediately been able to predict the ending based on the fact that the red herring/actual culprit-love interest-etc. combo was too formulaic. (This isn’t a bad thing, per say. It just makes me sad because now the book is less interesting.)

The problem with the red herring is that the usual, simple approach of executing it (X seems like bad guy, but it’s actually Y) HAS become formulaic. You can only read one formula so many times before you catch onto it.

So now, to avoid this issue, authors are getting craftier. Creating layers of red herrings. Making you question EVERYONE.

I love this. It’s impossible to tell how many layers the author has intended, so you don’t know if you’re being paranoid, suspecting Random Character C, or if you actually aren’t looking far enough and the true culprit is Character E.

When I was revising a YA thriller over the winter, I ran into the “this is too formulaic” issue myself. So I thought through some of the plots of my favorite, unpredictable books and tried to decipher what those authors did that made their red herrings so wonderful.

This is what I came up with.

Paint in More than Just Red

Your red herring can’t just be there to be a red herring. While you can use a character as a plot device, you can’t use a plot device as a character. So develop your red herring. Make him/her a real, breathing person the reader will come to love or hate. Paint that red herring in a thousand colors.

Utilize Multiple Red Herrings

As mentioned, this is a really nice trick. Don’t just provide your reader with a single red herring, but multiple. One red herring is easy to figure out; three or four or five is not.

And make some of these red herrings subtle. Don’t make it obvious that you’re trying to lead the reader to believe that person’s evil or whatever. Make the reader believe s/he’s being clever by suspecting one of these people, when the true culprit is still lurking in the shadows.

Inspire Doubt

You don’t want any of your red herrings to be too obvious, because that feels cheap. So, inspire doubt. Give your character reason to believe so-and-so might actually be the bad guy, only for the evidence eventually to lead back to the original red herring (only your character doesn’t realize).

The reader knows to look past the characters your protagonist suspects. If the protag no longer suspects someone (but that person still seems suspicious), there’s a good chance your reader will start believing that character’s the real deal bad guy.

This is also a way you can go about introducing the REAL real bad guy. Have your protagonist suspect him/her at the beginning, but have credible reason not to as the plot progresses–then BAM at the end when everything shakes loose and s/he truly was the antagonist.

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Subtle

Readers are smarter than authors often give them credit for. If they’re invested in a mystery, they will pick up the subtlest of clues in order to unravel it. Which means that anything at all NOT subtle becomes glaringly obvious.

So, to Recap

Don’t be afraid to be subtle. Trust your reader. Make your red herrings real characters. Inspire doubt and use layers.

And, more than anything: paint your pages red.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Put the Ordinary in Extraordinary

Today was my first day at the office! I was only there for a few hours, so it was a pretty chill first day, but it was cool. And now I am exhausted.

And I don’t have much else to say, so let’s dive right into this week’s Wordy Wednesday, shall we?

This week we have a writing process post.

I’ve talked a lot about character development on the blog–primarily because it’s not something at which I’m naturally, well, at all decent. But I’m learning to make my characters more complex and realistic, and in the process I’ve learned a number of ways to go about doing that. Currently the one I’m looking at, in particular, is putting your character in “ordinary” situations.

This can range from thinking about what your character would purchase at the grocery store to what she would do in those last moments awake at night to how he would handle getting a cold. What would she do if she found twenty bucks on the street? What would he order at a fast food restaurant? (Which fast food restaurant would be his favorite? Would he even eat fast food?)

It’s these ordinary, everyday things that make up so many of the little pieces of our personalities. And they’re what make it so that we can relate to one another.

Like, thinking back on my interactions with friends in the past week or so, the main things we have discussed are:

a) Opinions on current events (gay marriage, the confederate flag, etc.)

b) Opinions on pop culture stuff (Jurassic World, Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple, etc.)

c) Opinions on food (Chipotle, breakfast, etc.)

My friends lead diverse lives. Everyone’s off studying abroad or working somewhere unique or taking classes this summer. We have different backgrounds and live in different places and, ultimately, are insanely different people. But these ordinary things bring us together.

If your character has super powers, that’s awesome. That’s a good jumping off point for getting someone to pick up your book. But the reader can’t relate to that.

On the other hand, if your superhero protagonist has nasty allergies or acts like a five year old every time she sees a cute dog or is addicted to House Hunters? Those common, ordinary characteristics transform your character into someone I’d not only like to let save my city, but with whom I’d like to be friends.

Running with the superhero example, let’s think about superheroes: Superman is a really difficult hero to work with nowadays, because he’s too perfect. He doesn’t have those ordinary quirks and flaws that define humans. People have trouble relating to him, so he’s losing popularity.

Who is popular right now? The Avengers. What makes the Avengers so popular? Not their powers, but their banter and weaknesses and interactions with the every day. (Steve Rogers has trouble understanding twenty-first century technology. I understand that.)

The situations you put your characters through don’t necessarily need to go in your novel. You don’t even necessarily have to write them out. You just need to consider them. Let complexities develop organically. Think about how your extraordinary characters would go about doing the ordinary.

The point is that five thousand, million, billion little things go into making us who we are. Let your characters have those same kinds of complexities.

Maybe next time your hero is saving the world, he should crave shawarma.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Tips from a Used Bookshop

We’re down to the last couple weeks of spring term! I honestly hadn’t realized how much of the semester had passed already until our professor started talking about turning in final assignments in class tonight and all of us were like, “Wait what.”

So. It’s my last couple weeks of screenwriting and working at the bookshop and interning remotely. THEN IT’S OFF TO NEW YORK FOR TWO MONTHS YAYYY! (Somebody hold me.)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post–with a bit of a twist.

After working at a used bookshop for about a month now, mainly shelving books, I’ve noticed a few things that I thought might be helpful for writers out there.

Aim for the emptier parts of the alphabet.

Obviously if you’re going by your legal name, you can’t control with which letter your surname begins. But if you’re planning on publishing under a penname, may I suggest heading out to your local bookshop (preferably a used one, since we generally have a wider selection than regular stores) to check out which letters are more crowded on the shelves than others?

I absolutely hate shelving books whose authors have names that begin with common letters, like A or S. There’s never enough space for everyone. This means that these books are more likely to end up in the stacks heading to our storeroom or forgotten in a pile somewhere.

On the other hand, books by authors whose surnames begin with less common letters (like P or Z) always have more than enough space on our shelves. This means that not only do they all find good homes there, but they’re also more likely to get to face out or have multiple copies shelved at once.

If you’re a newbie, you’re probably better off writing something short.

If you’re someone like Stephen King or JK Rowling–someone who has already established your popularity–of course I’ll make room for your eight-hundred-page monster on the shelf. It’s sure to be a quick sell. But if you’re an unknown, and it’s either stock one of your book or four of other people’s books, I’m more likely to favor them.

It’s quantity of books over quantity of pages in used bookshops. We get paid the same amount for a sale whether your book is two hundred pages or a thousand–and as far as I can tell it works the same way in traditional bookshops, as well. A store’s more likely to stock your debut if they don’t think it’s going to eat all their space.

Have a distinct genre.

By this I mean: Make sure it’s clear in which section your book should go in a store.

I can’t tell you how often we get people looking for something that could be stocked in horror, but could also be a mystery. Or could be stocked in scifi/fantasy, but could also be in philosophy.

I’m not saying that genre crossover is bad. Crossover is awesome. But if it’s possible to aim your book enough in a certain direction for it to be obvious where to put it to someone just glancing at your book–amongst the fifty other new arrivals she has to stock in the next four hours–that is really, really nice. And it makes it easier for us to know where to take customers to find your book when they ask for it, without having to waste time looking it up.

Shorter Titles = Bae.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a customer come up to me looking for, you know, that one book–with that one word in the title? But the title was kind of long? And they couldn’t remember all of it?

People forget shorter titles far less than they forget longer titles. My shop stocks more books than anyone could ever keep track of, so 99% of the time when someone can’t remember the name of what they’re looking for, I can’t help them. Therefore, a shorter title correlates to more sales (and less exasperated readers/bookshop employees).

Three words or fewer generally seems to be a good range to aim for. But this current trend of the, like, five to seven-ish word titles is killing me.

Get to know your local booksellers.

This is less of a thing from working at a used bookshop as much as a general thing I’ve noticed from interacting with employees at my local indies.

People love helping people they know. Go to your local bookshops often. Go to events at them (especially book signings). Talk with the booksellers. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Support those stores in every way possible. (Not that you shouldn’t already be doing this, because if you’re a decent person who likes books you really should, but I figured I would mention it anyway.)

This way when your book comes out someday, your local shops will be ready and waiting to do everything they can to help you make it a success.

Thanks for reading! And make sure to keep an eye out for the rest of my BEA/BookCon recap posts. They should be coming sometime later this week, or early next week!

~Julia

P.S. For anyone who’s curious, no, dyeing your hair with honey does not actually work. I soaked my hair in that goo for SEVEN. HOURS. yesterday and it’s, like, maaaybe one shade lighter now. (However, my hair is super moisturized now, so like, that’s cool?)