On pushing past feelings of inadequacy

Jul 24

I recently came face to face with my first real stall in writing. Now, to give you a basic idea of the timeline of the book thus far, I first started planning out this book at the beginning of this year. The idea came about after many, many loose discussions with my brother, and it took a little while to get the ball rolling, but that’s about right. Then, after lots of “planning” (read: procrastinating), I finally started writing in March. I had about a chapter until mid-to-late June of this year, which is when I created this website and announced my resolve to, you know, write a book.

Since making that firm decision, I’m up to 8 chapters and 25,000 words. That’s about 63 pages in Microsoft Word (TNR size 12, 1.5 spacing), which is a pretty steep slope in terms of progress.I’ve been feeling so good about said progress, in fact, that I started to delude myself into thinking that I’d have this book finished and ready for editing within months. Which, to be fair, I am feeling rather inspired again, so who knows. But as mentioned, I did have my first run-in with not being able to move forward with the story.

It came about because I recently finished reading Divergent by Veronica Roth (and its sequel: Insurgent). I really, really enjoyed these books. Very reminiscent of the Hunger Games, and we already know how I feel about those delicious books. They aren’t perfect, but they’re thrilling, engaging, and well-written. And Ms. Roth is not much older than me, I believe. In fact, she began writing Divergent while she was still an undergrad.

Upon finishing the second book, I suddenly became very disheartened. My head swam with thoughts about how I’d never be able to write something as good as Divergent, that I was just kidding myself, insert pitiful thoughts here. I was feeling incredibly inadequate, which I hear is normal, but was still not fun to deal with. I firmly believe that in any artistic field, it’s our self-inflated opinion of our talents that gets us through the tough times. Deflate my ego and my motivation goes right along with it, haha.

I now realize that it was just poor timing, of course. It wasn’t really Divergent, it could have been anything. I was really dealing  with the recent chapter that I had written. One that I was not happy with in the slightest (lazy writing, boring dialogue, and just generally far too much of an information dump). But I felt stuck, because I couldn’t figure out any other way to have the story move forward the way I had planned.

I stayed that way for over a week, moping, not bothering to open my laptop, always finding an excuse not to write. Then, lying in bed one night (this past Saturday night, in fact), it finally hit me. If I can’t figure out a way to have the story move forward without this one horrible scene, then I simply need to change the way the story moves forward! Done and done. I deleted the chapter and changed the timeline of the novel significantly, without altering any of the major plot or setting points. I just switched a few things around, and am much happier with how things are progressing.

My biggest lesson learned from all this isn’t something as neat and tidy as “Don’t compare yourself to others!” or “Just believe in yourself!” As much as I wish I could say those things, I’m not quite that optimistic (or naive). Obviously I’m going to continuously compare myself to others (though I am considering nixing the reading of any more YA dystopia fiction for the meantime, haha), and I’m not always going to feel confident in my abilities as a writer. What I can say, however, is that eventually, the words do come back. It might take a little while, you might have to take a break, but even if you’re stuck, eventually the ideas will come. And that is something I can have confidence in.

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On showing, not telling, and other tips for new writers

Jul 13

As of mere moments ago, I am officially 20,000 words into my novel. Well, 20,001 if you want to get technical. Now, that really doesn’t mean a whole lot since a story is a story regardless of word count, but I’d say that based on where I am in the plot that puts me about a third of the way there. So, as one-third of a writer, I feel confident in saying I’ve already learned quite a few things about the writing process. Here are the most important things I’ve learned so far.

1. Show, don’t tell.

You’ve probably heard this one before. It’s the tragedy that befalls most new writers — myself included — and one that I have to constantly remind myself of (and be reminded of by others, as well). As readers, we want to be engaged in the story, to experience it as the protagonist does. We don’t want to hear about all of the exciting things that have happened in retrospect, or have them glossed over in summary. We crave action and dialogue and things that keep us sucked in. We want to be shown what is happening as it happens, not told about it from a distant perspective.

Most recently, I wrote a scene that summarized an interaction that my main character has with another person in the town she lives in. Originally, I wrote something like this:

Of course, not everyone was eyeing me with hostility. I had barely made it back across the street before I was stopped by an old acquaintance of Gran’s, an elderly woman I had seen maybe twice before in my life. She made idle conversation for a few minutes before finally getting down to it, and I used the time to steel myself against the question I knew would be coming. It didn’t feel good, having to refuse her request for money, and I almost faltered against her pleading. If she hadn’t referred to Micah as “Michael”, I might even have given in.

When my friend Ai Rei read over the scene, however, she made one large, glaring comment with the Notes function in Word: why are you telling instead of showing? I realized I had fallen victim to the classic mistake, and was being a lazy writer. I revised the passage into a legitimate scene involving dialogue, action, and real-time witnessing of the events, and I feel that it’s a much more engaging moment because of it.

2. Don’t overuse dialogue tags.

He said, she said, they shout, I scream. Dialogue tagging is an obviously integral but often abused part of writing. They are necessary to make clear who is speaking at a given time, but they also can easily serve to slow down the reader when used in excess. Whenever possible, just leave them out. Utilize action instead to illustrate who is speaking if it might not be immediately clear. From the opening line of my book, for example:

“Where are you going?” Micah says, his voice heavy with sleep.

To me, is not as strong as:

“Where are you going?” Micah’s voice, heavy with sleep, seeps out his half-open door.

With the second, not only is it clear that it’s Micah who is speaking WITHOUT the actual use of the word “says” or a variant thereof, but I’m also able to illustrate setting in the same breath.

3. Write down ideas immediately.

This is also something you may have heard before: keep a notebook handy so you can jot down ideas as you get them. This is one of those tips I usually would roll my eyes at. Surely I’d be able to remember my own brilliant idea, right? Wrong. When it comes to the brilliant twists, turns, and setting elements of my own novel, it would seem I have the memory of a hummingbird. As I’ve worked out a lot of details about the plot and world I’ve created when either A) speaking to someone else, or B) lying in bed before I fall asleep, I rarely have pen and paper in hand to write down my thoughts. The thing is, the minute I walk away from that person, or by the time I’ve woken up the next morning, the idea is most likely gone.

Just do it. Keep the Notes app on your iPhone open or keep a pile of notecards in your purse. Even if you feel silly, just do it. Last night, I forced myself to throw back the covers and write down something I thought of because I just knew it would be gone by morning. And starting tonight, I’ll be keeping a pen and notecard on my nightstand.

4. Stop revising-as-you-go.

This is hands-down the hardest thing I’m experiencing. I open my computer to write, and I scroll up to remind myself of where I am in the story. No problem, right? Only, my eye catches on some phrasing, so I change it. And then that reminds me something else, so I scroll up to an earlier chapter, and have to add/alter/delete something there. And before I know it, I’ve spent an hour revising and the story has not moved on at all.

Revising is a necessary part of writing, obviously. Nobody here is saying otherwise. But it becomes a huge waste of my time when I’m revising and revising and revising things that will probably only get revised AGAIN when I’ve finished the book. I’m trying to force myself not to go back into what I’ve already written and change things unless it’s for a very specific purpose. For example, if I’m writing about something and it occurs to me that it would be better if there was a tiny mention of it earlier in the book, it’s okay for me to go back and add that in. But what I should NOT do is begin reading forward from that point and start editing and changing things just because in that moment I’m not happy with the way it reads. Save that for the editing stage, woman!

5. Storyboard.

I’ve gone through a quite few techniques now in terms of setting up outlines and timelines and generally trying to organize the general plot of my novel. Thanks to my friend Ai Rei, a fellow aspiring novelist herself, I’m finally convinced that the way that works best for me is to storyboard.

I jot down plot point, character ideas, facts about the setting, and other miscellaneous things on notecards, and tape them to the back of my door. Each color represents one of those categories (er, except when it’s dark and green looks like blue. Oh well.). Because they’re movable, I can adjust/remove/add to individual points without having to start from scratch (the way that I would with a mind map written on paper, for example), and it feels more legitimate than a soft document on my computer or writing on an erasable whiteboard would. I respond well to the visual stimuli, too.

Obviously, everybody works differently, but consider this is my recommendation for this particular method.

And there you have it! My 5 tips for new writers, or at least for one-third-of-the-way-there new writers. On we go!


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On redundancy, and also on repeating yourself

Jul 09

See what I did with the title there? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

So lately, I’ve become aware of my general tendency to write with redundancy. I’ll write something that physically describes a character, or outline some habit or tradition in the world I’ve created, or offer some description of a scene, and then a page later, I’ll repeat it. This leads to incredibly ineffective pacing, because I’m spending so much time trying to remind the reader of what so-and-so looks like, or the fact that in this world, X works like Y. Of course, when I recognize that I’ve done this, I go back and change it (most of the time), but the fact that I continue to feel the need to continue writing this way is bothersome to me.

For example, on one page, I might mention something about the color of the main character’s skin, how it’s tan and covered with freckles because she’s spends so much time in the sun. Then, in the next chapter, I’ll describe the difference between her skin tone and her brother’s, explaining how they barely even look related because he’s so pale in comparison. Necessary? Hardly. Readers will probably remember what I originally said, and even if they don’t, it’s hardly a pressing plot point.

In my mind, the details of the world I’ve crafted and the characters that I’ve written are concrete, but still fluid. I’ve established a lot about the way this world works, but I know that there’s still a lot of room for change and revision. So is it that I continue to repeat myself unnecessarily whilst writing because I am trying to establish these facts for myself? Or does it stem more from not trusting my (future, potential, current nonexistent) readers to remember certain details. While yes, it is a fact that there are some stupid readers out there (prime example: those who threw a total (racist) hissy fit over the characters of Rue and Thresh from The Hunger Games being black in the movie. Guys, seriously. Suzanne Collins literally described them as having “dark brown skin”. They’re black. Get over it.), but I know I shouldn’t be assuming that my readers won’t be smart enough to piece together the details of this world without constantly needing to be reminded.

I read on a list of top mistakes that new writers make (one of many that I’ve read, actually) that being redundant is a general issue for a lot of new writers. Knowing is half the battle, as always, so hopefully in future revisions and edits I’ll be able to eliminate them without detracting from the setting, continuity, or comprehension of the book. In general, I’m optimistic that just trying to be aware of my proclivity for doing this will stop me from doing it as frequently.

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