WT6: Find Your Tribe

Writing is a solitary act. You will second guess every sentence. Every chapter. Hell, your entire book. You, after all, are your biggest critic.

It took me a lot of time and pride to realize that I needed a support group. When I got the nerve to find one, most of the time, I was a fly on the wall and showed up and listened to the guest speakers, without commenting much or asking questions (what if they were dumb questions?!). I’d read all the emailed excerpts from the club and admired how brave the writers were who submitted their work.

But even though I wasn’t brave enough or confident enough to share my own manuscript, it helped me to identify myself as a writer and to feel like I was a part of a group. A supportive group of others who were striving toward a common goal.

So, looking back over the past couple of years, there were a couple of things that helped me gain confidence in identifying as a writer. Sometimes, the toughest part isn’t even putting writing on paper, but changing the self-beliefs that are within our head.

Here’s what helped me:

  1. I joined a Community Ed. Writing Class. I know I’ve mentioned this, but I can’t understate how important it is to surround yourself with other people who are creatively writing and sharing ideas. I was fortunate to have a retired Literature Professor, Dr. Neuhaus, as a teacher. Not having a writing background, his techniques in developing characters and honing my writing style helped tremendously.
  2. I sought out other authors. I went to several author events around the area. I LOVE these! Even as it is, I always read about the author and their background before I even read the back cover of a book. I’m fascinated with their backgrounds and how they became authors. I love going to author talks to hear their personal stories, their failures, their successes and to learn. So many of these people did not start out as authors, but had other careers.
  3. I made it a point to meet up with others who like to write. Turns out, there are quite a few friends who either like to write, want to write a book or teach literature. Grabbing a cup of coffee (or three) with them or checking in with them to see how their writing is going creates inspiration! Before I know it, all I want to do is go home and create!
  4. I found mentors. I got uncomfortable and found fellow writers who had experience and were willing to help. I’m still so extremely grateful and humbled by how many of these awesome authors were willing to help (Robert Crane, Thekla Madsen, Jacqueline West, Graham Salisbury) and I made a promise that I would pay it forward and help whomever I could along the way as well.

So, find your tribe. They’re out there. They will pull you through the self-doubts, the writer’s blocks and the voices in your head that tell you lies like, you’re not good enough to write anything interesting or you’re not a writer…you didn’t even go to school for it. Or who do you think you are to feel you have something to say.

Well, let me tell you, I’ve thought all of these things as well as most authors. We all begin somewhere and most remember where they started. Your tribe is a lifeline to accomplishing your dream.

Go find them!

WT5: Separate Yourself From Your Writing

Yes, you heard me correctly. I know you’ve poured hundreds, thousands of sleepless hours into your writing. I know you’re probably the type of person who likes to fully complete big projects in one sitting. BUT…

This is the BEST advise you’ll ever hear. YOU NEED TO SEPARATE YOURSELF FROM YOUR WRITING and possibly, your writing environment.

I didn’t say divorce. I said separate.

It’s hard, I know. But putting your writing away, especially when you hit a mental roadblock, will allow you to come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. It will also give you the chance to read a lot of other books, which will spur creativity and give you new writing ideas for your own book.

I took several breaks when writing “Becoming American,” and though it was tough, it allowed me the time to do more research for it and surprisingly, when I wasn’t focused on trying to develop new story lines and characters, they started coming to me as I read other World War II personal accounts. I’d take notes in a notebook, but didn’t write unless it was very heavy on my mind. Yukio’s character didn’t enter the book until the month before the manuscript was due. One month before, after working on this over years.

Taking a break after a first draft, (like a 3-6 month break), will also give you the permission to work on other writing projects. It’s okay to have a few different manuscripts going at a time. I’ve been bouncing between three very different projects for the past couple of years: a middle grade historical fiction from colonial times, a young adult historical fiction from early fur-trading years and a Depression-era young adult historical fiction.

And you know what? I had been writing the Depression-era book like crazy for weeks, full of optimism and knowing how I wanted the book to turn out. And, then it happened.

Writer’s Block. I tried and tried, but nothing would come out. I couldn’t think of anything to write or how to tie the characters together. I couldn’t think of any plot points. Period.

So, here I am, four weeks into my break and still nothing. But, I am reading fun thrillers and waiting for inspiration to hit when I least expect it. And when it does, hopefully I’ll have a fully-inked pen or very sharpened pencil handy:)

WT4: How to Build Strong Character Arcs within A Theme

Great novels involve character development. Have you ever read a book that goes on and on and a character goes through kind of mundane actions and never really learns anything or changes?

Character development is important. Before you even start writing, it’s helpful to list your main characters and decide which characters will change throughout the novel and how.

For example, in Becoming American, I knew I wanted a young Allu to be innocent and hopeful and as more events press upon her family and dramatically alter her life, I wanted her to move from naivety to someone who understands that sometimes major opinions in the world aren’t justified. Not all adults can be trusted or are kind. But I wanted her to understand these things without losing her own kindness and positivity.

I wanted Robbie to be carefree, patriotic and a ladies man. Despite all of the setbacks and rejection from the government and Army, I wanted him to remain patriotic, but become more responsible for his family.

But not all of your characters have to change. Some of them can remain constant, and it’s you as a reader who is changed. Mama has a quiet strength that’s constant throughout all of their changes, even if she does have some emotional breaking points.

The character arcs can reflect your theme of the book. Hope, despite having everything taken from you. Patriotism, despite having the government reject you and question your loyalty. The importance of family and friendship in maintaining your heritage and pride.

I hope this helps. Sometimes when I get writer’s block, it helps me to go back to my characters and how I want them to arc and then I ask myself, what kind of event could I throw in the story to showcase this part of the character? How would he/she respond? What are some dramatic things that could influence how he/she views the world?

My favorite and most heart-breaking characters are usually the ones in books and movies that I started off hating. They’re selfish and mean etc. but then throughout the story, they change. It seems like usually, right when you fall in love with these ones and they start to do the right things, they die and leave you feeling well, heartbroken. It’s a lot easier to accept bad characters who do awful things, when they die, but that wouldn’t be very dramatic, would it?

I hope this helps. Think of great books and some of the new Marvel movies that have come out and use their examples of how important backstory and character arcs are. And remember, not all of your characters have to change; just enough of them to make a difference.

WT3: Creating Tension

You can always tell when I’m reading an intense book I can’t put down (okay, or a Netflix series). My nails become bitten down to the point of scrutiny at the nail salon in my attempt of hiding behind acrylics. So what makes a book a page-turner, up all-nighter, have-to-know-what-happens next kind of book?

One word.

TENSION.

There’s all different ways of creating tension from how you create the mood of the setting through the words you choose and the feelings they evoke to the final period or question mark at the end of each chapter. For example, when you hear the words, dentist drill (Sorry Dr. Page), what feelings come to mind? How would the mood be different in an opening of a story if you used the description country cottage versus downtown condo? Or a metal bridge instead of a wooden bridge?

The words you choose have an effect on the reader and the mood of your character has an effect on how he/she is seeing things. Have you ever noticed when you get bad news how the world seems to slow to a screeching halt? You notice every minute detail as you try to grasp something unimaginable. Just the opposite is true if you are in a hurry or running scared…your thoughts might become fragmented and choppy…you’re not noticing the birds or describing blades of grass when you’re chasing after your puppy who is running toward the street or if you’re dodging bullets in a battle.

Tension moves a story forward. I went to a writing seminar a few years back and the speaker suggested there should be tension in every chapter (especially a cliffhanger at the end of each one), and possibly even every single page. Even if it’s minor tension. His suggestion?

Deep breath.

Throw your entire manuscript up in the air (please, please, please have the pages numbered for your sanity), and randomly pick up pages, out of order, and look for tension.

I was desperate and crazy enough to do this. It was awful, but it helped.

So how do you do it? How do you create tension? For one, put your characters in tough situations and when the problems start to get resolved, add more conflict. Conflict could be the anticipation of knowing something within the plot. Who killed her? Was it this suspicious new neighbor that just entered the scene during the last paragraph of this chapter?! Who was the mysterious man she was going to go meet in the middle of the night and why didn’t she tell her roommate?! What is she hiding? Is this character’s perspective even reliable or is she lying to us readers (remember the book, “Gone Girl?”)

You can switch between character’s points of view to help move the book along and create anticipation of getting back to your favorite character. You can withhold information. You can add small conflicts of missing a train, falling when running, the sense of being followed or you can bring in major conflict of an antagonist to challenge your main character.

The best way of researching tension?

Watch a tv series . If it’s a good one, you’ll be well into your third episode within the night. Ask yourself what keeps you watching to the point of sleep deprivation? What was it about the previous episode that made you start another one? What new problems arose? Were there new characters introduced? New plot twists? Lack of resolution? A different character’s perspective?

Whatever the elements were, they were enough to steal from your sleep and keep you up until midnight watching.

That’s the magic of tension.

WT 2: Who Are Your Characters?

The best books I’ve read are ones in which the characters seem to be real people. Books that leave you feeling something about the characters you’ve read, long after you’ve finished the book. But what makes these fictional characters come to life and seem relatable?

Well, like real people, they can “walk and chew gum at the same time.” Think of real examples of people you know and think about what they do when they are talking. Are their hands in their pockets? Are they running their hands through their hair?

I’ve also heard that if all of your character’s voices sound the same, it’s not their voices, but the author’s. So how do you develop characters that are different from one another and possess the qualities you want them to have?

The best characterization tips I’ve learned are from a Community Ed Class I took with a retired literature professor, Dr. Ron Neuhaus. He shared a method of developing characters that has stuck with me.

Step 1: Write the process of doing something: baking cookies, painting a room, fixing something etc. Break this process down into simple steps that could be explained to a young child.

Step 2: After you have all of the steps listed, put your character in the process and do this with 3 different characters who have certain traits you want to exemplify. For example:

Does your character roughly measure the ingredients or precisely measure them? Is he/she impatient? Sloppy? Methodical? Do they let the cat sit on the counter and lick the bowl or is it a sterile, cold, granite countertop?

Step 3: Once you know who your characters are and what makes them tick, it is easier to gauge how they would respond to certain events in your story line and how they’d interact with other people.

EXAMPLE: Painting a bedroom

  • Take down all of existing pictures, shelves etc.
  • Fill in existing holes with putty & allow to dry
  • Sand down puttied holes so smooth to wall surface…

NOW: Add in character

Pouring herself another glass of Cabernet, she stood in the entrance and glanced about the bedroom, wondering if one bottle of wine would be enough.

The blank walls, once alive with pictures and memories, no longer showed any indication of the life they had created together. Now looking more like the later years of their marriage, there was a series of attempts to cover the holes and though they may have been puttied, they still existed.

Setting her glass aside, she picked up a wet rag and began to wipe down the surface of the walls with aggressive strokes so as to clear any particles of dust from the patchwork she had sanded earlier that morning.

Sometimes it helps to think of real people you’d like to build characters around. Think of their traits and how they interact with others.

To me, this is the fun part of writing! You can make your characters realistic and relatable or wild and eccentric and interesting…so fascinatingly different from anyone you’ve ever met that you can’t stop reading about them. Even if you’re not in the middle of a manuscript, you can think of characters and set them aside. As you write, some main characters and supporting characters will be planned and others will “pop up” as you’re writing, whether to guide or support your main character or to showcase a quality of your main character.

I hope this helps! Happy writing!

Writing Tip: Show, Don’t Tell

One of the simplest edits to make when revising your draft is to look for areas where you, as an author, is unintentionally telling your readers what to think or how to feel.

The best books are complex and sometimes leave you as a reader, feeling many different emotions about a character. Maybe you start off hating a character until you read their backstory and realize you actually feel sorry for them and can kind of understand why they act the way they do.

With Becoming American, many of my personal edits involved better description of facial expressions or body language. What did his face look like when he was talking? How was he standing? Was he casually leaning against a railing (at ease) or was he standing straight, with his shoulders back (formal and tense). These little tweaks will give readers an idea of whether the character was angry, surprised, relaxed, tense etc. and makes it much more interesting to read.

For example, which would you rather read:

“Billy was angry.” or

“Billy’s hands curled into two fists. His face turned red as he glared at his big brother. He whipped around and stormed up the stairs.”

Here’s another example of telling readers how to feel about something:

“She wore a beautiful dress.”

What if the author’s idea of a beautiful dress is something a reader would think is hideous or too revealing? Was it a wedding dress or a prom dress? Short or long? Sequins, lace or satin? You might like sequins, but I might think they’re scratchy or ugly.

Instead, describe the dress and let the readers decide. If you want to show the character felt uncomfortable, maybe you can describe how tight the dress was or how the sequins felt against her skin. If she feels awkward in the dress, what’s her body language like?

So, as simple as this is, there are several times I’ve gone through my manuscript and found areas in which I wasn’t giving my readers enough credit and telling them something versus allowing them to form their own opinions and feelings. It’s an easy mistake to make, but easy to fix as well!

I hope this helps:)

Happy writing & revising.

Where Do You Draw Inspiration From?

Everybody has a story to tell. Whether it’s your own or a fiction or even a great idea for a picture book. Everyone has a story.

When I first started writing, I had a story on my heart, but didn’t know where to start. I didn’t go to school for creative writing and was intimidated by thoughts like, “Who am I to write a book?” and “What if I don’t do it right?” I started researching how to write and reading articles and tips.

Well, let me tell you, there are hundreds, probably thousands of articles and books on how to write and spoiler alert! There is no right or wrong way. They are all different and many times, contradicting tips. Some authors outline and plan meticulously, others (me) write impulsively and out of order! So naturally when I read all the how-tos, I froze.

But then I started thinking about the books I like and how very different their styles are. Most of my favorite books aren’t “proper” writing, but real people in real and messy and hurtful situations. I realized, I can do that! In fact, the author of The Tattoist of Aushwitz was a nurse. Stephan King was a teacher. Nicholas Sparks was in pharmaceutical sales. If you have a story, tell it!

My most creative inspiration doesn’t come from “how-to” books (although they can help you with issues you’re having), but from traveling to places and learning about the history of the place. I love putting characters right in the thick part of the historical event and seeing how they’d react and then adding in real subplots. What if the character had a boyfriend/girlfriend? What if they were already caught up in a situation when this event happened? Throw in a catty high school girl and that usually adds drama!

I hardly ever start in the beginning. I’m impatient. I start in the middle of the book and write the best action scenes first and then fill in around it and come back and add in details through the second or third or fourth edits of the entire thing once it’s done.

However, there are several creative classes and retreats I’ve gone to that have really ignited the writing process and I’d love to share what’s helped me. I’m hoping there are some writers out there who read this and would love to offer creative tips over the next several weeks (hopefully on Mondays), that really moved my manuscript forward.

As I’ve read several times, over 70% of people feel they have one good book in them. This is your moment. Most schedules have been cleared. Even if you only write a little at a time or start in the middle of your action with dialogue or details and come back to it. Whether you write in the quiet of the night or during the hustle and bustle of the day, this is your time to start!

You can do it!

Forest or the Trees?

It’s easy for me to lose focus on the bigger picture.You know the saying, “Miss the forest for the trees?” That’s me, but I take it to a whole other level. While I’m lost in the forest (or on my way to lost), I’m so distracted by the small details ( but seriously, how beautiful is moss on tree bark?) that I can forget the bigger scheme of things. I’m the worst person to figure directions on a map or any hiking trail. Ask Freddy. I have zero sense of direction.

So, when I least expected it, I am slowly discovering the bigger picture.

Patience. I’ve struggled with patience for years. I always want things done perfectly and yesterday. Well, with the schedule completely cleared (still can’t wrap my mind around this), I have time to be patient. With everyone else’s schedules the same way, the comparison of keeping up with everyone else’s productivity has been wiped away. I could never have done that on my own. It’s been such a blessing. I wake up and don’t even have to look at our family schedule.

Family. We’re focusing on things more important than deadlines and crammed schedules. Like family. We’ve been playing family games (yes, sometimes I bribe the kids into card games with a pooled amount of money for the winner) and taking turns walking our dog. I can see our kids decompress and exhale.

Nature. It does WONDER for the soul. We’ve been taking a lot of hikes and taking our time because there’s no schedule. We make fairy gardens and find cool things to collect and spray paint at home. We have time to look for agates in dry runs and by creeks.

We are slowing down. Staying up late and watching movies and sleeping in as long as our dog allows.

Hobbies. Yes, there are moments of complete craziness and meltdowns, but overall, it’s been forcing us to appreciate the importance of togetherness and the contentment of separation in finding our individual hobbies. Our kids have picked up long-forgotten hobbies like painting and playing piano and graffiti art (that’s Sterling).

So, blessings to you all. May you still appreciate the finite details, but also immerse yourself into the bigger picture of family and patience and nature and finding what fills your soul in solitude.

Turns out, slowing down isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Putting Ability into Instability

I crave stability and security, which go hand in hand. Well, God has a sense of humor because like most people, my adult life has been anything but consistent.

We have the many benefits of being self-employed and running our own business, but with it, especially in the early years, came inconsistency. Inconsistency in our schedules, our incomes, the dependability of people we worked with, whether from a client standpoint or a training standpoint. We’ve worked hard to build stability into our business, but being home at different times every night and working commission had some anxieties attached in the beginning.

Though we have more control and flexibility over our business schedules, our kids’ schedules leave it a rare occasion we eat supper together at one time or are even together at once. Especially with a family of five schedules.

And, it seems that when one kid is “up,” and things seem routine and under control, we’re dealing with another kid who is dealing with his/her own crisis, whether grades or with friends or sports or you name it.

SPOILER ALERT!

Teenage years are so tough to parent in. Tougher than the physical exhaustion of chasing them around (even three of ’em) when they were young. I think back on the days when I would pull the baby in the wagon, chasing a toddler on a training bike, while walking the third to kindergarten. ANY DAY over this emotional exhaustion. Ugh! Add onto that, the random and inconsistent “sick days” from school that throw any consistency in my schedule off (thank God we’re self-employed on these occasions, but still…!)

So……welcome Corona virus.

Welcome to the shutdown and all the instability that is messing with us everyday. Schedule changes. Like every few hours. Long-scheduled events that had been carefully planned and worked around for months are now no longer. Trips are up in the air. Book talks, retreats, conferences and kids events postponed and I find myself checking our email almost hourly for updates. Welcome instability. You might fill me with some anxiety, but you do not scare me.

Deep breath.

I understand this instability is tough. Quite frankly, it sucks.

So, if you are craving consistency and routine right now, like I am, here is what I’ve decided I CAN do:

  1. Put consistency and routine somewhere in my week: walking our dog every morning and evening, meeting up with a friend for coffee once a week (laughter therapy and “mom-venting” does wonders!), church Lent services on Wednesdays (bonus: I don’t have to cook when there’s church supper).
  2. Pray for more flexibility. I’ve stopped praying for patience because ever since I did this, I feel like I’m constantly tested. Seriously God. I kind of wanted it given to me, not built from patient-stemming situations!
  3. Schedule free time/family time in my schedule as if it was a client appointment. We often put our clients before our personal schedules so why would I not do this for our kids?

It’s the most I can control at this time, but I figure that balance is key. And if God has thrown so many inconsistencies in our lives, it must be because He knows we can handle it. That we’re the type of people who are RESILIENT and have the internal fortitude to rise up to meet the challenges of the unknown and not only meet them, but find opportunities and blessings in them as well. Even if it comes with the uncertainty of the unknown.

So, here’s to finding the blessings in the unknown and the unplanned. To filling missed events with family time and your own choices of consistencies in this unstable and crazy world.

Faith, Without Numbers

I’ve been asked quite a few times what the toughest part of the writing and publishing process has been for me. Without hesitation, there are two answers.

First of all, it is separating yourself from your writing project. I heard this advice from my future editor/publisher at a writing conference a few years back. I think this advice can pertain to any project, not just writing. It can be extremely difficult to do if you are a get-it-done, all-at-once, kind of person like me. When you are in the thick of a project and hit a road block or if you think it is finished, step away. Like really away. For at least four weeks. It will give you a fresh perspective and insight as to what you need to do to truly finish it.

But second, the most tough, is keeping the faith. Faith in yourself. Faith in the system. Faith in the fact that you are called to do something. To impact someone. I would have Freddy read early draft chapters and really questioned whether the writing was decent.

But then I realized, we all have different tastes. I’ve picked up NYT Bestsellers and could not for the life of me, get into them. I’ve picked up unknown books from little free libraries that have become my favorites. People like different styles of music and different genres of books and that’s a great thing! My son, who is currently deep in the newest Dog Man graphic novel, has no interest in my book. That’s okay.

Keeping belief levels up can be challenging, but I pray on it (Prayer of Jabez, look up the story) and feel God has blessed me with optimism and enough encouragement along the way to keep the faith, despite setbacks (yes, there have been some). Even now, four months after publication, I have no idea how many books have sold. Yes, it is driving me crazy. I’m used to daily updates in our finance business, but what the publishing business has blessed me with is PATIENCE and FAITH.

Without concrete numbers, I am putting my trust in God’s plan and the fact that I did this to get awareness on this topic in the Midwest. I wanted to honor those involved during World War II, both veterans and the families impacted by the war. I felt the story tugging on my heart and it’s been in the back of my mind off and on for years. I even got a Japanese symbol of love when I was 18 (fun fact!). The seeds had been planted many years ago, but I needed maturity and exposure to rejection in other forms to gain the confidence to take on this project.

So, whatever you are aiming for, keep faith first. About four years back, I had a dream even. It was weird. The entire dream kept telling me James 214. I woke up thinking it was the craziest thing ever. When I opened up my (admittedly, dusty) Bible, I came to James 2:14. “Faith, without works, is dead.”

It’s been my guiding principle since that night. Act on faith. Don’t worry about the concrete evidence. It will come.