Like many people, I’ve been struggling with direction. With schedules arranged and then rearranged and then adjusted again, it’s thrown a lot of uncertainties into the mix. Just as I was building momentum (pre-Quarantine), a lot of my book talks for Becoming American had to be postponed.
Just when I started getting rolling with virtual Zoom talks, libraries shifted their focus to a specific genre of books that didn’t necessarily include mine. Libraries whom I thought would be supportive haven’t returned e-mails. Other libraries have gone above and beyond in their outreach to patrons by connecting with them through live author talks and book clubs and have been nothing short of AMAZING.
So, as I was talking (okay, venting) to Freddy the other day, he asked me how long I’ve been letting the coffee percolate.
How long have I been heating and reheating the same pot of coffee? Would I rather have reheated (several times) coffee or fresh coffee?
Sometimes you just have to start brewing a new pot of coffee. Period.
It doesn’t mean to stop connecting with virtual book clubs or following up with the ones in queue, but meanwhile, start a fresh pot of coffee. In other words, do what inspires me most and work on my new manuscript.
I love connecting with others and love marketing, but in the end, the best part of the writing process is…..THE WRITING part! So, here I am, researching and writing for a new Young Adult Historical Fiction, completely separate and different from the first and I am feeling inspired and hopeful again.
I can’t control what people are reading or aren’t reading.
I CAN control how I spend my time and invest in my skill set. I CAN control getting on author zooms to better my craft…they have been awesome and so helpful in how I structure my writing. I CAN control building the bridge one brick at a time from where I am to where I want to go, with consistency and staying the course through the thick of uncertain times.
So, here I am, brewing a fresh pot of percolating coffee as the anticipation of drinking it sets in and reminds me of why I started writing in the first place. I am choosing to see the roadblocks as a blessing to make me work harder in overcoming them.
To show that anyone can successfully pursue and accomplish a dream even if it’s through a book that didn’t come from a huge publishing house, with a large marketing department.
Have you ever had those days in which you feel extremely grateful? You might not have a huge house or materialistic trappings of “success,” but you realize how fortunate you are to live in a safe neighborhood, to have great friends who support you and as if that weren’t enough, you’re healthy and have the resources to be comfortable?
But, have you ever been caught in the shadows of other people’s mountains? For all you know, the mountain could have an avalanche on the other side of it, but from below and on the side you’re viewing it from, you can’t see it. All you see is the peak and it always seems to have sun at the top, while you’re caught in the darkness below?
I’ve been there and I think most of us have. One of the most important lessons we’ve always wanted to teach our kids was empathy and gratitude. But how do you teach it?
By getting uncomfortable.
Working in finance, there have been several occasions in which we’ve had to sit with families (often one spouse), and deliver a death benefit. It is a blessing to be able to be there in the toughest moments of decision-making, in the foxhole, with these families and to give them peace of mind as we hold their hands through both the emotional and the financial burdens that come with grief. There have been a few occasions in which we’ve brought (with the family’s permission) one of our older kids with to the client’s home as we sat with them.
To get them out of their bubble. To show them what real loss looks like. To put things in perspective on what’s important and what’s trivial. To bless them with the building foundation of empathy.
Our oldest daughter and I have shared a few experiences that will forever hold memories of gratitude in my heart. One of them was volunteering at the Minneapolis Homeless Shelter, serving meals. Was it out of our comfort zone? Yes. Not the being around diversity part. Our kids have grown up in our family business, surrounded by people of different colors and ethnicity at our parties, drive-in outings etc.
It was uncomfortable because you see the pain and oftentimes defeat in people’s faces and I really wanted people to see we cared, without having them feel less than in any way. Sitting with them while they ate, listening to their stories, showed our daughter that for many people, regardless of background or race etc, they are only a couple paychecks away from being in the spiral of events that put them in the position of being at the “soup kitchen.”
We were also reminded of this while volunteering at the Biloxi Back Bay Mission in Mississippi last year. Biloxi is an area that was heavily hit by Hurricane Katrina and as if that weren’t bad enough, scam crews went through the area afterwards, charging high dollars for shotty work on roofing repairs etc. Now casinos are sucking in tourists who seldom leave the lavish casinos (some of their workers volunteered at the soup kitchens wearing heels, diamonds and sure to get the pictures of them “serving” for their social media publicity, but hardly talk to or look at those they are serving) to see how hurting the surrounding community is.
Not only were we able to help rebuild a house infested with termites and poor repairs (roofing, tearing down what was left of siding and house structure and replacing and painting it all), but we were able to work in the Micah Day Center, offering and monitoring showers for the homeless as we washed their clothes and made them coffee (I heard some great Favre stories from many of these locals who grew up near Kiln). We were able to walk families through the pantry at the food shelf and my daughter saw parents and several grandparents who were raising their grandkids, make decisions as to which canned meat their kids would want over the next month for lunches and suppers.
As emotionally-rocking as it was, we were blessed to see what real hard choices looked like for those families who were scheduled for the end of the month when they had missed the food truck of “good foods” by three weeks and the food truck wouldn’t arrive again for another.
The blessing was that it pulled on our heart. For Jada, helping in the day center. For me, watching parents who were laid off or working just as much or more as the people in our community, but making less and dealing with the aftermath of catastrophe. Losing their homes. Losing their spouses. Losing their jobs. How could that not affect us the same way if we didn’t have family or the right resources to turn to? Thankfully, in the Back Bay Mission House, they do.
It became our new mission to never forget and we’ve passed along our own financial blessings to their food pantry almost every month since, with a letter requesting the financial gifts to be used specifically for fresh fruits and vegetables for those who are scheduled at the food pantry for the last weeks of the month. For those who had to choose between diced fruit cups or canned whatever fruit or vegetable was available.
And as it much as it helps the program, it’s helped us just as much or more. I don’t usually care much about material things. Never have. But whenever I find myself caught in the trappings, I remind myself of these moments and how we can all pull together to support one another when needed.
It’s the most important gift we could ever instill in our kids.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:)
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.