Writing Advice: Finding a Flow

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Road trips can be fun, right? If you don’t get carsick, you can use the time to get a lot of reading done. If you do get carsick, you can sing along to your favorite tunes, catch up on podcasts you want to listen to, or just play fun games with your road trip buddies. The beginning of a road trip is amazing — you’re just getting started and the whole idea still has that fresh sheen. But then, ten hours later, you’re just in a cramped car and somehow tired from doing nothing but pressing a gas pedal. At that point, you probably want nothing more than to stop and forget the whole thing. But your destination is waiting for you, so you have to push through and keep on going.

Think of your story as a road trip. At the beginning, everything seems rosy and you’re most likely eager to get started. But soon the rosy glow starts to vanish. Soon you’re feeling the pangs of writer’s block and you’re tired of spending time with your characters day in and day out. Just like the road trip, you may want to bail on your story. It can be so much easier to give into that temptation when it’s just words on a page rather than money spent on a trip. But you have to convince yourself that the stakes are just as high. You have to keep going to reach that destination that you know you’re headed for.

On the topic of forging ahead, Ursula Le Guin had this to say: “A story is, after all, and before everything else, dynamic: it starts Here, because it’s going There. Its life principle is the same as a river: to keep moving. Fast or slow, straight or erratic, headlong or meandering, but going, till it gets There. The ideas it expresses, the research it embodies, the timeless inspirations it may offer, are all subordinate to and part of that onward movement…the onward flow of a story is what carries a writer from the start to the end of it, along with the whole boatload of characters and ideas and knowledge and meaning — and carries the reader in the same boat.”

The important thing is to find your flow. On a road trip, that might mean a great playlist, some friends to keep you company, and the knowledge that you’ll soon be able to stretch your legs. When writing, finding a flow can be more difficult. It can mean constructing an outline that you can stick to, having images around that remind you of your themes, or a creating routine that makes you sit down and write every day. Hey, a playlist and great friends to cheer you on may even be involved.

Whatever you need to do to keep your flow, just remember that you’re doing it all to get somewhere awesome. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Dynamic Description

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Description can be a difficult thing to get right, and yet it can be the backbone of any story. If you want your readers to become absorbed in what you’re writing, it’s important that you describe your characters and setting well. I’ve found that you can easily insert description of your setting while having a character travel or simply study his or her surroundings. But describing a character can be a bit more difficult. Should you have your main character look in the mirror one morning and ruminate on his appearance? Should you take an omniscient approach and describe your character from above? And how much description should you include? How do you know which characteristics to describe?

Author Ursula K Le Guin had this to say about description: “It’s not just facial features—a way of moving, a voice quality, can ’embody’ a character. Specific features or mannerisms (even absurdly specific ones!) can help fix a minor character in the reader’s mind when they turn up again…. To work on this skill, you might try describing people you see on the bus or in the coffee shop: just do a sentence about them in your head, trying to catch their looks in a few words.”

I think this is great advice from Le Guin. If you’re having trouble with your own characters, look at the characters around you and try to describe them. Describe your family members, your friends, and even strangers. Eventually you’ll start noticing characteristics that are particularly intriguing, and which lend color and flavor to the people you’re writing about. A well-placed detail can help even a minor character pop, as Le Guin says above. You can even harvest some of these characteristics to use for the people in your story. You might want to start jotting down verbal tics or mannerisms that you observe to keep for later.

So, don’t worry about describing every last physical attribute of your characters, or even what they wear each day. To really make your characters interesting and memorable, choose mannerisms and other features that will distinguish them from the pack. These are the characters that will endure in your readers’ minds and, ultimately, be more interesting for you to write about as well.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Not the Final Draft

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Writers can sometimes be secretive and embarrassed about what they’re currently working on. Personally, I don’t discuss what I’m writing with other people unless I’m really in a jam and need recommendations for the plot. This is understandable, I think, because of the principle of the “shitty first draft,” which I’ve written about previously. As you’re writing that first draft, you’ll have moments of exhilaration when you think you’re making progress toward your eventual goal. But, unfortunately, you’ll also have moments when you feel like you aren’t doing your best work. You just need to keep reminding yourself that this is not your final draft.

One day, with a lot of work, you’ll get to the draft that is ready for the world to read. But for now? This draft is just for you. That can be pretty liberating, don’t you think? During the first draft, the story belongs only to you and is contained only in the document where you’re writing it. You come to it each day, or each week, and you get to add to it in the privacy in your own mind. Although the first draft can sometimes feel “shitty,” I think it’s important to savor the first draft as well. Savor the feeling that only you know the story and only you can finish it.

And yes, you should finish it! First drafts can be difficult to see through to completion, but it’s completely worth it. In a pep talk last November, author Stephanie Perkins said,  “Keep writing until you reach the end. If you get stuck, take your protagonist down a different path. This isn’t the draft that you’re going to publish. This is the draft that will help you figure out what story you’re really trying to tell.”

This is the time during which you’re allowed to mess around a little and try different things. Try writing in a different style, try something that wasn’t in your outline, or try adding two new characters halfway through the story. A first draft can certainly be cringeworthy, but it’s also your playground! So take the first draft to work on your story away from prying eyes. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: The Middle

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Most writers will tell you that the middle of a story is the hardest part to write. Chances are that you put a lot of thought into how your story will begin and how it will end. This makes sense, of course, seeing as the beginning is a hook that will draw your readers in and the ending should be a satisfying conclusion for them. But there’s a wide gulf between the start and finish of a story, and something has to happen between those two bookends.

The temptation might be to speed through the middle of your story to reach the ending. However, a better idea might be to take a moment to slow down and think about where your story is headed. By the middle of your story, a lot of events have likely taken place. If you stop to evaluate your story, you might realize that the ending you planned so meticulously no longer works because of something you included in chapter four, for example. In a pep talk post for National Novel Writing Month last year, author Charlaine Harris wrote about what you might do if you stop to evaluate. Here’s what she had to say:

“At this point, you need to start getting all your characters in place for the wind-up phase of the novel. You can continue writing at breakneck speed, or you can spend fifteen minutes right now on evaluating where your characters are, then decide what they need to discover to arrive at the denouement….Perhaps you might want to try setting a new goal a day. Go over what must happen in each day’s pages to move you along until tomorrow.”

When you feel you’ve reached the middle of your story, pause for a moment and think back on what you’ve written so far. Refer to any notes you’ve made and think about where your characters need to be as you continue to write. What dominoes must you set up so they can fall and create your ending? In general, just think about where you have been and where you need to go. And the same goes for your characters. Stopping to evaluate your progress may help you get through that difficult middle. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: A Fresh Start

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So, the holidays have now officially come to an end. Whether you’re returning to work after a generous break or preparing to get back to school soon, there’s no denying that it’s time to get down to business once again. That goes for writing as well. I’m the first to admit that I let my writing fall by the wayside during this holiday break. Although I could have used this time off to make progress on my writing, I chose instead to watch Netflix, play video games, and read books. Instead of feeling guilty about these holiday pursuits, I’m choosing to acknowledge them, admit that I’ve been slacking off on writing, and move forward into a fresh start as 2016 begins.

When you’ve been away from your writing project for a while, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Depending on your writing style, you may want to ease in slowly or dive right back in. If you’re easing in slowly, try rereading some of what you wrote before your break or hiatus. Allow yourself time to become familiar with your story again. Once you feel that you’re back in the swing of things and you’re back in the mindset for your project, get writing! If you want to dive right in, things are a bit easier. Just start writing!

Although being away from your writing can sometimes cause you to lose interest in the story you were working on, it can also provide you with much-needed distance from your work. When you return, you may have a new perspective that can help you continue writing in a newer and possibly better way.

As this new year begins, I hope you’ll look forward with optimism and begin a new writing year strongly. Best of luck to everyone with writing goals or resolutions this year and, as always, happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Chasm of Doubt

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All people lack confidence at one time or another. Since writers are people, I know that writers often experience a lack of confidence in themselves, their abilities, and their stories. I also know this because I, myself, have felt precisely this way. Sometimes this happens to me right in the middle of National Novel Writing Month, when I’m halfway into my outline and the plot doesn’t seem as clear as it once did. But more often than not, it happens during the rest of the year. At that time, I don’t have a community of writers to work with and I more easily lose my way, believing that I don’t really have anything to write about. But the important thing is that I’ve learned to overcome that feeling and get back to the process of writing.

In a “pep talk” post for National Novel Writing Month, author N.K. Jemisin talked about this lack of confidence by calling it the “Chasm of Doubt.” She went on to say, “The sick feeling in your stomach, the weariness you feel, the utter conviction that you are the Worst and your novel is the Worst and everything is awful. This is how writers feel sometimes. (This is how everyone feels sometimes.) But writers do not let this feeling overwhelm them.”

For me, that Chasm of Doubt usually manifests itself as the weariness that Jemisin mentions. Sometimes when I open my work-in-progress document, I find that I just don’t have the strength or inspiration to put down more words. At times that comes from other interests that are vying for my attention, but it also comes from a lack of confidence in my work. Halfway through a story, the story rarely looks as shiny as when you began writing it. Once you’ve spent some time with the characters and the plot you set out, you might feel that it’s not as good as you once thought.

Hopefully, you can do as Jemisin says and overcome this weariness or sick feeling. To do so, I suggest reading. A lot. Reading fills your inspiration bank with ideas and a general fervor for the written word. If you’re reading widely, chances are you’ll be more excited or at least energized about writing your own stuff. The same goes for Netflix watching. I know it seems strange, but watching really well-written, engaging shows and movies can help you better understand writing and get excited about your projects.

How do you deal with the Chasm of Doubt? How are you able to overcome it? Feel free to share your struggles and strategies in the comments. And Happy Writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Scene Tent Poles

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When I’m writing a scene, I sometimes find that inspiration will strike me right in the middle of the process. I may be writing the beginning of a scene, but something that I write reminds me of a piece of dialogue or a piece of plot development that I could use later in the scene. Usually, I’m a very linear writer. But when these bits of inspiration strike me, I find that I have to abandon my linear format and jump around just a bit to ensure that those ideas aren’t lost to me forever. In situations such as this, I would suggest planting scene tent poles. These “tent poles” can be stray pieces of dialogue, abbreviated notes to yourself, or even some exposition that spells out what you want to achieve.

This happened to me while writing just this past week. I began to write a scene in which my characters were having dinner together, and all of them were angry with each other for one reason or another. As I began writing, I felt overwhelmed by what I wanted to achieve in the scene. I knew that, by the end of it, two characters would have made up and another two would still be awkward around each other. I knew that I wanted to separate the pairs of characters, so I tabbed down in my document and started writing what would happen when one pair was off in another room. Then I tabbed down even further and started writing what was still happening back at the kitchen table. Each of these “tent poles” were just a few lines long to introduce the concept I wanted to convey.

By tabbing down in my document, I was leaving space for the rest of the information to be filled in later. In other words, these little snippets that I’d written were my tent poles. One tent pole had the characters all together and the following tent poles had them separated. Thanks to these snippets, I would know the story beats I wanted to hit and be able to fill in information that got me to each of those beats. The tent poles would keep the scene as a whole intact and propped up. Once my ideas were down, I could flesh them out more easily.

This can sort of be summed up by saying that if you see the end when you’re in the middle, write it down! You don’t want to forget where you’re headed, and your mind usually moves more quickly than your fingers can type. If you’re one step ahead of yourself, jot down those steps so you’ll remember what you were thinking when you first got the idea.

These “tent poles” can also be a great tool to use if you’re about to stop writing for the day and want to come back to it later. This is what happened to me, in fact. Soon after writing this scene, my writing time was over for the day. I’m glad that I jotted down those tent pole points because now, when I return to my document, I’ll know what I intended for the scene.

I hope that the idea of using “tent poles” helps you with your writing process. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: How to Write More

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On this side of November, word counts may become significantly smaller. For those who don’t know, I spent the month of November participating in National Novel Writing Month. This is a global endeavor made by hundreds of thousands of writers, who all attempt to write 50,000 words during November. This can be a difficult challenge, but it’s also an exhilarating one, and by the end of it you have a 50,000-word first draft. A problem arises, however, when the support group you had in November dissipates and suddenly all you want to do is eat Christmas chocolate and lounge around watching Netflix.

Every year, I experience this writing slump when November is finished. And every year I make a vow for things to be different. Unfortunately, I generally end up succumbing to holiday sweets and sedentary activities. If you want to try continuing the writing flow that you had during November, or if you just want to achieve that same writing flow all year-round, Chuck Wendig has some really fantastic tips for you.

In this blog post, Chuck Wendig discusses how he manages to write almost 50,000 words every month, not just November. Wendig has some really great tips in this post, and I suggest reading the entire thing. He talks about using an outline, avoiding editing (an important part of National Novel Writing Month), writing notes for the next day of writing, and even taking breaks. One of the things that really helps me during November is having a schedule. And Wendig talks about this too. He says:

I endeavor to write five days a week, and then don’t write on weekends. I need that break. Every day that I do write, I write regardless of how I’m feeling — I write through illness, anxiety, life trouble. This is not saying you need to do that. (What did I tell you about comparing yourself?) You have to find your pace. Maybe you write all your weekly count on Monday at 2:15. Do what’s best for you. The good news is, for the most part, routines are valuable. Establish the routine and stick to it and after a couple weeks, you’re good.

I think this is a great idea. Everyone needs a break, and you can get a lot done by writing five days in a row. If you manage to write every weekday, why not take the weekend off? If you’re writing on weekday evenings after working your day job, you doubly deserve to take weekends off. This can also be great motivation. If you know you’ll get to do whatever you want on the weekend, you’re more likely to push through and write on weekdays rather than turn to Netflix.

Again, I encourage you to check out Chuck Wendig’s full post. If you find something useful there, you just might find  yourself a more productive writer by the time the new year rolls around. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Endings

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We’ve already talked about story openings on this blog, along with everything that comes after, now let’s talk about endings. Endings can be contentious in the literary world. People have disavowed entire book series because of the way they end. A good ending can also save a book, though. Endings are also incredibly tricky to write. It’s hard to bring your story to a conclusion that is satisfying for both you and the reader. Of course, you may never be satisfied with the story. But you have to find an ending that is at least passable and doesn’t make you want to burrow your head in the ground.

At the beginning of a writing project, the ending can feel so far away as to be almost unreachable. But the ending begins when you set down the first word of your story, and it’s good to be thinking about it then as well. On her blog, Sarah Perlmutter has this to say about endings: “Having an ending in mind allows you to insert some of those deeper, richer layers into your writing, like foreshadowing. It also helps you develop your character arc, and plot. An ending is a finish line, a goal, and having it in mind–even if you have nothing else planned–will be like an anchor, pulling you deeper into your story as you write it.”

Although I usually don’t follow this advice, I think it’s good to keep in mind! If you have a picture of where you’ll end up, you can insert clues to that ending along the way. Of course, if you find it difficult to think up endings from the get-go (like me), you can always let the story take you where it may and then insert those little clues during the edit or rewrite. An ending does give you a sense of purpose, though, so it would be beneficial to plan ahead. I can concede that point, I just probably won’t follow through on it. But you should!

When this post goes live, National Novel Writing Month will be coming to an end. That means that many NaNo-ers will be bringing their novels to a close as well. But not necessarily! Remember that 50,000 words is basically a good-sized novella. If you want to create a real first draft, you could easily continue writing for another 20,000 words. So if November is ending, but your novel isn’t ready to say goodbye, don’t fret! Just keep writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Your Conflict

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Conflict, conflict, conflict! It’s what your story needs and your readers crave. Conflict is what makes stories whir and plots fizzle and pop. If your characters aren’t in conflict with one another in some way, then why are you writing about them? If your characters are happily in love, happily employed, or happily content with their lives, maybe you need to move on to new characters. Now, your characters don’t need to be complete emotional trainwrecks, but some misfortune must enter their lives at some point.

In a blog post about conflict, author Kara Lennox says, “A good conflict has external and internal aspects…the conflict manifests on a superficial level at first, then at a deeper level as the hero and heroine become more involved, reveal more parts of themselves, more bits of their history, their secrets.”

This is great advice because it basically describes the plot of any good book or movie you’ve ever read or seen, especially romance stories. In Pride & Prejudice, for example, the overarching external conflict is that of Mrs. Bennett’s quest to marry her daughters off in prosperous and promising fashion. Lizzie is caught up in this when she meets Mr. Darcy, who could be a good match for her. But the internal aspects of both characters creates a conflict that results in Lizze’s sister Jane nearly missing her own chance at being married off, Lizzie’s sister becoming embroiled with the unsavory character of Mr. Wickham, and an eventual declaration of love. All of that happened, essentially, because of the warring personalities of Lizzie and Mr. Darcy. Pretty good, eh?

Because of these internal and external aspects, conflict is intertwined with both character and plot. The conflict between characters can lead to a conflict that occurs within the plot. So it’s a good idea to remember your character development as you create your plot.

In this same post, Kara reminds readers to avoid adding in too much conflict. Just as too little conflict can leave readers bored, too much can leave them feeling overwhelmed and unwilling to put up with your story anymore. If you create just one conflict that runs deep in your characters, you can find different plotlines within that one conflict to explore.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan