I love giving feedback on first chapters of novels, especially in the young adult genre, and especially to young writers.
So from now until April 23 at midnight (Mountain Time) I’ll take the first chapters of 5 Young Adult novels and offer some free critique and feedback. For more extensive details, click here or see below. (***To qualify, you must meet and agree to the guidelines at the bottom). I particularly love apocalyptic and dystopian and paranormal.
Now, the promised tips, gleaned in part from agent panels at writing conferences as well as my own students’ and critique group’s process.
Make sure your character is doing something active right away. It’s too easy to have the character waking up, sitting at a desk daydreaming, or riding a car, bus, train, plane, etc. to somewhere else in the first scene. Readers want to immediately connect to a main character (MC) who is doing something and sharing who they are.
If your first scene does begin this way, don’t despair. You might want to take what works from those first few paragraphs and then work in those details a bit later, once there’s action. For example, if you wrote the best line ever describing a bug crawling across your MC’s ceiling as the MC is lying in bed, get the MC out of bed and doing something, like throwing darts at the bug. Or trying to save the bug, which is limping. Or heck, maybe your MC eats the bug. That’s definitely interesting.
Show agency. What does your main character want and how will they try to get it? Even if they are failing at something (like eating the bug) showing them trying to do something is way more interesting to the reader than a character who is just thinking. Yes, teenagers do lie around running thoughts through their heads — a lot — in fact, I still do that for hours at a time — but try to weave their amazing thoughts into some great internal or external dialogue while they’re interacting with other people or items.
This means that no matter what fun first scene you begin with, you want your reader to glimpse, and root for the MC’s real wishes, desires, or character arc. Sure, there’s a bug crawling across the ceiling that’s the size of an upside-down squirrel. That’s a conflict. But the MC wants to be a dancer. Make the reader know this. Maybe the MC throws a ballet shoe which weighs nothing and accomplishes nothing. Maybe the MC makes some kind of heroic leap toward the ceiling to catch the bug. Maybe they befriend the bug and learn to imitate its movements and invent a new dance craze!
Avoid overwhelming the reader with complicated backstory, epic battles, or lengthy conversations with numerous other characters in the first scene. Make the MC the star. Help us care about them and get to know them before introducing a chaotic scene. No matter how interesting that scene might be, especially if the bug is part of an alien plot to take over the world, we’re not going to care that much unless we have met the MC and become invested in their career as a dancer. Once that happens, as readers, we won’t want to see their goals thwarted by the bug apocalypse.
Lastly, don’t worry if your first chapter breaks any of these guidelines I warned about. The first chapter is the one you’ll revise the most often, anyway, and it’s better to do after you’ve written the end of your novel and understand how to link it back thematically. For now, just write! Have fun! Get to know your characters, immerse yourself in their world, and just get your story down on the page, because it needs to be told!
I hope you spare the bug. Its name is Herman. I’m certain of it. Well, maybe Henrietta.
**If you want to submit your chapter for critique, please visit my website (here) and then respond to this post there letting me know your name and the (tentative) title of your work. Then email me through the “contact me” link on that website. If you’re one of the first to respond, I’ll get back to you and ask for up to 12 pages of the first chapter (industry standard; Times Font double-spaced).
Have fun, and happy writing! If you’re stuck, I have a blog post on writer’s block to get you unstuck.
Kendra Griffin, Professor of English at Aims Community College, is the author of Young Adult speculative fiction novels The Pox Ward and Apocalypse Thoughts. Learn more about her work and creative writing workshops here or sign up for her newsletter (Get The Pox). Apocalypse Thoughts will be free on Amazon through midnight on -4/12, or you can enter the Goodreads Giveaway through April!
If you’re like me, you spent January 6, 2021 watching social media whenever you could, cringing, and wondering how, or even if, you should stay focused on your creative endeavors.
You can. You should.
I’m not going to be blithe here — this has been a dark day. Or as might be better said, a pale day. I can’t worry that this post might seem to pick a side. I am picking a side. The side of voice. Voice and vote matter, and any person who serves to undermine another person’s right to share in the governing of their country — well, that’s an arch nemesis of epic proportions. So stop reading if you think voices that don’t sound like your voice should be quashed; stop reading if you believe, “Their vote isn’t valid because it was different from my vote.”
Artists don’t think that way. Dogma asphyxiates art.
Focusing on our creative projects was incredibly difficult in 2020 and is shaping up to be so in 2021. These suggestions are tailored to helping you push through your novel draft and reminding you why it matters.
Trust that your work can espouse the values you want to see in the world. Commit to including these themes in your WIP, no matter the genre. You don’t have to be writing high literature to convey the idea that all people matter, or that a kind action is more important than a sarcastic wisecrack. Even a minor character can echo an important theme.
If you’re feeling dispirited, try writing a happy ending even for the characters you know won’t get one. You may never include it, but this will help you meet your characters, cement motivation, and sharpen backstory. Likely it will enrich the plot or arc. And if nothing else, it will cheer you the heck up.
Consider new forms of diversity. I believe in the Own Voices movement and in seeing more equity in the publishing world, and I’m not trying to tell you to write anything that feels inauthentic to your experiences. But including diversity in any way supports the general idea of less regimented, non-binary thinking. It’s not all about race and religion or other hot-button issues you may feel unequipped to tackle capably. Can you include characters of varying socioeconomic status? Region? Talent? Educational level? Height? Learning styles? Family complexion? Age? Dig into your own experiences for details or events that might not depicted in the mainstream. My father owned a pet raccoon as a kid. Why? Because he grew up poor, in Appalachia, and it got injured in one of his traps. Also, it was free. Including a detail like that not only represents a wider swath of readers and experiences, it’s more interesting than simply plunking another pet golden retriever named Lucky into your book.
Remember you can’t fix all of the world’s problems in one work, so don’t put that pressure on yourself. Focus on one goal that makes you feel like a part of the solution. In my current WIP revision, I worked hard to not allow “darkness” to constantly connote negativity. This was tricky, since my characters are often running through the woods at night from feral cannibals on a hiking trail. Halfway through, I brainstormed positive images of “darkness” my protagonists might encounter in the woods. The musty smell of wet tree bark. The quiet stillness of a night sky after a muggy day. The mysterious, cool depths of a lake. Rich hot cocoa and strong coffee (when my characters/kids could get their hands on some — they’re living through a pandemic, after all!) The smell of soil after rain. The sheltering timbers of cabin logs and lean-tos. Wise black pupils on white birches. Tanned, weatherworn Appalachian faces. Thick-boiled, blackstrap molasses and real maple syrup. Dappled hound dogs… Sorry: I digress. This was fun for me. I have to go work the molasses into the novel now! My protagonists will like that. I’m at the all-is-lost point, and their stomachs are growling.
No, I didn’t censor. Flashlights are still a useful tool; the moon is still gorgeous (though it has a dark side!) and the white trail blazes are still a welcome sight when lost in the woods. But choosing just one stereotype to defy not only gave me a sense of purpose, it likely made my writing less cliché.
Visualize yourself telling others how you pushed through writing your book/completing your art process. “That’s amazing! And then what did you do? And how did you come up with the idea to use this word/color/ink/router bit/glaze?” Answer your interviewer with confidence. Your art matters. You completing your project and having faith in your process is a way of demonstrating your faith in the world.
Find a cohort of writers that will help you set and support goals. (Through writers groups, Nanowrimo, your local library, for starters). Plus, in Covid times, you might even get the human contact you need to stay emotionally healthy enough to finish the project.
And last and perhaps least, when writing I like to turn off my wifi, set a timer on my phone, and set the phone to airplane mode. This is all to shame myself into not checking Twitter every few seconds to notice if the world has plunged further into chaos or to check if Thoughts of Dog can pull me back out of said ensuing despair. Having to log in again sometimes gives me just the reminder that I turned it off out of self discipline. I consider this the equivalent of that horrible 80’s “refrigerator pig” gimmick that oinked whenever the fridge door opened.
I hope you finish your novel. If you are an artist of any kind, then you must believe that your voice, metaphorical or not, matters. I’ve spent nearly twenty years teaching creative writing, ESL, comp, literature, and critical thinking in general, and I’ve seen firsthand, over and over, that engaging with the human condition does help foster empathy in others. Our creative voice, as well as our human voice, is sacred.
I won’t make you work for it — this book was immediately useful, genuinely interesting, and greatly improved my novel.
I picked up this book for two reasons. First, I had the uncomfortable feeling I should have studied story structure sooner and that my current WIP was lacking something. I also wanted to be able to articulate plot structure better for my own creative writing students. Save the Cat! helped with both goals. The real aha moment was when I realized my “theme stated” wasn’t actually stated. Yikes. With this clarification, my character went from not knowing what he wanted (not a very interesting goal) to knowing exactly what he wanted while having to learn how to overcome his flaws to get it. It’s been a lengthy process to unravel my novel’s plot points and restructure with Save the Cat!, but it’s been worth it. Even more encouraging is that I’ve been better able to plot the sequel having now internalized this structure.
Like many books on craft, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, written by Jessica Brody and published in 2018, begins with an introduction that is probably an expendable eleven minutes of your time. (Disclaimer: I listened to the audio version). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel follows the celebrated, highly successful version written originally for screenwriters, and no doubt Brody wanted to frame the “story beat” context and honor the insights of Blake Snyder’s original Save the Cat method.
But you? You’re a busy writer, with barely enough time to perfect your new “stuck at home during the end times” bread-making, ice-cream churning, terrace-hydroponics gardening or essential-oils candle-making skills. Meanwhile, you’re reading a book on craft to motivate yourself to write a novel (perhaps about a bread-making, ice-cream churning housebound superhero) or, more likely, to work through a sticky structure issue. So skip the intro unless you need to be convinced the book will be useful. It will be. (And hey, besides, haven’t we all been warned dozens of times we’ll never be one of the chosen few agented authors if we dare present them with a prologue? Why then are we reading one?)
Unsurprisingly for me, I digress. Brass tacks time: figuring out how to plot, improve, or edit your novel.
Summary: Brody structures this book around the now-famous “story beats” which break down how and when certain plot points and thematic events must occur. Brody points out these beats, done successfully, in novel after novel, analyzing classics and recent best sellers from numerous genres. Brody does urge you to listen to the chapters in order, saying that your being stuck somewhere in your writing process is likely the “symptom, not the real ailment,” meaning that you need to understand your character’s arc in order to know how to lead them through events. Brody explains that her book is about “plot, structure, and character transformation,” referring to them as “the holy trinity of story.” The book comes with worksheets and pdfs on “Ten Universal Lessons,” various exercises to make your hero “story-worthy” or brainstorm important aspects of character arc, and of course, the book includes a timeline of the ever-important “story beats.”
I didn’t wholly follow Brody’s advice regarding how to use the book. I read the first several chapters in order, in which the story beats and general principles are discussed, and then starting skipping around to listen to the different genre examples based on my own writing interests. But in the end, I listened to them all, because each genre has something important to teach about novel writing.
Why this book works: Yes. Save the Cat! breaks down novel-writing into a semi-formula. And this approach, so loudly discouraged in MFA programs and literary circles, can have its drawbacks. Any novel that relies too heavily on formula can lose its fluidity and become staid and predictable. However, the real artistic integrity behind Save the Cat! is that it espouses character over plot, arguing that the structure of a story is woven through a successful combination of both character development and the timely plotting of events that resonate with said development. The examples provided by Brody, with genre breakdowns such as “monster in the house” and “fool triumphant,” are thorough and well-explained, thus helping the reader immediately connect to Brody’s points.
I’m on board. To accompany a character as they transform, to be taken by the hand as they reveal how they became such a perfectly flawed, wonderful, complex bundle of ganglia and neurons and neuroses — that’s why I write. Writing novels is addictive. Magical. Surprising. Transformative. And Save the Cat! proves that while plot matters, it’s the thematic resonance behind each plot point and story beat that makes us care about the protagonist’s story.
Lastly, and I say this after having taught creative writing for years, the worksheets provide genuinely useful activities and questions for consideration regarding character development. Many books teaching story structure for commercial writers provide such rigid guidelines that they leave little room for actual creativity, thus becoming a parody of themselves as structure guides. Not so with Save the Cat! (Follow me if you’re interested in my upcoming review of the Story Grid). Save the Cat! will teach you how current, commercial novels are being plotted and will surprise you with is consideration of theme.
Sure, each writer has a different need when it comes to a book on craft. If you want something literary and articulate that makes you remember why you want to write, or even exist, try Lamott. If you want a workbook or regular practice to get you writing, try Cameron. If you want an intensive book on line-level craft and devices, try Gardner. And of course, if you just want to read a fascinating memoir about the life of a novelist steeped in the human condition, try King.
You might want to try Save the Cat! if:
You have imposter syndrome about being a novel-writer. After reading this, you’ll know more about structure than many exiting MFA programs. Four years deconstructing the description of a coatrack in Maugham may not always translate into the writing of a satisfying novel that hooks readers.
You have always wanted to write a novel but haven’t made much progress. Reading this book and following the exercises may well tell you if you’re ready, or even truly interested, in the longer pursuit. If you are ready, you’ll have a path for moving forward.
You are stuck for ideas/stuck in the middle of your novel. Checking in on where you should be at a certain point in the story, structurally, can often jog your brain and help you rediscover where the energy resides.
You’ve written your novel but suspect the arc and structure need a tune-up. Yup. This was me. I had no trouble writing my last novel, but I knew it did not fulfill a clear arc. STC! helped me see what I was unwilling to admit: my character, though beloved to me, had muddy development on the page. Here’s a link to my revised novel (a dystopian YA about a post-plague world).
You’re thinking about trying NaNoWriMo. This book is a fantastic opportunity to work on story plotting for the week before Nano so that you can hit the ground running (though the NaNoWriMo website also has excellent resources).
Disclaimer: I listened to the audio version of STC!, which included the necessary beat sheets and story exercises as pdfs. The narration, by Brody, was commendably upbeat without being overbearing, and I also give her credit for sounding equally enthusiastic about the lengthy deconstruction of dozens of novels.
Anti-disclaimer: I am not an affiliate and in no way benefit from your purchase of STC! I’ve been evaluating books on craft for my teaching of college creative writing courses and have been commenting on my findings on my blog. (There you can find reviews of other books on craft and my suggestions on various writing skills such as reducing word count, writing distinctive dialogue, and/or overcoming writers block).
I’m pretty sure I offended an abacus in a past life. And I’m pretty sure my downward spiral into the underworld of negative zeros and ones is the karmic result. (Don’t tell me there’s no such thing as a negative zero; have you ever tasted plain seltzer?) Most tech hates me, even the tech that isn’t secretly hiding its evil sentience.
But I finally did it. I told the my mental critic that this was 2020, and that their constant yelling about how “any route besides traditional publishing would make me a failure” was no longer helpful. And so I released an ebook on Amazon. And then a KPD book. And someday soon I’ll really know what I’m doing and maybe take it on the road. But I can’t tell you how relieved, proud, and inspired that I’ve found the agency and confidence to undertake this process.
It wasn’t easy. First came a long argument in which my inner critic revealed themselves as a multi-personed “they” who includes:
The ex boyfriend. (Which one? Who cares. They’ve become a blur of soft t-shirts and sharp comments).
The Girl Scout troop leader. She shamed me for not selling enough cookies the winter my mother died. Yes, really. “Sorry, girls; we can’t attend the jamboree because someone (long horse-faced stare my way) didn’t make their quota.” I’m totally over it, though. Tagalongs, what?
The nuns. I doomed them to Limbo when I panicked and forgot their instructions during my First Communion.
Another blurry ex boyfriend.
Possibly Gandalf. The jury is still out on this, but I’ve always feared I accidentally knocked a loud metaphorical object down into an endless well and drew a horde of Orc into this realm.
My parents. The have staunchly declared they are not part of the critic’s miasma. But I’ve always believed they’d somehow finally be proud of me from the other side if I were a print author.
Innumerable others. Enough said.
After winning this argument mostly by shoving the critic into a mental broom closet, I began my new life as the author of ebooks. (As I write this, the critic is sulking about the spiders. A fair point. I don’t clean much.)
Yup. Here is it– the obligatory link to my book. Do I expect a massive sales rush from my few WordPress readers? No. Am I super proud of it and do I want to show it off? Yes. You got me. https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://www.amazon.com/dp/B08CXD4W91__;!!DV0tHk0!LCAaNIXJb64vQB2ts4kKl9r22N45oQm8mU1lSCsJmU_PflJlSzIn4sIkUCgbautSO4wl$
Why can’t I hyperlink this and call it by its name– The Pox Ward? Because zeroes and ones hate me. Sigh. Sorry, Abacus.
Seriously, feel free back to this blog and ask me questions about this process!
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
I won’t minimize the work agents do. They work hard. Really hard. And the cut from the publisher isn’t stellar in the first place, and their cut is even smaller than yours, and they want you to succeed. I still recommend trying both routes.
Just don’t, if you decide to step into the world of self-publishing, don’t let yourself think for a minute you aren’t good enough. Gaining agency in your life is healthy and brave. Experiencing new things, taking chances, and jumping off a cliff — that’s why we’re here. It may be that deciding you want to “choose your life,” instead of waiting to “be chosen” is a good enough reason to jump.
I know. Authors writing blogs about writing to other authors is weird, right? If YOU publish a book, that might be one less I sell. Sure, I get that. But I can’t live in that kind of world. I just wish you luck! I want to believe the universe is infinite and there’s room for all of us.
In my next post I’ll talk more about my hints and tips for undertaking this process w/o losing the will to live. I can’t wait to teach my students what I learned!
***Photo of sunrise on bridge by Donal Conn
Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could straight up just tell you how to land an agent in this post? And wouldn’t you think I had a ton more credibility if I’d already secured one?
I’m heading to a writing conference this weekend to learn more about craft and marketing, and I’m hopeful. (See my post on PPWC and questions I’ll try to get answered). I’ve only recently begun querying, having waited a long time for my 10,000 plus hours of “mastery” to ennoble me. I’ve also done a copious amount of revision on both my series and and standalones. My first recent rejections have reminded me that I chose to be in this for the long haul and cannot let myself be stuck in the swamps of despair.
It’s okay. I’m new at this, but determined. As a writer, you’re probably like me– you’d rather do your taxes, clean the sink traps, gutters, and even your friends’ sink traps and gutters, and then do your back taxes (not based on a real incident), than begin querying.
I’ll tell you that querying will be daunting, time consuming, and ultimately, a learning process that will improve your manuscript and your skills. I know it has mine. Also, I like to put things in the positive. Yes, I realize there’s a finite number of agents, book deals, and Harry Potters. Meanwhile, we’re competing with a possibly infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters. But since I’ve begun writing my novels, the creative process has been kind to me in that the more I write, the happier I am. I can only believe that honoring our creativity means we’re on the right path for our lives.
I teach creative writing at a college and have an endless (and perhaps annoying) amount of optimism for the craft. So here are a few pick me ups as we wander that path together…
Not finding an agent right away means you have more time to work on that next novel. That’s right–you can’t stop writing just because you’ve finished that first book. You have too much to learn by writing your second! The process will give you clarity on your previous work and teach you about your strengths, weaknesses, patterns, and process. While waiting for those slow-to-arrive responses, if you’ve been working away, you’re already even better at writing than when you sent the query!
Rejections of your query letter itself tell you that you need a better query, and this is useful info. Really. The query is not the book. It’s an animal unto itself, and if agents are not responding, then you need to reconsider how you’re approaching them. Luckily, there are many resources for writing good queries, and I’ve linked a few at the bottom of this post.
If you are getting asked for pages based on your query, you can take heart that the main features of your query (genre, concept, word count, pitch, character arc, comps, and overall author demeanor) must hold some appeal. But if agents are not getting past those first ten pages, that also indicates that you need to write better first pages. Why is this good? Well… okay. I’ll stall and admit something here: that back taxes thing was based on a real incident, which I suspect you knew.
Seriously, though… the opening pages of any book are the hardest to write, and very likely, you can improve them! So take heart. If your novel concept appeals to agents but you’re having trouble leading in to the book, it’s easily fixable. Often authors hit their stride a few chapters in. Your work on other projects as you wait for query responses will again help give you the perspective to improve the start. However, since you might not see this rewriting endeavor with quite as much optimism as I do at this moment, I’ll move on.
Most importantly, you’ll have time to work on that author platform! You don’t want to miss out because an agent liked your query and pages but checked out your public persona and found you had none. No, not all agents care about platforms, but some do, and you should have some awareness of this by researching each agents’ own platforms. You’ll also learn more about their personalities, wishlists, and if you two would work well together.
Pitfalls to avoid (I need a better verb here. Who swerves toward a pitfall?)
Don’t give up. You don’t suck. Probably. And even if so, that’s a subjective judgment you have no time for. Once you keep going, and keep writing, and keep learning, you will no longer suck, anyway. So tell that critical voice in your head to take a vacation or jump off a cliff, depending on your mood. The creative process loves you and wants only the best for you. Publishing is beyond its ethereal control, but writing regularly and with passion is within yours.
Don’t tear the book apart with massive reconstruction until you’ve written at least one more book and have a better sense of how novels are constructed. Most authors’ first books are not published, or at least, not published as their breakthrough novel. Frustrating as that is, keep going. That’s what a writer does. So write. Write. Write. Drink water occasionally. Then write more.
Don’t turn to self-publishing as a knee-jerk reaction. It may well be the best option, and I’m all for fighting the power and resisting the massive profit portions that publishing houses take. But if you do turn to self publishing, again, wait until you’ve had time to thoughtfully edit and revise the manuscript. You don’t want to immortalize something you might later realize wasn’t ready to be published! You also need to thoroughly research self publishing. You might not be able to ever market that book to an agent afterward. We’re better than random monkeys, but we’re not all Andy Weir, either.
Okay, enough with the pep talk! Here’s a great blog by a compatriot on the trials and tribulations of beginning the search for an agent.
And below, some good resources on queries:
You’re knee-deep in your series about ambidextrous alien octogenarian acrobats who take over the world one trapeze act at a time. You’ve got a first novel published, another in the editing stage, and at least three more half written or mapped out on coffee-stained notecards in your writing room. (This room is actually a walk-in closet you’ve soundproofed with recycled packing materials from the past year’s mail-order binges, but hey, what struggling author has an entire writing room?)
Okay. Suddenly, in “real life,” ambidextrous octogenarian acrobats land their spaceship in Death Valley. Now you’re writing a series that needs to stay relevant and incorporate the fact that apparently such villains have three legs and are myopic. The myopia is a real problem for you, plot-wise, since it’s hard to hypnotize prey through coke-bottle glasses or bi-focal contact lenses.
In short: how do you keep your series authentic and relevant when technology and large scale current events change how readers interact with your worldbuilding?
My Pox series, begun in 2012, is set in a post-plague world. I built it slowly, putting it aside frequently while improving my craft and of course, attending to my day job. Last March I decided it was then or never, and I’ve since released two books on Amazon and will soon release a third.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about this process of keeping your world relevant:
Don’t Forget the Toilet Paper
Include a few eternal key details that give your work authenticity. You can rely on the human condition here. For example, after the horror movie that was 2020, it’s only logical that any scene in which YA characters are packing their car to flee for the hills during a pandemic requires a snarky comment about how much it will suck to run out of toilet paper. That’s because people will always need toilet paper. It’s never going to be irrelevant. This, as well as something like Zoom fatigue, has become part of our shared experience.
Now, the future version of Zoom may not be called Zoom. But if you use a name that is recognizable in context, like “V-room” or “Emeet” you’ll be covered. We’ll always need to connect. And people will always be frustrated by tech glitches even if we don’t specify what kind of tech or what kind of glitch. Ask yourself: what changes are likely to remain a part of our shared experience?
I’m guessing murder hornets. Ugh.
Take a Wiki Approach
By this I mean: Pitch crucial technology or plot details toward a “layperson” audience.
Most likely, experts in a field, if they’re enjoying your story, aren’t going to roll their eyes too much over your getting a high-level tech detail wrong. Unless you’re writing in a niche market, aim for the middle of the road with your jargon and scientific explanations.
For example, before Covid hit, sketchy details on viruses and poxes and mutations and vaccines would have sufficed for my series. But now the average person knows viruses can’t be cured through antibiotics and would expect masks to play some part in post-plague world attire. Thus, for dystopian worldbuilding after March 2020, I’ve had to figure out for myself, as well as my readers, if the feral-cannibal-producing strain in my series is due to a mutation or a variant or a bacterial reaction, and so on.
This info admittedly wasn’t easy to deliver concisely in the novel itself, but Wiki helped me get a grasp of what readers might need to know. Basically, I look at what Wiki shares on a topic, assume the average person will know about half of that, explain it at that level in the novel wherever it needs to go (while avoiding an info dump), and try not to use any language that would require a footnote if on Wiki. In short, your readers probably don’t care if you use the Latin plural of virus, but if you do include it, get it right!
I made that up. Sort of. Anyone know if there is one?
Which brings us to…
Balance, Some Teetering on the Brink, and More Balance.
If you create a detailed, futuristic world intended to be Earth, you will always run the risk of your premise later seeming outdated or negated by technology or world events. We can boil this down to the “cell-phone effect.” How many older movie or novel conflicts would have been resolved with a simple phone call, etc? A novel set in 2040 about a black-market organ harvesting ring will fall pretty flat if we’ve figured out by then how to make affordable organs with 3-D printing. This idea can scare writers into not writing future worlds.
However, we must not fail to embed specific, concrete details into our worldbuilding. That’s what makes our writing vivid. So the key here is balance. Decide what you can leave vague and what you need to define. Leave room where you can so you’re not painted into a corner. Focus on the danger, the drama, the conflict. That won’t age out. Unless you’re writing hard sci fi, you probably want to get into the crux of the problem and not the minutia of the solution or technology. Say the protagonist lives in a world where, oh, I don’t know, teenaged tributes are forced to fight in arenas while horrific cyberdogs attack them just as they’re about to escape. The hook is the conflict, the fight, and the characters, not how the cyberdogs were created or colorized or dropped into the arena.
Lastly, Get Something Right.
Do this by picking at least one detail of your world to expand upon that you can get right and which cannot be updated into being wrong. An example of this would be the desert in the Dune series. Herbert went for authenticity and evocation of emotion. These scenes were hot, dry, sandy, eyeball-scorching, and gritty. No matter how many times I read Dune, I still find myself stopping mid chapter to get a drink of water.
Sure, it’s a fictionalized world, which helps the author avoid technology advances muddying up his series, but moreso, the setting details steal the show and will always eclipse any minor incongruity re space travel. No one cares if there’s a plot hole involving g-force. Why? Because Herbert was an expert on Arrakis! And giant sandworms! And stillsuits! And partying on spice!
Yes, it’s been challenging to write about a post-pandemic world while we’re enduring a pandemic, but it’s also been fascinating to watch life imitate my art. I hope you allow yourself the freedom to create the world your heart longs to write about. In the end, readers will connect with your ideas and characters more than the technicalities of one or two plot details. Have fun, and happy worldbuilding! If you’re stuck, I have a blog post on writer’s block to get you unstuck.
Kendra Griffin, Professor of English at Aims Community College, is the author of Young Adult speculative fiction novels The Pox Ward and Apocalypse Thoughts. Learn more about her work and creative writing workshops here or sign up for her newsletter (Get The Pox). Apocalypse Thoughts will be free on Amazon from 4/9-4/12, or you can enter the Goodreads Giveaway!
I can’t figure out how all my friends are finding so much free time lately. They’re learning to bake bread with pumpkin glaze, how to give self haircuts, how to construct elaborate home art projects like mini Sistine Chapels with their kids–meanwhile, between my teaching job (now done remotely) and wiping down the house a zillion times for germs, I’m not learning any cute new skills. And I’m certainly not bored. I’m just writing–and it’s a joy.
If you’ve thought about embarking on your own writing project now that you’re home more, you’re not alone. Many people are turning inward, examining themselves, delving into their creative sides, and finding the courage (and inspiration) to write their memoirs, pen that chapbook of poems, or tackle that novel idea they’ve always (maybe literally) dreamed of writing.
Whatever you do, make sure you take the time to cultivate a strong critique group. You need this not only because you need support during this opportunity, but because you will inspire each other to write more, write better, and write with more focus. Finding a good critique group isn’t easy even in non-Covid times, and likely now you’ll need to conduct this online. Don’t despair. I’ve started two great critique groups online since March, and you can, too.
Such a group can be found in many places, especially since distance and commute now have little bearing on the endeavor. Start with your local library programming. If they don’t offer a group, request one. You’d be surprised how often and how quickly public libraries respond to programming requests, especially those that allow librarians to enjoy their creative side. Since this will be online, reach out to any library or group that interests you. I started one this way a year ago; we’ve since transitioned to Zoom sessions and meet regularly with a strong core group of writers.
Additionally, you can try a local writers’ organization. Search them in your area and see if any host writing circles. Membership costs are usually low and go toward a dedicated group of volunteers; some are free. Other benefits will likely include creative writing workshops and sessions by industry professionals. I’ve been a member of this type of group for three years and wouldn’t trade their feedback on my novels for anything. Lastly, of course, there’s Meetup. And with Nanowrimo coming up this fall, be on the lookout for local write-ins and writer’s circles.
Now, once you find your group, you’ll want to set some ground rules. I recommend meeting regularly to gain momentum. Even if no one is willing to share at first, try discussing a sample work. Once you get going, consider limiting submissions to ten pages so that readers aren’t overwhelmed. Eventually, you’ll get savvier at figuring out who gives useful feedback and who just keeps saying, “I really like this.” Lastly, don’t make your meeting links public. That’s not safe. And if anyone is hearing impaired, Google Hangouts has an excellent closed-captioning transcription.
Now get going! The only way to be a writer is to write!
Kendra Griffin is a writer and teacher of writing; her website can be found at www.kendragriffin.com
I’ve always scoffed at books or blogs or workshops that addressed the dreaded WBS. But then, to my total embarrassment, I got stuck. Mired in a very real, very block-headed slump which I refuse to call by its full, cliché name, like He-Who-Shall-Not-Be Named. I won’t even refer to it directly as the title of this blog.
So there I was, about three quarters through a novel so marketable that an agent chased me down after a conference first-page critique and asked for the entire book. Seriously. The other attendees at my table literally (and I use the word “literal” very sparingly) stared with slack-jawed envy. Yet I had just begun writing the novel and wasn’t even ready to query. A year later, at another conference, more query critique sessions yielded the same interest. Thus, I knew my idea was solid and my first pages strong. And yet… I couldn’t write the end!
Okay, I promised some tips for getting out of WBS, not a story about me. So first, let’s try to identify what kind of block you’re experiencing. Are you:
Stuck on a minor detail, like solving a problem or plot loophole? Time for a “Say Yes Night.*” Every time you hear yourself saying, “I couldn’t possibly change that part,” you should immediately try changing it (just in a draft format). It will expand your work, no matter how much you keep. And yes you can modify things if need be—you’re the master creator! Or, less excitingly, see if you can modify a different variable in your novel that isn’t crucial, which might enable an easier scenario to present itself to you. Also, try bouncing ideas off friends, especially the ones who are not writers. They’re not attached to outcomes like you are. The idea here is to stay open!
Stuck for the next plot point because you don’t know how it ends, and pantsing is no longer working? It might be time to outline—sorry! I feel you! I’m a pantser, too. This is a boring suggestion on my part, but the writing teacher knows sometimes ya gotta just suck it up.
Stuck because the characters and story went rogue, and you don’t know what they want next? Harder. Hmm. Try asking each character what they want to happen next, and what they really don’t, and then make at least some of those undesired things happen to shake things up. Either way, you’ll learn more about their motivations.
Stuck because you’re trying to make a character do or be something they’re not? This will also require either a restructuring of their persona or some intensive journaling for backstory.
Stuck with where to even start writing your new novel? If you’re trying to open a story you know you want to write, or have a character you see clearly but for whom you lack a clear plotline, then I’d let go of the idea of ‘starting at the beginning.’ Just dive in anywhere that feels exciting and the rest will follow. Writing is not always the Yellow Brick Road. Sometimes it’s a scavenger hunt. Or a game of whack-a-mole. Or that car chase in It’s a Mad Mad Mad (and onto infinity) World. Start writing, and keep writing, at any point. Movement is your friend.
Stuck because your arc is complete, but your novel feels very short? You might need a subplot, or to brainstorm backstory about your character to flesh out smaller arcs for them. Or invent an irresistible minor character who just has to nose their way in.
Stuck because you’re too close to the story and it’s either depressing or hard to get perspective on? Hint: This was my problem. I’ll explain more later. You might need to start a side project or find a way to make it less like your own story.
You may have a combination of WBS symptoms. Here are some more specific approaches. They all have their use, to varying degrees.
1. Refuse to allow the possibility that WBS exists, and keep writing even if you’re not feeling energized by what you’re saying.
Pros: You’ll very possibly write your way through, like steering through a huge puddle and getting safely out the other side. You’ll come up with some great lines, and even if you don’t keep the majority of what you write, it’s food for thought and/or backstory. Eventually you’ll get back on track—right?
Cons: If you’re really off track, you’ll continue to feel depleted.
Hard-won Tip: If you continue to write and feel really depleted, it’s the sign you ARE off track and at least you now know for sure.
2. Suss out where/when/how you feel inspired and spend some quality time there. For some reason I feel my thoughts are set free in three places—walking, driving (only on a road trip, where I know I’m going somewhere “new” to find one of the lost pieces of myself), or listening to live music with a crowd of people. Sometimes I even hear lyrics and lines over what they’re singing. Take your phone with you in case you want to dictate, but do let the voice talk a while before you try to pin it down.
3. This is a related strategy to 2. Go somewhere or do something where that inspired voice can yell! It’s like singing. Your literary lungs need to be full of air before you belt out the notes. Your voice wants to yell, and risk-take, and scat, and free-form, but it’s become shy with all that pressure of working itself into a novel arc so that you’ll finally be famous/published/good enough/rich/finally worth of your parents’ love, etc. Let that voice yell—over music or a buzzsaw or live music or out the car window—let it yell loud until it’s hoarse.
4. Take a short break, but do something that uses a different part of your brain—like math. Or filing your back taxes. If you end up playing Fallout, try not to get lost for too long looking for the perfect power-armor.
5. Take a real break, like at least days if not months. (Ugh, right? Who wants to do this?)
Pros: You can finally stop thinking about the novel. You might get perspective. You might currently be so far inside the book that you’re unable to generate enough new brain cells about anything else and you need to refuel.
Cons: You might not go back. It’s up to you to know this about yourself.
Hard-won Tip: Really, this works best if you do what makes you happy during this time and don’t obsess over the novel. Again, obsessing over power-armor is probably not the best use of this time. Maybe work on your author platform?
6. Work on a different novel and try to trust that letting one part of the field relax for a season will allow to be replenish. I call this the crop rotation theory.
7. Read up on story structure and find a plotting device or model that jogs your brain. The Story Grid, the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, what have you. Sure, maybe you already know what you’re doing as a writer and you feel it’s beneath you, but these are some of the better books out there, and going back to the fundamentals will always resonate.
8. Also to be tried at this point are journaling and freewriting on your characters or world. One of my tricks is to open a fresh doc and write at the top of the page: “What am I really trying to say in this section?” It seems super-easy, almost too easy. It’s for low-level WBS, and it has helped me many times. Journaling/ freewriting on your intended themes and goals is a great low-stakes way to get momentum again. It’s so easy that we experienced writers might overlook the simplicity of the idea.
9. Go back to where you last felt it was working and start from there again.
Pros: You’re going to write from a place where you are energized again! This is why you love writing! Remember now?
Cons: It takes time and may result in your trashing several thousand words. This is my least favorite strategy, but it is sometimes necessary.
Hard-Won Tip: You’re potentially going to be annoyed you have to do it, so that might add even more energy. But, you might be tempted to simply revise the other arc/direction you went in. It will go better if you don’t look at at the last draft at all. Open a fresh document so that other plotline is not just a few clicks away.
10. Find a writing group, take a class, or go to a conference with agents or critique circles. I call this the “joining the gym” theory. If you pay money for something, or add some social pressure to the mix, it might force you to perform.
11. Look for comps. Not only will you need them for your query, but they might help you understand what you’re trying to achieve with your work.
12. If all else fails, meditate, pray, talk to a counselor—maybe tell your favorite compassionate, wise tree why you are frustrated. As in, meditate directly on the themes of the book.
“I’m so stuck because the protagonist has to overcome his greatest struggle now, and I have to make it exciting, but really, what the character needs to do is just stop being so codependent, and that doesn’t seem really interesting, so I don’t know what to write!
“And hey, god/Universe/Dr. Jung/Piney, I’m not sure that’s heroic enough. To just do the right thing, but quietly. Is it enough? What would it look like?”
Pro: You’re improving yourself even if the book doesn’t get fleshed out.
Con: Welcome to soul-searching. You might have to confront something in yourself.
Yes, folks, this is the one it took for me. When I had finally picked a salable topic — an edgy contemporary YA that drew heavily from my own fragmented teenage — I started writing too fast for my fingers to type. Literally. Then, I hit the third section, where it should have all been ramping up, and my train collided into a brick wall. A wall made of bricks that looked awfully square. Blockish, even. Why? Because I wanted it to end more cheerfully than the novel or reality demanded. I had to be ready to let some major bad things happen to good people, instead of making it all turn out mostly well, like the YA books I enjoy.
For almost two years, I tried editing, re-editing, and writing the ending, but I kept stopping just short of the last 3,000 words, then rewriting and re-editing and on to infinity. In the interim I went to another conference. And AGAIN with the agents wanting me to send pages or the entire book. But I knew it wasn’t ready yet. I put it down, I asked friends, I wrote two other middle grade novels, and I did study the art of novel arcing/plotting. I also started this blog.
But I finally got through the block the hard way — by realizing that I had to let my protagonist mostly fail and another character mostly succeed. And a third character — the reason I was inspired to write the book in the first place — him I had to let fall down and keep falling. I cried as I wrote the real ending. That’s probably a good sign.
The point of this post, and my website, is to find secret passageways into your work by changing your position and viewpoint. I imagine that our minds are like houses, and we travel around from room to room (a puny metaphor—one room might be the entire continent of Asia, perhaps—) as our mood and experiences dictate. A work of art is much the same. If you can’t get in through a door, you need to peek in a window. Or slip a note under the door. Or slither down the chimney like the Grinch. Sometimes if you glance at something from the side without realizing what you’re looking at, you’ll see it differently.
13. So my last suggestion is to try the suggestion that most interested you (and gave you a thrill of hope), but only AFTER doing the suggestion that most made you cringe.
Yup. It might be the outline. Sorry. Getting through WBS is about doing something differently than the last twenty thousand times you did it. Thereby making yourself saner. You can get through this block! I did. And all of these techniques will make you a better writer.
Remember, when it’s dark outside, a window becomes a mirror. If the view is blocked, looking inward and working on yourself as a writer will keep you serving your highest purpose.
For more ideas on writing and craft, and to feel generally encouraged that life is good, or at least tolerable, check out my website at http://kendragriffin.com
*Yes, I stole this phrasing from Grace and Frankie!
*I know. I gave you 13. I always talk too much 🙂