Hey, friends! It’s November, and that means reblogs! You’ll remember I wrote about the Hero’s Journey a few weeks ago and mentioned that it was by no means the only story structure out there. Well the fantastic Steve Seager has you covered! Check out his blog to read the full article! Happy writing!
Beyond the Hero’s Journey: Four innovative models for digital story design
All storytelling has inherent structures. But for the most part, communicators and creators employ just one. It really is time to move beyond the Hero’s Journey. Here are four alternative models to get you in the mood.
Roland Barthes, master linguist and semiotician once said: “There are countless forms of narrative in the world.” And yet the majority of western storytellers have been ploughing just one narrative model for over 60 years: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey from the Hero with a Thousand Faces.
While it has its value, Campbell’s model is, I would argue, no longer a useful model for narrative design on a structural level. Down below, I offer four alternative narrative structures that we could use to design intelligent stories more fitting to our contemporary context. But why the big deal about structure?
Ready for the full meal deal? Hop on over to steveseager.com for the whole article!
When I was about to start my senior year of high school, I sat down with my school counselor and went through some possible electives that I could fill out my schedule with. I was stunned and delighted to come across one titled Creative Writing. The thought of getting a grade for something I did for fun had never occurred to me. (And the thought of getting paid for it wouldn’t occur for another several years yet.)
My teacher was a sarcastic old man just another couple more semesters away from retirement, constantly demanding more of his students and openly mocking those who wouldn’t give it. He had a bird skull rattle that would shake whenever someone said something ridiculous that would help “keep the stupid away.” He shook that rattle a lot.
I adored him. He was the perfect kind of snarky, clever art connoisseur for me to worship and I regularly crucified myself to impress him. I remained firmly at the top of his class, my grade never once dipping below 110%, and spent most of my time working on extra projects in the hall or the library, well away from the rattle of the bird skull.
One of those assignments, dreamed up because of my need for a little polish on my opening lines, took me to the library with a very brief set of instructions that went something like this:
Pick three books you know nothing about. Read only the first line and choose your favorite one. Then write a short story using that line as your own first sentence.
Now I was only given this assignment once (and over the course of the 45 minutes of class, I read far more than three first lines, and a lot of second and third and fourth lines too). But it’s stuck with me over the years. In fact, I even found and entered a writing competition with a similar premise, where a short story was written recycling the first and last lines of famous stories. So my teacher wasn’t the only one with this notion!
Writing first lines can be difficult. Sometimes it helps to see others who do it well. I think that’s what makes this exercise so fun for me—getting to boogie board off of someone else’s genius when my own is flagging.
Want to try it out for yourself? Awesome! There are a couple ways you can go about this. You could pick from books in the genres you work in (or want to work in). This works best for me when I want to work on something, but am writer blocked and looking for inspiration, rather than actual lines. Another way is to get really wild and pick first lines from genres you don’t write. It probably isn’t like anything you would normally write, so this is more a writing exercise for fun (and falls more in line with what my teacher had me doing). It works best for things you would never ever plan to publish, because, of course, we would never just steal someone’s ideas without proper permission and attribution, right? Right.
In the era of COVID, getting your hands on all these lesser known books can be tricky, since you can’t just rove through the stacks at your local library looking for stories you’ve never heard of. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it!
Do you read e-books? Wherever you get them, odds are you can read the first bit of all kinds of books without actually purchasing the full book. (And maybe you’ll like it and want to purchase it anyway. Don’t fight the feeling!) Even if you don’t regularly read e-books and you’re not sure where people get them all that newfangled stuff, just a quick Amazon search will bring up thousands of books, nearly all of which will let you sneak peek at the first pages.
Don’t even know what an “E book” or a “compooter” is? (How are you reading this again?) Get social about it—from a distance! Call up your friends and ask them to share the first line of their current read—whether that’s a traditional book, a graphic novel, or even a podcast transcript. Anything goes!
The idea is to get the creativity flowing, with a little brain juice injection from established pros. (Or even less established ones—I bet your up-and-coming writer friends would be flattered if you asked for the first line of their current project, just for funsies.) And who knows? Maybe all this literary exercising will inspire something a little deeper. You won’t know until you try. And if you do, let me know how it turns out- extra digital cookies for any short stories or killer first lines in the comments!
What do Moby Dick, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars have in common? You already know, don’t you? And that’s because the hero’s journey—also known more awesomely as the monomyth—is everywhere. Jane Eyre? Hero’s journey. The Lion King? Hero’s journey. Lanani of the Distant Sea (which is less famous but still gorgeous so I’m throwing it in)? Hero’s journey! I’m telling you. E. V. E. R. Y. W. H. E. R. E.
This is the plot archetype, and once you start looking for it, it crops up all over the place, no matter the genre, the setting, or the format of the story. And that is because it works.
Now this isn’t to say that the monomyth isn’t without its critics (and rightly so). And I’m also not claiming that this is the only plot archetype out there that works (‘cause it’s not). And it also can’t be said that all hero’s journey stories contain every single one of the described seventeen stages of the monomyth, or that they necessarily follow this order. But for today’s thoughts, I’m going to focus on the hero’s journey as popularized by Joseph Campbell, and how it can help you in your plotting endeavors. (November’s coming up faaast!)
So without further ado, here’s the quick and dirty seventeen plot points of the hero’s journey (divided into a three act structure, no less)!
The Call to Adventure– A normal hero living in the normal world receives a call to head off into the unknown.
Refusal of the Call– The hero at first refuses to follow the call, usually out of a sense of duty or fear. They would rather stay right here in normaland, thank you very much.
Supernatural Aid– The hero eventually commits to the adventure and a mentor and magical guide shows up to help, usually with a gift that will help the hero on their journey.
The Crossing of the First Threshold– The hero leaves the borders of the known world and strikes out into unfamiliar territory.
Belly of the Whale– Something goes wrong and the hero experiences their first hiccup along the way. Through this experience, they begin to change, often first showing their true inner self.
The Road of Trials– The hero undergoes a series of tests that furthers their transformation. These trials usually group in threes.
The Meeting with the Goddess– Some supernaturalish being finds the hero worthy of their task and grants them a gift (new information, new skills, new weapons, etc).
Woman as the Temptress– The hero is tempted to leave their quest. Despite this plot point’s awful name, the temptation is not necessarily a woman.
Atonement with the Father/Abyss– The hero encounters whatever holder of ultimate power operates in the hero’s personal life. (Again, does not have to be a literal dad.) This ego-smashing encounter sets the course for the remainder of the story.
Apotheosis– Armed with new knowledge and perception, the hero proceeds to the most difficult part of his journey.
The Ultimate Boon– Having been properly trained/purified/whatever, the hero achieves their goal and receives what they were seeking all along.
Refusal of the Return– Again, the hero may hesitate to return, having achieved such awesomeness in the new world (or being so exhausted from their ordeal that the return is just too much).
The Magic Flight– The hero leaves the scene of the climax, usually quickly.
Rescue from Without– If they’ve been wounded/drained/etc, they may need help getting back. This is often when the mentor reappears.
The Crossing of the Return Threshold– The hero must learn to manage all the wisdom/power/whatever they’ve gained on their journey and how to use it in everyday life/share it with their normal neighbors.
Master of the Two Worlds– The hero shows they can now be competent in both the normal world and the adventure world.
Freedom to Live– The hero is no longer afraid to truly live. They are unchained from their past and can live in peace.
Whew! That’s a lot of moving parts. So now that we know the parts, let’s chat about the dangers of relying on the hero’s journey formula too heavily in your own plotting plans.
Look at the points above. Suuuper generic, right? When using the hero’s journey as a template for your own work, make sure that your story isn’t generic, too. The world doesn’t need more clichéd rehashings of the same stories again and again. Make sure that your world and your characters are a new take on this very old structure.
Another thing to be careful of is using the list above as a checklist. Formulaic writing is boring writing. Don’t feel like every one of these elements must be included (and all others excluded) just because Campbell said so back in the eighties. In addition to making your world and characters unique, the structure itself should be in some way unique as well.
The hero’s journey can be great at helping you decide what your story idea may be missing, or helping you come up with an interesting storyline to go with your amazing characters you’ve been daydreaming of, but it isn’t always the best structure for every story. If you find your story has some element that doesn’t fit into the grand monomyth, ditch the myth and don’t look back.
What do you think about the hero’s journey structure, fair readers? Good, bad, ugly? It’s awesome because it makes for tight, fast-paced stories? It’s terrible because it ignores traditional story structures originating anywhere but Europe? Let me know your thoughts on it in the comments below!
And until next week, happy writing!
PS- Thank you for your patience these last couple weeks as I get my stuff in order and my head on straight. Bisous!
Our chickens poop a lot. Like, a lot. It is insane the amount of poo that three birds can generate. Every. Single. Day.
Chickens were one of the first to arrive on the ol’ homestead. We had had a small garden for years, and a fire pit if that even counts, but the chickens were kind of a turning point, and I blame it on their poop. At first, I was overwhelmed by the amount of waste they produced. I mean, seriously. SO MUCH POOP. What was I supposed to do with all of it?
At first, I just dumped it in the woods. We have woods enough on the property that it wasn’t an issue. But then I was thoroughly scolded by other chicken keepers in my community for wasting it.
Wasting it? Wasting poop? I mean, isn’t waste pretty much what poop is?
Apparently not. Thus was born my compost heap. I shoveled soiled chicken bedding in there along with grass clippings and kitchen scraps, poking it uncertainly with a pitchfork every now and then. And it all magically turned into soil! What wizardry is this??? Over time, the compost heap became my gateway into vermiculture. And then the worm bin became my gateway into creepy crawlies. And now I have a beehive too and who knows where that’s going to lead? This is getting out of hand!
Vegetable scraps. Dead leaves. Moldy bread. Weeds. Poop. Grass clippings. Ash. When I was a kid, I wouldn’t even have blinked to toss these things in a plastic bag and haul them to the dump. They weren’t good for anything! Trash! But now these things all get mixed, aged, and then tossed into the garden, where they (hopefully?) morph into yummy vegetables for my family to eat. Now that I’ve more or less stopped using synthetic fertilizers, I can’t seem to get together enough compost by the end of each year. In fact, I found myself gleefully accepting some spare horse manure from a friend this spring. Who gets that excited about poop? What has happened to me?
Oddly enough, my reading habits have taken a similar journey over the years. When I was a kid juuuust starting to get into reading, I didn’t really want to read much that wasn’t light sci-fi or fantasy, preferably sci-fi. As I got older, I would occasionally read other genres, usually as prompted by some school assignment, but I still clung pretty hard to my sci-fi/fantasy schtick. (See The Books of My Youth for more about my gateway books!)
I can’t really remember exactly what it was that started the shift into wider pastures. By the time I got into college, I was more or less forced to explore nonfiction more deeply, and that cracked open quite the chasm to fall into. There is sooooo much wackiness in the world to be explored that it can be hard to explain why we even need fiction, haha. Once I graduated and was finally free once and for all to make up my own reading lists, I was a dedicated dabbler, still primarily consuming fantasy and light sci-fi, but dipping my toes into more and more genres. Crichton sci-fi eased me into thrillers and historical. Frankenstein proto-science fiction lured me into classics, horror, and supernatural. Memoirs and biographies, mysteries, nonfiction of all topics, one after another, all tucked neatly into my library bag.
Chicken manure puts nitrogen into my soil and increases water retention. Wood ash provides potassium and phosphorus and raises soil pH. Worm castings have phenomenal mineral contents as well as improving soil structure with no risk of burning tender young plants. Grass clippings, food scraps, leaf mulch, fish tank water—each of these things adds vital nutrients and qualities to the soil in my garden. Likewise, each of the varied genres I read feeds my creative brain, which allows me both a broader range of thought-provoking entertainment and a wider array of ideas to draw from in my own writing.
If you find yourself in a reading rut, I encourage you to reach out a little wider. If you’re a romance junkie, try reading a steampunk romance next time to stretch yourself a little further. Instead of sticking with your usual crime thrillers, maybe reach for a historical crime thriller. You might dip your finger into these other genres only to realize that, no, you really don’t like literary fantasy, and cyberpunk surrealist horror is not your thing. But at least you know now, and you might even be able to subvert the things you didn’t like about those books into something fun and funky in your own worlds.
Hi, frieeeeends! I am about neck deep in trouble this month, barely bobbing along with my head above water. I’m keeping up with the deadlines so far (which is good since I really want that desk plant), but a hiccup (or a cough, you might say, thanks COVID) at work means that instead of doing my job in September and October, I have to do it now now NOW RIGHT NOWto be ready for remote delivery in the fall instead of our regular in-person delivery, which is going to make for a cramped end of the month when Camp NaNo and my work are both due, with two book revisions hot on their heels in the two weeks that follow. Not to mention that things at my summer job have amped up, with three big orders coming in for the fall season and another six major orders due for next spring’s goods within the next two-and-a-half weeks, and my manager is going out of town for a week and has basically put me in charge of a horde of good-natured but highly distractable and benignly lazy teenagers. Send help now.
5 ways to subvert character clichés and archetypes
Creating the next Harry Potter or Holden Caulfield is no easy feat! When writing secondary characters in particular, it’s easy to fall back on clichéd archetypes and stock characters. Yet this isn’t necessarily bad. Embracing stock characters can be more effective than making your character over-complicated. You can turn common or overused character tropes on their head, too.
The most common means of subversion, of making something other than what it first appears, is to introduce a cliché before revealing things aren’t what they appear.
In other words it’s still okay to introduce a valiant knight in the mold of Sir Lancelot… So long as he eventually reveals himself to be more than just an obvious symbol.
Lev Grossman — the author of The Magicians (often referred to as “Harry Potter for adults”) gives us an example.
Example of subverting a character cliché
In The Magicians, Grossman’s character Henry Fogg is a Master Magician and Dean of Students at a school for magic. The author surely knew his character’s type and function could invite comparisons to another fictional wizard: Dumbledore.
However, unlike the wise, benevolent leader of Hogwarts, Fogg quickly shows himself to be cowardly, selfish, and severe. He ultimately fills an adversarial role opposite Quentin, the protagonist, Fogg’s would-be mentee.
This serves a narrative purpose. It turns a secondary character into a source of conflict.
But it also works rhetorically, similarly to a ‘red herring’: it surprises the reader and makes them question their own intuition.
Subversion can also be used as a means of character or plot development.
In Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel series, the authors turn many superhero tropes on their heads. The character Ozymandias is set up as the typical “smartest man in the world”. This is a stock or clichéd comic book character who is overshadowed by brawnier counterparts in strength but not smarts.
However, Ozymandias’ non-threatening appearance makes him a ruthlessly efficient and undetectable villain. The revelation of the character’s malevolent power packs all the more punch since, up until this point in the story, readers may see him as little more than a forgotten sidekick. [Use the ‘Character’ section of the Now Novel dashboard to brainstorm characters and their purpose – Ed’s note.]
To subvert your own characters:
Identify a list of character clichés usually associated with their type (e.g. ‘warrior’ equals ‘strong’).
Think of how stock character types (such as “mentors”) have typical behavioural features. Dumbledore or Charlotte the Spider will always be wise and cautious.
Then create a character to fit that mold perfectly… before revealing that, say, their “wisdom” is just stolen from a book of idioms. Subversion such as these add surprise complexity to your characters and story.
2. Parody the clichéd character archetype
If you prefer to introduce a character who isn’t any deeper than a cliché, there are ways to make this interesting too. It’s a classic approach of comedy. You can take this character and their development in the opposite direction to the first approach and parody this type…
Ready to read some more? Head on over to Novel Now for the full article! And until next week, happy writing!
Avoid clichés like the plague. That’s what we’re always told, right? (That, and never submit stories in Comic Sans font, but who really listens to that one?) But surely clichés can’t always be bad, can they? Are there times when clichés would be appropriate and right?
But first, what the heck is a cliché? (Okay, I’ll ease off on the endless questions now, sorry.)
A cliché is a phrase or idea that was once fresh and innovative, leading to its broad distribution and popularity, but that has since become so overused as to become boring, predictable, or even annoying. While the pre-cliché expression is witty and clever, that same expression post-cliché is often viewed as dull and lazy. Sometimes clichés will even lose their original context and just become a meaningless response to be trotted out following the appropriate stimulus. (Think, “The whole nine yards.” Like, we all know what that means, but what was the framework for why it means that?)
Clichés shouldn’t be confused with stereotypes (a set of attributes that people ascribe to a group at large), truisms (a widely accepted or self-evident ‘fact’, often seen as so obvious as to negate the need for definition or proof), or formal expressions (phrases used ceremonially, such as ‘I second the motion,’ or ‘I do solemnly swear…,’ etc.). There are also proverbs, idioms, and all kind so of other specifically defined phrases. While all of these things can contribute to a cliché, or be used in a cliché manner, they’re each kind of their own thing that we’re not going to get into much here.
The kinds of cliché I want to talk about today comes in two varieties: short phrases (the micro-cliché, if you will) and chains of events (the macro-cliché). And when it comes to writing a story, you want to be very, very careful with either of them. But that said, they do have their uses!
Cliché expressions are best used in establishing voice. After all, characters use clichés all the time, just like real people. Maybe they like to say things are ‘all that and a bag of chips’. Maybe they’re always rolling their eyes and ironically grumbling back their mom’s signature ‘a chip off the ol’ block’. Or maybe the time traveler from the 1920s has a tendency to cheerfully advise their friends to ‘know your onions’. Or these phrases can be tragically subverted, such as the terminally ill character encouraging their concerned family with a successively weaker and weaker ‘fit as a fiddle’.
Subversion is probably the best way to use clichéd events or situations in your storyline. Maybe the princess meets a friendly old woman who is of course a witch in disguise. How can you subvert this trope so that the story isn’t boring for your readers? Likewise, everyone expects that when your protagonist has a weird, symbolism laden dream that it’s foreshadowing something important. So how can you upend that expectation to deliver something unexpected?
When subverting a cliché, whether that’s a single phrase or a whole story trope, you’re working with two parts. The set up (which is the trope that savvy readers will see the beginning of and make assumptions about what’s coming) and the subversion (where the trope is revealed to be a red herring and now we’re going somewhere else, get in the car).
During this process, it’s important to surprise your audience, but also to not disappoint them. Yes, it would be very surprising to find out that the Chosen One completely fails in their task (and some shadowy governmental agency has to come clean up the mess and now there’s a hole in the universe that occasionally rains radioactive cheddar curds) and then the protagonist squanders the remainder of their life in drunken shame and dies while trying to fight off a ten-year-old pickpocket armed with an irradiated Army-issue spork. Surprising, sure. But your readers are going to pelt you with rotten fruit by the end of the story if you don’t pull off something better than that.
Like all other things in the story, the subversion needs to have the three S’s. It has to make sense, surprise readers, and satisfy the audience. Losing any one of those elements will sour the experience. But it you can use all three of them while turning a cliché on its head (haha, that’s a cliché), please do!
How about you guys? Can you think of any other good uses for clichés? Or any times you’ve seen them used well? Let me know in the comments below! And until next time, happy writing!
In the ongoing mission to turn my property into a small farm, I have somehow taken up beekeeping. (“I don’t know how this keeps happening,” she says, standing with a pitchfork and hugging a chicken.) To be fair, I didn’t jump into this completely blind. I did tons of research and I’ve spent the last couple summers harassing my neighbor-up-the-road who keeps bees. I bought books. I took a class. And yet it still feels a little surreal. How did this happen?
It felt extra surreal when I found myself standing on the garden terrace behind my house, ankle deep in the snow that won’t let go, hugging a humming plastic cage of about fifteen thousand honeybees against my side. (If you want to watch a ten minute video of that—including the moment I realize there’s a bee in my pants because I’m an idiot—follow this link!)
It’s gotten a little more real as I’ve done a couple hive checks since then. I’ve already made an embarrassment of mistakes, but overall, it’s beginning to feel less strange to open up a knee-high box behind my house teeming with tens of thousands of buzzing arthropods and not immediately call someone to get rid of it. I’m even beginning to grow fond of the creepy crawly little things. (We’ll see if that feeling holds after my first sting. I know it’s coming. I know it’s coming.)
Actually, beekeeping reminds me of writing a lot of the time. It’s a thing I’m enjoying that is also a lot of stressful work. I have to work to carve out the time for it in the midst of a hundred other demands. I obsess about it more the longer I go without it. But there are also lessons that I’ve been able to pull about the writing life in just these few weeks of beekeeping.
Don’t Drown the Bees In the early spring, before any of the plants up here in central Alaska have started making nectar or pollen for the bees to eat, I have to feed my bees. I do this with a big slab of calories and protein called a pollen patty and with a pitcherful of sugar water every couple days. On my first visit to the hive after installing them, I went out to fill my in-hive feeder, only to find it full of bees. ‘That’s okay,’ I thought. ‘They’ll float. That’s what the stick in there is for.’ I then proceeded to pour an entire pitcher of sugar water all over the poor bees inside just trying to get a drink, as well as accidentally dumping a bunch of syrup all over half of the frames as well. The bees were not happy. Sometimes in writing, we get a great idea. And it’s really a great idea! But in our eagerness to realize the great idea, maybe we pour it on a little too fast, or too thick, or in the wrong place, or whatever the problem is. Maybe instead of working the great idea in, it comes as a big fat Info Dump right at the start of a chapter. Or maybe we try to work it in, but we put too much of it in too fast, telling instead of showing. Whatever our issue is, we drown our reader in information all at once. Don’t drown the bees. Give them a trickle at a time so they have a chance to climb up with the rising waters.
Let Nature Take Its Course When the hive was first starting out, it was everything I could do to not slip on the bee gloves and hustle up there for a peek. I wanted to know how they were doing! What if they needed meeeeee? Yeah, they didn’t. Beekeepers are there to avert disasters in the hive. But beekeepers can be their own kind of disaster if they show up too frequently. Hive checks stress the bees out and disrupt their work, and some of the bees may try to sting you to defend their home, which, in the case of a honey bee, spells death for those individuals. Hive checks are also a prime time to accidentally crush bees with all the moving around, lose precious warmth especially in those first few chilly weeks of the hive’s existence, and maybe even lose your queen if she falls out of the hive during a frame examination. Sometimes—ofttimes—the best thing for a hive is to simply leave it alone. A hive check once every ten days is, under all but the most extreme circumstances, perfectly sufficient to keep the hive healthy and thriving. Overdoing it does more harm than good. Likewise, there is something very comforting to writing with a rigid outline of every single scene. You’ve got a plan! What could go wrong! But stories, at least mine, have this shifty way of diverting course the harder I try to force it in a certain direction. Characters start acting like plot puppets. Even the scenery bends to my will as freak storms and random monster encounters pop in at just the right moment to stiffly push the story along the worn wheel ruts. But all I end up with is a rigid A-to-B recitation of events, when I should have been letting the story unfold more naturally. Outlines are great, but if the outline overtakes the story itself, whatever form that story must take, then you’ve lost the wonder that is a story unfurling.
Don’t Lose the Queen The queen is the future of the hive. She makes the babies. She helps the hive members to feel content and purposeful. She’s also hundreds of dollars to replace. I was super excited when the workers had finally managed to chew her free from the cage she came in and release her into the hive, only to realize I now had to search once a week across several frames for one particular insect amid thousands. And that was going to take a lot of care and diligence. Similarly, the plot is the future of the story. Without a plot, the reader is wandering, lost, through pages and pages of perhaps interesting, but ultimately futile yammering. You might not fully know what your plot is in the first draft (see the warning above about rigidly following outlines), but you should have it figured out by the last. Every scene, every sentence in your story should advance the plot. Don’t lose track of it or you may find yourself needing to replace it or, worse, ending up with a dead story entirely.
I still have a lot to learn about beekeeping, and about writing as well. In writing, I seem to persist in the same mistakes over and over again, but I’m getting better over time, even when that progress is so slow that it’s hard for me to notice. That’s why it’s important to keep working at it! Things are still super crazy in my household (and the rest of the world), but taking the time to write every day helps me to keep working on my craft and progressing my projects. And it makes me less of a crazy person too, haha. All good things.
Remember when you were a kid and you drew that first picture that you were really proud of? Like when you were five or eight and actually worked really hard to make something beautiful for your mom or teacher or whoever?
As for me, I drew all the time as a kid, but the first time I remember being really proud of myself was when I was twelve years old and I drew a picture of a horse running through a fenced pasture, a lush forest just outside the fence. I drew every blade of grass, every scattered wildflower. My mother, who loves horses, raved about this beautiful drawing.
Objectively speaking, that picture was garbage. I’m sorry, but it was.
I look at it now and I see all the weird little mistakes. (How many joints does a horse’s back leg have?) It was great for a twelve-year-old, and I worked my little fingers off for a week, but if I still drew like that, I certainly wouldn’t be parading it around to all my aunties and displaying it prominently in my home. It was good for then, but I had to keep building on those skills to keep them good in the now.
Maybe you don’t draw. Maybe your hobby is soccer. Or ice carving. Or cricket breeding. Your interest was piqued and then you started dabbling in it a bit, and a bit more the next week, slowly building up your skills until you were willing to be seen in public with it. Or maybe you’re not quite that far. Maybe you’re still building.
So how does one build a skill, and writing in particular? (I assume that’s why you’re here anyway.) Here are four tips for honing your craft.
Practice You can’t become a skilled violinist without ever picking up a bow, and the same is true for writing. First drafts are pretty much all rubbish anyway, but you’ll find that your drafts will get higher and higher quality the more you produce. Write in long form and short, write under deadlines and without- just write.
Critique Go through your past work and learn from your mistakes. Don’t be cruel to yourself (and don’t put up with beta readers who are) but recognize the places where you have room to improve. Likewise, critiquing for other writers will also hone your skills and give you insights into the writing process itself.
Edit Don’t be a one draft wonder. There is no first draft so genius that it can’t be improved with careful editing. And with every edit, you teach yourself how to be a better writer, which will come out in later writing as well. Even stories that get scrapped altogether are never wasted.
Study Check out the masters at work. Read widely in a varied diet of genres, even if you don’t ever plan on writing in them. Make note (mental or otherwise) of the things that you admire and think about how you can emulate those traits. (That’s emulate, not copy. Plagiarism isn’t cool.) Also study the basics- get a good grammar book and check yourself. Find a craft book to inspire and guide you. (I really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I have a list of craft book recommendations here!) Don’t let yourself get complacent and think you have nothing more to learn!
These four practices will help you build your skills. They’ll help you recognize when you’re using the passive voice, when your word choice is weak or your phrases clichéd, when you’re showing instead of telling, when you’re maybe leaning a little too heavily on adverbs (ha). Looking back on my early writing drafts, I can easily spot where I was getting bogged down in purple prose. But at the time, those were some of my favorite passages. It took years of reading and writing and building my craft to realize they were a problem. And only years of reading and writing and building my craft will give me the skills to realize the other problems I have that I don’t even know about yet.
Have more tips for improving at writing? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!
If you work in a kids’ library, you probably know who Laurie Halse Anderson is. She writes all over the spectrum of children’s literature, including historicals like Independent Dames, Fever 1793, and the Seeds of America trilogy. She’s been around the block.
So I was excited by the opportunity to sit in on her breakout session at Alaska Writers Guild/SCBWI’s 2019 fall conference. Of course, the moment I sat down, I realized—ugh—I should have brought all our books from the library for her to sign. Oh well, hindsight’s always clearer than foresight. A little disappointed in myself, but excited nonetheless, I plunked myself down at the feet of the master and just about note-wrote my little hand off.
I’ll give you the condensed version of her tips of the trade, but if it’s at all possible, I highly recommend you get yourself to her next conference and listen in on the full meal deal. She says it so much better than I’m about to!
Without further ado, here are Ms. Anderson’s eight tips on writing historical kid lit:
Tip #1: Know why you’re choosing the story. What is your connection to this story? Why does this story and this era matter to you enough to put in the work?
Tip #2: Research as deep as the ocean, but with attention to the grains of sand on the shore. Voraciously study primary sources and squint suspiciously at secondary sources. Know about the foods, politics, beliefs, medicine, power structures, and more. You will research waaaay more than actually goes in your book. That is right and proper.
Tip #3: Find your research squad. Amid all your research, haul out new trade books on your story’s setting and carefully comb the footnotes and bibliographies. Once you’ve done your research homework and have written through several drafts, reach out to these people with specific questions. Find some way to compensate them for their time and expertise.
Tip #4: Primary sources are your secret weapon. Remember Tip #2? Stories change over time and people remember things differently fifty years down the road. As much as is possible, try to get your information from the people living through it (newspapers, journals, letters, etc). That said, also keep in mind that the sources you are reading are probably from the perspective of the elite (who are deep in their biases).
Tip #5: Organization is your best friend. Keep all your notes organized and accessible. Come up with systems for keeping your information straight. Write down every source used. This is not the place to be lazy. *glares at mirror*
Tip #6: Changes are not failures. They are part of the process. Your story will go through several drafts, changing more each time. It takes as long as it takes.
Tip #7: Details are only in your book if they move the story along. I once researched tons of information on feeding an army on the go in medieval Europe and then found a way to shoehorn in almost an entire chapter of a character excitedly lecturing (literally *lecturing*) about purchasing versus foraging versus pillaging, and how many pounds of food each soldier and every horse needs per day and like everything. It was only there because I thought it was cool. But it wasn’t. ☹
Tip #8: Just dive in. Don’t wait for the stars to align! Get crackin’ now!
Follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way to writing your historical. And while the talk was themed toward kid historicals, there’s no tip here that wouldn’t apply to any age category of historical—and many of them could apply to writing in general.
So until next week, no matter your genre, age category, or subject matter, go forth and happy writing!
Ugh, sorry I didn’t post Monday. I was clinging to doorposts while my husband tried to drag me to the hospital. (I mean, seriously, who wants to die in a hospital when you can be noisily dying at home under a heap of plague-riddled blankets with fifteen half-drunk canteens of 100% guaranteed health tonic you got from that hippie under the bridge last June? Duh.) But after five days of my life passing before my eyes (rather boring, really), I’m on the mend and able to sit up at my computer without weakly flopping over sideways toward the toilet. Yaaaaay.
So! Maybe next time I’ll post about writing through illness (hahahahahahaha), but today I wanted to talk about writing through the holidays. Here in Americaland, October through January is like one nonstop party, hopscotching from one celebration to the next for pretty much three months. At least here in Alaska, I think we’re just happy at this point that nobody’s frozen to death, and then that oh-thank-heaven, the earth is starting to tilt back toward the sun again. (Seriously. Solstice is the best winter celebration of all.)
But all that partying can make it hard to squeeze writing in. I’m too busy babysitting vinho d’alho and wrapping presents in eco-friendly reusable swaddling clothes to write.
Wrong! I am never too busy to write!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: your writing will get time according to its ranking in the priority list. So your first step in the plan of attack is to figure out your priorities! The priority list will of course swap around, especially around the holidays, depending on who’s in town, what’s going on, etc. But if you don’t prioritize your writing, it isn’t magically going to happen. This can seem a little cold at times. I mean, yeahhhh, I’ve been known to maybe sneak my laptop into the bathroom with me while family’s over to squeeze in an extra fifteen minutes of writing. (*mom peers anxiously at door, whispering, “Is she sick?”*) But knowing where writing stands in the pecking order is going to keep you from having unrealistic expectations of yourself. As much as we all want to, we can’t do it all. If you know and accept that it’s more important to you go to the Christmas concert with your cousins, then give yourself a pass and go to the concert. But maybe while the rest of the crew is watching that abomination live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, that’s the time to sneak off with your laptop to the bathroom. It’s your call to make.
Once you’ve worked out your priority list for the season, then it’s time to plan out how you’re going to make it happen. (I’m assuming at this point that writing made the list…) You can go about the planning phase as casually or commando-y as you like. For those really into writing plans down, feel free to map out your schedule and hunt out all those sneaky little pockets of free time so you can stuff them with writing; ferociously cull down the time you spend on holiday shopping, chitchatting over hors d’oeuvres, or artfully wrapping gifts. Or, if you’re not feeling quite so hardcore, maybe just schedule yourself a half hour of quiet time each night before bed to knock out some words. (That’s what I do anyway.)
While planning, keep those expectations realistic. Nothing harpoons holiday zen like loading too much on your plate, so while you’re maybe normally able to blitz through 3k a day, give yourself a break if work is crazy and you’re on overtime every night until Christmas, of if you just want to spend a little more of that time with Nana. Goals don’t have to be huge or even difficult to be high-five worthy.
Do it! Stick to your plan, whether that means just quietly holding yourself to it, or roping accountability buddies into the loop. Both of my main writing buddies have end of the year writing goals and you know what? I just decided that I want to hop on that joyride too! So hey guys, I’m gonna finish the Cinderella thing by the end of the year! Watch me work! And I’ll be sure to litter the path to glory with little prizes for all my hard work. Because I am actually a mule and I only work for sugar cubes.
Holidays don’t mean you have to take all your writing and stuff it in the sock drawer until you guiltily pull it out along with some shiny new resolutions come January. With just a little extra prioritizing and planning, you can keep working right through the busiest time of the year. People like to go on and on about how the holidays are a good excuse- to forget your diet, to forget your budget, to drop all kinds of great habits that we spend the rest of the year developing. Hogwash, I say! No excuses! Keep eating healthfully, keep being financially responsible, and keep writing. If it’s important to you the rest of the year, it should be important to you the entire year. So don’t give up your writing just because Cousin Martha is throwing another Ugly Sweater Party. (Why do you still talk to her anyway?) Keep up those good habits!