3 Tips to Writing When Motivation Is Gone

Guest post! Our guest this week is Annah Searle, who is releasing a book on finishing goals this November! *toots trumpets*  She is also very kind and wrote up a guest post for me because she’s better at this stuff than me so you should probably grab a copy of her book. Thanks, Annah!

AnnahWith most people prepping their houses with pumpkin scented candles and red and orange leaves, any writer knows what November is really about. It’s a month of discovery, struggle, imagination, and lots of tears. November is Nanowrimo month.

If you haven’t heard of it, Nanowrimo (Nano) is an annual writing project where each member’s goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. My first year of Nano, I was a young high schooler who had big hopes and little idea of what was ahead. I poured through the online Nano forums, reading to learn everything there was about writing. My character sheets were long, and I had the perfect plot arch.

November 1st, I hit the ground running. I wrote in class, at home, and anywhere I could. My characters were quirky and fun. The plot was moving along. As the days continued, my word counts progressively shrank. Soon, they halted altogether. What was this mess of a novel I had started? Nothing could be less coherent than these pages. All I saw were plot holes and drab characters.

Anyone who has participated in Nano knows a thing or two about motivation. Without fail, every year we hit the ground running only to sputter to a stop a few days or weeks in, exhausted. No longer are we motivated by exciting new prospects. Now, we trudge toward the finish line, begging for the pain to stop.

Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic here. But, honestly, motivation is a struggle in November. After years of projects, writing and otherwise, I’ve learned the motivation is a fickle thing. It only seems to be with me for a moment before it flits to another exciting venture, leaving me in the dust.

Because I know some of you are gearing up for the longest month of the year, in the next 600 words or so, I’ll give you three tips I use every day in writing and creation that work when I lack the motivation to write.

1. Don’t wait for your muse.

Growing up reading about writing, I find that writers over-fantasize about their muse. Yes, writing when you are in your zone is amazing, but it’s not as if a petite fairy sits on your shoulder whispering words of the soul. Writing is hard work. Inspiration can come, but it’s usually after you have already been working at it for some time.

Too many writers wait for this mythical muse before moving. Don’t wait for it! If you do, you’ll be waiting a long time. Inspiration most often strikes when you are already moving. So, take a step first. Write a sentence, then a paragraph. Keep writing until your trudging becomes a run. Only when you start running will you find inspiration waiting.

2. Break down your book.

When I struggle with motivation to write, typically it’s because I don’t know where I’m going with the plot or characters. My next step is a mystery, so I avoid writing altogether and find something else to do like the dishes or *whispers dramatically* YouTube. Nothing gets done.

Even as I write this article, I’m looking back at the outline I’ve created. Even writing a post this short, I use an outline, so I can write more efficiently. I’m not worrying about where I’m going with this article because I already know the plan. If I’m really struggling, I’ll break it down even further like this:

1. Catchy opening (maybe about Thanksgiving? Or a statistic?)

2. Transitional sentence

3. Personal story (Writing my book? My experience with Nano?)

When I break it down this small, I know exactly where I’m going. This same method works for fictional writing as well. If you hit a block, try breaking your scenes into smaller chunks. What should happen next? What characters are involved?

I personally love free-writing from character and plot development, but if I’m stuck, I outline the next scene or two in detail. Sometimes, writing just an outline of the next page is enough to get you back into the zone. Depending on how stuck I am, more or less detail will go into the outline. I might even go so far as to write their movements like this:

1. Stan walks (struts maybe?) to the table and sits down.

2. He observes the room around him.

3. Jessica enters the room.

Your characters may move like robots, but hey, you wrote something. Nano was never about making your writing sound beautiful. It’s about finishing. While you may cringe away from this outlining technique, using it will allow you to finish. Who cares if it’s a little ugly? Editing is for next month.

3. Defeat perfectionism.

Perfectionism is one of the top things that stops any goal in its tracks. Many a novel has been killed by perfectionism. With Nano’s deadline, though, expectations of perfection get quashed. The inner editor knows there’s no way to write 50,000 words and make it sound good.

In dispelling the inner editor, college worked in a similar way for me. If I had a project due the next day and I hadn’t even started on it, I would have to work as fast as possible. I had to settle for imperfect results to reach the deadline. Mistakes would be made, and while it wasn’t perfect, I got it done because of the pressure of a deadline. And, while these projects could definitely have been better, I’m still proud to have completed them.

Nano’s deadline is December 1. But, that’s a whole 30 days away. It’s easy to procrastinate when the end seems far away. To defeat procrastination and perfectionism, I suggest setting mini deadlines for yourself. Plan a task and deadline for each week. It’s easier to ignore perfectionism when you have such a big task ahead. Rather than making each word perfect, you just write to get words on the page.

Realize your book doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be perfect. It can be messy. A lot of beauty is found in messes if you know how to look.

I know perfectionism is not easy to defeat. If you work each day toward dispelling its influence, though, you’ll be well on your way to completing your novel.

You’ve got some exciting work ahead of you. By writing without waiting for your muse, breaking down your book into next steps, and defeating perfectionism, you’ll be well on your way to finishing. There will be tears, triumph, and the occasional sleepless night, but stay in it. If you put in the work, you’ll emerge December 1 with a messy and beautiful novel to call your own.

Annah Searle is a writer, dreamer, wife, and lover of life. She is the author of The Art of Finishing and The Art of Finishing Planner as well as the creator of the blog, The Art of Pure Living. She is also a notebook hoarder, bookworm, Netflix binger, and aspiring artist.

Delicious Stakes

SteakI talked a few weeks ago about building tension (link here!), and one of the elements I mentioned was emotionally significant consequences. This element is also known as ‘stakes’.

So what are stakes? Stakes are what your character stands to lose or gain, or what forces your character to do The Thing and to stick with it through to the end instead of doing anything else. Stakes are closely tied to goals and motivations, so it’s very important that your character has them and that the reader is able to understand them. Even when protagonists are technically criminals or some brand of ‘bad guys’ (like the cast of Firefly, who are smugglers, thieves, and murderers, but we love them anyway), having understandable motivations can go a long way in making the reader care about the consequences of the story, and the outcome of the story.

On the other hand, even the goodest of guys cannot force you to care about a thing that they don’t give a used fig for. If your character has nothing meaningful at stake in a story, then it doesn’t really matter what they do. Why bother to go save the world when eating pork rinds and watching the Super Bowl is so much easier?

So how can we, as the writers of these stories, raise the stakes? How can we make sure that the things at stake matter to the characters, and by extension to our readers? And how can we craft stakes that will carry tension- and a reader’s interest- throughout the entire story?

There are multiple ways to do it, and which one you use will vary from story to story, with some stories even needing more than one type of stake. (And I’m sure this little list isn’t exhaustive, so if you have any good ones I failed to think up, please give a shout out in the comments section!)

Increase the Stakes You know those superhero stories where, in the first movie or book or whatever, the hero just has to save his classmates at prom? And then by the second one, the whole city’s in peril? And then aliens show up and then the whole world needs saving? The stakes increase each time. And it doesn’t need to just happen throughout a series. This can also apply within a single story. Maybe at the start of the story, the hero is just worried that his protective mom’s going to find out and ground him forever.  And then he’s worried that the villain will find out about his family and try to hurt them. It’s only by the very end, after juggling secrets and life and generally making a mess of both, that he has to save his whole school. Increasing the stakes- especially while dangling just a liiiiittle bit of peace and happiness in front of your main character before snatching it away- can keep tension high throughout a story.

Personalize the Stakes This one kind of takes the stakes in the opposite direction of the previous one. Instead of widening the stakes out bigger and bigger, try bringing them down into smaller, more personal pieces. Maybe your character doesn’t really want to go back in time to save the world from cyborgs, but it’s the only way to save that one friend that they lost along the way. Maybe your character doesn’t really want to save all of Chicago from the madman with a bomb; maybe they’re only in it because their daughter’s preschool is across the street from the detonation and that little girl means everything to them. Making stakes that a stranger doesn’t really care about that much, but that holds up the whole world for your character, can make for intense stakes.

Clash of the Stakes Most people have more than one motivator in life. Characters are the same. They’re not automatons programed to chase after one goal and not to care about anything else ever. So maybe your character devoutly adheres to a very strict religion, but gosh, they really want to watch a live event that happens right during church. What’s a body to do? Or maybe your character really wants to reconnect with his estranged father who deploys in two days, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for his and his wife’s struggling business has arrived and must be acted upon immediately or it’s gone forever. What’s a body to do?? Make a character choose between love and honor, between loyalty and opportunity, between Goal A and Goal B, because, curse this awful universe, they just can’t have both.

A final thing to keep in mind while coming up with stakes for your character is the difference between selfish goals and selfless goals. If a character only has selfish goals, especially when those goals overshadow selfless goals, readers aren’t as likely to empathize with them, which means they won’t care as much about the events of the story. If a character has selfless goals they’re fighting for- something that’s important to a spouse, or trying to save a friend, or support a child, etc- that’s much more interesting, especially if it means having to sacrifice some of their own personal goals. (Side note: selfish goals aren’t always bad. Sometimes a character just wants to save their own marriage or prioritize their own happiness or something like that, and that’s okay. When I talk about selfish goals being hard to empathize with or disinteresting, I’m more talking about selfish goals that come at the detriment of someone else. Those are less fun to read in my opinion. I don’t really get revenge tales, y’know?)

How about you fine readers? Any other ideals for upping the stakes in a story? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!

Greetings from Camp!

Hello! I gotta say, I’m a little proud of myself lately! In addition to Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m staring down four other writing deadlines this month and- shock of all shocks- I might actually hit them all. This is unprecedented! (And might have something to do with [okay, everything to do with] having damaged my leg and being trapped on a couch with KT tape, compression socks, the works. Nothing slows down an overachiever like crutches. Guess I’ll have to overachieve somewhere else- hello, laptop!)

We’re over halfway through the month now and I’m pretty sure I’d have to lose an arm in a car accident in the next 24 hours to not be able to squeak across the finish line. So I might actually have the time to draw a decent comic for next week! But until then, enjoy another reblog, this time from National Novel Writing Month itself! (By the way, their blog archives are worth trawling if you’re ever low on motivation or ideas.)

This little number caught my eye because it’s doing the opposite of what I normally do on my blog: it’s taking lessons learned from writing and applying them to life in general! Please enjoy and I’ll see you again next week. Happy writing!

5 NaNo Lessons I’ve Applied to the Rest of My Life


Every November since 2011, as soon as I post the “NaNoWriMo Participant” banner on my social media outlets, I hear two things from friends and family. One is, “You’re mad to tackle 50k words in a month.” The other is, “I wish I had the drive to do that sort of thing!”

I never said I’m not mad (I am a writer, after all). As for the drive… take the word of this former owner of the Pan-American record for Writing Procrastination: that can be taught. So much so that I applied what I learned in six seasons of November madness into other areas of my life that have nothing to do with fiction writing.

After all, most big deadlines can seem like the elusive 50k in November: an Everest of a situation. Whether you want to do it (e.g. get to dance at the Lindy Hop ball, finish a race for the first or tenth time) or you have to do it (e.g. a school essay, a job presentation), the first and irrational reaction, of course, is to panic and freeze, and then say “Nope, won’t do it. There are better people doing it already.”

That’s where the NaNo mind-frame comes in handy.

Want to read the rest? Head on over to NaNoWriMo’s blog via this lovely link!

Don’t Give Up


Never never never

So I’ve been in an awful writing slump lately. Really, it’s kind of a creativity slump in general. Writing and sketching, which I’m usually so desperate to make more time for, have both ticked a few notches down on the totem pole. (On the plus side, my house has been a lot cleaner than usual and I’ve rearranged most of the furniture. So yay?)

I can get into the details later (or maybe not), but the short of it is that my confidence as a writer is perhaps not quite shattered, but pretty darned cracked. And it’s hard to write like that. So I’ve found it more difficult than usual lately to affix butt to chair and get some work done. Luckily, the world keeps spinning even when I’m mired in the vast wastes of the Pity Bogs (sad trombone).

My local chapter of the Alaska Writer’s Guild, being awesome like it is, had rounded up another local author to present at one of our monthly chapter meetings. I opened the email, chin in hand, and there was a picture of the author, Paul Greci (you can find his MG survival adventure here). And I knew the guy. I saw him just about every day when I picked my kid up from school.Greci

I like supporting local authors, and I like supporting teachers, and I already planned to buy the book for my son, so I basically had to go. UGHHHHH. Hubby was happy to kick me out the door (because this is another aspect of my creativity slump- the doldrums often go hand-in-hand with a deep and abiding resentment of anything that forces me to leave the house, no matter how soul-crushingly bored I am), and off I went for a little me time, titled “Paul’s Twisted Path to Publication”.

You know how you go without someone for a really long time and it’s fine, but then you see them again and have this sudden upswelling of throat-clenching emotion? How you don’t realize how much you’ve missed them until you don’t have to anymore? I got this same emotion listening to Mr. Greci’s presentation. It was exactly what I needed to hear, without my realizing what I needed to hear. I just needed someone to tell me, “Rejections suck. But keep going.”

And tell me he did. Paul Greci has been meandering his way through the sticky underbelly of the writing world for a decade. He went through five books, 200 rejections, and two agents before finally publishing his first novel. His clarion call was persistence.

I get moody after every rejection, no matter how pie-in-the-sky the query was. 200 rejections and still plugging along is just staggering. I listened with budding awe as he spoke of disappointments, dead ends, and door after door closed in his face. When asked about how he kept going, he told us about asking himself the very same question I was then asking myself: “Why not me?”

Why not me? What kept me from pushing forward through not even a quarter of the rejections this guy went through? What barred me from writing more, improving my craft, and just letting go of the books that simply weren’t working? What held me back?

Me. I was the only thing holding me back. I crave approval. I want to be liked. I want to charm and delight. A rejection feels like disapproval, dislike, disdain. In my fear of those things, am I willing to surrender my dream?

As I listened, the answer became more and more clear. No. No, I wasn’t ready to give up.

Pierce Brown wrote seven books and was rejected nearly 200 times before successfully publishing Red Rising. Jack London’s pile of rejections eventually reached four feet in height. Stephen King stacked up so many on his wall that the nail wouldn’t support their weight any longer; he drove a spike in the wall and kept going.  I think they would all tell me the same thing that Mr. Greci did.  “Don’t give up.”  He delivered it with a modest shrug, the last line of his presentation, but it struck me like a cricket bat to the ribs.  “Don’t give up.”

So. Pep rallies are grand and all, but what’s the take-away? What’s a girl to do when she comes home pumped and ready to spring into action? If that girl is me, she makes a deadline calendar! Because nothing says action like a calendar! In my experience, the best way to stamp out self-pity is a hearty dose of hard work. So I scrounged up some hard work. All the little artsy tasks I’d been putting off went on the calendar, no flex. The AWG bimonthly contest went on too, and a writing grant application deadline, and some self-imposed deadlines for other projects, both written and drawn. By the time I was done, I had a chore or two for nearly every day for the next five weeks.

It’s an ambitious calendar and I don’t fully expect myself to complete everything. But I do expect myself to keep working to the best of my abilities; the calendar should help with that. And written in bold letters along the top is Mr. Greci’s parting advice:

“Don’t give up.”

Personal Achievement Badges to which I Pay Too Much Mind

WIN_20151115_22_17_24_ProAs I mentioned on Twitter a few days ago, I managed to mess up my left hand.  So there’s been a lot of awkward one-handed/hunt-and-peck sort of nonsense going on, which has just more than chopped my daily average in half.  (We’re not gonna talk about how long it took to type this post up. *weeps*)  It’s not too bad so far.  I had a reasonable buffer by that point, so I hadn’t slipped beneath the goal bar until just today.  The doctor said to wear the splint until next Wednesday, and then I can start using my hand again in little bits.  But I’m pretty sure I’ll still pull off NaNo without too much more drama. *crosses fingers*

NaNoWriMo always has a great website.  So beautiful, so cheerful.  There’s always tons of encouragement, and I’m half in love with the daily word graph.  But they added something new this year.  Personal Achievement Badges.  Behold!

badgesI know this is normally the week in which I post a sample chapter, buuuuut… yeah, this is possibly the ugliest first draft I’ve ever pounded out, haha.  Definitely not fit for human eyes just yet.  So in lieu of burning your eyeballs out of your sockets, I’m going to give you a little tour of how I earned my PABs.

plannerPlanner.  I was pretty torn on whether to give myself the planner or the pantser badge with this project.  Normally, I come into these things with a pretty thorough outline and beefy packet of notes and sketches.  This year, I got the idea a week before NaNo started and plowed ahead with about four pages of notes.  Hardly the blank page I needed to qualify as a pantser, but a far cry from the reams of notes I usually head into this with.  So it’s a little scary, but is its own kind of fun.

tell the world

Tell the World.  This is probably definitely my most boring badge.  I made an announcement on Twitter that I would be doing NaNoWriMo this year.  Again.  Like I always do.  … Yup.  I guess I did tell a bunch of random people and bullied a few of my friends into doing it with me, which, although much smaller in scope, was probably also much more meaningful.  So I’ll take it either way.

with gratitudeWith Gratitude.  I’ve earned this one several times over, but never enough.  Nano is gloriously fun for me, but it takes me away from my family a lot, especially my kids, and my husband picks up a lot of the slack.  So I thanked my husband first and foremost for all his help.  I thanked my kids for their patience.  I also thanked my writing buddies here in Fairbanks for putting up with me all the time and being so darned encouraging.  I thanked @NaNoWordSprints for all their tireless- you guessed it- sprints on Twitter that keep me motivated and entertained.  And there are probably a gajillion others who deserve my thanks as well!  Everyone- you are fantastic!  Thank you!

wrimo spiritWrimo Spirit. This one’s kind of related to the one above, but the coin has been flipped.  This badge was earned when I helped support other writers.  So when I cheer-lead on Twitter, when I set up lunch write-ins, when I walk to my kid’s school to ask his librarian how her Nano project is going, when I keep an eye on my friend’s kid at the church activity so she can scribble in a few more words… then I get good karma and this badge.  Huzzah!

secret novelingSecret Noveling. Okay, so when I’m honest with myself, I probably write most of my novel in less than ideal places. My kids know all my hiding places by now: in the van, beside the potted avocado tree, in the bathroom, in the laundry room, in the guest room that is about forty degrees this time of year.  Heck, I’ve even hidden behind the rocking chair in the baby’s room just to sneak in those few awesome lines before I forgot them.  But I can make these things work.  We’re all used to it.  So I wasn’t sure if that really counted for this badge.  (I spend a lot of time thinking about what really counts to earn these badges.)  But then I earned it definitely-for-sure on Saturday.  I was at a kids’ birthday party at the local children’s museum, and it was a lot of fun and we had a blast.  But then my boys wanted to stay late and I thought, ‘Oo! My golden opportunity!’  So I slipped out my laptop (because who doesn’t bring their laptop to a kids’ birthday party complete with water tables, cheese puffs, and fluorescent cupcakes?) and tried to figure out where I could hide from my children, but still be able to see them without too much trouble.  After much poking around (and very nearly settling on the bathroom foyer), I ended up hiding in the craft corner, wedged between the Lego table and the animals/continents diorama on a tiny tiny stool, but if I leaned out I could see most of the main room.  And there I sat, startling every staffer trying to get back to their offices, for a solid hour. Bliss!

game onGame On. Word wars are my lifeblood.  I can write without them.  I’ll still plink out words in my one-handed turtle’s pace.  But nothing gets me going like sprints.  I haven’t been reporting in my pathetic word counts as much since I hurt my hand, but I still do them nearly every time I sit down to write for more than twenty minutes.  I even make my writing friends do them with me during our lunches.  Last time, I had prizes!  I handed out little packets of candy and you got to eat one candy for every hundred words you got down.  And then the person with the highest word total at the end went home with the giantest candy bar I could find.  (I would have gotten a lot more candy throughout the whole affair if one of the kids didn’t run up in the middle of a sprint and make off with half my candy in a grab-and-dash maneuver.  Well played, little beast. This is why I hide from these monsters while writing.)

So how about you guys?  Any fellow Wrimos out there?  What’s your favorite Personal Achievement Badge and how did you earn it?

Finishing and Fear

FearA few months ago, I asked my Twitter pals “What keeps you from finishing a project?” There were the usual chuckles about energy, holidays, ADD and shockingly fecund plot bunnies. But the real touchpaper of the discussion came from Melanie Francisco (AKA @blacklily_f, who is totally worth the follow): “Fear, Jill. I’m terrified of failing my story.”

We all have our pet excuses, but fear factored into many of the reasons writers pegged with impeding their ability to end: fear of judgment, fear of running out of ideas, fear of imperfections, fear of not doing the premise justice. Fear factors into many of the things we do. Fear can motivate us, or paralyze us.

Alas, I am but a poor victim. And so I turned to Faye Kirwin (penname Skye Fairwin, also a follow-worthy twitter peep at @Writerology). Faye is amazing. A wearer of many hats, Faye splits her time between writing, blogging about writing and psychology, running sprints on twitter, and delving deeper into the fantastical workings of the human mind. And granting interviews!

What is fear and why do we feel it, even when we’re in no danger?

Fear is something we’ve all felt, something we all recognise yet struggle to put into words. We know how it makes our hearts pound, mouths go dry, stomachs squeeze into tight balls, but defining fear and identifying the reason for it can be more mystifying.

Psychologically speaking, fear is that feeling of dread before something negative happens, prompting us to defend ourselves. It is a reaction to a perceived threat and evolved to be part of our bodies’ defence systems, so that we can respond immediately to danger—usually by escaping from it. In a world where we can be hit by a car or mugged while walking home or trapped in a burning building, it’s understandable to feel fear. Our physical well-being is being threatened by something and our bodies react to that with fear.

Danger doesn’t just have to be of the physical kind, though. It can be emotional too. We can fear damage to our sense of worth and competency, and fear things that can threaten us socially, like rejection. It’s this fear of failing, of being criticised, of feeling worthless and incapable, that can cripple writers the most.

But writers are so often told to edit and edit and edit again. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see the line between another round of edits because the story needs it, and draft after draft because of fear. I, especially, have a hard time telling one from the other. What can I do to differentiate?

Start by asking yourself whether you’re editing because the manuscript needs it or because you’re scared to show it to someone else. Fear of rejection can lead us to sabotage our efforts. No one can judge us if we don’t finish that novel, we can’t be criticised if no one reads it, and so we keep rewriting ad infinitum.

One way to differentiate between necessary editing and fear-fuelled editing is if you lose sense of what’s good and what’s bad. Are you changing things without knowing whether you’re making the story better? Are you continually tweaking sentences in search of the perfect wording? Are you reading and re-reading to forestall sending the manuscript off to your beta readers or editors?

If you think the answer is yes, take the plunge. Send it. Submit it. Get feedback on it. Then you can move forward.

So if fear of rejection can lead us to sabotage ourselves, are there any ways we can turn fear to our favor? Can fear ever be used to increase productivity, to be more creative, etc.?

Fear can be a great tool for building a deeper emotional connection between you, your characters and your readers. Sit down with a journal for 10 minutes and write about your fears. What’s causing you worry? What are you afraid will happen? How do you feel, physically and emotionally? Acknowledge your fears and reflect on them, then channel them into your story.

By writing about the emotions you’re feeling, you can make your characters’ own emotions more poignant, sharp, raw and real. Pour your vulnerability into a story to create a far more meaningful connection between you and your reader—because, in all likelihood, they’ll have felt something similar at some point. If they can relate to it, it’s that much easier to craft an emotional experience, one that will resonate with them long after they’ve finished reading.

Channelling your fear into your writing also has the added benefit of helping you to sort through your emotions. Only when you’ve acknowledged and thought clearly and honestly about something can you begin to do something about it. That’s one reason writers get stuck—they’re afraid of rejection or failure and are afraid to confront that fear. Get it out in the open, use it to deepen the emotion in your writing, and free yourself up to be more productive and creative.

After my last manuscript was ready for beta readers, I sent it out and then… had a panic attack a half hour later. I was monitoring the internet constantly, waiting for anyone to say anything. I felt sick. I couldn’t sleep. I ate way too much. This continued until I started to hear back from readers. For many of us, even after getting up the courage to click ‘send’, the fear remains. Is this normal? Healthy? Do you have any advice for dealing with it?

It’s completely normal to feel anxious after opening yourself up to criticism like that. It’s when you start to dwell on it and it causes you problems that it becomes unhealthy.

It’s around this point that fear can turn into anxiety, which is a related but slightly different emotion. Anxiety involves anticipating a threat, something unknown that poses a danger to you. In our case, that might be the anticipation of rejection that causes us anxiety. When we’ve sent off a manuscript and are waiting for responses from readers, the situation is out of our hands. We can no longer control it, we’re expecting potentially negative responses, and so anxiety builds up.

Learning to deal with fear so that we’re no longer overwhelmed by it is the first step towards banishing those unpleasant feelings of panic and anxiety. Reach out to others, write about it in a journal, do an activity that you know calms you—anything that distracts you from thoughts about your beta readers’ responses. Remember: you can’t change anything now so don’t waste your energy worrying about it.

If you continue to feel anxious even after that, identify when you’re having thoughts that focus on failure—like receiving negative feedback from readers—and replace them with memories of your past successes and positive thoughts. We tend to forget about the fun moments we had while writing, the scenes we nailed and the good responses we’ve had in the past. Instead we brood over our lowest points, even when the positive times outweigh the negative. Remind yourself of your achievements, that your beta readers are there to help you to make your story even better, and use that built-up emotion to propel you forward with the next part of your project.

(Interested in learning more about tricking your brain into working?  Faye recently published an awesome workbook that teaches readers how to use psychology to master the art of daily writing. You can find out more about it here!)

5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Characters (& Stories!) Better

I apologize if everyone’s already read this, but I’m desperately battling back illness right now and don’t have the brains to come up with original material.  This article from Writer’s Digest helped me to work out some of the details on my main character and her journey during NaNoWriMo last month.  Hopefully you’ll find it as useful!

5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Characters (& Stories!) Better

Readers can’t resist turning pages when characters are facing tough choices. Use these 5 keys to weave moral dilemmas into your stories—and watch your fiction climb to new heights.

—by Steven James

Key #1: Give Your Character Dueling Desires.

Before our characters can face difficult moral decisions, we need to give them beliefs that matter: The assassin has his own moral code not to harm women or children, the missionary would rather die than renounce his faith, the father would sacrifice everything to pay the ransom to save his daughter.

A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who will be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget.

So, to create an intriguing character facing meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.


Getting Your Ducks in a Row

Quack! Have I mentioned lately that I really love the programs put together by the Alaska Writers Guild’s Interior Chapter? ‘Cause I do. Love, love, love. Despite our being a tad isolated from most of the writing world, the chapter president always does a fantastic job of presenting relevant information and finding qualified guests.

Last month’s guest speaker was Gerri Brightwell, the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her presentation, titled “Getting Your Ducks in a Row”, was about revision. Dr. Brightwell broke revision down into three clumps: content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Line editing has to do with concision and style, while copyediting digs into grammar. She focused her presentation on content editing and, in particular, the things we need to focus our attention on in revision to make sure our story’s content is interesting, clear, and enjoyable- and makes our reader think. As Dr. Brightwell said (in a charming English accent), “You can edit the heck out of so-so writing and it’ll still be so-so writing.” so-so writing

To take our so-so writing to its full glimmering potential, Dr. Brightwell suggests “the Magic Three”: psychic distance, detail, and character motivation.

Psychic Distance This is how close the reader to the character. Psychic distance can be very far or very close, the difference between “It was the summer of 1982 and the hottest season on record”, and “Her back prickled with sweat as the summer sun burned into her scalp and shoulders, Eye in the Sky drowning out the hum of mosquitoes”. Doing your entire story from a great psychic distance doesn’t give your reader much to attach to. But spending the entire story sifting through the character’s every thought and feeling and motion can make readers claustrophobic. Get inside your character’s head, let us know what they’re thinking and feeling, but also shift out a bit more every now and then. Varying your narrator’s psychic distance from time to time can help to keep the perspective fresh and interesting.

But most of your reader’s attachment to characters is going to happen while riding buddy in their heads. Also, closeness to the narrator (or point of view character) means that we’ll experience the world as a natural, living thing. It also means that the details we see through that character’s eyes will do more than just show the world- they will show character and significance.

Detail Part of getting into your character’s head is noting the details that he or she would notice. Specific details, especially sensory details, can really ground a reader in the character’s world. Including details doesn’t necessarily mean more words on the page, although it can. The best use of detail comes in the efficient use of language. English is rich with very specific words that can tell the reader a lot while saying little. Consider the difference between these two sentences. “The woman’s dog was angry.” “The duchess’ shiatsu snarled.” Both tell us about an angry dog. But the second includes a lot more detail: about the woman, about the dog, about what was physically happening. And it does it with one less word. Use specific words to get more bang for your buck.

Details are important for another reason. Being vague allows your readers a lot of latitude in what they imagine. “The boy went.” Does that put an image in your head? Without using details, we don’t know if the boy is three or twenty-one, whether he went on bike, foot, or airplane, or where he went to. Readers will either imagine nothing at all- which is terrible for their connection to the story- or they will imagine the wrong thing. And then when they find out three pages later that they were wrong, they will feel cheated. Use language that creates Motivation an image in your reader’s head.

Character Motivation Details, especially those from a close psychic distance, also help us to understand a character’s motivations. (See how nicely those fit together?) Purely physical details don’t tell us who a person is- merely what they look like. When we meet a new person, rarely do we catalog him in our minds as the 5’11” man with black hair and blue eyes, although we might note these things at first. Normally, we catalog him as that goofy clown with the wheezy laugh whose eyes kept darting back and forth to make sure his jokes were well received. Only put in the details that matter. Put in details that assess personality traits rather than take measurements. Those details, whether in thoughts or in actions, also help the reader to understand why a character does the things he does. As Dr. Brightwell put it, “Motivation is important. Without it, we don’t believe the character; we don’t believe the story.”

So when you’re reading through that first draft, keep these three things in mind. How close is your psychic distance- and could it be closer? Where have you directed your readers’ attention through details? What do those details say about your character’s personal motivations? With another NaNoWriMo behind us, these Magic Three- psychic distance, details, character motivation- can take your writing from the so-so level to the awesome level.

The Motivation Station

motivationI have got to finish writing those Star Daughter books. I really do.

Except that I don’t. Even when I pretend that I do, I really don’t.

For those of us who can’t yet consider ourselves professional writers (as in the paid-to-write-by-strangers variety of professional), it’s all about self-motivation. This is true whether you consider your writing a hobby or a compulsion. There’s no editor breathing down our necks. There’s no rabid fan base absolutely demanding we deliver a new installment as oh-so-naively promised. Heck, most of us don’t even have a significant other that intimately aware of where our manuscript stands and eager to see its conclusion. In short, nobody outside of you is making you do this. So why do it at all?

Unfortunately, that’s sometimes a tough question to answer. We’re all busy. We all have a thousand other things we could be doing. And writing isn’t always super fun times. For me, the dip in motivation usually comes right around editing time. Drafting isn’t usually that hard. But cleaning something up to make it presentable feels more like… work. *shudders* So what’s a girl to do?

Turns out I’m a pretty unmotivated loser all on my own, so I’ve come up with a series of tactics to get me through my more lackadaisical moments.

Announce Your Intentions Let others know about your goals, especially if they’re people with similar goals. Especially especially if they can pester you about it when you’re sucking. Writing forums? Let them know what you’re working on. A few close writing buddies on Twitter? Give ‘em a timeline. Kids, parents, teachers, the crazy-cat-lady next door? Anyone will do in a pinch. But keeping it mum is like handing yourself a Get Out of Jail Free card to grab that TV remote instead of your laptop.

Join A Group Local critique circle? Perfect. World-wide movements like NaNoWriMo? Great. Any group will do. People you have to look at on a weekly/monthly/etc basis can be a very powerful motivator. (And while you don’t have to explain your lameness to anyone at the Office of Letters and Light if you fail at a month of NaNo, you don’t get your winner goodies. Or bragging rights. Which, for me, is also powerful.)

Treat Yourself Reward yourself when you hit your goals. Split your project down into manageable chunks and give yourself a treat for each chunk completed. And if you really don’t trust yourself not to tuck into that quadruple decker ultimate sundae supreme early, get someone else involved. When I’m really pinched for motivation, I have my husband come up with a list of rewards and I have to go through him to get them.

Develop Good Habits This is more of a preventative measure, but it’s still worth mentioning. Good habits make things so much easier. Don’t have them established just yet? Get started now. Ease yourself into it. Just ten minutes a day. Then fifteen. Bit by bit. Like starting a healthy diet or an exercise regime, allow yourself a developmental period of less-than-awesomeness, but build it up a little further every day. And when you eventually have that solid habit of daily writing/editing/blogging/whatever, it’s easier to beat off the inevitable apathy when it comes a-callin’.

Be Reasonable Because nothing will sap your motivation faster than unrealistic goals. The most awesome reward in the world will mean nothing if it’s unattainable. So when you’re writing up your goals, take a look at your abilities and obligations. You want challenging, not impossible. And if you get into your goals and find you were maybe a little too optimistic? There’s no shame in making adjustments to your timeline. Change what needs to change and keep moving forward.

How about you fine folks? What do you do to motivate yourself?

Proof I Watch Too Much Batman

Shortly after my second child was born, I used to have this nightmare all the time. Some psycho with a scalpel had my kids and demanded I choose which one to save and which one to sacrifice. And in the inherent weirdness of dreams, I could never see anything about this person except hands on my children. There was dried blood caked in the cracks of the skin and dirt under the fingernails. But I could never see its face. I could never think of a solution. The maniac was always just one step ahead of me, mocking me, wielding pointy objects at my babies with no one to stop him/her/it. It was all very Batman. And awful.

Fortunately, it was also ridiculous. Nobody is going to kidnap my kids and pull a Two-Face on me for kicks and giggles. (It’s even less likely than those crazy nightmares about wolf attacks.) However, the last few weeks have made me look at two things that I love very much and choose which one to save, and which one to sacrifice, at least on a temporary basis.

I love writing. Love, love, love. But I love my family more. So it’s been a hard couple of weeks, with very little editing and almost no actual writing. Without my writing, I quickly go into maniac mode. But without attention and care and food and doctor visits and stuff like that, my family quickly goes into dead mode. So it struck me as kind of an easy decision to make. Writing got the scalpel.

But! Fear not, gentle reader, this is not the end. I prefer to think of it as the moment when everything looks its darkest, when our plucky protagonist seems beaten and the world about to fall under evil dominion forever. But she’s still got a few sneaky tricks up her sleeve. (Which is good, because this wait-it-out thing only gets you so far when evil is trying to dominate the world forever.)

Life seems to be stabilizing. Pretty soon, the excuses well should be drying up. So here’s the deal: my mid-year-life’s-crisis resolutions. I’m currently about halfway through editing my Camp NaNo project. Next Monday, I want to be another quarter through, and the final quarter on the Monday after that. (That’s about three-and-a-half chapters a week- manageable if I hustle.) On each of those weeks, I will write an actual, true-for-reals blog post that isn’t just me talking about my endless parade of personal problems. (Not that you ever get tired of that.) And to make those things possible, I will commit to working at least an hour a day on writing stuff. If I fail in any of these commitments, I want the entirety of the internet to send me their strongest psychic slaps, the combined power of which should make me cross-eyed for at least a year. And I don’t want that.

So. Start prepping that telekinetic battery. If I can hear you popping your knuckles from here, I’m that much more likely to sweat out some writing.