Wait for your perfect ending

You can write the most awesome book ever, with a perfectly acceptable ending. And it will be a very nice book. But if you want something more than very nice, then don’t call it finished until the perfect ending comes to you.

By perfect I don’t mean tightly edited and polished. That goes without saying. What I mean is that you want that ending that gives you chills. The ending that makes you actually gasp when you think of it. Why? Because gasps and chills in the writer will translate to gasps and chills with the reader.

These endings don’t always come easily. Sometimes you can have a fantastic story but the ending alludes you, or it’s there but it just doesn’t feel right. I frequently struggle with this problem when I’m working on a new project. My most recently manuscript is complete in it’s first draft, but the ending is still only okay. So I’m waiting for the perfect ending to come.

Getting this perfect ending is not easy, but it it worth it. To illustrate, I am going to talk to you about the Disney movie, Moana.

I have two young children, so Moana has been on quite frequently in the last month or so. And amazingly enough, I’m pretty okay with that, because it is an excellent movie. And it has a PERFECT ending. I mean chills, every time. In fact, to date, I have not been able to catch my favorite scenes of the movie without a few sniffles as well.

So if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now and go watch it because:

SPOILER ALERT

The perfect ending of Moana almost didn’t happen. Writers at Disney struggled to recreate their princess mold and portray the Polynesian people and their mythologies with respect and authenticity. And they wrote and rewrote the end over and over where Moana faces off with Ta-Ka and is saved by Maui. This would have been acceptable. They already made a non-princess who was capable and removed the love interest aspect of the story, but it was far from perfect.

So the writers went back to the drawing board and asked themselves just what they were trying to achieve.

Setting out to further evolve the princess standard they’d started to change in Frozen, they knew they wanted a capable, realistic heroine. Someone that we all can aspire to, someone who fails and keeps trying. And they wanted her to be able to save herself. Relying on a demigod to fix everything in the end was not a good enough ending.

With this vision crystal clear, they set about refining the theme, refining the story, looking at it from all aspects.

Another strong theme of the story was respect for nature and how humans inevitable can wrong nature in their quest for power. It was in the merging of these themes, personal identity, feminine power, perseverance and preservation of nature, that the ending finally clicked into place.

And it is glorious.

Watching it twice a week with my children glorious.

So if your ending is good but not great, great but not perfect, take some time to brainstorm.

What are the themes in your story?

What are trying to say? What do you want your reader to come away with?

What has your protagonist struggled with from the beginning?

How does the final conflict reflect this struggle?

Keep looking at the big picture. Keep looking at the little nuances. Keep shifting the puzzle around until it clicks into place.

How will you know when it does?

Chills.

I am not a writer

I recently read This Great Article on John Steinbeck, and this quote stuck out to me.

“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”

He scribbled it in his journal while he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Pretty much one of the best books ever written.

We haven’t touched on imposture syndrome here too much (don’t worry we will) but I’d like to actually skip over that conversation for right now because this quote resonated with me for an entirely different reason. Something that occurred to me last week, as I was brooding on my back porch ( a common occupation for me when I’m working on my writing) and Steinbeck’s words brought it all back.

I am not a writer.

I know, I told you I was. I thought I was. I mean I write. I write all the time. But I’m not a writer. Steinbeck wasn’t a writer, King isn’t a writer, no writers are writers.

But it goes further than that.

My brother composes beautiful music. He’s not a composer. My artist friends, they’re not artists. The directors aren’t directors, the filmmakers aren’t filmmakers, the actors aren’t actors and cartoonists aren’t even cartoonists!

Before you get angry, before you click away, please just float with me a little longer on this brooding mind tangent of mine from last week.

What we are, what we all are, us dabblers in the creative, are storytellers. No, not storytellers, translators of stories.

Imagine yourself as Steinbeck, with this beautiful epic, gritty, heartbreaking chunk of America in your head. It’s so poignant you can feel it trembling through your soul and you know, you KNOW it’s powerful enough to change how people think.

But all you have are clunky words to translate it. You might be good with words. You might have the best words even, but are they enough to really convey this masterpiece that has settled in your mind?

This is the challenge, friends. This is the truth. This is why an artist paints and a musician composes. There is a story and it needs to come out and they are only the poor fallible vessels for it, with only their limited skill through which to pour this brilliance that is embedded in their soul.

Translating the story. With these mortal fingers, trying to convey something we don’t quite understand ourselves, we either fold and give up, frustrated that we can never get the image right, the feeling right, the words right. Or we keep practicing. We keep refining our skills. We become writers, artists, musicians so that that next story is translated better. So that someday, when the Grapes of Wrath comes together in our heads, we can torment ourselves long enough to get it out.

When we give up, what happens? The stories stop coming, I think. Or maybe they just don’t ever reach that level they could have reached. I think maybe all of us get those first simple stories and whether we discard them or try to put them down on paper, in the infuriating mangled mess they turn out to be, determines whether we become artists, writers and musicians, developing our creative muscles, or go on to explore other avenues.

It’s just a thought, though. 🙂

Change the way you look at pursuing a career in writing

Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe while you pursue publication of your novel you completely own it. Maybe the time and energy and hard work you put in without getting paid is something your friends and relatives and acquaintances completely accept as what must be done to reach your goal career. (if the last one is true, wow, good for you).

But while I admit I have support from many people in my life, the most important people in my life, I would say the majority of people who know what I do to attain my goal see me as a dreamer.

And while we, as a society, admire dreamers once they have achieved, on the path to their dream we collectively roll our eyes and nod slowly and tell them not to quit their day jobs for their little hobbies.

So, as writers, pursuing an actual job writing books, many of us tend to me a little more humble about our work. After all, we’ve yet to get the advances, the royalty checks, the writing engagements, the book on the shelf at the book store. What do we have to show for the hours we’ve put in, the years?

Would you ask someone who was going back to school to pursue an engineering degree why they were wasting their time chasing their dreams?

Knowledge. Refinement of our craft. Connections. Industry understanding. We writers collect all these necessary things as we pursue writing as a job, and most of us don’t wrack up 50 grand in debt doing it.

Writing books, editing books, participating crit groups, hiring editors, going to writing conference, submitting for publication, these are part of a real world classroom that is no less worthy than a college tuition for a “practical” job.

Publishing a novel, establishing a career takes time and work and energy. It doesn’t happen overnight any more than becoming a doctor does. You have to put in the work, and you have to acknowledge that, in doing so, you are preparing yourself for the career you want.

For some reason, many people think it’s a matter of writing a book, getting it published. They think the writing part is the hard part, and if you can get it done, that first book should sell if it’s worth anything and you will be on your way.

You know that’s not true. I know that’s not true. There is no reason to be humble about having to strive toward what you want.

Research to compliment your story, not to be your story

So if you missed the news, I finished another first draft. Woo hoo! This one was a bit different than my previous projects because it was based on actual mythology and history. Research was necessary. Tons and tons of research. As far as this subject goes (and I don’t want to give away too much on what that specific subject is because I’m shady like that) I think I may now be considered a bit of a scholar.

When I realized I was getting close to the end, however, there was a problem. There was so much more stuff I’d learned about that hadn’t gotten into the story yet. It was really cool information, but it just hadn’t found it’s place yet.

So maybe there’s a sequel in the future, but most likely that will still leave libraries worth of information that still has no home in my novels. I will have to accept that, no matter how cool  it might be.

There is a balance when it comes to research and too often writers ignore it. I certainly have. Regardless of the subject, you’re going to have to do some research but when the novel aims to inform, sometimes we are so anxious to do that we bury our story in information.

Research should be revealed in your story just like any other information, as it is relevant to the plot. If you are writing a book about a 15th century English peasant in the village Scarborough, you might learn all about the reign of Henry VII but it is unlikely that the contentious relationship between Elizabeth of York and Margaret Beaufort is going to come up in any way except as an info dump.

However,  day to day information like dress, local politics, plagues, hardships, food and occupations of a 15th century peasant will be woven into every part of your story.

Woven, not dumped.

Mary sewed a shift. Shifts were a standard item of clothing for peasants. They were typically worn beneath tunics and made of either wool or linen. Peasant women spent a great deal of their time spinning, weaving and sewing the clothing for their families. They would secure their tunics with broaches where they could hang useful items like keys.

or

Mary sewed the last stitch in the hem of the rough wool shift and flexed her aching fingers. She was getting better at the work and Tom would be pleased with the new garment.

One of these examples gives a lot more information about 15th century peasant dress and life. The other states the information as it is relevant to the story. In short bursts it might be easy to overlook, but imagine an entire story that keeps stopping to lecture the reader.

Don’t lecture your reader.

Patroness: DONE! I’m seeing a trend here

A little over a year ago, I posted This update on April 10th.

A year before that, on May 9th, I posted this.

Today I’m excited to announce my newest novel, Patroness, is complete in it’s first draft.

I have been pounding away at various works in progress since January, but when I returned to Patroness in April it took off. It had a strong start last year, after I finished Summer’s Circle, but life stepped in and put an abrupt halt to my creativity. Funny how that happens.

So now I am seeing a trend in the cycles of my writing. Spring time is writing time. I want to write, I am inspired to write, I am motivated to write and I do write. Even with great shows calling me on Netflix I find the time almost every night. Even when I come up against a roadblock in the work, I find ways to power through it.

If I had this kind of momentum all year I would be up to my neck in first drafts.

Which is probably why it is not the case.

I might power through a first draft, but editing is still a difficult process for me. I have a hard time discerning when I am truly done. I need alot of feedback.

I am currently back to editing The Silent Apocalypse and I haven’t even started hard edits on Summer’s Circle.

I used to get frustrated trying to force my way through a novel that didn’t want to be written. Many writers would caution against “waiting for inspiration to strike”. But, in my life, I am coming to find that there are seasons for different aspects of my work. They may change, but if I stay connected to what is calling me, I will be able to take advantage of when I am best suited for each task.

But let me tell you this, Creation season is awesome.

Second Blogiversary!

Hard to believe it’s been two years since I finally decided I was going to do this. Looking back, I am amazed at what I’ve been able to accomplish in two years, even as I have so much I’m still striving toward.

Pursuing writing is a challenging path and there have been plenty of times over the years that I have set it to the side to focus on more pressing aspects of life, but the truth is, aside from forming my family and raising my children, it is the most rewarding thing I’ve pursued.

I’m a day or two from completing the first draft of my newest novel, Patroness, a historical fantasy retelling, and I have to admit, I am so freaking excited about it. I started it last year before a health crisis took over my life and my creativity completely sputtered out. After a few false starts on other works in progress in 2017, I came back to Patroness and found it was waiting for me with a clear idea where it wanted to go.

Writing has never been without challenges though and while I don’t like to dwell on hardship, it is a good idea to look back on hurtles you’ve overcome.

So, in honor of completing my second year as a blogger, Here are the top ten challenges I’ve faced as a writer.

  1. Taking criticism. Going from “You just don’t get my work!” to “That’s helpful and something I haven’t considered before” is a big shift, but it’s had a massive impact on the quality of my work.
  2. Re-learning grammar. Don’t get me wrong, I know my grammar, but there are techniques I’ve adopted that haven’t been the norm and stylistic choices I’ve made that just don’t quite work. Correcting these in old work and changing the way I’ve done things for my entire writing life is difficult, but finally making progress.
  3. Getting to the end. Oh all my works in progress, languishing with no end in sight. I used to spend so much time tweaking and perfecting drafts as I wrote, adding and subtracting complexities that I never got to the end of the story. Now I power through and do not go back to revise unless it’s to delete what I just wrote to go in a different direction.
  4. Clearing out the telling. Granted I’m still working on this, but when I look back on my old work, I can see the progress that has been made. I used to tell everything and anything that was shown was so subtle that it was practically useless.
  5. Doing the editing work. Note to past Lindsey, you cannot half ass editing. You have to do the rewrites. You have to do the line edits. You have to print the whole damned thing out and slash it to bits with a red pen. Then you need to keep refining as feedback comes in.
  6. Making time to write. Unlike some writers, no matter how I schedule it, it’s not always easy for me to churn out X amount of words each day, year round. But when I am on a project, I need to give myself the time to work on it. When I used to work full time, I barely wrote. When I was home, I wanted to spend time with my husband, go out with my friends, veg in front of the TV. Now I set the time aside. As soon as the kids go to bed, I start to work. I write until i run out of steam and then I turn on the TV to binge watch whatever show is calling me, or pick up a book. Write first.
  7. Making space to write. Another thing that used to stop me? It was too damned hard to write without a quiet place to shut myself in, and in my home, there is no quiet place until everyone is in bed. My current office is the living room couch, with a sofa desk and while my husband watches TV, I put in headphones to drown out the news. Before I had this set up, the writing was sporadic and based on circumstance instead of necessity.
  8. Making writing a PRIORITY! Oh, hello mom guilt, wife guilt, homemaker guilt. I see you are all well, but I would like to introduce you to my friend, you did not write guilt. She’s new, but she’s a lot louder than you all now. She reminds me that dishes can be washed later, it’s okay to let my husband give the kids their baths, and I’d rather be tired tomorrow morning than miss out on this inspiration that is flowing through me tonight. No job should take precedence over family, but just like you might stay up late studying for an exam in law school, you may need to sacrifice a few hours of sleep to get those words down on that page.
  9. Every writer works different. I have a friend who can complete a first draft, have it edited himself a few weeks later and then has it sold or self published within a month. I think he might be superman. I do not work this way. I used to think I should, but should doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s okay to work the way you work. As long as you’re working.
  10. Having confidence in my work, even when it still needs work. This was the hardest thing for me to overcome. When I presented my writing to someone I wanted it to be flawless, but even if I perfect it for myself, it will never be flawless to everyone. To own being a writer is to own that you are working on your writing. Every new thing I write is better than the last, and not a single thing I’ve written is perfect. It’s okay because it all is awesome and I love it.

Share your thoughts! What are some challenges you have overcome as a writer?

Don’t try to write a perfect first draft

After I realized that what I first put on the page was not necessary my best writing (imagine my horror!) I concluded that I would save myself a lot of work and effort if I edited as I wrote.

And so it took me more than five years to write a first draft.

And it still sucked.

The end.

No, but in all seriousness, there is nothing wrong with skimming over your work and doing a little clean up here and there, adding something to clear up the part you are currently writing, adjusting the spelling of the name or including the character trait that revealed itself later. Especially if you are stuck in the scene you are writing.

Just don’t, don’t don’t think this will save you any work in the long run.

I am a person who takes great pride in working smarter and not harder and in many aspects of my life this has served me very well. As a designer I set up a template program that allowed me to drop the print designs into a layout that removed the element of human error while at the same time leaving the original art untouched for future work and cut set up time in half. (it’s okay if you didn’t understand that).

As a writer, however, I have yet to find the easy way around editing the entire manuscript, multiple times.

Ironically, avoiding edits until your first draft is done ends up being your time saver in the long run and there are several reasons for that.

  1. If you are riding on the writing train (writing non-stop) getting off to “fix things” even minor things, means you are getting off the train. Don’t get off the train! You may not be able to get back on!
  2. No matter how much you have plotted, outlined, and prepared, your story is going to take some unexpected twists. Characters will reveal something surprising, people will die, people will live, the ending could turn out very different than you expected. Wasting time on edits before you know how your story ends is wasteful.
  3. Most important. YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO EDIT THE HELL OUT OF THIS DRAFT ANYWAY! No matter how clean you have gotten your writing, no matter how much you have “fixed” you are in for the long haul with edits, IF YOU EVER FINISH THE BOOK.

I know! I know it’s hard to leave that glaring mistake right there in the open! I mean, it is so so so bad! But it is your first draft and no one is every going to see it but you.

There is a solution though, and one I recommend you take. Instead of editing while you write, keep a notebook or file with all the problems you see arising in your story. Plot holes, character changes, misinformation, ect. Make notes of the things you will need to fix WHEN you edit and then get back to writing.

I wrote a story where a girl referred to her prep school by a different name every time it was mentioned. At one point I found myself scrolling through the 237 pages I had already written trying to find every instance. (Geez,don’t I ever learn!?). I think i managed to fix one and waste an hour. Later, when I was reading the completed manuscript, being aware of this problem allowed me to mark and change every instance of this problem when it came up in the reading. Time saver for sure.

The most polished partial manuscript is completely useless.

The messiest finished manuscript has unlimited potential.

There is no one way to write a book

A lot of writers have a lot of advice. And most of it is good. But not all of it is relevant every time.

I completed a first draft in record time last year using an outline and it was glorious. Not only was it completed fast, and without any serious plot holes, but clean up and editing have been minimal. I suggest everyone try this sometime.

Unless it’s not working for you.

Like it isn’t working for me, this time around.

When I wrote “The Silent Apocalypse” I didn’t have a good working outline until I was nearly done the book. It took a while to write, but it revealed itself to me as I went along, instead of adhering to a pre-determined plot.

When I wrote “Summer’s Circle” the whole plot laid itself out in front of me at the very begining, with the exception of a few details and the exact specifics of the ending. I didn’t put effort into plotting it, it was more like the completed story was handed to me and I shoved it into an outline so that I wouldn’t lose it before I got to write it.

I thought this method would work with one of my latest projects, a dark urban horror. The outline came along pretty well, but as soon as I started writing it, it veered completely off course and got stuck in a corner. I shifted some things around, blew a few things up and it ran right back into that corner again.

The novel wants to go it’s own way and, at present time, I can seem to figure out what that way is.

You will find thousands of articles, books, quotes, on how to finish your novel. All of these things have worked for authors at some point. Maybe they work for certain authors all the time. But even Stephen King ends up putting manuscripts away that he can’t seem to finish.

Don’t tie yourself to one method. Don’t insist there is only one way. If you are struggling to complete a novel, read all the advice you can find and try everything. If it still doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to shift your focus to another project.

Sometimes a novel needs a little time to cook before its ready to move forward. Sometimes your brain just isn’t ready for where the book has to go. Sometimes you need to try something new.

Writing is an art. Don’t try to be a scientist about it.

If you love a character, break their nose

I recently read a great short story with a great premise and a great character and when I was done, I just wasn’t satisfied at all.

Because, while the conflict was there, and it was pretty rough, things kinda just worked out for the character. She never had to take a hard stance. She never really suffered. And so her victory was kinda boring.

It’s a weird thing, as a reader you like a character, you want them to succeed, you even might get mad at the author if they torture them too much. But you’ll probably like the story alot more if they do. Just look at the popularity of George RR Martin’s books.

It’s even weirder for the writer though, because you don’t just like your character. You love them. They are your baby, a reflection of yourself, and this completely alien unique entity all at once and all their glorious faults and failings just make you want to wrap them up and protect them from this hellscape you dropped them into.

But they’re not your baby and it’s not your job to protect them. It’s your job to toughen them up to the task at hand and if you don’t, your readers will resent their victory.

I ran into this first hand with one of my characters. Although she’d suffered, she was a sensitive soul and  I didn’t want to hurt her too much. I wanted to preserve her dignity and show that she’d overcome it. Because she moved past it, though, the readers saw it as a non-issue.

So I had to show her damage, because, in the long run, the damage justified the hard choices she had to make, the mistakes she floundered through, and made her victory at the end something that she’d earned through her suffering.

Fiction is not real life, Thank God, but it does act as a mirror. If Katniss can survive tracker jacker venom, you can survive a tooth extraction. If Buffy can go on after killing Angel, you can survive breaking up with your boyfriend. The suffering and perseverance of our favorite characters inspires us to be strong and over come the obstacles in our life.

So if things are going too easy for your character, it might be time to lop off a limb or kill their girlfriend. Your readers might hate you for it, but they’ll love your character and your story so much more.

Stuck plot? Drop a bomb

Apparently I’m not alone in running out of steam in the middle of a manuscript. I have been trying to force my way through a sticky patch somewhere in the middle for the last couple weeks and coming up with nothing, so I was reading a few articles last night that commiserated with my plight. The middle is hard, even when you know where you’re going, things can veer off course, putter out, or just get plain boring.

Then I was reminded of something I read in Stephen King’s book “On Writing” about when he got stuck writing the stand. He just couldn’t seem to propel the plot forward and so he just took walks, thinking about what to do until the idea struck him. He needed to blow everything up.

He did so literally, putting a bomb in the closet and taking out everyone’s favorite character, Nick. I read “The Stand” when I was fifteen and I still remember that devastating loss.

The bomb jarred the stuck gears back into their roll in many ways. It shocked the reader, brought their attention and investment back into focus. It propelled the plot, forcing both the story and the characters out of the comfort zone. And it set up the end of the story.

So last night, as my character Raff had nothing on his schedule besides breakfast with his buddy, Popcorn, I blew up the bell tower. And the proceeding landslide pushed my story into breakneck pace where revelations began springing up as the ending moved a whole lot closer.

Now obviously, not every story should use an actual bomb. It might liven things up if the restaurant blows up in the middle of your rom com, but it also change it from a rom com to a drama.

But there are different types of bombs to be dropped.

  • A Truth bomb – A revelation comes to light that changes everything.
  • A life bomb – a car accident, losing a job, a fight, a break up.
  • A death bomb – an unexpected death of a major character.
  • A nature bomb – any kind of natural disaster that shakes everything up.

One of the best thing about dropping a bomb is that, since you don’t see if coming, neither will your reader. In the most authentic way you reach out and smack them across the face and say “Hey! Are you paying attention?”

And even if their attention had started to stray, they sure are now.

Have you ever employed this technique? Have you found it effective? Share your thoughts!