How to Write a Killer Scene in 5 Easy Steps

Recently, a friend was asking me about process, and how I plan my writing. I am a “lay the tracks as you go” kind of a writer. I’m not a pantser. I’m a failed plotter. I plan just enough ahead so that I can see where I’m going.

One thing I do plan pretty intensely, though, is scenes.

According to my internet search for “what the heck even is a scene?” a scene is:

scene. noun. : a division of an act in a play during which the action takes place in a single place without a break in time.

For me, it’s important to plan my book in scenes not chapters.

When I wrote my first book, I planned my writing in chapters. If I was writing the part of the story where a group of kids breaks into a casino, the entirety of the action in that sequence would happen in one chapter.

This is not helpful. My tendency was to start chapters as soon as the protagonists woke up and end them when the protagonist was safely home in their bed. This doth not a page turner make.

Instead of focusing on chapters, I focus on scenes. My “group of kids break into a casino” scene will probably be a couple of chapters. I think of it as one chunk of action (see definition above about scenes taking place without a break in time) and look for cliffhanger chapter breaks.

Here are five ways I prepare to write killer scenes:

1. Plan ahead

I’ve written before about how crucial planning ahead is to crafting good scenes. I don’t mean plotting or outlining. I mean actually taking the time to think through what you are about to write. Here are the five questions I ask myself before I start writing a scene:

  1. What happens – a one sentence description of the action taking place (Ex: kids break into casino)
  2. Goal – why is this scene necessary to the story? What change does it inspire in the protagonist? I’ve written in more detail about this here, but here’s a sample:

If I’m writing a fun scene, my goal might be to establish a friendship between two characters. If I’m writing a fight scene, my goal might be to make one character angry enough to do something stupid (which I know needs to happen in the next chapter). If I don’t have a good answer to this question (or if the answer is “because casinos are cool and heists are fun!), it probably means I’m writing an unnecessary scene.

3. Conflict – again, I will quote past me on this one:

Every scene needs conflict. Period. Whether it’s between a character and nature, two characters, or a supposedly adult woman fighting the urge to eat Taco Bell 24/7, there needs to be a struggle. In answering this question I try to set my characters in opposition with each other or with something else (an adult, a force of nature).

4. Outcome – how does the action and conflict change the story? How does this scene alter the protagonist’s goal or emotions? What is the next logical course of action she would take?

5. Off page – more from past me:

In each chapter I make note of what the reader is not seeing: what’s the villain doing? Is someone dying and/or being kidnapped? Who’s at the local Taco Bell? Keeping track of what’s happening in the world of my story helps me avoid stupid mistakes like killing someone twice (whoops) or writing a character in two places at once (not that I’ve ever done that

2. Journal out the logic

I started doing this after a few rounds of my critique partners asking very annoying questions like “why would she do this?” and having no good answers. It sounds painfully obvious (and for some writers, I’m sure it is), but the actions I need my characters to take to reach the outcome I’ve plotted for them, often make no sense.

Ex: why would the kids break into a casino to steal information they could probably find on the internet?

842d43fc-4702-492f-904c-0c4e878c7f5b.gif

I begin my days with morning pages (if you haven’t done The Artist’s Way I highly recommend it). I always end my morning journaling by describing what I’m going to work on in my novel that day and asking myself questions.

Ex: Today I’m going to work on the casino scene. Why would they break in when the information they need is on the internet? Need to include a moment where they do a quick internet search and find nothing. Or tie the information to a physical object—perhaps a flash drive? Why would the antagonist go with my group of heroes? Maybe it would make more sense for her to already be at the casino and run into them there.

You get the idea. I know what needs to happen (because of my pre-scene checklist), but the journaling is where I solidify the why. Why are these characters doing this thing together? Why does it lead to the particular outcome I know I need for the story?

3. Start late, get out early

Many, many brilliant people have given this advice, but it bears repeating. Scenes should not start at the beginning and finish at the end. They should start in the middle.

So for my casino break in, I’m not going to start when the kids discuss breaking in and then follow along as they drive to the casino. I’ll start in the middle of the action, maybe with something like:

“Geraldine spun the combination lock. An alarm sounded…”

They’re already breaking into a safe. Then I would flashback to Geraldine being all “how the heck did I get myself into this situation” and briefly summarize how they broke in.

In Magazine Land we’re always talking about how to “frame” stories. Most novels are too big to have a frame. The one example I can think of is Twilight which starts with that prologue at the ballet school where Bella’s all “I’m going to die for loving him, but I don’t care he’s sparkly” and then when we get caught up to that point in the story we’re like ohhhh. (I was too lazy to look up any details about this so please fact check me).

2bb8f41b-c106-4827-b65c-557ea84f22cb.gif

I use frames on the scene level. One of my editors describes it this way: a story should begin at the lowest point before the character undergoes a change.

So if it’s a heist story, a good opening would be the moment the alarm goes off and Geraldine needs to decide how they’re going to survive.

Getting out early means the story ends as the kids are running out of the casino with the loot—not when they’re safe at home tucked into bed. Which leads me to:

4. End in the middle of the scene

The tendency in a first draft is to write complete scenes and call them chapters. That’s fine. Later, I try to break them at natural high points. So one chapter might end in the middle of the casino break in with footsteps outside the door and Geraldine whispering “Someone’s coming.” The next chapter would pick up mid-heist with everyone scrambling to hide. Don’t end a chapter with a natural break–end with the moment that will make the reader want to turn the page.

tumblr_mr2awb2Ejr1qe89guo1_500

5. End with a kicker

Kicker is another term from Magazine Land that I’ve adapted for fiction writing. A kicker is the last sentence of a piece. It’s the line or turn of phrase that ties the piece together. One of my editors described it as ending with a punch (hence, kick). You can read more about how journalist’s use the term here.

I’ve worked with some editors who call this a driver. It drives the reader to know more, to turn the page, to keep reading.

I try to end every chapter on a kicker. It’s so important to me that I include it on my Tracking Spreadsheet. I list the kicker at the end of each chapter. If I don’t have one, I color the box red and my heart is sad until I come up with a kicker ending.

The kicker should:

  • Introduce a new story element (ex: Julie was a double agent. Dun dun dun.)
  • Reveal a change in the protagonist (ex: I was done playing nice. I was going to murder everyone.)
  • Change literally everything (ex: Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time?!?!)

 

And there you have it. Five quick steps, but they make a huge difference in the quality of the scenes I write. Going through these steps before I write also saves me a ton of time in revising.

What about you? What do you do to prepare for writing a scene?

PS: Want more ridiculously detailed information about writing and life? Subscribe to my newsletter! It’s a weekly exploration of motivation, writing, and puns. Hope to see you there!

What Happens When You Embrace Your Writing Process (Spoiler: Magic)

Last week I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about writing myths I used to believe in. As any self respecting procrastinator knows, one of the best ways to avoid writing is to read about writing. I love reading books by writers, books for writers, articles about writing, quotes about the writing life. Sometimes I find it very inspiring.

bc8789f4-d683-48d0-96b8-582532fe498d

Other times it crushes my dreams. Because oftentimes reading about what has worked for other writers gives me false notions and expectations about what it means—and what it takes—to be a “real” writer. Real writers wake up at 4 a.m. and write for three hours in the dark. Real writers outline the entire story before they begin. No! Real writers should let the story unfold organically. Real writers focus on characters instead of plot. They churn out 5,000 words a day and write a novel every month, oh and also they gave a million dollars away to charity and are probably a better person than me, a “fake” writer.

People of the internet: I literally write for a living and I still find myself buying into this nonsense. It’s what kept me from finishing a novel for years. I felt like I was doing it wrong.

mockingjay-part-2-real-or-not-real

There’s one surefire way I’ve found to silence the “I’m not a real writer” voice in my head: accepting my process.

I outline as I go.

My writing is terrible until the third draft.

I write short.

I write best in the evenings and waking up early is something I will never willingly do

I write fast and bad. I revise slowly and thoroughly.

I use brainstorming and “research” as ways to avoid writing.

None of this is universal. It doesn’t all match up with what I’ve been told “real” writers do. That’s okay. It works for me.

I was avoiding writing by listening to the First Draft podcast the other day (10/10 would recommend) and Veronica Roth said something like “The only right way to write a book is the way that allows you to write a book.”

The things that help someone else write a book (or poem or screenplay or whatever) may not be the things that help you write a book. Writing is personal. We should not expect writing advice to be one size fits all. Accept what works for you and toss the rest.

When I gave myself freedom to write terribly, to go dark, to stop pretending I could form coherent sentences in the morning and to stop wasting time on outlines that would never go anywhere, I was finally able to finish a book.

Other writers probably love waking up early to get their word count in and find true inspiration from Pinterest and research. That is awesome.  For them. These are not helpful tools for my writing process, but just because their process is different from mine doesn’t make it any less real. The only “wrong” writing process is the one that keeps you from getting words on the page.

What about you? Have you broken free of writing advice you used to think was gospel? What faulty advice is keeping you from finishing your work?

And, as always, the best way to keep up with me is to sign up for my weekly newsletter.

And, also as always, here is a Lord of the Rings meme because what else am I going to do with my time?

4c8de40663dcb307505a1c51ea59a7a6

17 Lies I Used to Believe About Writing

17 Lies I Used to Believe About Writing

1.The Lie: All writers wake up at 4 a.m. and write for at least three hours in the early morning darkness

The Reality: A lot of people say they are doing this. Very few people actually do—and these people are not my friends because HOW?

748258d4-d278-4919-b827-d60d4a8205d2

2.The Lie: If I’m not an alcoholic/addict I will never make great art

The Reality:

Elizabeth Gilbert said it best:

I’ve always had the sense that the muse of the tormented artist – while the artist himself is throwing temper tantrums – is sitting quietly in a corner of the studio, buffing its fingernails, patiently waiting for the guy to calm down and sober up so everyone can get back to work. Because in the end, it’s all about the work, isn’t it? Or shouldn’t it be?

3.The Lie: If I don’t write every day I am a failure

The Reality: Writing consistently is more important that writing daily.

4.The Lie: I should read more. Writers read!

The Reality: Reading is often an excuse to escape into another writer’s world instead of doing the work of building my own

5.The Lie: Revising as I write is a GREAT idea

The Reality: Revising as I write is really an excuse to keep from finishing. And finishing a draft is more important than perfecting a chapter.

6c8e2ed9-bb2c-4878-a99e-1bec4ca29063

6.The Lie: I can’t move on to the second chapter until I’ve perfected the first

The Reality: See above. Also, there’s a hundred percent chance the first chapter is going to get cut so why bother?

Also, this quote from Julia Cameron:

“Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right.  It has nothing to do with fixing things.  It has nothing to do with standards.  Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move forward.  It is a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.”

7.The Lie: People who have sold books are rich

The Reality: LOL JOKES NO

80f90159-a4e0-46e2-b478-df70f078f7a0

8.The Lie: The first book I write will be trash and I should throw it away immediately

The Reality: The first book I write (and anything I write for that matter) might be trash. Or not. The only way to find out is to show people.

9.The Lie: Good friends make for GREAT critique partners

The Reality: Good friends are terrible critique partners. Because they’re good friends. Never show them anything

10.The Lie: Don’t show anything to your CPs until the whole thing is finished

The Reality: If I’m brave enough to show my CPs a work in progress, the finished product will be stronger

11.The Lie: I need at least a year to outline and brainstorm my book

The Reality: Thinking is less important than writing. I’m going to throw the outline away eventually so I might as well just write now

12.The Lie: You definitely need to print out your first draft. Otherwise how will you revise it?

The Reality: Printing is expensive and I will never read that thing anyway. Just give in to the robot overlords and keep everything on the computer.

13.The Lie: Grammar makes sense and I should learn it

9836f339-5c62-4e6b-9967-3060c3854e40.gif

The Reality: I am an Editor and I’m still terrible at commas and I should just move on with my life

14.The Lie: Writing 50,000 words in a month is a reasonable goal and if I can’t do that I’m a failure and should give up on life

The Reality: No. Just. No.

2ed3894a-c8c3-4651-890d-22e2aadf4611.gif

15.The Lie: Agents will appreciate my sense of humor and I should use as many puns as possible in my query letters

The Reality: Nobody cares

16.The Lie: Writing a book is super fun and not painful AT ALL

The Reality: *crying in corner*

17.The Lie: There is a better time to write than right now

The Reality: The best time to start writing is now. Like, right now.

There is no future, imaginary world where I will have more time and energy to write. If I don’t make the time to write today, than it is not a priority. Jobs, busy schedules, exhaustion—these are excuses. If I don’t’ prioritize writing now, than I never will.

PS: If you like this, you’ll probably like my weekly newsletter. It’s short, it’s sharp, and it’s full of the puns I cut from my query letter. Subscribe here.

How to Improve Your Writing Immediately: Write Scenes, Not Summaries

Note: if you are reading this, you will probably like reading my weekly newsletter, which is full of more writing tips, updates, and puns than your heart can handle. Subscribe here.

I had so much fun making fun of my former baby writer self last week that I thought I’d continue the merriment with another post about things I’ve learned from working in the magazine industry. (You can read the first post, about how my obsession with pretty sentences was crushed like a bug, here).

One of the notes I used to see most often on my magazine stories was, SCENE? In other words: why isn’t this a scene what are you even doing with your life?

My tendency is to write summaries instead of scenes. Ex: “I went to Taco Bell and ordered two burritos.” This is fine for my journal entries, but it is not fine for publication.

So what’s the difference between a summary and a scene?

On the Purdue OWL website (a lifesaver if you are like me and find it impossible to remember grammar “rules”) they define summary as writing that:

moves quickly, giving the reader important highlights or reminders, and is used for background information. Bits of summary often occur within scenes.

Example: I went to Taco Bell and ordered two burritos.

(I have been going through a Taco Bell “phase” for about the past two decades so if that’s a problem you should just stop reading now.)

1fba7566-091c-4483-9f9e-2df3a84ffc09

Screenwriting.io defines a scene, on the other hand as:

“a unit of story that takes place at a specific location and time. If one of these changes, you have a new scene.”

Example: The smell of cheap meat and hot sauce wafted from the air vents. The time had come. I stepped forward.

“I’ll have two bean and cheese burritos with no onions and extra sauce.”

You see the difference? The first version recaps something happening. The second version puts you in the heart of the action.

It’s easy to see the difference when compared side by side, but my first drafts are always chalk full of summary. “He went there. She remembered doing this. She felt this way.” It wasn’t until my top editors started pointing it out to me that I realized I was even doing it.

Most of my revising process is expanding summary into scenes. I like to think of scenes as the scaffolding holding my story up (see last week’s post for more of my extensive housing metaphors). Here’s the thing: every story contains some elements of summary. If every moment in a book were a scene, books would be twice as long.

Working in magazines has taught me that the ratio of scene to summary should be 80/20, and to think carefully about what I choose to summarize.

But before I learned to do any of that, I had to learn to identify summaries in my writing.

How to Distinguish Between a Summary and a Scene:

  1. Ask yourself what happens in this chunk of writing. If the answer is long and meandering “Jamie is walking to school while reflecting on a fight with her mom she had the night before…” you’ve probably written a summary. If you can summarize (LOL wordplay always intended) the action in a sentence “Jamie is fighting with her mom” you’ve probably written a scene.
  2. Is the primary focus of the writing action or imagery? If it’s imagery, you’re wrong.
  3. Determine when the chunk of writing takes place. If it covers a span of time (the fight last night to the walk to school this morning), it’s a summary. Remember: a scene takes place in a specific time and place. Scenes don’t time travel.

So what if you realize what you thought was one beautiful scene full of pretty sentences is actually a summary? How can you fix it? Never fear, this is literally what I do at my job all day and I have lots of ideas about how to kill summary.

How to Change a Summary into a Scene

  • Start with action.

Ditch any beginnings that require reflection, remembering, or exposition. Scenes should throw the reader into something that is already happening. Re-read what you’ve written and identify when the action (the meat of a scene) begins. Cut everything that comes before.

  • Externalize feelings

Description and imagery are vital to scene building, but they should be experiential not observed. One way I fix summaries in my writing is to do a find and replace for anytime I used the words “I/She felt.” This is lazy, bloodless writing. It’s fine for a first draft, but my aim is to root it out in revisions. Instead of writing “I felt hungry so I went to Taco Bell” I will write something like “My stomach was churning. I checked my watch. I hadn’t eaten in a whole thirty minutes. I walked past the open doors of a Taco Bell and the smell made my stomach clench.”

  • Plan ahead

I’ve discovered that one of the easiest ways to skip the summary stage of my writing is to plan ahead. I work out all my summary impulses during the outline process.

One super simple way to do this is with a Pre-Writing Worksheet. Before each writing session (at work and for my novels) I make a quick list. If I’m working on a short story for work I’ll note:

  • Scenes (shocker, I know)

  • Conflict

  • Resolution

Making a list of scenes I imagine taking place in the story helps keep me on track when I actually start writing.

If I’m working on a chapter in a novel, I’ll get more specific.

Here are the five questions I answer before I begin a writing session:

  1. What happens in this scene?

This is where I figure out the action. Writing this down first prevents me from summarizing.

  1. What is my goal with this scene?

This question is about why this scene needs to be written in the first place. What is my goal as the storyteller? If I’m writing a fun scene, my goal might be to establish a friendship between two characters. If I’m writing a fight scene, my goal might be to make one character angry enough to do something stupid (which I know needs to happen in the next chapter). If I don’t have a good answer to this question, it probably means I’m writing an unnecessary scene.

  1. What is the conflict?

Every scene needs conflict. Period. Whether it’s between a character and nature, two characters, or a supposedly adult woman fighting the urge to eat Taco Bell 24/7, there needs to be a struggle. In answering this question I try to set my characters in opposition with each other or with something else (an adult, a force of nature).

  1. What is the story outcome?

The action and conflict of a scene should change slightly alter the direction of the story. This question builds on question 2. How is my protagonist’s goal different at the end of the scene? What is her natural course of action after this scene?

  1. What’s happening off the page?

I use this question primarily for writing mysteries. In each chapter I make note of what the reader is not seeing: what’s the villain doing? Is someone dying and/or being kidnapped? Who’s at the local Taco Bell? Keeping track of what’s happening in the world of my story helps me avoid stupid mistakes like killing someone twice (whoops) or writing a character in two places at once (not that I’ve ever done that).

Want more info on scenes v. summaries? Here are some helpful links:

Technique: Scene vs. Summary

Scene and Summary: What’s the Difference?

The Fundamentals of Writing a Scene

PS: If you liked this post, you will totes probs love my weekly newsletter! It’s full of writing motivation, real time word count updates on my WIP, and tons of fun links and GIFs. Subscribe here to join the party.

 

f092280f-6361-4c3f-8e02-96d2a76a7153

 

Surprise! Sentences Don’t Matter. Here’s Why.

Or, What Working in Magazines Has Taught Me About Storytelling Part 1: Your Sentences Are Trash.

Someone asked me the other day if it was difficult for me to take editorial notes on my manuscript. I’d labored over it for so long in private. Was it weird to accept input from other people? Was it hard to let go of complete creative control?

I hadn’t really thought about it until they asked, but once I did I realized that while it was a strange transition, I don’t find being edited difficult. At all.

This is probably because I work in magazines, which basically means I get spend all day every day watching my writing be ripped to shreds. Thinking about my friend’s question got me thinking about all the other ways working in the magazine world has impacted* my writing.

I realized that being a capital E Editor has transformed the way I approach writing. Not only am I very comfortable being red penned—spending eight hours a day having your writing destroyed will do that to you—I write differently. I thought it would be fun* to share some secrets of the trade here in the hope that others can benefit.

Secret 1: Structure is more important than sentences.

Growing up, I thought being a good writer meant writing pretty sentences. I was all about alliteration, adjectives, and big words. Purple prose was my friend. Structure, scenes, pacing—these were not ideas I associated with writing. I thought writing was about being an adept juggler of words.

Working in magazines has taught me that writing is really about being a master of story.

In my first month working for a women’s magazine I learned that sentences don’t matter. Why? Because every sentence I labored over was deleted or edited into an entirely different thing. No one cared about my word juggling abilities. No one wanted adjectives or adverbs or prose anywhere close to the color purpole.

894e8841-9494-4670-a3d5-772233c43d15

When Editors gave me notes, they didn’t ask about specific word choices or draw hearts around my vivid descriptions. Instead they asked things like:

  1. How does this serve the reader?

  2. How can we structure this piece to keep the reader engaged?

  3. What is the best place to enter this story?

  4. What are the scenes?

Being an Editor requires analyzing a piece of writing as a whole. Writing for magazines has taught me that sentences are important, yes, but they’re the last step, the least important component, of storytelling. Why?

Sentences can always be rewritten. There are an infinite number of pretty words available to fill a line. But there’s only one right way to tell a story.

And in order for those pretty sentences to work, the structure has to be strong. Structure is what matters.

tumblr_mkjkq1X6jZ1qda125o2_500

^^^ Boromir talking about the Ring of Power, but also probably about pretty sentences.

Working in magazines has trained me not to focus on sentence level writing until the final draft of a piece. Instead, I focus on the structure. What is the architecture of an article, an essay, or a book? How is the piece put together? What are the hinge points? Key scenes? Where is the arc going?

I think of it this way: structure is the foundation of story. Scenes are the scaffolding and walls. Sentences are the decorations.

I don’t know about you, but I would much rather decorate a house than build one. But if the house isn’t built, there’s no walls to paint, no pictures to hang, no furniture to arrange. And if the house is built poorly, it won’t matter how well decorated the place is, when a storm comes, it will collapse.

This was a heartbreaking revelation for me at first. I wasn’t good at structure. I was good at sentences. Who was I, as a writer, if my pretty sentences didn’t matter? If I slaved over a piece, filling it with elaborate metaphors (see the house references above) and vivid descriptions, and then my Editor told me to cut it all and start over, how was I possibly going to come up with that many more beautiful words?

d71a7b1a-ebb5-432f-bb96-5716592279dd

It grounded a truth within me that has become fundamental to my writing:

I have an infinite number of pretty sentences within me.

Someone can cut my story and tell me to start from scratch and that is fine. I can come up with a million new interesting sentences. The well will not run dry.

And guess what? You have an infinite number of pretty sentences within you, too. 

So don’t worry about them. Worry about the structure. You have a million chances in a story to wow the reader with your beautiful wordsmithing. You have one chance to get the structure right. That’s what you need to focus.

In conclusion: start with structure. Build scenes. Then work on sentences.

Hi friend! If you liked this post you will probably like my newsletter. It’s a weekly manifesto on writing, motivation, and living your best life. You can sign up here.

*Yes impacted. I have to google “affect v effect” every time I want to use it in a sentence. Yes I’m an Editor. No I am don’t “get” grammar.

*I have a weird definition of fun.

 

Why You Should Actually Celebrate Rejection

This is an excerpt from my Monday Motivation newsletter. Like what you see? Subscribe here.

Warning: Very sappy post ahead.

I was talking to the lovely highschooler I mentor a few weeks ago and she was distraught because she’d been rejected. She wondered if she should stop writing because she hadn’t won a national writing contest.

Did you get that? She didn’t win first place in a writing contest which THOUSANDS of students entered, and she thought it meant she was a bad writer. This is ridiculous and I told her as much (I said it nicely, don’t freak out).

7bf8a592-3105-45a2-a1ce-526d1d04a576.gif

Our conversation made me realize how often I’ve made similar assumptions in my own life. I wasn’t the best person on the team so I assumed I shouldn’t be on it. I didn’t get into the first musical theater program I auditioned for, so I decided I must not be good enough to get into any.

But here’s the thing: in order to get what you want out of life, you have to be willing to face rejection.

I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back: in order to get what you want, you have to be willing to face rejection.

In my short time on this earth I’ve been rejected for everything imaginable. I didn’t get most of the student leadership positions I applied for in college. I haven’t gotten 90 percent of the jobs I went after. When I was a performer I didn’t get into most of the shows I auditioned for. Most recently, when I was querying agents for my novel I had an approximate 60 percent rejection rate.

But guess what?

It only takes one yes.

I wish I could show you the incredibly detailed Rejection Spreadsheet I had when querying agents. It was intensely color coded and filled with all sorts of information about how long it took for someone to reject me, if they had anything nice to say, if it was a form letter, how thoroughly they’d crushed my dreams etc.. I’ll protect the innocent and not show the whole thing, but basically here’s what it ended up looking like:

35790ab6-c78c-43ff-9611-db11d1210ac8

If you’re wondering if Red was the Color of Rejection the answer is YES. Yes it was. You’ll notice there is exactly one green box.

It only took one.

I didn’t need 25 agents, I needed one. I didn’t need 10 jobs, I needed one.

We live in a world where what you want often lies down a path that someone else has to open the door for. If you want to be a lawyer, you have to get into law school. If you want to be on Broadway, you have to be cast in a Broadway show. If you want to play basketball, you have to make the team.

All this can make it feel like success is out of your hands. This is a lie. Success is up to you. Because in order to get into law school Because in order to get into law school you have to take the LSAT. To be on Broadway, you have to audition. To make the team, you have to try out.

It’s up to you.

Please, for the love of carbs, friends, do not let rejection keep you from knocking on the door. I have folders full of rejections for freelance pitches, jobs, and my novel. But I’ve sold pitches. I have a job I love. And I have representation for that novel.

It only takes one yes.

Keep going. Knock on the door. Make the ask. Start training. Send the application. Cold call the client.

And when you get the (inevitable) first rejection, don’t give up. Rejection isn’t cause for shame, it’s cause for celebration. Why? Because to get rejected you have to actually try for something. If you’ve been rejected, congratulations! Welcome to the club.

f339fde2-7011-4d34-b2d7-52b268580684.gif

Celebrate your rejections, embrace all the nos that come your way, and get very comfortable with doors being slammed in your face. But never, ever, not even for a minute, let any of those things make you think you’re not good enough. Do not let something as small and insignificant as rejection keep you from your dream.

It only takes one yes. So don’t stop asking.

PS: Want sappy motivation deliver straight to your inbox? Sign up for the Monday Motivation newsletter for GIFs than your heart can handle.

PPS: if you thought you could make it through this post without an LOTR GIF you were kidding yourself.

0b9dbd83-6782-49fd-8a21-ccacf1862a1f

 

How Not to Write a Novel (In 22 Super Easy Steps)

Hi, friends. I don’t know if you heard, but I wrote, like, one whole book. So yeah. I’m basically an expert and thought it was high time I broke down how to do it for you peasant, unwriterly folk. See below for a foolproof writing process. Patent pending.

Like what you see? Sign up for my newsletter for more wisdom than your brain can possibly handle.

How Not to Write a Novel

  1. Decide you want to make a million dollars and realize the easiest way to get there is becoming an author. Because duh writing books is super profitable (ever heard of a little fellow named Harry Potter?

tenor.gif

2. Go with the first story idea you ever had. Who cares if there’s no logline, hook, or plot? How hard can it be to string together 70,000ish words?

3. Dream about book signings and brunches with your imaginary editor. Write nothing.

3-youll-get-to-it-soon.gif

4. Do some research and learn you need an author “platform.” Begin tweeting in earnest. Stalk agents on Twitter. Decide to write about writing on your blog even though you’ve never finished a book because HEY EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT. Avoid writing book at all costs.

generationvoice.gif

5. Decide outlining is for people who aren’t TRUE artists (aka: not you). Besides, you know the beginning and the end, how difficult could the middle be?

3ca7ea25-48df-445b-8a3b-8ba8efa85a5e

6. Very, very difficult as it turns out.

7. Despair

cce4063f-f939-497a-b043-bef094f06069

8. Repeat step 7

9. Repeat step 7

10. Repeat step 7

11. Delete second half of book with one stroke of the key.

12. Repeat step 7

13. Give up all dreams of being a TRUE artist and outline the dang thing

14. Rewrite second half of book (sprinkle in a healthy dose of step 7 along the way)

15. Re-read draft immediately after typing THE END. Decide it’s brilliant. Query immediately.

fd6dd23a-7862-4570-addf-5edfdd86d43a

16. Repeat step 7. Add red wine and obsessive email refreshing, waiting for the inevitable multiple agent offers because obviously every agent in the biz should be able to see that your novel will change literary history as we know it.

giphy.gif

17. Stop. Collaborate. Listen.

18. Start over. Write an actual book with an actual plot and believable characters.

19. Revise aforementioned book until you hate it more than the Grinch hates Christmas.

giphy.gif

20. Let it sit for a while and then revise some more.

21. Query in a healthy, realistic manner.

imsuperchillallthetime.gif

22. HA! Jokes. That’s not a thing. Repeat step 7 for all time and eternity.

Stuck on step 7? Subscribe for my weekly motivational newsletter to get the kidney punch you need to change your life.

The Absolutely True Story of How I Got A Literary Agent

In case you missed my obnoxious postings on every social media platform: I signed with an agent last week!

Cue all the celebratory GIFS.

giphy

 

I first shared the long version of the story in my weekly newsletter (sign up here for more GIFS than your heart can handle).

Last year, I had one goal: write a book. I was so focused on this goal that I called 2017 “The Year of the Book” (I know, super lame and uncreative, but whatever).

Everything I wanted out of the year boiled down to this one desire.

I took a writing class. I went to writing meetups. Eventually, I started a critique group. Mostly, though, I wrote.

I churned out 60 pages in three months and then fell stagnant. Sometime in the summer, I picked back up the writing torch and by August I had written my way to a first draft.

Of course, it only got worse from there. I went through the manuscript with a critique partner. I revised until my fingers cramped. I added entire characters and scenes. I became so engrossed in a world of twisted friendships and vicious lies that it started poisoning my own relationships. I was a mess.

And then someone told me I had written a murder mystery, which was not at all what I had intended, but was, in fact, exactly what I had done. So I ripped out the second half and wrote it from scratch.

That was super fun. (JOKES)

And then I had what I jokingly referred to as a Book-Like Thing.

I started researching next steps in October and learned that the first—and arguably most important—step to publishing a book is to get an agent. As an author, you don’t pitch a book directly to a publishing house, you pitch to agents, who, if you are very very lucky, will sign you as client, and then try to sell your book to a publisher and also represent you and all of your literary works until you die (and even after! Morbid, but true).

I decided that 2018 would be The Year of the Agent. I made it my mission to convince someone to represent me by my birthday.

How do you get an agent? Well, you Google it, like I did and then you write a query letter.

A query letter is the Holy Grail of publishing. It is an elusive, page-long, magical piece of writing that sums up your book and convinces an agent that they want to read it and work with you for eternity. I made a list of agents I thought might like my book. Basically, I was looking for anyone who liked “unlikeable” (more on that later) girls and dark mysteries.

I agonized over my letter, rewrote it approximately 39 times, and in January decided I was too tired to care anymore, so I started sending it to people on the aforementioned list.

I sent three queries a day. Twenty four people in total, which meant 24 personalized greetings, different variations on first ten pages, first three chapters, three page synopsis, 200 word synopsis, and so many other random pieces of writing that I started to go just a little bit mad.

Of those 24 people, seven requested either the full or partial manuscript. Thirteen rejected me. Five never responded. Four rejected me after reading the partial or the full.

One asked me to revise and resubmit.

Which I did not want to do (see above about hating this book more than life itself by this point). But I did it anyway. I spent a month going through the book line by line, word by word and revising until it was where I wanted it to be.

Psych! I revised it and then when I hated it so much I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore I sent it off while yelling profanities at the FBI agents I assuming are listening in on my computer.

And then this amazing thing happened where an agent offered to represent me. This
was quickly followed by another thing happening which is that I burst into tears, ran around in circles, and then cried some more.

Because writing this book hurt me. It was freaking hard, you guys. Like, imagine sticking a hand down your throat and un-rooting an organ and then jamming it into a computer and calling it a book. That’s the kind of hard it was. And to think that this thing I’d labored over actually had value to someone else made me weep and feel all the feelings.

On a practical level, it meant I had to let all the other agents I’d queried know so they could counteroffer if they so desired. And the crazy thing is that some of them did.

I ended up receiving several offers which was maybe the most stressful thing that’s ever happened to me. I made charts. I made pro/con lists. I stalked them on message boards and talked to their authors. In short, I got real creepy.

It was a tough decision, impossible really, because they were all awesome. In the end I did the same thing I do every time I get hungry and went with my gut. And to make a long email newsletter short, I’m now represented by Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis.

Why Christa? Well, she said my book reminded her of The Heathers which is not only my favorite 80s movie, but also the best movie to musical adaptation of all time. More importantly, flattery will get you everywhere with me. Also, she had great editorial notes and vision for where the book should go. She’s also a career agent—she’s not just looking to sell books, she’s looking to support someone in every aspect of their career, which really appealed to me because I kind of plan on churning out books until I die.

There was also a serendipitous coincidence that pushed me in her direction. My Book-Like-Thing references several literary masterpieces, one being Of Mice and Men. I quoted John Steinbeck a few times and there’s even a scene involving hamsters and Lenny and I won’t say anything more because SPOILERS (although I don’t think it’s in any way a spoiler to say that not all the hamsters in this book make it out alive). When Christa told me McIntosh & Otis represented John Steinbeck and still handled his estate I got that goose bumpey, cold-fist-in your-gut-feeling.

Anyways, I signed a contract thing and promised to give Christa all my children if she sold my book (not really, but honestly I’m not opposed), and now she is my agent.

What comes next? Wouldn’t you like to know! Just kidding. What comes next is that Christa gives me notes and then I have to revise the entire book again (which sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me, but oh well) and then she’ll take it to publishers and do her thing.

I’ll write more about what it means to have an agent, what the submission process looks like, and other things that are a bit more in the Motivational Monday wheelhouse, but for today, I’m celebrating the fact that I’ve not accomplished my goal for 2018 and imagining bigger, more terrifying dreams to wrestle in the future.

If you have any questions, thoughts, or concerns about hamsters, shoot me an email. I’d love to chat with you. I hope you invest time in the dream that sets your soul on fire this week. Nothing could be more worth doing.

And if you want to stay up to date on my book journey or want a weekly reminder to DO THE DANG THING subscribe to my newsletter. I hope to see you there.

 

How I Wrote 50,000 Words In Two Months (While Working Full Time)

If you clicked on this post, you would probably enjoy my Monday Motivation newsletter. Sign up here for the inspiration you need to make the life you want.

In January I set a short term writing goal for myself: write 50,000 words of my manuscript by March 1. Last Wednesday, February 28, I typed my 50,092 word.

During this time period I had 42 writing sessions averaging 30 minutes each. I was working full time and also happened to be revising my first novel for an agent simultaneously (that’s a story for another time). When I hit my wordcount goal no one was more shocked than me.

I’m a perpetual goal setter, but I almost never accomplish the tasks I set out for myself. That’s fine. I still get farther with goals than I would without them. But I wanted to figure out why this time was different. What did I do more effectively? How could I duplicate it for future goals?

First drafts are the hardest part of the writing process for me. I am terrible first drafter. I know everyone says that in a really cute “aw shucks” kind of way, but I really mean it. My first drafts rarely even contain complete sentences. I’m lucky if they contain discernible words.

I’m an Editor by trade and writing doesn’t click for me until I have words to work with. I hate writing every word of first drafts and so I made it my goal with this project to get the first draft over with as soon as possible. Getting these bad words on the page quickly is crucial because the important work of shaping and coloring in the novel will take much longer.

So I launched an investigation to figure out how I wrote 50,000 words in two months while working fulltime. I identified five key factors that set my writing approach aprt:

Five Tools That Helped Me Write 50,000 Words In Two Months

1. Set a goal in the Sweet Spot

The first thing I did that helped me accomplish my goal was setting a reasonable goal in the first place. I found the Sweet Spot.

The Sweet Spot is a target difficult enough to be a challenge, but reasonable enough to keep you motivated. For me, writing 25,000 words would have been too easy, but writing 75,000 would have been so difficult I wouldn’t have bothered to start. Fifty thousand words was the Sweet Spot. A stretch, but within reach.

To find the Sweet Spot first list your Unattainable and Too Easy goals.

So for example:

Unattainable: 75,000

Too Easy: 25,000

Sweet Spot = Unattainable Goal – Too Easy Goal

The Sweet Spot is the difference between these two goals. In my case, 50,000 words.

2. Quantify your goal

If you are a creative, quantifying your goal might seem counterintuitive. After all, how do you quantify art? (Insert smug mustache twirl thing here). But if you want to improve and set measurable goals than you have to choose a way to track what you are doing and how it’s working.

Measuring quantitavely in this sense, is not about measuring quality, it’s about measuring output.

Everything is quantifiable. If you are a painter, you might track how many days it takes you to finish a painting and how many hours per day you spent working on that painting on average. If you are a runner, you might track your time and mileage. If you are an actor, you might track how much time you spent practicing and how many auditions you attended.

By keeping track of my creative output, I was able to see what on earth I was actually doing. Because I kept detailed records of when and how much I wrote, I know that the most I wrote in one day was 3,000 and the least was 560, and that my average was somewhere around 1,200.

It also helped me to identify patterns. I write much faster and sustain energy for longer periods of time, later in the day. Most writing advice says you should write in the morning. I can do that, but it’s not the most efficient way for me to write. Tracking my writing made me realize I need to plan my writing sessions later in the day.

The only way to know what works best for you is to keep track of it. Lots of random internet advice told me I needed to get more sleep, but when I Heatmapped I discovered that I was actually happier with less sleep. Don’t take other people’s advice on what will work for you. Find out for yourself.

PS: If you’re not sure how to start keeping track of your time, I wrote an entire post on Heatmapping—the best tool I’ve found for quantifying personal goals.

3. Outline outline outline

As with many things in life, planning for success makes success more attainable. I’ve always outlined my projects, but normally I ditch the outline 1/3 of the way through. This is fine, but it meant I would start each writing session with, at best, a vague notion of what I needed to write. Over the last two months, I ended my writing sessions by jotting out a detailed outline of what I would write the next day.

This doesn’t just apply to writing. If you are a runner, make a running schedule. If you are a painter, sketch out what you want the finished product to look like. Start each day knowing exactly what you need to do on that particular day to reach your goal.

4. By law you get a lunch break. USE IT.

This one only applies to people who have goals outside of their bill-paying jobs. I have a fulltime job and consider myself very lucky to be employed. But my job means I have to think carefully about when I can write and need to make use of the free time I have.

I work all day, but I do get a lunch break. I outfitted my iPad with a mini keyboard. Now I have a lightweight writing device I can use to write during my lunchbreak. That’s a solid hour of writing every day.

One thing I’ve noticed about my friends who work office jobs is that they rarely take lunch breaks. Your company is legally obligated to give you a break during the workday. Don’t be a martyr. Take it.

5. Do NOT revise as you go. Ever.

The final thing I did that made a huge difference was not reviewing my work. I didn’t read a single word of what I had written. I just kept going.

Why is this important? Because starting a project is fun, but it’s easy for me to get so bogged down in perfecting the beginning that I never reach the ending. Perfectionism prevents completion.

Most dreams die in progress. Lots of people have first chapters of novels that they’ve edited to death. Few people have finished manuscripts. The first chapter, first sketch, first rehearsal, isn’t important. Finishing is important. And to finish you need to look forward, not backward.

For my last project, it wasn’t until the final draft that I started the story in the right place. The first chapter that I slaved over for months didn’t even make the cut. It wasn’t necessary. You will save yourself tons of time and energy if you commit to seeing a project through without trying to fix it as you go.

So there you have it. Five easy things that made it possible for me to write more efficiently and to have more fun while doing it. What about you? How do you reach challenging goals while meeting other life obligations? Comment below so I can steal your ideas!

Want more practicable info like this? Sign up for weekly motivation.

Why Fasting is the Secret to Creative Growth

Today is Ash Wednesday,* the day that marks the beginning of Lent for many people of faith around the world. Lent, for those of you who are not bombarded with reminders on social media about it every year, is a religious term referring to the 40 days leading up to Easter. It’s tradition for people to fast for these 40 days in preparation for Easter Sunday.

I had no idea what Lent was until I went to college and got band-wagoned into giving up something trendy each Spring. One year it was desserts. Another, Facebook. My friends gave up coffee or alcohol or carbs. In more recent years, I became suspicious of the benefits of Lent. It seemed like the things people gave up were less about some pursuit of spiritual discipline and more about personal benefits. Lent just seemed like another excuse to diet.

But in the past year I’ve awoken to the power of deprivation to spur personal and artistic growth. I’ve given up one thing each month since last August. Sugar. Coffee. Alcohol. Cussing. The practice started on accident. I did a spending fast because (shocker) I felt like I was spending too much money, and when it was over, I realized there were a lot of other things I consumed in excess and so I just kept going.

Fasting is most commonly known as a spiritual exercise and most religions incorporate it in some way. Muslims practice Ramadan. Hindus set aside certain days every week to fast. Christians fast during Lent. Jewish people fast to celebrate Yom Kippur.

When I started giving up things for set periods of time, I wasn’t doing it for spiritual growth. I was doing it for selfish reasons. I wanted to save money so I stopped drinking alcohol. I didn’t want to get addicted to caffeine so I gave up coffee. But what I’ve come to realize is that deprivation automatically forces growth.

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Dan Coleman writes that, “There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse.”

This is an especially essential skill in a first world country where delayed gratification is not a given. In America, you can go your whole life without going without. This is a blessing. But instant gratification can quickly become a burden. When we stuff ourselves with an endless stream of food, entertainment, and material goods, we starve ourselves of the opportunity to want something.

Fasting forces you to be present in your life. Every time you say no to something, you are reminded that you are a rational being, capable of making choices. It’s so easy to glide through our days with our heads down and never look up. My default is to ignore the big picture of my life in favor of getting through another day. Fasting reminds me of the very simple, but entirely remarkable fact that I’m alive.

Sugar, television, expensive clothes, alcohol—all of these things are unessential. Fasting sloughs them off.

If you are feeling stuck or in need of a creative jolt, I invite you to use Lent as an excuse to give something up. If you don’t know where to start, think of the things you do on a daily basis. What do you eat? How do you spend leisure time? Then go with the thing that sounds the most terrifying to be without.

Give up your crutch for the next 40 days. You may be surprised to learn that you are perfectly capable of standing on your own.

*it’s also Valentine’s Day, an irony that gives me endless joy