Some Thoughts on My First Novel

6:00 AM

In honor of my writing anniversary this year, I pulled down my bulky purple binder and began to read my first book.

Don't get me wrong. It's absolutely horrible. But it's also intriguing and fascinating to me (in a way I did not intend to make it when I wrote it). I've never really read my first book before. Sure, I went over it once and made notes [back when I was still serious about editing it and hopefully publishing it (HAAAAHA)] but I haven't, that I can remember at least, gone through and just read my book.

And my, is it interesting. Today, rather than giving you seven things I've learned in the style I've used in the past, I'm going to give you a few things I've noticed about my first book, and how they can help me, and hopefully you, in our writing journeys today.



(QUICK NOTE that Katie posted recently about her first book, and I couldn't help but think of her as I typed this up!)


#1: MOST AUTHENTIC 11 YEAR OLD VOICE EVER

The advantages to writing middle grade when you are in the middle grade is that you are the audience. And, more so than ever at that age, you write what you want to read.

The way I word things. The way I write description. The way I rationalize and think things through. The way I plan. The way I have my characters notice and observe and react to things. It's all so childish. And, for my purposes now, that's actually a good thing because it lets me know what a real eleven year old would think. It lets me know what kind of things they might notice, and how they might react to getting kidnapped or finding out they have magical powers. Even if the character's reaction isn't done well, you can still get a glimpse of the reaction in what happens.


#2: WE'VE COME SO FAR

There's nothing like looking back at your work and relishing in just how horrible it is. The writing is jerky, the plot is wild and often too coincidental. The characters are flat, they learn too fast, they all sound the same in dialogue ... and there's not really anything unique. There might be some good ideas, but the writing is so dull, that doesn't matter. There's nothing that makes your book stand out.

And then you look at your WIP. Maybe you're still in the first book stage, but I promise you that if you keep writing, and if you write a lot, you will get better. And, someday, you'll even get good.

It's so satisfying now to look back and see how different my first book and my fifth book really are. It took years of writing, hundreds of thousands of words, but I finally have something I can work on, something I know I can be proud of someday. I know what the mistakes are in my novel, and (for the most part) how to fix them.

I've come so far. And, whether you've been writing a week, a month, a year, five years, ten years--you've come from somewhere too. We all started, and we've all grown from that moment. So look back and let yourself appreciate just how bad you were at writing. It makes what you're doing now even more incredible. 


#3: THEME HUNT

Writing has a way of slipping the hard things out of you. The fears and doubts, the insecurities. It reaches into our minds and is just small enough to grab hold of it, and it weaves it into your words. It's sometimes really hard to spot. I didn't realize it for years. I knew writing helped me emotionally, but I wasn't sure how or why. I just thought it was an escape.

But writing isn't really an escape. Because, in writing, we confront our deepest fears, our biggest questions, our deepest insecurities, and we line them up for all to see. It takes a discerning eye--often a writer's eye--to see these hidden gems. But they're what makes stories matter.

They're your theme.

If you're anything like me,  you might have started out thinking you didn't write theme into your books. I had somehow come across a writing "tip" early on in my journey that basically said, "Don't lay out your theme or you'll be preaching." At the time, I only had a vague idea of what theme was, so my only thought was, "Oh dear. I better not do that." So for several years after, I never read any articles on the importance of theme. I thought they were all lies.

*sighs at young self*

Theme is so important. And I firmly believe that there is theme in every story ever written. It just takes a discerning eye to find.

Why is there theme in every story ever written?

Because in every story, we have a character. And a character, in a good story, must face something.

That's where theme comes from. It can be simple, or it can be complex. It can be countless things. We can mean to tell readers this encouraging information, or we can just ignore the fact that we're even writing theme.

But when I look at the first book I wrote, and when I study my characters, I find a girl who just wants to matter, and realizes that even though she felt like she didn't, she did. I see themes of what love should look like, of friendship and bravery and hope and trust. I didn't mean to put any of this into my story. It wasn't my intention when writing about a very special girl to make others feel hopeful and special themselves. And yet, as I read this book, that's the gentle message it sends. That you are important, and you matter. Even if the whole world is oblivious to your existence, that doesn't mean you don't have a place in it. Even if you feel useless and insignificant, that doesn't mean you are. You're here for a reason, and you just have to be brave enough to step out and find that reason.

These are all things I was unintentionally saying in my first book. They were things I, as a young girl, needed to hear myself. And I can only imagine how many other children out there need those kinds of messages. How many times have we seen The Chosen One trope in fiction? It's prominent for a reason.

When you look at your old writing, you're looking at a treasure map. It might take a little hunting and a little work, but once you find the key, you'll be swimming in the buried treasure of authentic children and the messages they need to hear most.


How long ago did you write your first book? Are you still writing your first book? Have you broken out of the everything-i-write-is-horrible stage, or are you still struggling to find your voice? (Don't give up! It just takes time, and a lot of writing.)

<3

Stan's Second Birthday! + some reflections on where I started

6:00 AM

CONFESSION TIME: Stan's birthday was eleven days ago. February 6.

That's right. I completely forgot about it. And I even had a chance to make amends on the tenth when I posted! But I forgot. Again. I almost forgot this week, but I managed to get a hold of my brain, scold it for embarrassing me, and, well, here we are.



I looked through all my posts and I just have to say ... I think it's super cool that I've now been blogging for two years. You know why? It doesn't feel like two years. When I look at each post's title, I remember writing it. I remember what my thoughts were behind it, why I chose to write that post.

Which makes me think about blogging in general. Blogging is awesome, guys. We have this chance to share our thoughts and hopes and ideas with the world. We can tell others revelations we have, things that help carry us through life, and we will be able to look back years later and see exactly when we posted it and read it all over again.

Isn't that just so cool?

So this post is (kind of. I mean, bloggers can read it too. I won't kick you out ;P ) for you guys who don't have blogs.

Get a blog.

As I reflect on what was going through my mind when I started Stan, let me share with you some advice I took when starting, and am very grateful I heeded.


#1: MAKE A GAME PLAN

Blogging is not the kind of thing you should just wake up one day and decide to do. It takes time and thought. It takes intentionality and dedication. I spent months thinking up my blog. I didn't start it until I knew the perfect title for it, what my first five-ish posts were going to be, and what I wanted to say, overall, with the blog.

Let me explain why that last one is so important.

If you don't know what your underlying message is--the core reason behind why you're doing what you're doing--you're not going to last long. You might post those five posts you planned when you started, and maybe even three more after that. But you'll eventually stop posting and fall off the blogging train.

You have to know why your blog matters to you. Because blogging takes time, and we only make time for the things that matter to us.


#2: DECIDE ON A POSTING SCHEDULE 

This is probably my top piece of advice for new/wannabe bloggers. Not everyone posts on a schedule, but I know personally I appreciate it when a blogger sticks to some sort of consistency. Not only does it give readers knowledge of when to stop by your blog, but it also gives them a date to look forward to, and it gives you motivation.

If you start, and have great ideas, but just say, "I'll post whenever I feel like it" you could likely go weeks without posting a single word. Life happens, things come up. If you don't have a date you have told yourself you'd post on, then you'll have no reason to post. When you push off posting for a day, there's nothing to stop you from pushing it off till the next day. And the next. And the next ...

If you know when you're going to post and stick to it, you won't miss often. You'll keep up consistency. And it might sound hard (I thought it would be nearly impossible) but it is so satisfying to commit to something. You're in charge. You have the power. But one good thing is, you're blogging. Readers will look forward to those weekly posts. And if you don't post, they'll keep you accountable.


#3: BE FEARLESS

I still remember those first few posts I put up. I would stare at that publish button, gnawing on my lip, wondering if I should risk it. Would anyone even read this little blog? Why would they? No one cares about the words of an insignificant little sixteen year old.

But they did. I'm almost at 100 followers on Google now! *cheers for you all and throws coffee beans and confetti* Stan has been slow going, but he's grown steadily. And I honestly don't think he would have grown if I hadn't kept posting.

Running a blot takes a certain amount of guts. You have to surrender part of yourself. You have to let go of perfection: perfect writing, perfect formatting, etc. In order to post regularly, you can't spend hours upon hours tweaking every post to utter perfection. That would be awesome--you guys deserve the best!--but it's unrealistic.

So you have to dust yourself off and say, "I'm going to post this now, and I'm going to be proud of it." And so you do the thing, and you lift your chin. Because you put your words out there for the world to see, and that my friend is absolutely epic.


I hope you enjoyed my little blogger tips! I may have been blogging for two years now, but I still have so much to learn. 'Tis the beauty of writing, I suppose.

February is a special month for me. Not only is it Stan's birthday, but it's also the anniversary of when I started writing novels. Next week I'll talk about what I've learned from the last seven years of writing. Stay tuned!

Do you have a blog? What is your number one tip for bloggers, new and old? If you don't have a blog, are you considering getting one? *cough* do iiiit *cough*

<3

Finding a Focus

6:00 AM

"Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning's chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the cook." 

This is a passage on page 105 of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Can we just talk about how brilliant this is?

It was funny, because I had just watched a video on speed reading and pulled out this book to try my hand at it. I'm a fairly slow reader (I like to mosey along) and I've been taking a while with this book. But when I opened it back up to this passage, I had to forget all about speed reading and stare. 

Dickens uses a technique like this earlier in the book, too. But, in case you missed it, allow me to point out the brilliant method Dickens used to capture our attention. 



The best way to word it, I think, would be finding a focus. "What do you mean by that, Hannah?" Well, I'll give you a hint. The focus is not Monseigneur, which is ironic because that's how the the first sentence begins. Monseigneur. But you can help but wondering, 105 pages into the story: do you really expect a random dude I've never met whose name I read in my head like Mo-seughasdlkfj to capture my attention and keep me reading?

The focus of this passage is not Monseigneur, but rather, something most of us are intimately familiar with and overly fond of: chocolate.

Everyone loves chocolate. So we all see the humor in what Dickens does here. He gives us integral information about this new character (who he is, what he's like, what people think of him) all by telling us about said character's relationship with chocolate. And the paragraph leaves you hanging by making us ask a question. If this Monseigneur can swallow an entire country, why is chocolate giving him trouble? Is it because he's too big to get up and get it? Or does he ... *whispers at the horrible idea* not actually like chocolate?? And the four men must hold him down in order to get him to take it? But why would he have to take chocolate? Or is he prim and proper and very specific, demanding his chocolate to be prepared a specific way?

The questions are swarming, and we have to know more. The welfare and dignity of chocolate is at stake.

If Dickens had written this passage with Monseigneur in a carriage on the way to the party he attended, we would have been much less interested and likely skimmed the important part where we learn he's swallowing France. Hiding important information in intriguing context is a good way to make those details stick in the readers' minds.

So. How do we apply this to our own writing?

When you have to get important info to readers that's not exactly what you would call enthralling, find something to focus on to catch the reader's attention. Let your voice flood through it. (Can't you can just taste Dickens' wit in this passage?)

There's an earlier scene where he uses this same concept, but with wine. That one stretched on a little too long for my taste, so be sure you tie the focus into what's actually going on in the story. For example, if you decide to talk about your main character's sister's ballet performance, make sure we know why we're being told this story. (aside from the important info that our MC has a little sister--which raises questions about why we haven't seen her yet.) How you make that focus important is up to you. Just try to tie it to the current plot or characters and weave it into the narrative. This method of storytelling almost feels like we're taking a break from the story for a bit. It's refreshing and new and potentially funny, but if you're not careful you'll have your reader scratching their head and thinking, "Why are we talking about coffee?" which everyone knows is a stupid question because coffee is very riveting and important

SO! Now it's your turn to try out this technique. Pick an object and then a current character in your book, and tell us about your character through that object.

Here, I'll give it a shot too.

Coffee is the only way Diane knew how to start her day. A vanilla cappuccino with an extra shot of espresso, made with skim milk and topped with whip? That was her life song. No matter that she had to pay the rent in two days, and she'd just used the last of her savings on that sweet, steaming cup of bittersweet goodness. No matter that her pants had been getting tighter ever since she'd discovered the shop, and the drink made for her at birth. No matter that she was late to sell Organic Freshly Frozen Popsicles day after day. She had coffee to buy, and--despite what her friends and family said--she wouldn't be Diane without it. 

So I just wrote this completely off the top of my head. I don't know exactly how it would fit into a story--maybe it wouldn't go with the plot. But it's funny enough to keep us reading, and by the end of it we know a lot of important things about Diane. She's a severe coffee addict, she has a job selling popsicles that we can pretty easily guess she doesn't care for, and she's struggling to pay her rent, which means she likely lives alone (if this is a main character, we'll find out the answer to that soon, and our appetite for it has been whetted).


It doesn't have to be an object. It could be a story from the past, a famous fairy tale, a movie, a TV show. Anything, really. Something to catch the reader's attention, and help them get important info.


What are your thoughts? Do you like this method of writing? Pick an object and write a paragraph and share in the comments! I'd love to see what you come up with! 

<3

Editing

When Your Villain Refuses to be Your Antagonist

6:00 AM

I wrote The Dream Walkers, draft 1, a year ago now. I vividly remember the planning stage: brainstorming the characters, world, and plot. I remember how I thought things were going to go. How I set up and planned for things to fall together. (spoiler: they didn't)

I started with two main antagonists, but as time and words have passed, I've realized I don't actually have two main antagonists. I have six, sort of. And none of those are the original two I thought they were. 


I know. It's funny. Ha-ha.


Through edits, this has been extremely frustrating. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize that my two "villains" weren't my antagonists. But once I came to this conclusion, I was faced with a question.

Who were my antagonists?

I haven't fully solved the problem yet, but I've pinpointed the issue I had and why.

So, what do you do when your villain refuses to be your antagonist?



I'm going to do this in list format because that's how my brain is working right now.


#1: get to know your villain

The first step to figuring out why my villains weren't working as antagonists was getting their backstories straight. I needed to know where they were coming from, and what the true motives behind their actions were.

Once that started to unfold, so many things about their character began to make sense. Why my evil Lord of Darkness was actually a softie, and why my Queen of Light was not a cold, cynical, merciless tyrant, but a terrified woman left with no other options aside from callousness.

Discovering who they were made me see why they weren't operating as the evil villains of my story like they had in the planning stage. They were pure evil in that process. But now ... now they're human.

YOUR JOB: Sit down in a quiet room and chat with the character you thought was your villain. Figure out who they are and why. If they're like mine--playing the bad guy, but not really a bad guy--ask them why. What's making them act this way? Why haven't they tried to do something about it? (or have they?)


#2: figure out who your real antagonist is

Of course, every story needs an antagonist. So a new problem rose when I embraced the true natures of my villains.

Who was going to fill their role?

Fortunately, this wasn't that difficult of a question, since the real antagonists had surfaced during the writing of the first and second drafts. The real problem has come in tying them more securely into the story, and connecting them to the main antagonist so that everything is cohesive and works together.

YOUR JOB: Examine your story. Who is giving your MCs the most grief? Who is thwarting their goals? Who stands in their way at nearly every turn? Who is out to get them? The villain your first thought might be the answer to some of these questions, but if there is anyone else in your story that earned themselves a yes on this list, I encourage you to take another look at them and their role in the story. Are they really just a side character, or are they the antagonist you've been missing?


#3: hire them and fire them

Hopefully at this point, you know who your villain is and you know who your antagonist is. Now it's time to do some weeding and skimming. Hire that good antagonist that's been lurking in the shadows. It's time to give them a larger role in the plot of your story. It's time to find out their true character and motive.

And, though it's hard, fire your old villains. Don't get rid of them! They are in the story for a reason, most likely. Just because they're not actually your antagonists doesn't mean they're not meant for the book. They might have a role you have yet to uncover. Keep searching through their character to find it.

It might be annoying or slightly terrifying to make such big changes like these. But I PROMISE you, if your current villains aren't meant to be the antagonists, it will be so worth it. Your story will be so much stronger, and your previous villains might turn out to be valuable assets to your characters.

Keep your mind open! You never know who might come knocking on your brain with a story to tell.


Do you struggle with your antagonists and/or villains? How do you be sure you have them properly categorized? Do you find it hard to fire characters from their previous roles? Have you ever had to? 

<3

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