Write what you loveI’ve been a reader since very young. At 3 years old, I memorized Peter Rabbit… literally knew which words went with which pages, even though I wasn’t associating words with meanings quite yet. I knew that story so well, backwards and forwards, what happened when… we have a recording of my 3-year-old voice “reading” the story to my aunt, and when I get to the end of it, I just start the whole story over again…

I think that being a reader, falling in love with books and stories, is part of how one becomes a writer. There’s something magic about the way that words unlock the world. They lift you out of your current experience and thrust you into another place and time, be that world fictional or utterly real. We are transported by the words on the page, made to think of something other than ourselves if only for a moment. And once you connect with that magic in such a personal way, who can resist the draw of being able to harness the power yourself?

I wrote my first book when I was in elementary school about dolphins, on construction paper and stapled together, complete with researched and organized chapters and oil pastels illustrations. (If I can find it, I’ll post pictures here.) After that I was hooked. I created stories in my head and in spiral notebooks, about horses and unicorns in elementary and middle school, and about angsty love and rejection when I was a little older. Nothing that was worth publishing, most of which I would never share with anyone, not even my most trusted companions. I stopped writing in college (got distracted), but I picked it up again a few short years later.

Now I write light YA fantasy, crafting strong female characters to speak directly to that angsty, rejected teenager I was all those years ago. I’m planning a self-publishing adventure this summer (follow my progress at www.elisabethkauffman.com) and the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself as a teenager to publish something that I wrote.

How we came to this land of writing matters for one very important reason. Your writer’s origin story is what you should fall back on when the going gets tough. If you’re serious about succeeding in this often frustrating and soul-crushing world of publishing, you’re going to have to remind yourself why you started in the first place.

For me, when I get scared of sharing my writing because I’m anticipating the painful process of internalizing feedback (growth HURTS, people, it’s why they call them “growing pains”) and getting better as a writer, I think of that teenage me, shiny-eyed, expressive, and innocent. She wanted these stories to be told because she wanted a story to relate to. When I suffer through the painful parts of this process, I do it for her.

Who do you do it for?

*Just FYI, the fab Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA is releasing a BOOK in June. Learn more about it here.

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This post is inspired by the DIY MFA Street Team weekly prompt.

We live in a magical time. No really, we do. This age of information makes learning a new skill, improving your craft, and finding your tribe remarkably accessible. All you have to do is a quick Google search and you’ll be flooded with more ideas and connections than you could have time to work with if you spent the rest of your life sifting through them all.

So it amazes me when people stay stuck in a rut, when they don’t reach for what they’ve always wanted. It’s right there in front of you! Grab it!

I am one of those people sometimes. It took me nearly a decade after I graduated from college with a BA in English Literature to branch out and decide to reach for my dreams. Still, the more I connected with others who were doing what they loved, the more I realized that it was possible. And one day I just couldn’t sit idly by any longer. I had to give my dreams a try.

Now, just because all of the information you could possibly need is there for the taking doesn’t make the process of achieving your dreams easy. But you can do this thing called being a writer, and you can do it successfully, if you own your process.

What Do You Need to Succeed?

What do I mean by own your process? I mean know yourself. Know what you need in order to be successful. Do you need to enroll in an MFA program and have some external authority riding you to make sure you meet your deadlines and work on your craft? Go enroll then! There are plenty of programs out there willing to teach you what you want to know, willing to give you the structure that you need to make the most of your writing.

But if you don’t have the funds or the flexibility in your schedule to make an MFA program work, does that mean you’ll never become the writer you want to be? No way! You just have to know what you need and then go out and get it.

Do you need writing instruction? There are blogs (ahem) like this one that give you tips and advice for crafting a better narrative or strengthening your main character. Do you need inspiration? Cultivate a reading list of authors you love and authors who can teach you something about your own writing as well.* Do you need motivation and accountability? Look for writer-friends who will make sure you put your butt in the chair and do your work. They might be people you know in your hometown, or they might be people you know on the web.

When I decided it was time to seriously pursue my dreams of writing and owning my own business, I went straight for whatever advice and help I could find. I found the DIY MFA community, to level up my writing game. I began intentionally setting aside reading time for books on writing and editing. I connected with the Editorial Freelancers Association to ask questions and get advice from other editors who are out there doing what I want to do. And I have an accountability buddy who meets me on Google Chat at least 3 mornings a week, to make sure that I get up and write/revise/outline, whatever I need to stay on target for my goals.

Do-It-Yourself

Whether you go to a traditional program or cobble your own MFA together (like I am) in the space you have to do it, you are the one doing the work. The writing is yours, and the ideas are, too. You don’t actually need the permission or validation of an outside party to get started. You just have to have the willingness to try something new, to take a risk, learn a new skill, to fail and try again. As I said, these are magical times. All the resources you need are at your fingertips, just waiting for the spark that YOU give them to come to life.

*Just FYI, the fab Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA is releasing a BOOK in June. Learn more about it here.

 

Give What You HaveI hope you don’t feel neglected, readers. I’ve been deep in the world of my own writing for the past few months, and so I’ve been pretty silent here. I have been sharing the pain of creation with you, the epic struggle that is taking words on the page and making sense of them. It’s not easy. It’s bleeding your heart’s blood onto the paper and then expecting that paper to get up and ask you to dance.

In the process of all of this bleeding and struggling and creating, I’ve been listening to podcasts and reading advice articles from published authors. I’ve been gleaning advice and encouragement and inspiration for myself and also to pass along here to you! But let me tell you, not all of it has been very encouraging.

Growing Pains

There are some good resources out there that help to make sense of this phase of writing that I like to call the “growing pains” phase. But most of the people who have made it seem to have forgotten what it’s like to be there, to be working on your FIRST novel, to be hoping that one day you’ll be on a best-seller list, to be completely unsure that you’ll ever achieve your dreams.

They all talk about it, to be sure. Every one of the podcasts I’ve listened to or advice columns I’ve read talks about the fact that the “growing pains” phase really sucks. That it’s painful and horrible and you’re often embarrassed to admit that you ever wrote that last piece of drivel, let alone that you published it. They forget to remind you that they once were in your shoes and that they had to fail in order to succeed. It’s almost like they pretend that phase of their writing careers never REALLY happened.

The confusing part is that in the traditional publishing world debut novels are never first novels. And they forget to tell you that sucking is an essential phase that you have to go through in order to get better. This part where your writing is awkward and you’re still discovering your voice, this is where you gather your true audience.

Warts and All

If you want people to read what you write, you have to start sharing it. Only then will it get better. Only then will people be touched by what you have to say. Only by sharing your first, heartfelt, awkward, and authentic attempts at the thing you care about will you connect with people who genuinely care about what you have to say.

It’s what we love in our characters. We love the vulnerability of characters that don’t always get everything right, that aren’t the most polished and professional. We love them for their flaws. I’m not saying that your work should never become more polished, but it’s part of the process. Show the bumps in your process so that they can be smoothed. Give people the opportunity to see you grow! And who knows who you will encourage in the process.

You Have Permission

You have permission to write that first, bad novel. You have permission to publish it yourself. Sure, it may fail spectacularly, but if you don’t try you don’t learn. If you don’t put your writing out into the world to start getting feedback, how are you ever going to get better?

So go ahead, write that first novel. Work on it, love it, put your heart into it. And then try not to be crushed if it’s not a flying success. No one expects you to succeed on your first try. You’re making space for yourself to grow, to become the storyteller you were meant to be.

You started writing because you have a story to share. Well, someone out there is waiting for that story, and the next one, and the next one. Get started. Share your voice with the world.

This week two people who played some of my favorite characters in this story we call life turned the last page on their earthly journeys. It’s hard for me to imagine their passing. The characters they played will live on, but there are people, real live people, who play the parts of the characters that touch our lives. And because we live in this real world where death comes to all, no matter how revered or reviled, there comes a time when we must say goodbye, even if we aren’t ready.

These two men through the wildly different characters they played taught me something about myself: about the value of steady, true affection; about the cost of doing what is right; and about how to face and even embrace my shadow nature.

The story is changing, as it always must. And so today I light a candle for these two, and remember the characters they played that first and most impacted me.

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Alan Rickman as the ever tender and noble Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility
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Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series
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David Bowie as Jareth, Goblin King in Labyrinth

Rest. Peace. And thank you.

Two Elizabeths

There’s nothing worse than getting a manuscript back from beta readers, or losing stars on Amazon reviews, because your character did something that those readers didn’t believe they would do. How do you write your characters so they stay true to themselves?

Your characters are the most important piece of your story. So knowing them like they are your best friends is the best way to make sure that you tell their story in the most consistent and compelling way. How well do you know your main character?

The two Elizabeths* above are similar in many respects. Both women have the same name, are from similar time periods, and want to find love. But beyond that, these two women are as different as can be. If you don’t know which Elizabeth you’re writing a story for, you might find yourself in trouble.

Check your scenes and your characters’ actions. Will your reader say to herself, “That’s so Elizabeth Bennett,”? Or will she be confused as to why your character acted the way she did?

Sometimes, though, you can get so caught up in carrying out your story’s plot that you force your character to do something that is… out of character. So how can you make sure that your Elizabeth Swann stays true to her character throughout the story?

First, know as much as you can about your character, where she comes from, what motivates her, what she hates and what she loves. You can do this by the simple use of a character questionnaire. Character questionnaires push you to answer all the nitty gritty little questions about your character that make her who she is. When was she born? What is she afraid of? What is the one thing that she would never do in a million years, even if her life depended on it?

Knowing what your character loves, what she absolutely would or would not do, will help you when it comes to those problem moments in your manuscript. It will also help round out your character, making her seem more three-dimensional.

If you’re worried about how your character would act in a given situation in your manuscript and you want to test out her reactions first, you can try writing a “sandbox” scene. This scene won’t go in your manuscript (unless you REALLY like it), so you can feel free to push the boundaries on your character, make her as uncomfortable as possible and see how she responds. And don’t hold back. Don’t go easy on her or you won’t learn anything new.

Don’t forget, if your character absolutely refuses to conform to the scene as you intend it to be written, you’ll have an easier time changing the scene than you will trying to change what makes her who she is. Your story will become much more real and believable if you let her choose the direction she goes, rather than forcing her into patterns of behavior she wouldn’t normally choose for herself.

But you won’t know which direction your character would choose if you don’t know everything about her. So get started answering questions about her. Learn everything you can about her, about what she wants, about why she’s decided to take this adventure. What’s most important to her?

So how well do you know your main character? If the answer is “not very well,” download this questionnaire and get started learning more about her.

*P.S. I realize that both of the above women played the SAME Elizabeth as well, so I hope my example isn’t too confusing. And, if you would like to discuss the merits of the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice versus the movie made with Keira Knightly, I’m here for you. But I will never betray Colin Firth. He is my Darcy now and forever.

Darcy

 

Happy-New-Year-2016-Images-4It’s New Year’s Eve! Time for taking stock of what’s behind you and looking ahead to what you want to accomplish in the coming year. There’s something special that happens when that clock rolls over to midnight and we break the seal on all the potential energy of the year to come. It’s that special magic that makes people resolve to make changes or to shoot for their dreams!

I love New Year’s resolutions. Not because they’re so often kept, or even very effective in the long run, but because of the hope and imagination that they represent when they’re made. Sure we all regularly screw up, fall off the wagon, or backslide on our best intentions. It’s part of being human. But the act of imagining our lives could be different than we are now? That’s powerful magic.

So out with the old and in with the new! In this new year, what are you resolved to do? How are you going to make 2016 your best writing year yet?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m starting a “Write Every Damn Day” challenge for 2016. I’ll be spending 15 minutes a day with a writing prompt, and working on consistency and “intentionality” in my writing practice. I’d love it if you joined me. You don’t have to work on the same prompts as I do, just sit down and write. Butt-in-chair. It’s proven to improve your writing craft!

Maybe writing prompts aren’t what you need this year, though. In that case, I challenge you to figure out what it is that your writing practice needs and then scrape together the motivation and go do it! You’re the only one who stands in the way of your dreams of writing a novel. You have the magic in you to make it happen.

Don’t let the hugeness of your dreams overwhelm you and keep you from taking the first steps to achieving them. Figure out what those first steps, and then the next steps, and then the next steps are, and pretty soon, you’ll be standing at the peak of Dream Mountain. You can be the writer you want to be. It just takes determination and a little humility.

Make 2016 your year. Finish writing that book. Or get started! Write big! Dream big!

write every damn dayWrite every day. It’s something they tell you to do if you want to be a writer. And it seems like both an easily achievable and a hopelessly insurmountable task all at once.

I mean, of course you should write every day. How long does it take to sit down and scribble out a few words? It’s the easiest thing in the world to do… until it isn’t.

Life gets in the way often and, unless you’re aggressively intentional about setting aside your time to write, it’s easy to find that you’ve gone days and days without making any time to sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keys (well, for anything other than updating your Facebook status, right?).

3 reasons why you can’t write every day

Think you don’t have time to write? Here are 3 reasons you can’t write every day and why they don’t actually matter.

  1. You’re too busy
    Understandably. Most of us are busy somehow. But you prioritize what you want most, and that gets done first so, sit down and think about whether you can’t take a little slice of time from binge-watching that Netflix series, or right after you put the kids to bed, and give your writing your full attention.
  2. You don’t have the time for a big project
    Guess what! You can do this in tiny increments. As little as 15 minutes a day will keep you moving forward with your writing practice, keep the gears oiled, and help you grow as a writer. Or if you like word counts better, pick something reachable and start there… 250 words. You can totally meet that.
  3. You can’t think of anything to say
    If you’re stuck, not finding anything about your current work inspiring, then try writing prompts. You can find them on-line or buy a book full of them. My cousin David goes through old family photos and makes up stories to go with the people in them. There’s always something you can spend your 15 minutes on.

The thing is, people will tell you that after you do this for x-number of days, you’ll develop a habit and you won’t think about it anymore, you’ll just do it. I’m honestly not convinced (and neither is this study on building habits). But just because you may have to be extra diligent about making sure you find your 15 minutes a day, doesn’t mean you should skip it altogether. The diligence is part of the point.

Sure you’ll miss days. It happens to everyone. But if you set your intention, if you put your mind to it, and if you remind yourself how important your writing practice is to you, writing every day is a realizable goal!

This new year, I’m giving myself a challenge. I’m going to write every day for 15 minutes. I challenge you to write along with me. Comment below and let me know you’ll be participating so that I can cheer you on! Share your successes and your failures with me, too. Let’s make 2016 our best writing year yet.

If it’s important… If it’s something you want more than anything in the world… If you’re really serious about this writing thing… then just do it. Write Every Damn Day.

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-SquareI ran 70 miles during the month of November. I also wrote 50,000 words of a novel. Both of those numbers are HUGE when you think about the average amount of running and writing I normally do. No, I don’t have super powers suddenly. I didn’t do it all at once. I took it a day at a time, followed a prescribed regimen, and when I wanted to quit I  didn’t allow myself any wiggle room.

November is National Novel Writing Month. I used the momentum and accountability of that group event to propel me through my writing goals. I made sure to meet or exceed expectations every day because I’d made a public commitment that I wanted to uphold. But more than that, I’d committed to myself and to my characters to tell their story and I didn’t want to let myself or my characters down.

Does it always come easily? No! Do I ever have days where I want to just give up and go back to my old habits? Yes!

Old habits die hard

With both my running and my writing, I have days when I wake up and think “Oh god, I just want to stay in bed.” Those are the days when I need the running and the writing the most. The mental monster, the one that’s telling me I’m too tired to run or too boring to have any good ideas to share in my writing, that’s the one that I confront with my schedule, with my commitment, with my determination.

When I let that monster win I feel terrible. My self-esteem and self-talk go down a dark, even abusive path. I hate how I feel when I allow myself to shirk my goals, when I give in to the monster talk and let another day go by without working toward my dreams.

But!! Every day that I get up and refuse to listen to that monster telling me to shut up and stay in bed, I kick that monster’s ass again. It doesn’t get easier over time. Every time I have to fight that mental battle, it sucks and it’s painful and I want to cry before I finally convince myself to do the hard thing, to do what I committed to do.

And yet, the more I choose to fight for what I want for my life, the less often that monster speaks up.

Take that first step

My running is another story but it follows a very similar mental track. Who knows why I decided that November, when I started my most intensive month of writing, was a good time to kick off a half-marathon training program? Maybe the timing wasn’t ideal, but then maybe it was. I have a larger goal with my running. Before I turn 40 I want to run a marathon.

And as with writing, I have to start if I ever want to finish. I know that if I want to reach my goal of 26.2 miles, I have to step out the door. And if I ever want to see my name in print on a novel that I’ve written, I have to write the first words. And then the next words, and the next step, until I get to the finish line.

There are bound to be set-backs along the way, but just because I know I will fail sometime, does that mean I should never start? No! I cling to my dreams and push myself forward, pick myself up when I fall down, and start again.

So why am I telling you all this?

I know I’m not the only one who goes through this daily ritual of talking down the monsters, of putting the fears aside and taking a risk to achieve my dream. And I want you to know that you CAN do this. You’re not crazy. That dream you have of publishing (or of running a marathon), it’s yours. You should cherish it, commit to it, and show up every day to prove how much it means to you.

It helps if you can find your tribe. The encouragement and accountability you get from people with similar goals, or even just people who unquestionably believe in you–that’s solid gold. When you find it, never let it go.

But sometimes you have to go it alone. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that your goals are for you, and that even if no one else understands why you’re doing what you do, you have to commit to them. That’s not an easy place to be, but it’s no excuse to quit. You owe it to yourself to follow your heart, to reach for your dreams and never give up.

So… Show up. Even when it hurts. Even when you’d rather not. Even when it seems like the finish line is so far away. Every step you take, every word you write, brings you closer to achieving your dreams.

Harry Potter I love magic

Harry Potter I love magicAs a reader, writer, and editor of fantasy fiction, I love a good magic ability in my characters. (I mean, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Name of the Wind… these stories make me so happy!) Something that sets them apart, makes them different from the rest of the people in their world. A secret weapon that they can pull out to use when it seems like they’ve reached the end of their rope. Magic and the possibilities that magic creates in a world are the reasons I read fantasy fiction.

However, in order to have a well-crafted story, you have to give serious thought as to how you use magic. If you don’t, you risk breaking faith with your reader and ending up with a story whose conclusion falls flat instead of creating a sense of satisfaction for your reader.

Here are four things to watch out for when writing characters with magical powers.

  1. Magic has rules. Figure out what yours are, tell your reader what they are, and then don’t break them. Make sure you set up what the rules are fairly quickly so that your reader doesn’t get the impression that you’re going to take advantage of them and stretch their suspension of disbelief too far.
  2. Magic powers should be set up fairly early. Don’t add a new power for each problem that your characters face. Let them test the limits of their power and, more importantly, let magic fail them occasionally. The story you’re telling will be infinitely more interesting if your characters don’t succeed every time they face a challenge.
  3. Magic has consequences in direct proportion to the power of their effect. If you’re going to give a character the power to save the day, it needs to cost something. If all your characters use magic for is cleaning up a mess, the cost goes down.
  4. Magic is not a convenient way to explain some difficult part of your story. Don’t give your character the power to read minds in order that they can have access to information they wouldn’t otherwise know. Remember that it’s a character’s weaknesses that make them interesting, not their all-powerful abilities.

What’s one of the first things that happens when a story with magic is released to the public? They try to figure out where the magic systems break their own rules or fall short of adequately explaining themselves.

If you can master these four facets of writing magic into your stories, you’re well on  your way to building a stellar magic system that your readers will enjoy for a long time to come.

Stereotypes

StereotypesIt can be really hard to avoid stereotypes in characterization when you’re setting up your novel. A stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

We all use stereotypes in everyday life, whether at the grocery store or filling up at the gas station or at a scientific symposium. For better or worse, they help us categorize the world around us.

But they can also get us into trouble when we forget to allow the people around us to be larger and more complex than we expect them to be. Stereotypes are so embedded in our conscious and subconscious that they end up on the pages of our novels before we really have a chance to process why we have chosen them.

Reasons to avoid stereotypes

These are a few reasons why you should avoid stereotypes in your characterizations.

  • They are unrealistic. People are wide and varied in their looks, interests, and self-expression. Fiction does not always have to reflect reality, of course, but if anything it should push the boundaries and create more options instead of less.
  • They are limiting. Once you decide to allow a character to conform to a stereotype, there’s not much left for them to do. You’re stuck having them act according to that stereotype instead of allowing yourself room to write the story outside those limits.
  • Stereotypes mean flat characters. There’s nothing to a stereotyped character. No motive, no real depth or dimension to him.
  • And once they stop having depth, your characters become uninteresting. Why would you want your characters to be predictable and boring?

If you want your novel to be memorable, you’re going to have to take some time to examine your characters and root out as many stereotypes as you can. Here are four ways to avoid using stereotypes in your writing to create rounder, more realistic characters.

4 ways to avoid stereotypes

  1. Spend some time people watching, and especially people that are different than you. I know this sounds a little stalker-like, but if you take the time to observe (or better yet, get to know) people who are remarkably different from you, you’ll begin to see how varied their actions, interests, body types, and style preferences are. Inform your writing by learning as much as you can about the people you are trying to portray and writing them as realistically as possible.
  2. Challenge convention. If you can’t find people similar to the characters you are writing, that’s ok. Take a few minutes to ask yourself why you portray each character the way you do, what purpose they serve in the story, and whether your story would be better served if that character did something completely contrary to what people expect. Why constrict your writing and your characters’ potential by forcing them to conform to a specific trope?
  3. Create rounder characters. The definition of a stereotype speaks for itself. It’s oversimplified–a caricature. You owe it to your characters to make them as deep and complex as possible. Again, this comes back to why you portray a character a certain way. Ask yourself if there’s a deeper, more meaningful way to describe that character or their actions.
  4. Make your characters unforgettable. How do you do that? By having them do unexpected things. If a character is flat and unimaginative, if he/she/it conforms to the expectations of your readers in style, language, and actions, then he/she/it will probably not leave much of an impression. Readers remember characters that shake up their world and challenge their preconceived notions of reality.

Look beyond the stereotype

Discovering stereotypes and conscientiously eliminating them from your writing is hard! It requires that you do some deep self-reflection as well as some heavy developmental editing. But your writing will benefit so greatly from the exercise. And your readers will deeply appreciate the effort.