Monthly Writing Prompt – July 2021

It has been a really long time since I posted anything to this blog and a lot has taken place in that space but I am back and ready to put fingers to keyboard again!

I want to begin with something small: A writing prompt. I host a local writers critique group in my area called Augusta Writers Critique Group (AWCG). One of our events is simply me blasting out a monthly writing prompt to my 350+ members. Many of them have shared their responses with me for feedback and critique. I’m continuously blown away by what my group is able to accomplish, and how they are able to transform a few lines of muse stimulation into a moving and engaging narrative. I have enjoyed it so much.

The writing talent in my critique group is truly inspirational, and I’ve learned so much from interacting with them. My writing has drastically improved in ways that I never even realized that it needed to, but looking back at some of my manuscripts from before I began AWCG and comparing them to what I’ve written recently, it is clear how beneficial it has been. It’s truly a privilege and honor to be part of such an amazing community of writers.

With that said, I want to share those writing prompts and extend my experiences to my blogging family as well, so keep an eye out for monthly writing prompts that will be dropped every first Wednesday (or Thursday) of the new month. Here is the writing prompt for July:

July Writing Prompt

Your parents/guardians/caretakers are in the next room, their voices slightly muffled through the walls. You know they’re discussing you; the hushed tones are a dead giveaway. You’re not sure whether to laugh or cry at the implication of their words.

  • Muse Stimulators:

— Who is the POV?
— What are the parents/guardians/caretakers discussing?
— Was there an incident or is this a normal phase of life being discussed for the family and POV?
— What time period is this?
— How is the POV feeling? Sad, nervous, scared, proud, etc?
— What does the POV plan to do next?

*****

Happy Writing!

~MJ

Adding Art to Your Book

Most authors plan to have an elaborate cover for their book.  We’ve all heard the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” but…. we all judge books by their covers, so making sure we have a good one for our own is at the top of our pre-publishing checklist.

What about art throughout the book though?

Children’s books, comics, graphic novels, etc will always have lots of art, but for all other categories of books, the art content varies and is usually optional.

Artwork in the book can add to the reader’s experience, or it can take away from it if done poorly.  Choosing to include art really depends on the experience you want the reader to have, just know that whichever you decide it will have a huge impact.

For Isle of Elandia, I’m mulling around the idea of breaking it down into episodes instead of one huge novel.  One of the things I’m considering is adding artwork to each episode.  To test it out, I commissioned UnknownArtist20 from Deviantart to create a character art of Farwen and her horse Inan.  She also recorded a speedpaint which you can view on her youtube channel here.

I’m in love with this image she created, and I’m excited to commission her again for more character drawings in the future.

farwen_and_inan__commission_by_unknownartist20_de2b4cs

Content – When To Cut

You’ve worked diligently on your manuscript for months, maybe years, every word is where it should be, all of your scenes written perfectly to tell the tale. Right?

Wrong.

As you go back through to tighten up your book, it’s natural to find a few things that don’t flow. Maybe an idea you weaved in that didn’t go anywhere. So you tweak, cut, rework. These things are not so hard to part with.

What about entire scenes? Or even plot lines? Or whole characters?

It turns out that the first version of my book, after several beta readers gave me feedback, did not have as cohesive an ending as I believed, and in order to correct this, I’m going to have to cut out and rework some sentimental material.

The main beta reader takeaways were: Too many characters to keep track of, the main characters are scattered all over the map by the end, there’s too strong of a cliffhanger for an ending, nothing is really accomplished, and it feels more like “part 1” instead of book 1.

Ouch.

I’ve done a lot of research into how to end a series book, and there are no hard fast rules. However, there is one overarching guideline: Accomplish something/ tie up a main plot point by the end, reader advised.

This has forced me to reconsider a lot of things that happen in my book, and I’ve come to realize that in situations like this, huge chunks of writing may need to go away. Forever.

Sometimes, especially if you’re writing a series, when you’re really attached to the cut material, you can move it elsewhere.  Sometimes in can be saved.

Other times, it just has to go.

“But that character I introduce there is really cool.” Or “that fight scene that happens because of x, y, z is super engaging!” Or “so much information is revealed here.”

I know. I get it. But how do these scenes contribute to the overarching goal of book 1 (or 2 or 3)? Are they really important, or is it fluff? Is it “look at my cool writing skillz”?  Or does it reveal too much at once?  Is it an infodump?

In my case, I think I can put most of what needs to be cut out in a future book, change some names, etc. Even if I can’t, I have to gulp down my sadness and start slashing and reworking because the end result will be worth it.

My book 1 will feel like a book 1, instead of a part 1. And to my readers who have to wait on book 2, that is an important gift to leave them with as an author:  The desire to know what happens next, but closure for the time they have invested.

To sum it up, as an author we need to come to terms with our purpose for writing.

Are we writing for ourselves?  Then keep all of your scenes exactly as they are.

Or are we writing to tell a story to other people, who will then want to share it with their friends?  Then we’re going to have to evaluate each scene, each plot line, each character, and do some cutting.

We’re all in this together.

Happy writing!

Evolution of a Manuscript: Part 2 – Microsoft Word to PDF

In Evolution of a Manuscript part 1, we discussed scribbling your first draft on the go with gmail (or anything else handy), and then transferring it to your computer to beef it up in your designated writing space. Now, the next step is to take that piece and edit, edit, edit, and edit again.

In this article, I’m going to take you through my process of editing through Microsoft Word and Scrivener, and show you the final product in 6×9, 10 pt font pdf – the closest visually I’m going to get to printed book form. Which is psychologically very satisfying to see as an author–like a glimpse into the future (because my book (and yours) will be published).

Here it is in Word:

me_gadnor_pt2_1

Immediately we see squiggly lines indicating bad grammar or misspellings. After fixing these, I was still highly unsatisfied with this opening. It doesn’t put me there enough, it’s too wordy, and I don’t feel like I am Gadnor the way that I want, and visually there is too much white space, it looks unfinished and it reads the same. Also, there are some disjointed sentences about Lithaneva–the “reaction was rooted in something far more complex than surprised guests”–just doesn’t seem very relevant, too vague and wordy and honestly, it doesn’t add to the story much, it doesn’t tell me anything about her. So, I go back to Scrivener, tweak, and here is what I came up with:

me_gadnor_pt2_3

This is much better, less white space, there is more happening in the scene. Now, with the addition of audience actions I can get a sense of the room, whereas before I was only getting very wooden “she did, he said” type things and little substance. I still don’t like the first paragraph. “Perplexed” sounds complicated, too much to digest within the first two sentences, and I’m still not feeling as though I am Gadnor. There also seems to be a disjointed organization of people and paragraphs. So, back to Scrivener, and this is what I come up with:

me_gadnor_pt2_4

There, now I feel like I have conveyed the awkward feeling well, you know the one where everyone in the room is waiting on someone to say something and they just don’t. I feel like I have captured that now, and I feel like I really am Gadnor. I have also (hopefully) managed to give the reader the sense that Gadnor feels partial to the Princess in a way that is natural, without having to actually state that.

There are some things I still don’t like. There is too much happening in the second paragraph, too many actions by too many people, and the “reveling in it” and “gloried at the spectacle” are rehashes of the same vibe. So, I tweak that a bit and call it good, and now here it is, edited to the point where I’m comfortable with a peer review, in 6×9 10pt font.

me_gadnor_pt2_5

It’s very satisfying looking at how it might appear when published. Don’t you think? I encourage you to try this if you haven’t already. When you get your scene how you want it, format it like this and just see how it looks. Read it over, make a change if you feel it’s necessary, and then keep going with the next scene.

Use this visual as a reward for your hard work and a sneak peak at when it all pays off.

I hope you have enjoyed this post. Feel free to post in the comments some of your own editing/motivational tricks.

Happy writing!

2020 – Week 7

I completed my goal this week to get my last scene ready for peer review and get my first draft of the dream sequence done. Yay!

Well, I decided the dream didn’t need to be a gigantic scene, it’s only a couple of paragraphs, and with a little tweaking to the previous scene, I was able to just tack it onto the beginning of that one. I think that will be much better than trying to make a small dream sequence unnecessarily large, although it does make this scene even heftier than it was before, but I think it will keep the reader from becoming bored, which is really important as I’m nearing the middle of the book.

So often, novels have a very engaging setup, but then the middle ceases to be interesting. I want to avoid that by making informational bits as concise as possible so the reader doesnt become bogged down.

My goal this week is to edit the new dream paragraph and get at least the first paragraph of the next scene drafted.

Happy writing!

2020 – Week 2

It’s week 2 of 2020 and I’m pleased to say that I have completed the scene I was working on in my last post, added an additional 949 words.  It is now 1687 words, an excellent scene length. Of course, this is the first draft of it, so I’m going to let it sit for a day or two and then go through my editing process, which you can learn about here on my blog Editing Tricks That Don’t Cost a Dime.

My goal for week 3 of 2020 is to figure out what the final scene in this chapter will be–from whose perspective–solidify what exactly is taking place in the scene, and at least get my opening paragraph drafted.

Here’s to keeping up the progress!

Happy writing!

 

Writers Block :(

Writer’s block happens to the best of us, it’s inevitable.  We go strong for a bit, churning out page after page and then suddenly we get to a place where the creativity takes a vacation.  I’ve been stuck on one scene for about four months.  Four months!  That’s a long time to be stuck in one place.  How many pages could I have written if not for this problem?

We experience writers block for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes we just get too busy with life.  We start a new job, have to go out of town, a new semester of school begins, grass and hedges grow, or grandma bought us a new guitar for our birthday and wants us to learn how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb.  The reasons why we halt writing are endless.

Sometimes though we are genuinely stuck.  Life settles down and we have time put aside for our craft, but we spend it all staring at the screen until we feel like our eyes are melting in their sockets.  Our story refuses to come out.

This scene that I happened to be stuck on was a very important one.  It’s my main character’s first real scene, and it’s a pretty pivotal moment in the book.  A lot is riding on getting this right.  I’ve established several characters already with unique personalities and intricately woven story arcs that have ushered readers from page 1 to this very point in time.  Now it’s my main character’s turn to take the torch and shine.  So amid all the weeds to pull, babies to feed and read to, work to be on time for, groceries to buy and put away, somewhere in there I have the responsibility to my readers, myself, and to my character to write a first impression that is both engaging and intriguing–to create a new reader favorite.

And so, I’ve been stuck.

In addition to life things that get in our way, as writers it’s easy for us to get so caught up in wanting a scene to be perfect that we allow it to be a stumbling block to our success.  So many pages did not get written because I was hung up on how perfect this scene needs to be.

The old saying “A house isn’t built in a day” is a perfect analysis.  That beautiful mansion was once just a patch of grass.  So too are each of our scenes.  Keep this in mind when you get stuck, especially if it is because you really want to the scene to be perfect.

I finally completed the scene by writing a little bit at a time, and boy was it ugly at first, and at second, and at third.  A couple paragraphs here and there, some rework here, some scrapping there, and some tweaking all over took it from a patch of grass to a house with four walls.  It still needs paint, but the foundation is there now for what I had envisioned as the perfect scene.  And the most important part is that it’s done, it’s written, and I can finally move past this point in my book.

Writers block will happen, just accept it now.  And when it does, don’t ignore it, or it could set you back four months or even longer.  Some writers have given up on stories because of writers block, because the scene isn’t perfect, because the mansion is just a concrete foundation and studs.

I’m telling you as one writer to another, that it’s okay to write a scene that’s ugly, rushed, devoid of detail and emotion.  It’s okay if you have to scrap a couple paragraphs or even the whole thing.  These are not wasted efforts, it’s part of the process of beating writers block.  Embrace it, push through it, and keep adding to your house until it becomes a mansion.

The only way to finish your novel is to keep writing until it’s done, even when it’s ugly, even when you feel that the scene you’re working on deserves so much better than what you can currently do.

You will polish it to perfection.

But first, just keep writing.

Soul Searching for Character Development

One thing I’ve learned over the past several weeks is that life is full of surprises, excitements, and disappointments.  Sometimes life seems dull, but others it’s like an emotional roller coaster.  Those moments, the tough ones, the emotional ones, are an invaluable source of inspiration for your novel, in particular: character development.

I’m now several drafts into my novel, and looking back over my previous drafts I can see the stages my thought process went through, beginning with action scenes and quick dialogue to get to the next action sequence and move the story along.  Stage 2 added a little more thought provoking dialogue, a little more backstory to help the reader understand why these action scenes were taking place and to give a little more substance to the wider story arc.  Stage 3 was about tying up loose ends, embellishing certain scenes, smoothing out some rough edges and cutting out some redundancy.  In these 3 stages though, the most fundamental aspect of a reader’s experience was missing or sorely lacking: character development.  Sure, my characters did and said things and the reader usually knew why, but the feelings described were hollow or non-existent.  They didn’t feel real.  The human bond of emotional connection was missing between the reader and the character.

Character development truly makes or breaks a novel, and it can be tricky trying to figure out how to do it successfully.  Loss, grief, fear, anxiety, love, desire, hatred, thrill:  Real emotions which derive from real experiences and real relationships are paramount to character development.  But MJ Pankey, you say, my character did experience loss, his best friend was just badly wounded in front of him!  But as you read that scene, do you feel like your best friend was just badly wounded in front of you?  Tap into your inner psychologist, and tell me what that really feels like.

The emotional struggles make us who we are as individuals.  How we process those emotions, work through them, and overcome them is how we can connect with one another as human beings, and it’s also how we can connect and invest in fictional characters, even if their experiences aren’t real.

Every character who is important to a novel needs this internal struggle.  While my heroine can’t necessarily experience being offered an amazing job and then it falling through a week later in exactly the same way (being a fantasy novel kind of messes that up), I can still incorporate the familiar feelings of excitement and hope for the future, and then the following disappointment when it does not go according to plan.  I know what that feels like, and I can give that to my character.

Describing the internal conflict as actions happen and as scenes unfold is what character development means.  How does this character become better by these experiences, by these scenes, how does this event impact them now to have such a marked influence on a future thought or action?  And the best way to figure that out and get it on paper is to dig deep into your own experiences and describe how you feel/felt/would feel in a similar circumstance, and how did it change your expectations/circumstances/behaviors/beliefs moving forward?

To recap, a story is more than just events, places, things, and actions, it’s about people; real experiences, real emotions, and the kindred connection that a reader has with the character.  To create character development in your novel, you need to do some serious soul searching from your own life experiences.  When was a time you felt embarrassed?  Describe it, give it to your character.  When was a time you felt betrayed by someone?  Describe it, give it to your character.  You get the idea.

So if your novel is lacking some depth, look deep.  Dig up the emotional moments and give your characters a small piece of yourself.  Show your readers the raw humanity we all share between us as a species, and bring your characters to life.

Happy writing!

 

No Zero Days – The Key to Finishing Your Novel

I was speaking with an associate recently about motivation, finding time, and just making progress on a goal, and he shared a technique with me that is helping him achieve what he wants.

For myself, this goal would be finishing my novel, Isle of Elandia.  Chapter 3 is complete, and now that the new school semester has started I have not been able to find much time to even open my Scrivener to begin chapter 4.  It’s not that I don’t know what happens in chapter 4, I just can’t seem to put aside enough time during the day that I think will be beneficial enough to make a dent in it.  After speaking with my colleague though, I’ve realized that I may have the wrong mindset about what it takes to make progress.

What I’ve realized is there will always be something more important than my novel, such as: working, my child, dishes, yard work, laundry, a shower, walking the dog.  The list of things that take priority over novel writing is endless, and that list will never shorten because they’re ongoing tasks.  Until I retire, my child goes off to college, global warming destroys all vegetation, I join a nudist colony, my dog goes to the eternal rabbit fields, and I buy into the idea that the bacteria on my skin cleanses me, I will never have free time to write my novel.  And isn’t this the truth for all of us who haven’t written a word in ages but always plan to?

So back to my associate.  He told me about this concept of “No Zero Days”.  It’s premise is simple, don’t go a day where you make zero progress towards your goal.  You don’t have to devote an hour or two hours to it, and you don’t necessarily have to not do something else critical in order to accomplish it because the concept of No Zero doesn’t have a time limit, it’s just do something.  It can be a thought, a sentence, a detail of a landscape setting, a unique marking on a character, or something as simple as deciding how many chapters to have in your book.  Too often we set lofty goals for progress, (this week I’ll finish a scene!  …yea right) and become overwhelmed by how much effort or time it will take to complete it, so we put it off “until I have time.”

In contrast, there is no overwhelming goal with No Zero Days.  And even the busiest of us must admit that there are periods throughout the day where we are inevitably forced to do nothing, and which could be transformed into No Zero Day time.  One great example is going to the restroom.  We all have to do that every single day, and there is literally nothing else to occupy your time doing it besides thinking, so put those moments to use.  Think about your novel, iron out a plot detail, and make it a No Zero Day.

To help keep track and make this a visual goal, print out a calendar sheet and tack it up somewhere that you will see it throughout the day to help remind you to take a moment and think about your novel.  Maybe, just maybe, you might surprise yourself and find a few minutes while waiting in line for your coffee to jot down a scene, or a dialogue, or resolve a key plot hole or piece of character backstory.

There are tons of calendars out there on Google images for free.  Or if you don’t have a printer at home, set a daily reminder on your phone’s google calendar.  Not close to paper or pen or your laptop?  I bet your cellphone is handy though! Use the memo feature to record your progress.

The main point I’m making is this:  Progress doesn’t have to be big, it can be small, but it needs to be progress or else that novel won’t get written.

There are many great writers who have employed a similar technique and were successful at completing many novels.  One writer that comes to mind right away is J.R.R Tolkien.  I don’t know if he called it No Zero Days, but he was no stranger to making small amounts of progress at a time.  His The Hobbit  began while he was grading a student paper.  He took one moment to collect his thoughts and came up with the sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” that blossomed into the tale we know and love today.  That didn’t take an hour or two hours, and he didn’t even set aside a special time for writing, he just took a moment and made it a No Zero Day.

So, if you’re serious about completing your novel, then you have to start, and you have to do.  Forget about carving out time because most likely it’s not going to happen.  So don’t worry about making time, make progress, even if it’s just a one liner that you think about in between grading papers, answering phones, typing emails, walking the dog, or taking a dump.  Just make today a No Zero Day.

 

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