Anything Can Happen in the Woods

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What is a story without conflict? John wants a glass of water. John goes and gets some water. He drinks it with gusto. He puts the glass down and then sits cheerfully on the couch to watch tv. The end.

Not very exciting, right? John had a desire and he achieved it without a problem. Nothing got in his way, no one tried to stop him. He got what he wanted and was happy. Is that the story you want to read?

You may think, “well, it’s nice that John was happy,” and you’re not wrong. That’s usually what we want for a character – to have things work out well. That sounds like a nice story. BUT! What a reader thinks he wants as opposed to what a reader actually craves are very different animals.

The reader’s desire to see things work out well for the protagonist is forever challenged by the writer throwing conflicts into the characters’ ways. And that, dear reader, is what keeps a reader reading. That desire to see a happy ending and how – how on earth – a protagonist can overcome such odds is the page-turning urge that sells books.

And we want to sell books, don’t we? So, reader/writer, remember this: ruin your characters’ days. Make their lives hard. Annoy them. Throw caltrops in their path. Steal their left shoe.

If you want a reader to crave more, never forget to make your protagonist’s desire difficult to achieve. Never forget conflict.

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The Ugly Duckling

or, “The Shitty First Drafts” Post.

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You’ve probably heard of the idea of Shitty First Drafts. If you’re anything like me, dear reader, you’ve probably written one. Or four. Or a lot. I dare say most writers know what it’s like to create these because they’re an inevitable part of the writing process.

The charming name for these first forays comes from Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. The selection about first drafts is fairly famous among writers of all kinds and is widely read by creative writing students the world over. If you’re interested in reading the short excerpt yourself, here it is hosted as a pdf: https://wrd.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/1-Shitty%20First%20Drafts.pdf

My favorite bit from the piece is the phrase, “writing is not rapturous.” It is work and it is not always going to feel right or food or easy.

A friend of mine is having trouble with her first novel. Her initial passion for the project began to wane at around 30,000 words as difficulties piled up. Her plot became convoluted as she tried to fix character and story problems while she worked; rather than just finish the draft and then go back to change plot issues later, she kept trying to change things as she worked on the incomplete first draft, creating a more tangled mess as she went. Now she feels like she’s drowning in the project and is considering abandoning the manuscript altogether.

Anne Lamott tells us that in order to have a great book, we need to work through that Shitty First Draft. It’s just one step along the way. I wish I could convince my friend to see her manuscript through. I believe in her work even if she doesn’t right now.

So finish those first drafts! The sooner you finish them, the sooner they’ll be out of the way and then you’re one big step closer to the finished project you’ve been dreaming of.

Cleaning House

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My husband and I are moving. Today. In fact, as you read this queued post, we are probably beginning to unload furniture from the truck and into our new place.

I’m excited. There’s a spare bedroom that’s going to become my office so I finally have a place of my own to work in private. The birds will get more space and sunshine and we gain lots of closets and my husband’s commute to work will be easier. Lots of perks to be had!

But the old apartment. Ah, the old place. How it haunts. Looms. Menaces. It is full of boxes and suitcases and dust and more than a few recently-discovered spiders in long-ignored storage areas. Eugh. As exciting as the new place is, we know we must deal with the state of the old one.  As we’ve been packing and organizing and throwing things out, my husband and I have both suffered from the Urge to Clean.

I want so badly to vacuum every corner. sweep up every dust bunny, mop every inch of flooring – but I’ve stopped myself. It sounds like a pretty stupid idea, not cleaning when the urge strikes, but it’s going to make sense in a moment, I promise.

Now, when I went to culinary school (I bet you didn’t know I’m a trained pastry chef, did you?), I was taught by my favorite Chef Instructor, “Clean as you go – that’s my motto” and in many aspects of life (cooking, especially), it has served me well. But I’ve discovered two places that this cheerful little rhyme is actually hurtful: writing and moving house.

When writing a first draft (we’ll talk about Shitty First Drafts in a blog post soon, don’t worry), the urge to edit and change and tweak and perfect as you go affects most of us. We dawdle over a passage or spend an hour re-working a bit of dialogue. Well, don’t. Just write. Get the damn thing over with and in the meantime – leave it alone!

In the same way that it will better serve my husband and I to first get everything out of the apartment and then come through and clean it, so too does it make more sense to finish an entire rough first draft of a story or novel and then come back through and edit it. Don’t make more work for yourself – write now, edit later. Trust me, those edits will still be there when you come back to them later.

How is Writing Like a Carrot?

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It’s not really a riddle, I promise. I never did like riddles. I do like writing though. Carrots, too. Writing isn’t particularly nutrient-dense and carrots probably can’t teach you new words, so what could these two possibly have in common?

You must cultivate both
Carrots and writing both need time and care to coax their best potential from them. Like a garden patch, so too must the mind be a rich and nurturing place for things to grow. Make your life a place where words can bloom. Read, write, make time to write, create a space to work where you can tap into your creativity, set goals, and reward yourself when you meet them.

Both need time to grow
A finished project doesn’t happen overnight. It requires planning, pre-writing, doing the work itself, editing, and submitting – and that’s just an abridged list of how the writing-to-publishing process can go. Patience is one of the hardest traits to manage when working on a book or other writing project and managing your time well is a hard skill to acquire. All the same, writing requires and deserves you to take your time.

Harvest when the time is right
In both carrots and writing, sometimes less can be more. Did you know that carrots that grow too big lose their inherent sweet taste? So, too, can it be with a writing piece that has grown too big. After writing and editing are done, there’s a right time to put the piece aside and call it finished for now. Perhaps you’re ready to try and start selling it or maybe you want to just out it in a drawer somewhere for a while and let it sit. Whatever the case, don’t let it get too big and out of control.