That time of year is upon us once again, fellow writers – National Novel Writing Month. While some of you may know that I have never attempted NaNoWriMo myself, I am an avid fan and follower of the influx of writing inspiration and advice the month invariably brings.
Characters are pretty much the most important part of any written work, so if you ever find yourself struggling with that aspect, this site provides all kinds of brainstorming questions, as well as insight into how to write characters of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences.
You are not alone! The lovely folks at It’s a Writer Thing have plenty of support and advice to offer if you’re struggling with an aspect of your story, whether it’s scene, dialogue, character – no matter how small it is, you can find someone or something that can help you here.
While author Sacha Black’s website isn’t dedicated specifically to NaNoWriMo, it is dedicated to her own journey as a writer and the experience that comes with it. She also offers writer resources and interviews other writers for their perspectives.
Shannon Thompson is another author whose blog is focused more on her own work and what’s relevant to her in the writing world, but I continue to find her experience incredibly useful and encouraging. Thompson is a YA author, so if that’s your genre you may find her writing experiences particularly relatable.
The Muffin is WOW! Women on Writing’s official blog. They’ve been online since 2006, so there’s no shortage of advice for women looking to break into the business and keep themselves motivated through the month.
This is a more of an “after” resource, but if you’re focused on publication and want to give your novel its best chance, this website has an endless list of competitions, grants, and literary magazine issues that can help you focus your plot and give you a prize to keep your eye on.
It’s December. You spent a whole month slaving away on a manuscript that you’re passionate about, that you love, that you can’t wait to get out to the world…up until you start rereading it.
In writing, as with any profession, it’s important to be able to accept criticism of your work and use it to your benefit. Editing is crucial part of the writing process, after all, and to do that you have to be able to approach your work with a critical eye. It’s admirable, healthy even, to be approach your work with the intention of improving it.
What’s not healthy is that little voice in your head that tells you that you’re work is terrible and you’re terrible and you should just bury yourself neck deep in the woods somewhere as penance. We call it the inner critic, but that’s really misleading. A critic evaluates. This little dude is just cruel. And more often than not, he’s a liar too, because burying yourself in the woods never solves anything.
That voice (James Chartrand at “The Write Life” refers to it as the inner demon) is essentially the manifestations of our insecurities. When we allow that voice to be takeover the megaphone in our mind, so to speak, it warps the way we see ourselves and our work. When we think negative thoughts, we feel badly, and when we feel that way, it becomes the lens through which we perceive ourselves. Work that we loved two days ago seems ridiculous. Language that was poetic last week becomes pretentious and cheesy.
When you start to hear and recognize that demonic voice (because sometimes we don’t recognize it until it’s been talking for a while), you have to nip it in the bud right then and there. Once you’ve been able to do that, revisit the positive thoughts feelings you had when you were working on the piece earlier. If you liked it last week, it can’t possibly be utter garbage today. Try to move away from the piece emotionally and view it in a more objective way, so that if you do find that there are areas that need improvement, you’re at least not taking that on as reflection of your own self-worth or your skill as a creative actor.
This is also true if you’re getting back comments from an editor or a beta reader. Just because they don’t like parts of your piece, doesn’t mean that the whole thing is terrible or that you are terrible. Even if they hate the whole thing, that’s okay too. Not everything is going to be a home run every time, and not everyone is going to like every thing you do. How many people tore into the “Twilight” series as everything that’s wrong with modern fantasy fiction? And yet the series was wildly successful, and Stephanie Meyers herself is living the high life – she’s written more books that have been able to piggyback off of “Twilight’s” success, and now she has her own film production company.
Clearly, the negative opinions of others do not necessarily equal failure. So why should your own opinions hold any more weight? Just because you think something, doesn’t make it true.
If you find that you are simply too invested in the piece and it’s really wearing on you emotionally, put it aside. There’s no law that says you have to publish something withing 20 days of writing it. Leave it alone for a couple months, and then come back to it. Not only will probably be able to edit it better, you won’t feel like your personal integrity is attached to it – which, you know, it’s really not.
What advice do you have for dealing with the demonic voice in your mind? Share below!
Welp, November is officially over, and with it National Novel Writing Month. Whether you participated this year or not, it’s a time to focus on your writing overall and see what you can accomplish and what needs to improve. Over the past month, I’ve written lots of writing advice here, but I wanted to record some of the best advice from around the internet for future reference.
“But I’ve met a lot of people who finish and never go further, even if they say they want to. People whose eyes go glassy when I tell them that going well above 50,000 words a month is my normal routine, regardless of what month it is. But there’s nothing special about me! I was not given a magic potion to drink! I have no fairy godmother! I just want to jump off the cliff and into the void.”
“Don’t try to create and destroy at the same time. Either you are ‘creating’ draft – and your inner critic is turned totally OFF, anything goes, you just write without judgement, or you are ‘editing’ – destroying – this is a separate stage, it happens after you have a draft and after you know your idea – you are reshaping that draft and refining your words to convey that idea with more clarity. Then you have your inner critic turned on, and you cut what’s garbage. ”
“Early in my writing career, I made the mistake of forsaking fun and enjoyment while writing. I wasn’t invested in the short stories I wrote. Don’t get me wrong, they were well structured and well-written, but… the stories lacked my enthusiasm/passion/soul (or what have you).”
“Writers block, unblocked, blocked again, Shovel more chocolate in to cure depressive writers mentality. Self criticise. Stupid NaNo. Suddenly remember why you started the challenge, tap tap tap, chocolate, crisps, hate on work for getting in the way of writing, tap tap. Feel the burn, feel the slump, can’t do it any more, for the love of god why did I start this… Stupid idea.”
Everyone’s got that thing about writing that drives them up the wall. For me, it’s the plot: I can write dialogue and character descriptions all day long, as long as none of them have to actually do anything. This, as you can imagine, is a problem.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. Today, we’re going to talk about the other problem: you have a riveting plot riddled with characters that move through it like zombies on a full stomach.
The truth is, there is no plot without characters. People can sit around doing nothing, but things cannot happen without people to do them. So if characters have been a pain for you, you’re in luck because I’m here to help!
Character Tip 1: Plan it out
In “How to Write and Sell Your Novel,” thriller writer R. Karl Largent says that before he begins writing, he creates distinct personalities and background stories for each of his characters. Even the most minor characters who only appear in a single scene get this treatment (although if you ask me, that’s overkill. Then again, what do I know? I’m not the bestselling author here.).
As I’m creating the character profile, I make a point not to rely to heavily on character tropes, especially those that I believe to be either harmful or unrealistic. (“Magical minority,” “evil for the heck of it,” and “Mr. Angst” are a few of the ones that really make me cringe.) Creating the profile also helps you track the character’s behavior, so that you can be sure that your character acts in a manner that makes sense within the universe you’ve created. If you’re not feeling very inspired or feel like you can’t get away from predictable tropes, try scrolling through illustrations and artwork on Tumblr. There are some very talented artists out there, and being able to picture a character in your mind’s eye can help you figure out how they act and react, how they speak, their mannerisms – all those little things that take a character and turn them into a person.
Character Tip 2: Make them matter to each other
To put it simply: if the characters in your story don’t care about each other, why should your reader care about them?
In my experience, the best novels have stories that create and build strong relationships between the characters. It’s why the death of Fred at the end of the “Harry Potter” series is so devastating: not only have we as readers grown to love him, but we know that he has family and friends who love him and will grieve for him in the world of the story. It’s why we care about the fate of Fix-It Felix when he goes looking for Ralph – even though the two are set up as antagonists, they have a relationship that is integral to the story. It makes sense that Felix would look for Ralph, and because Felix is invested, so are we.
Characters need connections to other characters. These don’t need to be desired connections. They can be connections that the character is actively trying to deny. But they need to be there. They help make the character who she is and continue to push and pull on her as the story unfolds.
Character Tip 3: The more things seem to change…
After you’ve built a character profile based on Tip 1, you have to figure out how that profile is going to change by the end of your novel. Because if your character stays the same from the beginning of the book to the end, why’d you write the thing in the first place?
Writer Brian Klems gives a detailed breakdown of how to make your character grow and change throughout your novel, but to break it down: the plot has to have a significant, noticeable, and logical impact on your characters. Harry Potter goes from sweet, naive little boy, to angry, hot-headed teenager, to focused, strategic, slightly older teenager over the course of seven years, in response to the twists and turns of the plot. It makes sense because his growth follows the patterns of the plot itself. In the same way, your characters have to respond to the plot in ways that make sense given the character profile you’ve created.
Character Tip 4: Everyone is special in his or her own way
It’s a lesson we learned from that lovable purple dinosaur and it’s just as applicable to fictional characters as it is to real people. Your character can’t just be good at something, they have to be the best. This is a piece of advice that comes from story consultant James Bonnet, who writes, “Great stories, myths and legends are dominated by quintessential elements. Zeus is the most powerful god. Helen of Troy is the most beautiful woman. Achilles is the greatest warrior. King Arthur is the most chivalrous king.” The quintessential makes for a more interesting story, Bonnet insists.
He goes on to add:
The quintessential can be applied to any element of your story but is especially effective when applied to the professions and dominant traits of your characters. If you take these dimensions to the quintessential, you will make your characters more intriguing. They will make an important psychological connection and that will add significantly to the power of your work.
I know, I know: didn’t I just say that I hate tropes? And isn’t the quintessential character practically the definition of a trope?
Yes and no. Yes, the idea of the chosen one, the strongest villain, the strongest superhero, the superbly intelligent detective, are all examples of tried and tested tropes. But the trope itself isn’t necessarily bad; after all, it became a trope for a reason. It’s how you apply the trope that matters. The Chosen One has to face some kind of moral dilemma that calls into question his status. The super-smart detective has to stumble on a case, start to worry that she’s losing her edge, before finally solving it. That’s how you keep your character, and by extension, your story, interesting and unpredictable.
Jennifer Zeynab Maccani went from working in a Brown University lab to writing a novel in just a few years – a feat I know has the aspiring novel-writers reading this practically salivating over their laptops.
Maccani made a career transition away from academic science to writing full-time in 2015, two years after getting a PhD in Pathobiology from Brown University. Clearly, all those years of research served Maccani well, because she spent six months putting together her debut novel, “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” together before signing with an agent and making revisions. In October 2016, just a year after she started the novel, it was sold to publisher Touchstone Books (Simon and Schuster).
It wasn’t as sudden a development as it seems in just these few paragraphs: Maccani published several short stories prior to taking on her first novel, and she is also a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI). She also belongs to genius organization Mensa, which probably helps!
In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I spoke to Maccani about her experience writing a novel for the first time, the path that led her to “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” and what she recommends for aspiring novelists.
You started out as a scientific researcher. What made you leave that path to pursue writing?
To be honest, I was a writer long before I was a scientist. I wrote my first story in third grade—a spiral-bound, illustrated little story called “If I Were a Kitten for a Day”—and wrote novellas and a few just-for-fun fantasy novels in middle school and high school. I’m a writer for the same reason I was a scientist—I’m fascinated by how the world works. So I continued to write throughout high school, college, and grad school, which resulted in a much better knowledge of and appreciation for the craft of writing. Along the way, I also studied science, because there were questions about the world that I wanted answers to. I’ve always been a curious person.
Writing has always been a necessary part of who I am. For me, writing is like a reflex; it’s how I process my experiences and the world around me. It keeps me sane. So while I eventually realized that academic science was not the right career path for me in the long term, my passion for writing only grew stronger.
Tell me about your forthcoming novel, “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things.” What’s it about, and what inspired you to write it?
“The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” is the story of ten-year-old Manhattan-born Nour, whose family returns to Syria after her father’s untimely death just before civil war breaks out. She and her family flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in a desperate and dangerous search for safety. Their journey intertwines with the historically based fable of a group of mapmakers who made the same journey nine hundred years before in a quest to map the world. It is an adult literary novel structured into two intertwining timelines, in keeping with traditional Arab storytelling techniques. The contemporary timeline is centered on a multifaith Syrian American family similar (though not identical) to my own.
As a Syrian American, it has been difficult for me to watch the war that has raged in Syria for the last five years. I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve been able to keep in touch with my Syrian relatives and that they are, for now, safe. But I know that this is unfortunately not the case for all families. I am always aware of how much others have lost. We say a lot of prayers in my household. At the same time, seeing how Syrian refugees are discussed in the news in my own country convinced me that I had to do something to try and engender more empathy for the people of Syria, for refugees, and for victims of war in general.
I set out to write a novel that would help readers to empathize and identify with Syrian refugees. I wanted to introduce readers to the Syrian people as I know them—beloved family and friends; Christians and Muslims; smart, resilient women who love to laugh; men who recite poetry and are excellent cooks. I wanted to help break the stereotypes around Syrian and Arab people while also helping readers to learn more about the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis.
I hope that “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” will humanize Syrian refugees for readers. I hope it will help readers to understand, as I do, that were it not for very slight differences of luck and geography and circumstance, any one of us could be in the same situation.
You’ve also published short stories: what was the biggest difference between working on a novel and working on a short story?
When you write short stories, you learn how to make every word do as much work as possible. You have to choose your language to not only relay the plot, but also to convey voice, tone, and theme at the same time. You learn to use structure to reflect your subject matter. You learn to get to the point as quickly as possible.
When I write a novel, I try to think of each chapter as a short story—with the same thematic development and clear throughline that a short story would need to have. Thinking about my writing that way helps me to bring focus and intensity to my work. For me, though, the biggest difference between a short story and a novel is that a novel requires more stamina to complete. Novels also usually require bigger themes—they have to sustain themselves for the length of the work. Not every story is enough to support a novel.
What would you say was the greatest challenge of writing a novel? And how did you approach the project?
With “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” I sort of knew that the novel was bigger than I was, and that intimidated me a little. I started by doing a huge amount of research, using as many primary sources as possible. First and foremost, I did everything I could to educate myself and listen to the accounts of people who had been through the types of experiences I would be writing about. I continued to do this kind of research throughout the writing and revision process.
Aside from the enormous research involved, the greatest challenge I had with “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” was that I had to balance the two intertwining timelines without one overshadowing the other. I had to make sure that they mirrored each other thematically without being too obvious about it, and I also had to make sure that the voices were different enough that you could tell which was the contemporary timeline and which was the historical fable. But those challenges were also what made the novel fun to write.
What advice would you give to someone starting a novel for the first time?
First of all, read a lot! Read as many novels as you can in the genre you want to write, but don’t just read novels and don’t just read that genre.
Don’t put too much pressure on the first novel you write. Write it because you’re passionate about it and because the story is its own reward, not necessarily for publication. You will likely need some time to hone your craft. While you learn, try short stories. Try flash fiction. Try poems. Try different styles and voices and structures. Give yourself permission to play. Writing a novel is different for everyone. You will likely need to create your own system based on what works for you: the right amount of research, outlining, and revising. If you’re like me, you’ll probably only figure this out after you write your first novel. And that’s okay!
As you learn, look for people who understand your vision for your work. Find a trusted critique partner. Ideally, this will be a person who can put their own preconceived notions aside and ask: what are you trying to accomplish with this piece, and how can I help you accomplish it? It is more important to find someone who will be totally honest with you than someone who will sugarcoat a critique. My first critique partner was—and still is—my husband, Matthew, whose keen suggestions never fail to help me improve my work. I am honored and privileged to have the incredible help of my agent, Michelle Brower, and editor, Trish Todd, now, but critique partners help you to give only your best work to your agent and/or editor. Remember, an objective eye will spot issues that are sometimes invisible to the writer.
Beyond honing your craft, write what you yourself are excited to read. Write the most honest thing you can muster. This is especially true for marginalized writers. Don’t be afraid to write the world that you see around you. Write about things and people that matter to you. Write your truth. For a long time, I was hesitant to write about Arab American characters like me, interfaith families like mine, women who had survived and thrived after experiencing trauma and violence, or life in diaspora. I didn’t see a lot of those stories or characters in books; I didn’t see myself reflected much on the page. But I found that when I sat down to write, it was a relief to talk about those things. It was a relief to start writing stories where someone like me could be the hero of her own story. The words came out faster then, and the stories stronger. My writing improved when I put more of myself into my work. I think readers can tell when you are passionate. Passion is infectious.
Still, there were a lot of people who tried to discourage me along the way, and people will try to discourage you, too, especially if you are a writer of color or are otherwise marginalized. Don’t let them. Others have done it before you, and you can do it, too. Your stories are necessary and valid. You will find wonderful people who will appreciate and champion your work. But you have to finish that work first.
So read a lot. Take your time. Find critique partners you trust. Find the joy in your work; it will get you through the hard times and rejections. And when you’re ready, write the book you want to read, because somewhere out there is someone else who needs that book, too.
Hello quibblers! In celebration of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, I’ll be shelving the book reviews and media commentary to focus on the craft of writing. Hopefully, aspiring NaNoWriMo-ers will find this information helpful as they write and, ultimately, rewrite their stories.
In this installment, we’ll be discussing an oft-asked question by writers old and new: what are the flaws that I should avoid when writing?
I did some research, and there are the five flaws in fiction writing that I think writers should be most aware of:
Telling instead of showing
This is a crucial part of all kinds of writing, but especially in fiction. You are the reader’s lone guide through the story you’ve made, and as vivid as it may seem in your own head, that won’t translate to your reader if you continously tell your reader about the story instead of show them what is happening. Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing “Maria had always had a wonderful relationship with her mother, but lately she’d been cold and distant.” Instead, describe a moment where Maria goes to her mother about something and the mom is unenthusiastic and unengaged. Show Maria being heartbroken, feeling that her mother is ignoring her, uninterested in her. That will translate to your readers so much better.
Troping your story to death
Look, there’s a reason why tropes exist, and it’s because they’re familiar. They make sense to us. And it’s fine to use tropes within your story if you feel that it’s what the story needs. What’s not fine is for every character in your story to fit in some kind of trope, and for every storyline to follow the well-worn paths of those before it. If you’re motivated to write a novel (in one month!) then it’s probably because you have a unique story in you that you want to get out. And yeah, maybe it follows the traditions of its genre, but it shouldn’t be an amalgam of everything that tradition has to offer. Think outside the box a little. Throw a wrench in there that’s atypical to the style of stories in that genre. Flip a trope on its head and see what happens. Sometimes, little things like that executed well can make a story stand out from others in the genre.
But! Be extra careful with tropes that are clearly racial or sexist in nature: the Ice Princess, the wise old tribal leader who speaks in cryptic imagery, the nagging housewife, etc.
This is one that I wouldn’t have considered if I was just writing this post off the top of my head, but pacing is actually crucial to a story. In many ways, pacing is your way of manipulating time within your story. In “Writer’s Store,” Gerry Visco advises writers to look at their story scene by scene (so basically, storyboard it) and see how the scenes fit together. Are some scenes to fast, to slow? Does the sequencing need to be changed to make more sense? Is the climax followed by an immediate drop in the action, or is there a more nuanced slow-down in the pace? These are all things you can see better when you take the story apart scene-by-scene.
Remember, too, that a story doesn’t have to move at a break-neck speed to be good. A lot of the advice online about pacing your story discusses speed, but it’s important to give your characters (and your readers!) moments to breath, collect themselves, and get ready for the next adventure.
There are lots of types of inconsistency in writing, but the ones you really want to watch out for are the kinds that directly impact your characters or your plot. Things like inconsistent characterization (is he a level-headed thinker or an impulsive fire-cracker? Because he can’t be both.) and warped timelines can really throw a wrench in your reader’s concentration. In fact, many authors start their writing with a timeline of events and a character description for each person in their story so that they can stay on track.
This one almost goes without saying, but it’s still worth saying because it happens all the time. Especially with secondary characters, it’s easy to for you to forget about them as your hero trudges on through your story. But every character in your story should serve some purpose, and that purpose will not be truly fulfilled if we only ever see one aspect of them.
This happens a lot with villains, too, where their only goal is chaos for the sake of chaos, evil for the sake of evil. The villain in your story should have a purpose, something that drives them to do what they’re doing, and that purpose can’t just be “I want everything to go to hell!” Make us understand where they’re coming from, why they’ve chosen this path. The X-Men in particular does a good job with this, where although Magneto’s goals (and his methods for achieving them) are obviously horrific, we can see why he is the way he is. Although the trauma he’s experienced doesn’t justify his actions, it does shed light on his motivations, and gives a logic to his refusal to join the X-Men.
That’s my take on some of the major flaws in fiction writing. What do you guys think of these flaws, and what are some you think writers should avoid? Share in the comments below!