The Dark Side of Writing

The Dark Side of Writing

I was in a bookstore this weekend, perusing the fiction and young adult section. It is a past-time I normally adore, but for some reason, it had gone sour for me. Instead of reveling in all of the worlds before me that I could visit with only a turn of a page, I felt a trifecta of dark emotions: Jealousy. Doubt. Guilt.

As I looked at the books on the shelf, with their beautiful covers, New York Times Bestseller sigils, and quotes from famous authors declaring the work “masterful!”, I felt jealousy. I want to see my book on those shelves. I want some author I adore and respect to endorse my work as “the next great voice in fantasy,” or a “must-read!”

Then comes doubt. I am so far from that. My work may never even be picked up by a real publisher, let alone declared masterful. What if no one even likes it? I sent my finished product to a few friends to read for the first time this week, so I think I am feeling especially vulnerable. What if all the feedback I get is negative? What if all the areas that I think need work really need work? What a Herculean task to make it the best it could be…

Then comes guilt. I should have been working on it more. I could have been even further by now. I could have read more books on craft, taken more writing classes, spent more hours glazed over my Scrivener screen, editing. It could be so much better. How can it ever be good enough when I allow myself to watch Sunday night Game of Thrones instead of editing, or grab a drink with friends instead of editing. I should always. be. editing.

This is the dark side of writing that I am beginning to understand. With great highs and moments of pure creative bliss come dark days of doubt and fear. Why am I spending so much of my precious time on something that could be a huge, embarrassing waste of time?

Sometimes when I read, I have a hard time not feeling the trifecta. Instead of enjoying immersing myself in the beautiful fictional world the author has created, I feel jealous that I didn’t create it, despair that I could ever create anything as inspired. I find myself analyzing character arcs, plot lines, and foreshadowing–comparing them to my own, instead of just enjoying myself. I know I am not alone in this. A friend of mine who is an aspiring author recommended a book to me, explaining that: “It is so wonderful. I wish I had written it.” Isn’t that the truth.

Much of the time, I am excited and enthusiastic about my writing. I know that the joy of dreaming, creating, and finishing my book is enough to make the endeavor worth it, even if I never make the best-seller list. The rise of self-publishing means that I never have to fear that my book will not see the light of day. Even if it isn’t picked up by a traditional publisher, it will get published.

But at times, just now and again, I succumb to the dark side. In those moments, I place one foot in front of the other and tell myself not to take life so seriously. I know I will come back to the light soon enough.

Photo credit Bart van Leeuwen, cc license

Slash and burn: separating the wheat from the chaff

Slash and burn: separating the wheat from the chaff

I am now in my third edit of my WIP, and I am in a stage of cutting. I’m kind of enjoying it. Destruction is a welcome change of pace from creation. As I do this edit, I’ve been focusing on trying to cut in the following areas:

Scenes. Are there scenes that are totally unnecessary? Yup. I’ve already cut a few. I’m trying to keep my novel pretty fast-paced, and there is a middle section that really lags. I’ve been cutting and trying to work the critical pieces into other scenes. It’s like spring cleaning. Cathartic.

Characters. Are there unnecessary characters? Can I combine any of the characters to eliminate any of these unnecessary folks? I’ve combined a few. Nameless bodyguard? Meet army captain, your new alter-ego.

Emotions. I have realized that I really like to write about my character’s emotions. Especially my protagonist’s emotions. She is constantly filled with anger, or pushing down her frustration, or brimming with tears. She’s supposed to be a tough chick! Some of those emotions have got to go. I have to leave something to the reader’s imagination.

Character lenses. I read that many new authors make the mistake of putting the character between the reader and the action. Hello, guilty as charged. I do that all the time. I write: “Pete saw the smoke billowing from the building,” when I should write “The smoke billowed from the building.” No, no, no. Finding a lot of these.

Passive voice. I think I use passive voice a lot because most of my writing is complicated legal writing where I am trying to disguise the actor. “The contract was breached…by someone,” (certainly not my client!) At least, this is the excuse I give myself. The fact remains, I default to passive voice a lot. Eliminating passive voice is such an easy way to shorten my writing and make it snappier. Down with passive!

Synonyms. I have found I like to write with a lot of phrases strung together with commas. “The moon shone in the dark sky, a silent sentinel, a watcher over the quiet world.”  There is definitely a time and place for that type of writing, but not sentence after sentence. After all, I’m just saying the same thing in a few different ways. That doesn’t pass the slash and burn test.

Wordy dialogue tags. Yes, I find myself guilty of writing’s worst worst sin (or so says Elmore Leonard). My characters say things softly, laugh heartily, smile broadly. -ly this, -ly that. They shout, they bark, they whisper. Lots to cut there.

Beats. Beats are those little bits of movement that come in between dialogue. “It’s getting dark out there,” Johnny said. He looked out the window. “Sure is,” Ma agreed.  I write with a lot of beats. My characters are smiling, laughing, fidgeting, adjusting their clothes, picking their nose, doing a million things besides just talking. Just talk!

Bottom line, there is a lot to cut.  But, I am far enough from the drafting process that I’m starting to recognize my own patterns and style, which I don’t think I ever internalized before. Although I doubt I am far enough to be totally objective, I like to think I am making some positive progress.

Photo credit: Justin Kern, cc license

What a Tangled Web We Weave: Mapping Sub-plots

What a Tangled Web We Weave: Mapping Sub-plots

Last week I finished my first edit of my novel. It only took 3 months…just as long as it took to write the whole damn novel. Sigh. After this first pass, I have reached the unavoidable conclusion that my subplots are crying out for attention. They feel twisty and tangled, sometimes like an afterthought, sometimes coming on too strong, like I am putting a flashing sign in the reader’s face: SUBPLOT DEVELOPMENT HERE. Good authors are so masterful at weaving these subtle ideas into the main plot, building them over time, and then revealing them in such satisfying ways. They make it look so easy. It is definitely not.

There are some basics about subplots that I’m trying to keep in mind:

-Subplots should connect with and further the main plot

-Subplots shouldn’t get as much play as the main plot

-Subplots should appear and disappear throughout the book, developing over time

-If you can combine characters and subplots, thereby simplifying the plot, do it

That’s all well and good, but how do I actually turn my subplots from their current spiderweb status into neat mini-story arcs?

It is somewhat comforting to know that other authors have the same trouble I do.  Thankfully, some of these authors have shared their methods with the rest of us mere mortals. For example, Marissa Meyers has explained her editing method in depth on her blog, detailing how she creates a chapter list, color codes the subplots, and then cuts up those chapters into little pieces of paper that she can use to separate out each subplot. Pretty cool.

Patricia Wrede also uses a similar color coding process, listing her scenes on color coded post-it notes by subplot, so she can see if she focuses on certain subplots for too long at a time. Other authors use spreadsheets or tables, like this example from J.K. Rowling.

The method I am trying sort of resembles the beginning of Melissa Meyer’s approach, before she gets out the scissors and the colored pencils. First, I made a list of my subplots–there are 5 or 6 of them. I think. There are also subplots under the subplots…but is that just detail that I want to make sure I get in there? I don’t think those genuinely qualify as subplots. I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

I tried to make a list of subplot categories with these little sub-subplots underneath them, but then I realized how many of the little sub-subplots overlap, touching more than one major subplots. I think this is good for the story overall, because there are lots of connections between the subplots, but it makes them a bitch to work with.  I made a non-linear chart to try to represent my subplots and sub-subplots, instead. It looks like this:

Subplot map

Handsome, I know. No wonder I am tearing my hair out!

Next, I started creating a Chapter List. I’m including notes where each of the subplots appear in the story. I tried a spreadsheet for a while, but for some reason that was not working for me. I just couldn’t quite grasp the information in a useful way. So, I’m just using a word version. I think I will color code the subplots, though I haven’t gotten there yet. Maybe I’ll even cut them into little pieces so I can move them around. Here’s what it looks like:

Screen shot 2015-03-30 at 4.03.54 PM

I know, so professional. But who cares, it’s working for me.

Once I actually gave myself permission for this phase to take as long as it needs to, things started really moving. I’m finding this process strangely freeing. When you are reading through your work and editing scene after scene, the thought of moving things around in a major way is daunting. It’s so much work to write and re-write! I am liking this birds-eye view method, it allows me to look at everything at once and distance myself a bit from all the work that would accompany any major changes. Instead, I can focus on ensuring that each subplot flows naturally in and out of the main plot and is fully developed with its own rising action and climax.

I will keep at this process, hopefully arriving at an outline that is neat and orderly. Then I can go back into the text and start making those changes. I am hopeful that this process will be a fruitful one!


She’s Got a Little Fight in Her…

She’s Got a Little Fight in Her…

I’ve been editing away. Man, it takes a long time! I’ve been focusing on character for a while, and this week, I am turning to plot. Conflict, to be exact.

As a reader, I know what keeps me turning the pages. Danger, excitement, suspense, adventure. Conflict! While part of me wants to give my protagonist an easy time of it, I know, realistically, that I have to send her through the ringer.

I’ve been using Write and Revise for Publication as a resource for my editing process. The book explains that one of the most critical conflicts in your book is the conflict between the protagonist and a worthy antagonist. But what makes a good opponent? First, the antagonist can’t be too easy to defeat, or the conflict won’t be believable. But, on the other hand, the antagonist has to have a human aspect, as well, a depth to him or her. A cookie cutter or cliched villain may make for a boring read.

What about the conflict itself? It should start early enough to tease the reader, to get them hooked and interested. The conflict needs to build incrementally through the book, as the stakes become higher and higher. You build the conflict through your characters: internally, through monologue (although not too much of this), and externally, through dialogue and action. Dramatic action is one of the most effective ways to build conflict, the quintessential nail-biter.

There are also times to allow a lull in the conflict, to shift the focus, or allow the reader a little reprieve. Maybe it is through foreshadowing, or a minor conflict in a subplot that just hints at a connection to the major conflict. Flashbacks can also effectively add to the conflict, weaving connections from the past into the current conflict.

When it comes to resolution of the conflict, it can’t be tied up too neatly with a bow. Things don’t work out perfectly in real life, so a believable conflict can’t be wrapped up perfectly in a few pages. It can’t feel forced.

While these concepts seem simple on paper, I am finding that they are far from simple in practice. The conflict in my novel has two layers: the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist (the Queen), and the greater conflict between the protagonist and the political and social structure the Queen represents. I am finding it challenging to walk the fine line between being too subtle with my conflict and hitting my readers over the head with it. I don’t want it to surprise them halfway through the novel, but I also don’t want them to seem patronized! I think beta readers will be key to helping me figure out this balance. I am definitely too close to it right now to see the forest for the trees. But, I’m not quite ready to share it with the world, so for now, I keep marching onward.

Photo Credit: Wendell,

Capturing Compelling Characters: Editing with Character in Mind

Capturing Compelling Characters: Editing with Character in Mind

I didn’t come into my first draft with a strong sense of who my protagonist would be. I generally knew the type of person she would be, but I hadn’t spent hours asking her fictional questions or creating detailed character sketches. I had tried that type of character micromanagement before on another novel and all it led to was about 12 first chapters in the trash. This time, I was going to let my protagonist write her own story.

But, this means that my editing process has to be more deliberate when it comes to character. Now that the story is written, I want to make sure my characters come across as real, compelling individuals. Do they have personalities, full story arcs, flaws, and quirks? I’ve found it challenging to edit for consistency of character over 75,000 words. I can’t capture all of it in one sitting. Outlining after the fact has helped with some of this, but I really understand what authors mean now about knowing your character backwards and forwards. This fundamental intimacy has to be carried with you throughout your entire editing process.

To start this process, I did fill out one of those pesky character worksheets, for both my protagonist and antagonist. I used the ones provided by Scrivener (which I am using to write my novel), and added some additional questions of my own about theme and flaws. My protagonist feels a little flat. I wanted her to be a very likeable character and so I had a hard time writing any flaws into her at all. I need her to be a little more human, a rounder and more dynamic character. So, flaws. I am getting to work on those. And more flash-backs, emotions, disappointments, and angry outbursts. All without her seeming irrational or unsympathetic. Such a difficult needle to thread!

My antagonist is a tough nut for me to crack as well because she isn’t a truly evil character–more just misguided and a little mad. I worry that she comes off as too vanilla…I want the reader to be chilled by what she is capable of, even while they are sympathetic with how she came to be who she is.

The character worksheets were a good exercise, and I think I’ll refer to them as I continue to edit.

I also have continued to use Write and Revise for Publication, which lays out a concrete method for improving characters. The chapter on characterization presents the process below to help an editing author make sure his or her characters have the depth and roundness they deserve. I have found this to be very useful as I continue my editing process. Definitely haven’t made it though the entire checklist yet!

  • Do you use concrete description or exposition to capture key features of your main character? Are there key features left uncaptured? Do you use more description, exposition, or dramatic revelation (scene) to reveal your character’s key traits? Do you rely too much on one over the other?
  • What basic features of your main character help explain his motivations? What other ways are there to link personality and temperament to your character’s motivations?
  • Which events from your main character’s past help explain his motivations? Are there other ways to link the past and current motivations?
  • Who are your protagonist’s chief antagonists? How do these antagonists motivate your character to do what he does. Are there ways to show more fully how the antagonist’s actions, attitudes, or remarks account for or reveal your main character’s motivations?
  • Are there places where your main character’s speech seems canned? Make note of these places and plan on fixing them.
  • Does your main character’s dialogue reveal about his key features, personality, and so on? What changes could you make so the dialogue reveals more about your character?
  • Is your main character round or flat? How can you make him more complex?
  • Is your main character dynamic or static? How can you make him more dynamic?

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The Mistress, the Master, or the Tyrant?

The Mistress, the Master, or the Tyrant?

Yesterday a friend of mine shared this quote by Winston Churchill. I just love it.  I think I am in the mistress phase, edging towards master. Definitely well past the amusement phase. Those were the good old days, just writing whatever my heart desired, confident that future me would iron out all the wrinkles.

What phase of the process are you at?

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