Needing to believe, and believing to be needed

Growing up, my favorite Narnia book was easily The Silver Chair. I loved when Prince Rilian came out of his enchantment, slew the giant serpent, and destroyed the silver chair. I loved dear old Puddleglum. I loved the trenches that spelled out words.

But mostly, I loved Jill Pole.

Jill wasn’t a Pevensie. There weren’t prophecies about her. She was just a girl struggling through school the best she could.

But when Eustace told her about this magical place he had visited, a beautiful place far beyond the reach of bullies and gray English skies, she believed. She believed so much that she had to go there.

And when she got there, she found that she was needed. She alone heard the signs from Aslan. She was given the quest to rescue Prince Rilian with Eustace. She kept their little trio going with her fire and determination.

And she made mistakes. Oooh, she made mistakes. But she worked doubly hard to fix them and still saved the day in the end. And as a girl who was constantly making stupid mistakes, that gave me a lot of hope for myself.

I used to think that if I hoped and believed hard enough, I could get to the Wood Between the Worlds and travel to all the lands I had ever read about or imagined, as well as the ones I had never in my wildest dreams encountered. And in a way, I did. I believed in stories the way August Rush believed in music. I believed, like Uncle Hub, that good will always triumph over evil, that true love never dies.

And I believed, like Jill Pole, that there was a magical land out there that needed me.

And now I’m building my own Wood Between the Worlds, an already-enormous collection of places and people and powers, some of which will never be read by eyes other than my own, some of which are out there already. And I’m no Shannon Hale, but even with my small-but-growing readership, I’ve had kids tell me how this or that or the other part really meant something to them. And it makes me want to cry a little every time.

Because it means that I’ve reached my magical land, and I have found that I’m needed.

And I think that’s what life is. It’s believing in something–stories, music, business, people, math, whatever–and believing in it so hard that it (whatever it is) really needs you, even if it doesn’t know it yet. Charles Wallace didn’t know how much he needed Meg. Mount Eskel didn’t know how much they needed Miri. And Narnia didn’t know how much it needed Jill Pole. But all of these ladies believed in their it, and nothing was ever the same again.

So whatever it is you believe in, be it writing stories or teaching high school math, know that you are needed. Go forth and change the world.

NaNo NaNo

I scorned NaNoWriMo for YEARS. And even after I finished it last year, I wasn’t sure I’d ever do it again.

Aaaand then October rolled around. And folks, NaNoWriMo does not let you out of its clutches so easily. For which I am grateful, because I’m SO EXCITED. (eep!)

I’ve created my novel on the website, and my outline is well on its way. Bring it on, November!

If you’re doing NaNo, add me! Username is ehbates. I’d love to see what you’re typing madly on this November!

When you least expect it…

At the park today, Scout made friends with this adorable little boy who was about her age. I got talking with his mom and found out she has one son in the Air Force (so much respect for her there) and one son prepping for Olympic trials (which son, incidentally, began his diving career with the same woman who coached me in high school). 

Stories are everywhere, folks. This is what makes Humans of New York so brilliant. Every person on earth has a story to tell, including you. Take a little time today to listen to someone’s story and find the wonder in it.

Zero Population Subplots

I have a new story peeve that goes hand-in-hand with my gripe about characters who refuse to stay dead. And that is . . .

SUBPLOT POPULATION EXPLOSION.

So here’s the thing. I’ve been Netflixing Once Upon a Time season 5. And while the first half of the season was fine, the second half of the season was apparently concocted to bring back EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER we have ever seen on the show. And if you’ve watched any of that show, you know that’s a LOT of characters. Every episode is some underdeveloped side plot that has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot arc–it’s just there to say, “Hey, remember this person you saw for five minutes back in season X? They’re going to show up in the Underworld whether they’re dead or not!”

Okay. Rant over.

So how do I apply this annoyance to writing?

I have a deep and abiding love of minor characters. But there’s a reason the story isn’t about them.

As writers, we have this deep desire to share EVERYTHING we know with the readers. But we know way more about our minor characters and our worlds than the reader needs–or wants–to know. Subplots are good insofar as they support and drive the main plot. But when a subplot becomes irrelevant to the story, you have to let that subplot g0, often along with a character or two.

You don’t always have to kill the character. But for goodness’ sake, let them move on. Move away. Get a new job. Drift. Have a mid-life crisis. Run away from home. Not knowing what happened to a minor character is much more believable and relatable than knowing exactly what happened to all seventy-two characters in your story until the end of their lives.

If you try to keep bringing back every character, there will come a point where your readers can’t keep them straight, or they won’t even care anymore because there are just too many to become emotionally attached.

All right. Now I’ve gotta go watch some more Once Upon a Time. Because let’s be honest, Killian Jones. (Who came up with that name?!)

Now leaving your comfort zone…

In order to complete my music minor in college, I had to participate in a performance group–which, given the short amount of time I had to get the required credits, meant I sang in the university’s non-audition choir.

As if that weren’t uncomfortable enough for me already, the choir director told us on day one that we had to do three things that were outside of our comfort zone and report back to him.

Now, given that anything other than reading a book in a corner was outside of my comfort zone, this wasn’t a particularly complex assignment. But it was an incredibly difficult one, and I (along with many others in the choir) kind of resented it.

I did, however, survive six ventures outside of my comfort zone (two semesters’ worth), and learned that I am in fact capable of talking to other human beings. Sometimes.

Lately, I feel like I’m being shoved farther and farther out of my comfort zone, and it’s like being strapped into the world’s  longest roller coaster–simultaneously exhausting and thrilling and terrifying and exhilarating. I alternate between wanting to curl up in a corner to cry and wanting to run out and conquer the world, sometimes multiple times a day. That may also have something to do with the fact that I haven’t had more than two hours of sleep in a row for a very, very long time, but that’s beside the point.

So what is that’s been pushing my comfort boundaries?

  • Twitter. There are so many cool people on there, and I’m so intimidated by them. But the thing is, every time I get the courage to tweet at them, they’re so super nice. I mean, I totally geeked out and started quoting Oscar with Jessica Day George yesterday! And then there was that time that Jennifer Nielsen read my post about Sachsenhausen and told me it was beautiful? That’s totally my happy place now.
  • Story Social. This is kind of part of Twitter, but separate. I just participated in my first Twitter chat, #storysocial, and it was AWESOME! It takes place every Wednesday night at 9pm EST. I’ve always had the same reticence to participate in these kinds of things as I had toward raising my hand in class, but I forced myself to speak up, and people responded positively.
  • Deadlines. I’ve learned that I am totally incapable to buckling down and writing unless I’m under pressure. So as much as I hate deadlines, I’m setting a few for myself to get those words out.

What new things have you been doing to push outside of your comfort zone?

Problematic beginnings

Last night, I stayed up way too late pretending that I was rocking the baby to sleep when, in reality, I was furiously rewriting the beginning of one of my stories on my cell phone. (Not the most efficient way to write, but when you have one free hand and a sleeping child on your chest, you make do.) This is the fourth or fifth beginning to this particular project, and it’s the first time that it’s felt right.

We all know that beginnings are important–they grab the reader, slice into the meat of your story, and set the tone for the whole novel. So let’s talk a little about how beginnings go wrong and how to fix them.

1. Nothing happens. This is, sadly, the most common and most unfortunate error in kicking off a book. The character wakes up, brushes her teeth, and heads off to school, where she attends three classes before, twenty pages in, AN ASTEROID CRASHES INTO EARTH AND TRANSFORMS HER ENTIRE SCHOOL INTO RADIOACTIVE MUTANTS.

Skip the twenty pages of tooth-brushing and start with the asteroid.

2. Info duuuuuuump. How many times have you gotten through the first paragraph of a story and needed to come up for air? “Okay, there’s a girl, and she’s got seven siblings with crazy unpronounceable names, and those are all their ages, and they live in a magical kingdom underwater that uses fish to bring fresh air down from the surface only the fish are dying and by the way civil war and social rankings and whaaaaa . . .”

We don’t need (or want!) to know the ENTIRE story in one page up front. Pick one important plot point and introduce it (NOT explaining in detail) throughout the first scene. Pull out your outline and figure out how to let the information reveal itself naturally.

3. Starting event isn’t pertinent to the main plot. Maybe you’ve got a great action scene written that takes place during your character’s jujitsu tournament, but if it’s there just for the sake of the action and doesn’t advance the plot or character development, I don’t want to see it. Make sure you springboard your readers into what your book is really about, or they’ll feel cheated.

4. Inconsistent tone. If your book is lighthearted, start out lighthearted! If it’s serious, set the stage! Don’t have a page of doom and gloom and then turn around and start cracking jokes.

Now, be careful with this. Remember that I’m talking about TONE, not PLOT. All plots are going to have some element of tension and danger to them–that’s what drives the story. But all narrators are going to relay that tension in a different way. Make sure your narrator is consistent.

What are some problems you’ve run into with a story’s beginning?

Stumbling across inspiration

I’m having a hard time getting anywhere with my writing this week. I’m probably burned out on most of my projects, but just not writing isn’t an option for me. I’d go stark raving mad.

So yesterday, I decided to shift perspective on one of my stories and write a bit from a side character’s point of view. It was refreshing and led to some great character development, which in turn influenced how I’m seeing this plot unwind.

AND it made me realize:

I’m telling one of my other stories from COMPLETELY the wrong perspective.

And so, this morning, one of my stories changed from adult to middle-grade. An extremely lame plot arc has turned into an exciting and emotional adventure. It’s gonna be good.

Sometimes, all we need to push out of a slump is a new way of looking at the old, tired things spread out in front of us.

Have you ever had to completely change who is telling your story?

“Living in squalor, that was the answer.”

Someone asked me this week how I find time to write, which is easily the most common question put to me when people hear I’m an author. The first thing that came to mind was this wonderful quote from JK Rowling:

“People very often say to me, ‘How did you do it, how did you raise a baby and write a book?’ And the answer is–I didn’t do housework for four years. I am not superwoman. And, um, living in squalor, that was the answer.”

In a week where I had a book release, beta reading, layout designing, piano teaching, toddler wrangling, AND I was praying desperately that I wouldn’t go into labor before my launch party on Saturday (good news: looks like I’ll make it!), this quote resonated deep in my soul.

We don’t have the time to do everything. So make the time to do what’s important to you.

 

Back to the beginning

The books are here, the bookmarks are here, the door prizes for the launch party are almost ready, and it’s official: Stone Alliance is in its finished form, no more to be hacked apart and reassembled.

And just like that, I’m jumping from my beautifully polished, finished project to some really rough early drafts.

It’s hard.

The characters refuse to settle into their roles and personalities, I’m falling into gaping plot holes every two steps, and oh, the clichés!

This is the point where my writerly ego takes a severe battering. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again, I’ll keep pushing through it. But I think one of the hardest parts of being a writer is that the first draft never seems to get better, no matter how many first drafts you’ve written.

What’s the hardest part of the writing process for you?

The Power of Focused Creativity

When I was in college, I dreamed of the day that I would be graduated, published, and making enough money off of my books that I could just spend all day writing and be so productive all the time.

But an interesting thing happened. There were a few months in my life where writing was pretty much my sole focus and priority, and you know what?

I wasn’t really that productive.

Now, I have a little girl with another on the way, and I teach piano. Those two things alone take up a lot of time, and when you throw in all the other little life things that turn up from day to day, things can get pretty busy. Yet I’m just about a month away from publishing my second novel.

People ask often how I have time to write. As any writer will tell you, it’s all a question of priorities; but I’ve also found that writing does not take as much time as I used to think.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve put hundreds of hours into writing, editing, and designing my novels. I can’t even begin to estimate a ballpark range of how long it’s taken me to get my books from an idea to a solid, tangible paperback.

But the thing is, those hundreds of hours don’t have to come in eight-hour-a-day increments. For me, I have maybe an hour in the afternoon to work while Scout naps, plus a couple of hours in the evening after she goes to bed. That means I generally have three hours a day, tops, in which to work. With other things in life and occasional lack of motivation (gasp!), it’s probably a better estimate to say I work for an hour or two daily on writing and writing-related things, including this blog.

But because my window of opportunity is so narrow, I wring the life out of those precious hours. I cut off social media (unless I’m social-media-ing for my books), plant my butt in my office chair in the farthest corner of the house, and get to work.

For me, this limited amount of time to work actually increases the quality of my writing. I know I don’t have long, so I’m focused, and I don’t work long enough to start going cross-eyed at the screen. My word count (when I’m counting such things) is just as high as it ever was when I had all day to procrastinate writing.

Moral of the story? Yes, it’s hard to write when you have a day job or kids or a million other things you could be doing instead; but if it’s important enough to you, if you’re willing to suck the marrow out of the small chunks of time you do have, that’s enough. You can do great things, and you will. Just keep getting those words down on the page.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you write in small chunks of time, or sit and pour out words for ten hours straight?