Pocket full of (writer’s) kryptonite

writer's kryptonite
This post is part of the DIY MFA Street Team Question of the Week series

Last week we talked about playing to our writing strengths. Knowing your storytelling super power can help you identify the types of stories you like to write as as well, and give you an area of expertise to focus on.

But as Superman has been teaching us since 1938, any super power comes with its kryptonite. It’s a balance of power. Superhuman strength comes with superhuman weakness, otherwise we’d all be monsters.

What is your writing weakness?

So what’s your writing weakness? If you don’t already know what it is how do you find it? It’s hard to look at yourself under the harsh light of honesty and name something you’re not good at. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably really good at pretending that your weaknesses don’t exist. But that doesn’t make them go away.

Take a moment to consider your weaknesses, without being self-deprecating and naming a “weakness” that’s actually a strength (you know you do that, too… it’s practically a hallmark of being a writer). More than likely, your writer’s kryptonite is closely linked to your writing super power. Think about it. Superman’s weakness (kryptonite) came in the form of crystals from his home planet of … Krypton!

If I’m honest, my main writer’s kryptonite at the present time is finishing what I start. Simple as that. I’m sure there are craft-related weaknesses in my prose, dialogue, and story-building that I could work on (I mean, nobody’s perfect, right?). But I can’t get feedback on things like that if I don’t actually complete a project and turn it over so that others can read it in the first place.

Turn those writing weaknesses around

Best thing about knowing what your writing weaknesses are is that you can figure out how to combat those weaknesses. Superman, knowing that kryptonite leaves him vulnerable and weak, chooses to avoid it. There’s not much he can do to change his weakness. But you! Your writing weaknesses are totally beatable. How? Take a class, get some feedback, practice practice practice!

It’s also important to remember that your writer’s kryptonite will change. As you begin to identify and combat your writing weaknesses, new ones will crop up and need your attention. The awesome thing is that you’ll be strengthening your craft with each weakness you take on and overcome!

So let’s empty our pockets-full of kryptonite and get on with the business of becoming stronger writers telling the best stories we can.

(Hey! Did you know that Gabriela has a book coming out this summer? Check it out and order your copy here!)

Want to know more about how to up your writing game? Sign up for the Writing Refinery email newsletter. You’ll also receive a free Character Detail Sheet that can help you learn everything you need to know about the main character in your current WIP!

Advertisements

What’s your Storytelling Super Power?

storytellingsuperpowerIf there’s one thing I learned from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it’s that when you’re up against tough odds, it only makes sense to play to your strengths.

To be sure, having a crack team to support you makes a huge difference. But there’s only so much Ron and Hermione can do for you. At some point you have face the dragon. And when you do, you’ll be totally on your own. The only way you’ll be able to defend yourself is if you know your strengths.

Discover your writing strengths

Knowing what kind of stories you are drawn to can help you figure out which projects to focus on. There’s nothing worse than spending hours banging your head against the wall over a project that you’re not equipped to handle. Sometimes you can gain valuable experience from working on things that you’re not good at. That’s how we grow and gain new skills. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing to your strengths, with knowing what you’re good at and doing that thing.

Not to mention, unless you’re a complete masochist, nobody enjoys forcing themselves to do something they’re not good at. The good news is, at least with writing, you don’t have to! You can figure out what you’re good at and focus on those kind of projects and your readers will love you for it! Why? Because you’ll get better and better at telling those kinds of stories… and the enjoyment you take from creating projects that resonate with you on that kind of level will shine through in your writing.

Why your storytelling super power matters

Me? I’m an underdog. Well, I like underdog stories. My favorite movies are Field of Dreams and Empire Records, both stories with characters trying to overcome tough odds and beat the establishment. (“Damn the man! Save the Empire!” Am I right?) And my current WIP will end up reflecting that. Full disclosure, though, it doesn’t right now! I had been trying to write a Survivor story (think Castaway or The Fault in Our Stars). But after taking the quiz and taking stock of where I was at in my manuscript, I realized my main character was telling me she was an underdog and that she wanted a few changes made to her story to reflect that.

The result: Now my story has a clearer direction! You don’t always have to throw out what you’ve been working on when you realize it should be something else. Sometimes, a few tweaks or the introduction of a new antagonistic force will make all the difference. For me, the key was to NOT give the main character everything she wanted right away, and to raise the stakes so that she has to choose between what she wants and who she loves.

What’s your storytelling superpower?

Wondering what your storytelling strengths might be? Gabriela of DIY MFA and I developed this awesome quiz to help you figure out which stories interest you. I recommend you give it a try! Click here, answer 7 simple questions, and find out what your strengths are.

Once you’ve taken the quiz, hop back over here and let me know what your superpower is! And then dig in and figure out what that means for your writing! Just knowing what your strengths are won’t make your stories stronger. What strategy do you have to play to those strengths?

(Hey! Did you know that Gabriela has a book coming out this summer? Check it out and order your copy here!)

Want to know more about how to up your writing game? Sign up for the Writing Refinery email newsletter. You’ll also receive a free Character Detail Sheet that can help you learn everything you need to know about the main character in your current WIP!

3 ways to turn off your inner editor

just writeAh, the inner editor. She’s so helpful when you want to be eloquent. But when you’re drafting she can be the bane of your existence, especially if you ever want to finish a manuscript.

If your inner editor is anything like mine, she’s anxious and picky and painfully overbearing. She insists that everything be perfect, so perfect that she makes it difficult to move on to the next scene, or even the next sentence sometimes!

If you take a step back from your frustrations for a moment, you can see that your inner editor is just trying to be helpful. But she can kill your momentum and your self-esteem, getting in the way of your ability to complete a project.

Here are three ways to turn off your inner editor so you can get some writing done!

  1. Put your editor away – Like, physically put her away. You may want to pick an object, or draw a picture, to represent your inner editor, however you visualize her. Then, once you’ve completed it, thank her for her services and put her in a closet, or a box, or somewhere out of sight where she can’t look over your shoulder and offer criticism. You can pull her back out of the closet when you’ve finished the manuscript. But for now, she needs to shut up and let you do the work.
  2. Break down your writing sessions into manageable pieces – When you think about writing an entire manuscript (all 50,000+ words) your inner editor freaks out. There are too many opportunities to screw things up in that giant project, she says. How can you keep track of it all? Instead, think of each writing session as a separate project. Pick a word count (500, 1000, 1667 words) and focus on that. Don’t worry about the larger picture yet. You and your inner editor can have fun working that out later. For now, your manuscript just needs to get written.
  3. Add a little pressure – Don’t give yourself too long to linger over those 500 (1000, 1667) words. The longer you linger, the easier it is for your inner editor to creep back in and start criticizing what you’ve done and what you haven’t done yet. Set a time limit and push yourself to get to your writing goal before she has a chance to stop you in your tracks!

I use Write Or Die, a fabulous little app to keep my fingers flying over the keys and get me to my daily word count goal as quickly as possible. It’s not very expensive and a great motivational tool. You can try Write or Die out for free here if you’re not convinced yet. Or just set a kitchen timer and get to typing! Whatever you need to do to get the words on the page, do that.

Your inner editor can be a helpful tool when the time is right, so don’t banish her forever. Just remind her that, until you’re done creating, it’s not her turn yet.

4 Reasons Writing Short Stories Will Make You a Better Novelist

bestshortstorywriter4November is National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo), and it’s just around the corner. If you’ve never written a novel but you’ve always wanted to try, I highly recommend this incredible event as your moment to go for the glory. If you’re already planning to join the fun, I’ll see you there!

People prepare for the madness of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days in different ways. Whether you’re a planner or pantser, you can benefit from practicing during the next 5 weeks. And short stories are the perfect way to practice. You might be thinking that writing short stories will drain your creativity tank before you’re ready and that you need those ideas to make your novel work. But writing short stories adds more to your craft than it takes away.

Still not sure? Here are 4 reasons writing short stories will make you a better novelist right now.

  1. They’re less than novel length.
    It kind of goes without saying, but less than novel length is a point in favor of short stories. You don’t have to keep track of as many moving pieces, or fill as much blank space, or go into as much detail as you do with a novel. You can sit down and write a short story in a day. Can you do that with a novel?
  2. They’ll inform your novel-writing process.
    You learn a lot from carrying a story from start to finish. Making sure all your series or story arcs or character arcs round out the way they should and with the correct timing can be really challenging with a full-length novel. A short story gives you all the elements of story telling in a snapshot form that’s easier to manage.
  3. They give you a chance to focus on just one thing.
    Because short stories are, well, short, you don’t have time to add too many elements to them. So you can choose to work on a plot element you’ve been wanting to experiment with, or a character sketch, or your world-building, without getting distracted.
  4. You get to write “The End” sooner.
    Never underestimate the power of completing a project. The emotional and mental payoff you get from writing “The End” gives you motivation to move on to the next project. And, most importantly, once you’ve written “The End” there’s nothing holding you back from putting your story out into the world to get feedback so that you can start the whole process over again and write an even better story.

Sometimes writing a story set in the world of your novel but with a side character can enhance the main manuscript. But not every idea is a novel-length idea. Give those other ideas room to grow and see what happens. The more stories you write, the more ideas you will have. Short stories, far from taking away from your creative potential, only add fuel to the fire.

3 Reasons to Skip Writing Lengthy Character Description

DursleysWhen you’re writing a novel, it can be tempting to take a paragraph to describe every tiny last detail of how character looks. After all, you’ve spent so much time imagining your character and what he’s doing that you can see him vividly, even down to the brand of jeans he’s wearing.

But let’s talk about why you might not want to describe your character to the last detail.

  1. It’s boring
    If you spend a paragraph, or maybe more, describing your character’s look and fashion choices, you could risk your readers skipping ahead to reach the dialogue or the action–you know–the good stuff.
  2. It leaves no room for the reader’s imagination
    Part of the reader’s experience of your story is picturing it as it happens. This includes what the characters look like. Don’t be too quick to control what the reader gets to imagine.
  3. It’s probably not the most important detail you should be focusing on
    Usually character descriptions come at the beginning of the novel in an attempt to tell us what our character is like based on his (or her) appearance instead of showing us his (or her) character in action. Give your character something to do and sprinkle in bits of description where necessary.

And now I’m going to use examples from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, of course, because I think J.K. Rowling models this practice excellently (as per usual).

[Mr. Dursley] was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.

One sentence for each character, and we have what we need to know. We learn a little later that Mr. Dursley wears boring ties and that Mrs. Dursley has a shrill voice, but those details come in the moment, as needed, not all in a clump at the beginning. Especially if the characters you are describing are minor characters, there’s little to no need to get more detailed than this. The reader is perfectly capable of filling in the rest.

A lot of times, writers try to shove the details of their main character onto the reader at the beginning of the story because it’s something that they feel the need to get out of the way and then they never return to it again. Instead of spending a paragraph writing description that your readers are willing and able to fill in for themselves, choose details that will reveal something important about the character or that makes him different from other characters.

harry_potter_grows_01And now an exception to the rule. When introducing the main character, Harry, Rowling uses almost a paragraph to tell us what he looks like, but as you’ll recognize if you’ve read book before, nearly all of his features–from the color of his eyes to the scar on his forehead–end up having some significant role in the story, in the entire series, even.

Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tap because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning. He had had it as long as he could remember, and the first question he could ever remember asking his Aunt Petunia was how he had gotten it.

The skinny smallness and the baggy clothes tell us Harry’s aunt and uncle neglect him. The eyes are his mother’s, as he hears over and over once he’s around people who knew her. The broken and taped glasses reinforce the neglect and show the bullying nature of Harry’s and Dudley’s relationship. And the scar is PIVOTAL in the entire series.

Again, it comes down to the details. If your character’s appearance is important enough to spend words on in the first place, use it to your advantage. Use it to paint more than just a picture. Use it to tell your story. Use it to make your characters come alive.

Writing Tips: Narrative voice matters

Libba Bray Beauty Queens; Suzanne Collins The Hunger GamesWhen you’re writing any piece for someone else to read, the narrative voice you use to convey your information can make or break you. Also known as the tone, how you say something is just as important as what you are trying to convey. For example, you wouldn’t crack jokes on a website for funeral home services.

Knowing your reader and being able to predict what their expectations are can help a lot as you prepare your manuscript. A middle grade contemporary novel about a 13-year-old girl is going to sound a lot different than an adult science fiction novel. But even within genre, there’s a lot of room for creativity.

Take, for instance, these two Young Adult tales of survival, The Hunger Games and Beauty Queens. Both have female protagonists fighting for their lives. But the tone of each novel is completely different, setting the reader up for a unique experience in each case.

First 128 words of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

First 172 words of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

“Are you all right?”

The voice was tinny in Adina’s ears. Her head ached, and she was wet. She remembered the plane pitching and falling, the smoke and screams, the panic, and then nothing.

“Am I dead?” she asked the face looming over hers. The face had apple cheeks and was framed by a halo of glossy black curls.

“No.”

“Are you dead?” Adina asked warily.

The face above her shook from side to side, and then burst into tears. Adina relaxed, reasoning that she had to be alive, unless the afterlife was a lot more bipolar than she’d been led to believe. She pulled herself to a sitting position and waited for the wooziness to subside. A gash on her knee was caked in dried blood. Another on her arm still seeped. Her dress was ripped and slightly scorched and she wore only one shoe. It was one half of her best pair, and in her state of shock, finding the other became important. “Can you help me find my shoe?”

The easiest way to identify the voice in each of these excerpts is through the details that the author chooses to focus on. In The Hunger Games, the narrator (Katniss) talks about the cold, the rough mattress, the one room that she and her mother and sister share. The telling detail involves her mother, though. The disillusionment as she describes her mother shows that life has been hard for longer than Katniss can remember, and that she might not believe it could ever be better than it is. All these details are important as the story unfolds and we learn what trials Katniss has to face.

In Beauty Queens, the narrative voice (a close third-person limited) shows Adina waking up after a disastrous plane crash, and focusing on the apple cheeks, glossy hair, clothes, and bipolar-ish emotional responses of her companion. The choices are ironic, to say the least, which is just what Libba Bray was going for in this work of satire.

There are so many variables that play into narrative voice. Word choice, details, cadence, pacing–all these things work together to create the tone of the narrative, informing by the way that they either align with the reader’s expectations or subvert them in order to call attention to something important. Hitting on your unique voice for the story you are trying to tell may seem like shooting at a moving target in a dark room. It takes practice, but when you get it just right, it’s worth it.

Writing Tips: Don’t Neglect Your Villain’s Motivations

Voldemort; villain
Lord Voldemort, from Harry Potter

Ever find yourself watching a movie or reading a story and wondering what the “bad” guy’s problem was? And when there’s no real motivation, do you find yourself disappointed? Unable–or unwilling–to suspend your disbelief and stay with the story?

Believable villain motivation separates the memorable stories from the forgotten ones. When you can help your reader connect with, even empathize with the villain in your manuscript, they will forgive all kinds of crazy schemes and tactics that the villain uses to get in the hero’s way.

This doesn’t mean giving away everything right at the beginning of the story, either. It’s ok not to understand exactly why a character does something. But you have to give the readers a sense, a hint, an inkling, of what’s going on inside your villain’s mind. Otherwise we don’t care.

As your character’s motivations become more clear throughout the story, your reader develops more empathy with the villain. This can sometimes even raise the stakes. The more powerful the cause your villain has for his evilness, the more important it is for the hero to defeat him.

My favorite example of villain motivation is in the Harry Potter series (of course). Let’s take a brief look at Voldemort throughout the series.

Books 1-4

In books 1-4, Voldemort’s basic motivation was returning to his corporeal state. Completely understandable, of course. Who wouldn’t want to return from a weird, amorphous half-life to flesh-and-blood? (If you wouldn’t, let me know in the comments).

Books 5-7

In books 5-7, Voldemort has two goals. One, to be the most powerful wizard (and therefore the one in control of all the other wizards) and two, to kill Harry Potter. Being powerful is more than just about being in control for Voldemort. It’s about staying alive. If he doesn’t control everyone, then he will surely be killed. He’s done enough horrible things in his previous quest for power that he’s made plenty of enemies. He has to kill Harry to prove he is the most powerful wizard. Rowling sets us up to understand that fairly early in the series, and confirms it by the end of book 5.

As the series progressed, Voldemort’s motivations became more complex, but at the same time remained the same. He wanted to live just as much as Harry did. The reader can understand that, can even get behind some of the steps he takes to achieve that goal. The difference is that the readers wanted Harry to live more than they wanted Voldemort to live.

It’s important to recognize the role that back story plays in strengthening the villain’s motivations. When the time is right and you share that back story with your readers, the conflict becomes more powerful and your readers become more invested in the final outcome.

So don’t neglect your villains! Don’t let them be evil just for the sake of being evil. The better the villain’s motivations, the better the story.

Writing Tips: How Daily Practice Builds Your Writing Habit

Daily writing practice

These days, more than a few websites and blogs and social media posts offer you advice on how to finish your novel, easy hacks to getting published, ways to get inspired. And all of that advice can add up to success or to failure depending on how you implement it and what actually works for you.

But if there’s one thing I’m certain on, no matter what other advice you receive, know this: Writers Write.

The only way to be a writer is to write. Consistently. Not just that one time, not just someday when you have time. Sit down and write. Fifteen minutes. Right now. Go on. I’ll wait.

If you need, you can find a writing prompt somewhere out there on the internet. Or just pick an object on your desk and spend 500 words describing it (ouch… that’s such a painful exercise if you’ve never tried it).

Now, not everyone can write every day consistently, because … LIFE! But you can surely find two weeks to a month to set yourself a challenge of writing every day and here’s why it’s a good idea. If you write for fifteen minutes a day for 14-30 days, you will certainly begin building your writing habit. You’ll get used to sitting down and cranking out the words for fifteen minutes or whatever your set goal is. You’ll begin forming muscle memory and rewiring those synapses from their resistant, at-rest state to a state of readiness and ability.

Writing a little every day will give you the confidence that you CAN sit down and write whenever you want to. And then when your temporary challenge is up you’ll be able to set yourself realistic goals. Maybe in real life you only write a few times a week for longer periods. Or maybe five days a week instead of seven. Whatever works for you works for you, as long as you’re still writing! As long as you don’t let the time slip by you and allow your brain to go back to that state of rest where it’s hard to get motivated again.

Writers write. The more you write, the more you will find you are able to write. The more you write, the stronger your ability will become. So sit down and write. Write write write! You’ll never be sorry that you tried.

Writing Tips: 3 ways to fight writer’s block

writer's block; writing; how do you write?; Neil Gaiman

Writer’s block. The old foe of creative minds everywhere. Standing in the way of completed manuscripts since… well since people began writing, probably!

If you’ve ever felt writer’s block, you know it’s a horrible experience. There you are, chugging along on your manuscript when suddenly you freeze. You can’t think of what to write next. Maybe you perceive a problem or plot hole and you can’t think of a way around it. Maybe you woke up, sat down to write, and no words came.

I’ve been there. And I still end up there regularly. Usually it’s because I’m afraid of messing up my project, and I want to get it right. Well, newsflash, self. I can’t get it right all the time. And first drafts are supposed to be messy.

Still, just telling yourself to buck up doesn’t always get the words flowing. So what can you do instead?

Three ways to fight writers block

  1. Write something else for a while
    Walk away from the manuscript for a little while. Write a blog post. Or work on a different project for a few hours/days. Give yourself some time away and then come back and see if you have any new perspective or ideas.
  2. Pick a writing prompt
    The other week I had been dealing with the stress and frustration of writer’s block with a current project. So I went to a prompt generator site (two of my favorites are Writer Igniter and Seventh Sanctum) and picked a prompt that would lead me into writing about my characters again. I probably won’t use much from that writing session, but the point is to grease the wheels, to get the fingers flying across the keys again, and to get your brain back into that world and thinking about those characters again.
  3. Do something completely different
    Occasionally it makes sense to put down the pen or walk away from the keyboard altogether for a short time. Try painting, or take a long walk. Give your brain time to be creative in a different way so that whatever problem you’re working through in the manuscript has time to marinate. You’ll come back to the page with a better perspective and more ideas.
No matter what you have to remember to do what works for you. And when it stops working, try something different. Writer’s block is not a “forever disease.” So give yourself time and space to work out the puzzle that has presented itself. You’ll be pleased with the results when you finally get back to it.

Writing Tips: 3 good reasons to avoid pop-culture references in your novel

There are some places where pop-culture references really rock (take last Friday’s blog post, for example). When you’re writing a blog post or talking with your friends and looking for a good example to illustrate a point about storytelling, look no further than Hulu or Netflix or (less and less) cable TV. Pop culture references can be relate-able and can relevantly illustrate your point to your target audience.

When it comes to your novel, though, there are three good reasons to avoid pop-culture references.

  1. It dates you–quickly. (Also a problem for people using technology references in novels)
    As you’re probably well aware, in this age of the Internet, trends are like meteors flashing brightly on their way through the earth’s atmosphere. They last just a moment. If you want your novel to endure, to really feel timeless, don’t have your characters sitting down to season four of The Sopranos (or worse, Magnum PI!). Unless your story is clearly supposed to be rooted in that time period, you’re limiting yourself.
  2. Not everyone will get it.
    The last thing you want to do is alienate your readers. If you spend time making references (no matter how witty) to a show or meme or trend that your readers haven’t seen or heard of (or that they’ve already forgotten about!), you’re going to lose those readers, confuse them, or cause them to come out of the story in order to figure out what you’re talking about. That’s the last thing you want! Do whatever you can to keep your readers connected to the characters, invested in the story, and turning the pages.
  3. It’s unoriginal.
    Seriously. It’s your world, even if you’ve set the story on modern-day Earth. Take a few minutes to imagine your own version of the soda, tennis shoes, or TV show that your characters are referring to! Own your world and show off that brilliant imaginative mind. (Bonus; No one else will have the same reference in their novel, so yours will stand out!)
So next time you’re tempted to slip in a witty line about Downton Abbey or New Coke, stop! And use your imagination to create references that are an organic part of your own world, a world your readers will love and won’t want to leave.