Pub Rants

Category: writing

In fifteen years of researching and writing articles for Pub Rants and the NLA newsletter, I’ve never seen an agent tackle this topic. Many newsletter readers subscribe solely for tips and insights on how to land an agent and fulfill their publishing dreams. But what happens to all those writers—and there are many—who landed the dream and then decided it wasn’t right for them? What made them choose to leave this career?

As an agent who has responded “no” to tens of thousands of writers over the last twenty years, I definitely understand that aspiring writers spend a lot of time and energy on the beginning of the journey. The first steps are mastering writing craft, landing that perfect concept, writing and finishing the novel, and then investing countless hours finding an agent or publisher. I won’t even touch on the hundreds of rejections writers face during this process. Writers in the throes of submissions probably find it mind-boggling that someone who got in the door would turn around and walk back out. Why would a published (and in many cases, successful) author deliberately choose to no longer be an author? Here are six reasons given by authors I’ve known and worked with, and these reasons can be illuminating for aspiring writers.

“I’m a one-book author.”

Some writers have only one book in them. This is not an issue of having too few ideas; it’s simply that these authors said what they came to say, and that was enough. Once their book is published, their dream is fulfilled. Other one-book writers came out of the gate with a literary masterpiece, and either they feel no need to try to top it, or they know how harshly their sophomore effort will be judged by critics and readers. Either way, the one-book masterpiece can feel like a good place to stop and turn to other pursuits.

“My career has run its course.”

One of my authors published five successful novels and one work of nonfiction in a hot trend of the time. When that trend ended, other stories simply didn’t interest her, and other exciting non-writer career opportunities beckoned. She hung up her pen with no regrets. 

“I’m uncomfortable in the spotlight.”

Very few authors can pull a Salinger these days and be both famous and reclusive. Today’s writers are expected to build and maintain a public presence on social media and show up in-person at major events. One of my authors, a private individual, felt constantly exhausted by this expectation. When this author had one tweet go viral, the sudden spotlight made this person rethink the whole writing-career path. With the completion of the publishing contract, this author decided that the publicity side of writing as a career was a deal breaker. 

“The publishing industry is a mess.”

Currently, many conversations are being held in the internal sphere about lack of representation of BIPOC and other marginalized voices. Change is happening, but like all things in publishing, it’s happening at a snail’s pace. For a lot of authors of color, it’s too little, too late. After several mediocre publishing experiences (no marketing budget for the release, odd shelving in bookstores—why would a fiction title be shelved in African American Studies?), I personally know several authors of color who chose to set aside their pens.

“Life got in the way.”

Some authors loved the dream and experienced extraordinary success only to have personal tragedy, illness, or other trials play the trump card. Writing careers sometimes get sacrificed so the author can simply survive. 

“It’s time to retire.”

As hard as it may be to believe, after a long career, some hardworking writers are just ready to rest. People get tired, and that can make the dream less dreamlike.

When that moment happens, it takes courage and strength to recognize, acknowledge, and embrace the end of this life chapter. Just on the other side lies contentment, freedom, and maybe even happiness. 

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

Honoring AAVE on the Page

When you’re writing Black characters, how you use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) on the page will reveal whether you’ve honored their voice or whether you’re using dialect as a gimmick. Here are some things to consider before tackling AAVE.

Structure. There is a right and a wrong way to go about using African American Vernacular English (AAVE). When AAVE is used as a trend, the structure that native speakers follow is often left out. This lack of structure makes it obvious when a writer is using AAVE with little to no understanding of its meaning. Using AAVE without following its grammatical rules is like playing a game of telephone: you can try to recreate the language as you heard it, but you will be misinterpreting a misinterpretation of the original. Because trends come and go so quickly, some writers aren’t taking the time necessary to understand and honor the vocabulary of AAVE speakers before they use it, and it shows. 

Misrepresentation. Recent internet discussions have perpetuated the mislabeling of AAVE. Mainstream media is crediting Generation Z for words that originated in AAVE generations ago. When used as a trend by non-natives, AAVE is seen as profitable, yet when used as a language by its own natives, AAVE is seen as a detriment to professionalism. The labeling of “a trend” and the open-arms acceptance of this robs those who fought to keep the language alive—despite consistent attempts of erasure—of due credit and accolades. This trend isn’t raising awareness or recruiting allies for the fight for recognition, as some argue. Instead, this trend is mislabeling coined AAVE words as “internet slang,” giving credit where it is not due. 

The source from which you learn a language is evident when you’re utilizing it. Beginning with an authentic source exhibits true allyship and the necessity for understanding.

What does this mean for fiction writing?

Non-black authors can write Black characters. There are many great examples of how this can be executed well. For example, Emmett Atwater from NLA’s own Nyxia by Scott Reintgen is a very well-thought-out character who isn’t presented like a trend. Emmett and his interplanetary journey created a different story and point of view because Emmett was Black. His blackness extended outside of his description. And more importantly, his purpose existed independent of his white peers. 

A non-black writer truly needs to justify the language they use when writing characters like Emmett. AAVE isn’t just a set of sounds, words, or phrases—it’s a fully formed language that many of its native speakers have been forced to discontinue. AAVE isn’t recognized as an official language. It’s often called “broken English” and is forced out of young Black kids in school. They are taught that they speak incorrectly and must convert to Standard English in order to move forward. Safe practice of AAVE requires a proper time and place. This must be reflected in how Black characters are written in fiction. Thinking of AAVE as a trend disregards this. Trends come and go, but a language native to so many important voices must be approached with the patience to understand. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Jernej Furman

Author Bio: In 2016, Tallahj Curry joined the NLA team as a sixteen-year-old intern. Now, five years later, she has earned her Bachelor of Arts and now works as the Literary Assistant at NLA handling the newsletter alongside her other work.

Fan Favorites and Likability

This month, we asked three NLA authors about their fan-favorite characters and what makes them so likable.

Which of your characters is a fan favorite? What makes them likable? Is that important? Why or why not?

Stacey Lee, author of The Downstairs Girl and Luck of the Titanic

Jo Kuan of The Downstairs Girl seems to be a favorite. As an advice columnist, she is principled, and opinionated in a way that real life doesn’t allow her to be. She also has a bit of a wit, and I think that endears her to readers.

Swati Teerdhala, author of The Tiger at Midnight series

One of the fan favorites in my series, The Tiger at Midnight trilogy, is actually a side character. Alok, the best friend of Kunal, one of the main characters, quickly became the character that garnered fan mail and questions. He also got into my heart as well, refusing to let me push him to the side in the later books. Alok is the type of character who is fiercely loyal but isn’t afraid to take Kunal, his best friend, down a peg or two. He’s also the person in the room who often says what everyone’s thinking. We all have a friend like that, or we are that friend! He’s a character that is really easy to understand and root for in all situations and that relatability is what makes him so likable. I don’t think fan favorites have to be likable necessarily, but there needs to be something about that character that makes people connect.

Celesta Rimington, author of The Elephant’s Girl and Tips for Magicians

I’ve had very positive reader responses about the character of Roger in The Elephant’s Girl. He appears to be quite the fan favorite, and he even made some “Favorite Fathers in Middle Grade” lists on Twitter. Roger is the train engineer at the zoo, an aficionado of “old things,” and the rescuer of the little girl he finds after the tornado. He turns his life upside down to become Lexington’s foster father and to protect her.

Roger is likable because he is both strong and gentle, he’s extremely patient with Lexington, and he shows unconditional love for this quirky young girl as though she were his own. He’s also a bit quirky himself as a man in a contemporary world who restores steam trains and believes in ghosts. I think for my young readers, Roger represents support and safety. For my adult readers, he also represents the memorable qualities in beloved father figures they may have known or admired.

I think that in middle-grade books especially, it’s important to include likable characters with whom young readers can feel safe. A book isn’t interesting without conflict, but perhaps it isn’t memorable without characters the readers would wish to know in real life. And if you want your readers to keep reading, you’ll want to write characters who cause your readers to care about what happens to them.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry excitedly interviewed Quressa Robinson’s client Brittney Morris, author of SLAY and her recently released novel The Cost of Knowing.

How has writing for other platforms, like video games, aided in your writing for novels?

When writing for video games, you have to take the player into account as a second storyteller. It forces you to give the reader (or in this case, player) enough respect to let them decipher and infer things on their own—like tension between characters, etc, which is a great skill to have when writing books too!

How do you go about incorporating supernatural abilities into a character who can still be related to?

Supernatural abilities come with supernatural weaknesses. Mental and emotional ones, not just physical. Relatable characters have strengths, weaknesses, goals, and fears, so I try to make sure those all shine through on the page.

The characters in your books, like Alex, a young Black boy trying to do right by his younger brother, all have a well thought out backstory which many can relate to. How do you map this out before beginning a book?

Thank you! I give myself 24 hours to outline before jumping into drafting, which forces me to listen to my characters as they give me their first impressions. I can’t let myself overthink it, or it won’t feel real. Their backstories, their personalities, even their names, are almost always the very first one I thought of.

What is the impact that you want your books to have?

I want to take a concept my readers have maybe lived with for awhile (one in The Cost of Knowing is “accidental racism,” for example), and show it to them through a different lens, and a different angle, on new terms. I want my readers to think about things in new ways and enjoy the ride along the way!

Follow Brittney online:

This month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Jonathan Messinger, author of the series The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, as well as a podcast of the same name.

You established an audience for your stories through a different avenue. Did you find that made it easier to bring words to a page?

It definitely made it easier. I had over 100 episodes to find the personalities and voices of the characters, and to figure out what resonated with kids, and what jokes or plot lines fell flat. It was a little difficult at first to write for a book, rather than a podcast, because with a podcast I have all sorts of crutches I can rely on: music, sound effects, funny voices. Putting the story in a book meant I had to try to evoke those same feelings just with the words.

What parts of your own personality did you use to write for a young audience? 

When I published a book of stories many years ago, a critic said I had written “fiction for aging hipsters.” I was 27! I’ve never forgotten (or forgiven!) that line, probably because it was accurate. As a 40-something dad now, I’ve aged out of hipsterdom. Writing for kids has meant stripping away all pretense, not trying to be “cool” or “interesting,” just trying to tell a good story that connects with the audience. It’s really allowed me to be more myself and have a lot of fun. I try to pack as many jokes as I can into the story, because that is a very dad thing to do.

What writing techniques did you focus on or leave behind to suit your reading audience?

When I submitted my first manuscript, my editor had me shorten or break up almost every sentence. I got rid of all the circuitous phrasing, many commas and loads of parentheticals. It was a humbling and fascinating process. Because I had written stories for a young audience on a podcast, I could make almost anything work by how I paced or paused as I was telling the story. But on the page, I had to be much more direct. The books are way better for it, of course. Not just for the kids, but on a very technical level, the writing is just better because I stopped trying to impress myself.

What advice would you give to an author who wants to write for a younger audience?

Read the work aloud. You can see how sentences drone on or get lost just by reading it out loud. Also, I’d say read it to a kid. I have, with my kids, something I call “the Lego test.” If I’m reading a story to them and they reach over and start picking up the Legos, I know I’ve lost them, and that part needs to be shortened or tossed altogether. It’s instant, ego-bruising feedback, and it’s very helpful.

Follow Jonathan online:
Podcast
Twitter

Achieving Writing Goals

This month, we asked three NLA authors to give some tips on how they achieve their writing goals.

If you set a writing goal, what are two tips to achieve it? If not, what is something that you do instead?

Alison Hammer, author of You & Me & Us

I’m the type of person who writes things on my to-do list that I’ve already done, just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing it off. I take the same approach when it comes to goal setting.

While I admire people who set stretch goals for themselves, I find I’m much more successful when I have smaller, more achievable goals.

One of my favorite examples of this is a good friend who set a goal to open her manuscript each and every day. She didn’t have to write a single word to meet her goal—but most days, she did. After all, the manuscript was already open and ready for her.

I personally have a goal to write every single day. I believe in the daily writing habit so much that I started a Facebook support group for women writers called the Every Damn Day Writers. Some days that means writing for ten minutes, others I set a word-count goal anywhere from 250 to 500 words or 1,600 words if it’s November and I’m NaNo-ing.

Whatever goal I set, I just make sure that I’m setting myself up for success.

Miranda Asebedo, author of A Constellation of Roses

It’s pretty much impossible for me to dedicate an entire 8:00 to 5:00 day just to writing, so I schedule chunks of time when I know I can be my most productive, and I stick to them no matter what. For example, pre-Covid, one of my “chunks” was from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm every day while my kids were in after-school activities. I’ve gotten a lot of writing done in ballet studios and my car while waiting for them! Headphones are a must for this, but once it becomes a routine, it’s amazing how your brain just switches on to writing-mode without any big pre-writing rituals or anything.

My other tip is a reward system. If I hit a certain word count on schedule, I get to spend some time with the book I’ve been dying to read or the next episode in my Netflix queue that night. It always works!

Reese Eschmann, author of Etta Invincible

When I’m working toward a goal, the thing that helps me the most is to find someone to help keep me accountable. These days that means texting, Zooming, joining critique groups, and scheduling writing sprints with friends, but I’m looking forward to a time in the near future where I can sit across from a writing partner at a coffee shop again!

My second-best tip is that I’ve found that when I’m beginning to get overwhelmed, setting a time goal instead of a production goal (i.e. “I will spend one hour with this project” rather than “I will write 500 words”) takes some of the pressure off and allows me to get ­into a more relaxed, creative mindset! 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dave Herrmann

In fiction craft, it’s a nearly universal struggle for writers to keep track of their antagonists. (If you don’t struggle with this, count yourself lucky. If you do, never fear! You’re not alone, and I think this will help.)

First, note that keeping track of your antagonist is different from developing your antagonist. Development is related to character, but keeping track—knowing where your antagonist is and what they’re doing and thinking every moment they are not on the page—is related to plot. This is the piece I want to dive into in this two-part article.

Before we can learn strategies that help us keep track of our antagonists, though, we have to know what type of antagonists we have, whether they are the right type of antagonists for our genres, and whether they are the direct cause of major havoc in our heroes’ lives. To that end, here is your assignment for this month:

Identify which type of antagonist you have. Is your antagonist a villain/monster, a force, or an opposition character? In Cast Away, the island (man versus nature) and crushing desolation (man versus self) are the antagonistic forces that drive our hero to act. In Good Will Hunting, the kind, insightful therapist (Robin Williams) is far from a villain or monster, yet he’s the opposition character who forces our troubled protagonist to change for the better. Know which type of antagonist you’ve got behind the wheel of your story’s central conflict.

Evaluate whether your antagonist is genre appropriate. The bulk of “good” (successful, memorable, meaningful, etc.) stories, regardless of genre, have both an internal/thematic/growth arc and an external/action arc. (The idea that all stories can be classified as either “character-driven” or “plot-driven” is poppycock.) The opposition your hero experiences in these two realms may or may not be embodied by different antagonists. Regardless, let your genre tell you which antagonist should get more energy in your story.

For example, the hero of a police procedural is trying to catch a criminal (the antagonist of the external/action arc), but he’s also getting flack from his captain, who keeps telling him he needs to straighten up and play by the rules (the antagonist of the internal/thematic/growth arc). Which antagonist are thriller readers more interested in? It ain’t the captain! So give the criminal more energy, regardless of whether you give the criminal a point of view. (We’ll discuss multi-POV stories that give voice to our antagonists next month, in Part II.)

In a romance, the love interests serve as opposition characters for each other’s internal/thematic/growth arcs, which are of greater interest to the reader. The antagonist of a romance’s external/action arc (like the heartless land developer who intends to raze the beloved small-town inn our love interests have a stake in saving) is not the antagonist readers showed up to watch. So give the opposition moments between the two love interests more energy.

Know your genre, and know whether the antagonist to whom you’ve given the most energy in your manuscript is the one that will satisfy your genre’s readers.

Analyze the top five scenes in your manuscript in which your hero is the most unsettled. What is the source of that tension, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, sorrow, regret, anger, etc.? Directly or indirectly, it had better be something an antagonist said or did. If your protagonist is repeatedly experiencing all sorts of intense feelings as a result of circumstances they were powerless to prevent (an electrical house fire, a cheating spouse, the decline of a parent’s health, the loss of a job due to downsizing, etc.), then you are probably still trying to figure out what your story is. Or if you even have a story. That’s because while a life-changing event makes for a serviceable plot catalyst or inciting incident, heaping circumstantial suffering on a character for three hundred pages is not story. Story happens when compelling, motivated opposition happens—and compelling, motivated opposition is exactly what antagonists in fiction exist to provide.

What’s next? Once you’ve worked through these three things related to your story, you’ll be ready for Part II (coming in January): techniques for keeping track of your antagonist. Knowing what your antagonist is up to behind the scenes will, as a matter of course, amp up your story’s tension; make your conflict more believable and immediate; keep your protagonist on their toes and force them to react in compelling ways; and raise the stakes. See you next month!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Tall Chris

Do You Know Where Your Antagonists Are? (Part II)

Imagine the opening of a contemporary YA fantasy manuscript. The heroine is fleeing through a forest at night, chased by a hulking, hairy hellhound with sharp claws and sharper teeth. The heroine trips over a log and breaks her leg. As the beast closes in, the heroine, dizzy with pain and fear, loses consciousness. Chapter two opens with “One Month Later.” The heroine is comfortable in her own bed, a cast on her leg, and she’s ruminating: What did the beast want? Why was it chasing me? Will it come back? How will I defend myself?

This is an extreme (but true—this was submitted by a writer I worked with many years ago) case of a writer losing track of her antagonist. Imagine: The hellhound finds his quarry lying injured and unconscious on the forest floor, and thinks, “Poor thing. I’ll give her time to recover so when I chase her again, she has a fighting chance”?

Antagonists do not cease to exist when your hero’s attention is elsewhere. If your antagonist has time to lean, he has time to be mean.

You might think this is a rookie mistake, but we see disappearing antagonists all the time, and not just from new writers. Multi-published, award-winning authors lose track of their antagonists, too. Or finish a manuscript only to realize the antagonist was an eleventh-hour plot device who wasn’t a significant operator in Acts I or II. If you gave some thought to last month’s article, you’re well on your way to avoiding this trap. Here are some things to try now:

If you’re a plotter, try a two-column approach. Column one is what your hero is doing in each scene; column two is what the antagonist is doing during the same period of time. Awareness of your antagonist’s behind-the-scenes machinations will necessarily affect your hero’s own reactions, analyses, interactions, and emotions.

If you’re a pantser, finish your first draft. Then write a scene-by-scene summary. Now do the two-column exercise. How is your antagonist moving closer to his goal every step along the way? How is he motivated by his perception that your hero in an obstacle?

Write a synopsis of your novel from your antagonist’s point of view.

If your second act is sagging (ah, the mushy middle!), get your antagonist on the page. Make him more active. Give him more complexity as a character. Set a ticking clock for him.

Hold your timeline sacred. Writers whose stories move around in time often have the greatest challenge when it comes to tracking characters. Whether it’s a dual-timeline story or a single-timeline story that unfolds over a long period and regularly skips ahead (“three days later…,” “the following week…,” “after a month…,” etc.), remember that the same amount of time must pass for all characters. We see lots of manuscripts that violate this and create what we call “temporal confusion”—and when this happens, characters start dropping off the radar. For your own reference (not necessarily for the finished book), date and timestamp every scene to keep track.

If the antagonist is one of your POV characters and the reader knows all along he’s the bad guy, you’ve got a couple options. If you’re in first person, don’t hold back. The point of choosing first person is to allow readers inside a character’s head. Take us deep into his dark, twisted psyche, or create empathy by developing his emotionally complex backstory, or both. On the other hand, if you want to set up a twist or reveal by withholding from the reader certain things your antagonist knows or plans to do, then you’re better off choosing third person. Either way, giving your antagonist POV chapters can shed interesting light on your hero.

If you’re writing a single-POV story from the POV of a villain or antihero, remember that opposition is the engine of story. There will still be opposition characters gumming up the works for him, so those are the characters whose movements you’ll need to track.

If the antagonist’s identity is a third-act reveal, then scrutinize everything that came before. What conflicts drive each scene? What conflict drives the central story question you set up in Act I and developed in Act II? Is it clear to the reader how all prior conflict relates to the antagonist’s newly revealed goal and motivation? Did you give readers a fair shake by planting clues that now point to what your antagonist has been doing for three-quarters of your novel? And does the reader understand why the antagonist didn’t just make himself known to your hero back in Act I?

  • If the prior conflicts your hero faced are largely circumstantial (dumb luck that could happen to anyone),
  • if they affect other characters with more oomph (stakes) than they affect your hero, or
  • if they return too often to nebulous fear and confusion (your hero spends too many scenes in the “scary, mysterious things are happening and I don’t know what’s going on” headspace)…

…then your plot probably needs work. Start by tracking your antagonist.

Knowing what your antagonist is up to behind the scenes does not mean your other characters or your readers need to know. Master storytellers hold all the cards and decide who gets to know what and when. However you choose to do it, make sure your antagonist is a card you play often!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dejan Krsmanovic

I wanted to chat this month about something that happens quite frequently in fiction (both published and unpublished), something I’ve dubbed “miraculous knowing.” This is when answers or solutions conveniently occur to a character at key plot moments. It tends to manifest thusly:

• They didn’t know how they knew. They just knew.
• She felt it in her bones. This was the place.
• He sensed it deep with his soul, so deep that he was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he knew exactly what had happened to the woman.
• I had a bad feeling. I knew I was being watched.

Writers of all stripes use this technique all the time. And you can too! But I’d caution you to use it sparingly. When instinct, intuition, and insight get overused—or used in place of the development of a character’s keen intellect, observation, analysis—it becomes “miraculous.” When a character’s knowing is too miraculous too often, readers disengage and stories fall apart.

Humans are intuitive, instinctive, insightful beings. We’re animals. Our survival drive makes us reactive to vibes others are giving off, to that cold prickle at the backs of our necks, to hunches that danger lurks nearby. We intuit other things as well: when someone is lying, how to perform a task we’ve never done, what’s motivating a loved one’s mood or behavior, and so on. Therefore, it stands to reason that characters in fiction would also experience these types of intuitive moments, right?

Sure. However, in fiction, it’s not quite that simple. The human brain demands a different sort of logic from a story (which has a contained beginning, middle, and end) than it does from reality. When a character “senses” or “just knows” more than one crucial piece of information (maaaaaby two) over the course of a novel, that often signals one of three things: incomplete character development, limp plotting, or false tension.

Incomplete Character Development. If you’re writing in a speculative genre, you need to set up the rules. Does everyone in your world have extrasensory capabilities? Only some? Only one? What are the rules? Limitations? Costs? If you haven’t set up for the reader that your character is capable of heightened intuition (and under which circumstances they can call upon it, and what they’ve gained or lost in their lives as a result of this ability, etc.), then even one episode of miraculous knowing can come off feeling like a cheat.

Limp Plotting. Too much miraculous knowing in your manuscript might mean your plot’s in trouble. Look for opportunities to layer in clues that your character will encounter well ahead of the big plot moment when you need them to Realize The Thing. In other words, give them blue and yellow early on so that when they later see green, the reader buys in. Know that any clues you add in are stimuli that your character must respond to in some way in the moment (even if it’s just to think, “Huh, that’s odd”), which might affect how they decide to proceed, which might alter your plot.

False Tension. When a writer suspects they don’t have enough meaty, plot-driving conflict in their story, they sometimes throw in some miraculous knowing to give the illusion of tension. Here are some examples of false-tension scenarios we see in slush manuscripts:

• “She had a bad feeling about this guy”…but the guy doesn’t end up doing anything bad, affecting the plot, working against her, or even showing up again for the rest of the novel.
• “The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. It felt like someone was watching him”…but it turns out no one was watching him, or someone was watching him, but the watcher doesn’t have any plot-related reason to have been watching him.
• “They both felt it from the tops of their heads to the soles of their feet: going into that warehouse was a very bad idea”…but it’s never revealed what they think is inside the warehouse, or what they’re worried will happen to them (stakes!) if they enter.

It’s okay for a character to act on instinct, intuition, or flashes of insight. But if they’re saved too often by “suddenly I miraculously Knew The Thing,” that’s too easy. Think of miraculous knowing as an internal deus ex machina. Can you use it? Sure. But, use it sparingly. Avoid using it because you’re rushing to wrap up a particular scene, sequence, or story. And make sure that if you do use it, that there’s a plot-related payoff. In other words, avoid false tension.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: uberof202 ff

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt