The Power of Empathy: How to Keep Readers in Thrall

Funky 6Hi everyone!! Today, I have a very special post… I am absolutely THRILLED to have Angela Ackerman on my blog! She’s here to talk about character empathy. So, without further ado, I’ll hand things over to her. 🙂

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Gluing readers to the page. This is a writer’s goal each step of the way, from gaining the attention of an agent, to compelling an editor to make an offer, and finally, to enthralling an audience. We strive to make people experience something powerful when they read our words. To genuinely FEEL. To care.

Sounds…um, not easy? I know! Building empathy requires skill, knowledge and practice. Writers must become deeply in tune with a reader’s emotions and learn how to use these feelings to bind them to the story.

 

Girl with booksMake Outsiders Become Insiders

When a reader opens a book, they have certain expectations. They know the book’s genre and the jacket copy offers a peek into what the storyline is about. However, at this point, they are still Outsiders. They have not yet invested in the protagonist or their journey. The author has a narrow window of time to draw readers in and convert them into close confidants. Insiders.

Encouraging empathy is the way to make this happen. When readers are brought into the hero’s or heroine’s point-of-view, they not only begin to understand the character’s world, they actually can share their experiences, something done by keying into real human experiences.

Each of us knows how it feels to make a mistake, to screw up in a way that disappoints others and ourselves. Likewise, we also know what it is like to face a difficult challenge and triumph, proving to ourselves and others that we are capable and worthy. These are two situations out of infinite possibilities that readers will read and recognize because they too have had these experience and felt the emotions that go with them. When a writer shows emotion-bound experiences like these through the character’s eyes the reader connects to them and the character. They remember their own past experiences and it created a sense of shared understanding—brotherhood. And this allows empathy to form.

Empathy is a powerful bond where a reader invests in and cares for the hero or heroine. The character is more than a name on a page; they take on bones and shape, and become someone worth caring for. This emotional investment means a reader will feel discomfort and anguish at the losses and excitement and satisfaction at the wins. Whenever readers find themselves caring about what is at stake, the author has succeeded at making them Insiders who root for the protagonist all the way to the finish line.

 

5 Ways To Encourage Reader Empathy

Humanize your character. Real people have strengths, flaws, and weaknesses. Characters must also have a blend of these. They should be imperfect and make mistakes, but also be likable. Give your hero at least one commendable trait that makes him worthy to cheer for.

Get inside their bones. Make your protagonist believable by giving him realistic desires, emotions, thoughts, and fears that an audience can relate to. These commonalities will resonate with the reader’s own beliefs and feelings, reinforcing that bond. Allow the character’s self-doubt to bleed through to some degree, showing the reader his vulnerable side.

Clearly define the needs, goals, and stakes. Scene to scene, readers must always know what the character is fighting for. Leave no doubt as to what he is trying to achieve, why, and the cost of failure.

Hobble characters through challenges that readers will sympathize with.  Readers bring their own life experience to the book, so use it. Story conflict and personal stakes will remind readers of their own past where they faced similar roadblocks. Pile on challenges, make the hero sometimes fail, but also show growth and successes on the journey.

Never betray the reader’s trust. Writers must know their characters inside and out, and make sure their actions, thoughts, and beliefs align with who they are. If a character acts in a way that does not fit his nature, the reader will feel betrayed. Dig deep. Get to know the character, including what past wounds haunt him. And always plot with intent. Manipulating a character’s choices or actions just to bring about a plot twist or complication will always ring false.

Remember, well-drawn characters are worth the work of developing because they are the ones readers can’t forget…not a week after reading the story, or a month, or a year.

 

What are some of the stand-out characters you love? What drew them to you and caused that empathy bond to form? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

 

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Write Like a Scientist

Hi everyone! Today I’m writing (mostly) about science fiction – probably my second favorite genre. Roughly half of the stories I write are science fiction, and the ones that aren’t usually contain allusions to it. I’m sure all science fiction authors write differently, but there is one thing they have in common: they all think like scientists.

Actually, all writers do this. But for the purpose of this analogy, I want to talk about science fiction first. How do you think Einstein came up with the theory of relativity? How do you think Newton discovered the laws of gravity? How do you think Copernicus theorized that the earth revolved around the sun?

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They all asked questions. Questions nobody had thought to ask yet. And they set out to answer them. That’s what we, as writers, should strive to do. Ask questions that nobody has ever asked, questions that people don’t even think to ask. And then answer them. For example, have you ever wondered why there are twelve numbers on the clock? Yeah, me neither. Not until I started writing. I currently have three books to answer the question, and I plan on writing even more. I can’t tell you anything else about it, because SPOILERS.

Back to science fiction. To write good science fiction, you must first think like a scientist and then quickly leave your scientist persona behind, unless you want realistic science fiction, in which case you should consider being an actual scientist. Consider the famous hyperdrive of the Star Wars universe. What is a hyperdrive? We know basically two things about it: It allows you to travel at light speed, and it malfunctions pretty much every time someone tries to use it. Obviously, I don’t know how George Lucas invented it, but I’m willing to bet he asked a question. Maybe the question was something along the lines of, “What if you could travel at the speed of light? What could enable someone to do that?”

If you write any sort of speculative fiction, you basically get to rewrite the rules of the universe. Many times this involves traveling at impossibly high speeds, time traveling (my favorite), or parallel worlds. But in order to do it well, you have to write like a scientist. Ask yourself lots and lots of questions. Instead of performing experiments to answer them, you must write a book. When I was thirteen, I invented another element for the periodic table. I had lots of questions but knew nothing about it, so I eavesdropped on some chemists in the story I was writing, and I overheard everything they said about it. Then later, I (stupidly) decided to play with said element, and I discovered to my horror that if you touch it, it instantly sends you to another dimension. (Don’t worry, I kept writing like a scientist and eventually figured out a way to get back.)

Now I know that some writers don’t like figuring things out as they go. Some writers like to know everything before they even write page one. I say, good for you, because knowing too much will stump my creativity. But if you’re a planner, you still need to write like a scientist. The only difference is that you answer all or most of your questions before the story’s written.

Writing like a scientist isn’t just for science fiction writers, obviously. If you’re a writer at all, you have to ask questions. It doesn’t matter what you write… you could be writing Harry Potter fanfiction set in ancient Greece with vampires for all I care, but you would still ask questions and seek answers (for example, why on earth are vampires roaming ancient Greece?)

If I’ve learned anything about scientists, it’s that 1) they’re constantly asking questions, 2) they do repetitive experiments to test their hypotheses, 3) they are insanely passionate and knowledgeable in their area of expertise, and 4) they’re often slightly crazy. As writers, we are exactly the same. We are constantly asking questions about our stories. And it’s a sad truth that writing requires repetitive experimentation until we get it exactly right. And I haven’t yet met a writer who isn’t passionate about it and who isn’t knowledgeable when it comes to their favorite genres. And, let’s face it, we’re insane.

So basically, write like a scientist. Ask questions. Seek answers. Observe. Take your time travel pod back in time to see what the Middle Ages were like. Or, better yet, create a time paradox just to see what happens.

What’s your favorite sci-fi story?

Are you a scientist when it comes to writing? (If you’re an actual scientist that would be awesome too.)

Another Year Gone By

Here I am again, another New Year’s Eve, sitting on my bed and wondering why time speeds up the older you get.

I am very much a sentimentalist, and I am also very milestone-oriented. I have certain traditions that I always do on New Year’s Eve. My family always gathers in the living room to watch all the home videos we took over the course of the past year. (That’s always fun, because my dad likes to have a running commentary during ever single video.) Then I settle down for an hour or so of journaling, and I reflect on all the things I’ve done this year, both big and small. I like to outline a list of a things I will accomplish next year, usually very small goals. At the end of my list I write down one big thing I want to do. And of course I stay up until midnight to watch the ball drop. Since there’s no school tomorrow, I’ll probably stay up even later and begin working on my next writing project.

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So what has this year held for me? One the one hand, I set out to publish this year. It didn’t happen. Instead, I’m only barely done with the second draft of the intended book. On the other hand, I’m officially a three-time novelist.

I’ve seen some people choose a word to live by at the beginning of a new year. I’ve never tried that before; instead, I like to look back and choose my word at the end of the year. This year, I think my word was Fire. I like putting fire into all my books as a theme, and it usually happens by accident. This year, God decided to show me what it’s like to lose sight of the fire He’d previously placed on my heart, and then He decided to show me that He is powerful enough to rekindle it again. The Gospel is a fire that burns our hearts, and the desire to share it is like a little flame that grows bigger and hotter the more we ignore the urge to do so.

I always get a little sad when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. (Not that the clock actually strikes, because we don’t have a grandfather clock. I sure wish we did, though.) In the moment where everyone is cheering and fireworks are going off and the huge numbers of the new year are filling the TV screen, I always just sit there sadly. It’s like I’m staring at a huge open space spread out before me. I liked the year we already had. No need to start a new one. If I think about it long enough, I get overwhelmed by the prospect of an entire blank year of calendar pages staring back at me. It’s so empty. Why can’t I keep living in the one I filled up?

Looking back, this year hasn’t been quite as successful writing-wise as I’d hoped. I wrote one new novel and rewrote another. It’s a far cry from publication, but it’s not failure either. Crafting a brand-new novel over the course of a month? I’d call that a success. Creating a cohesive plot out of the jumble of random events I’d piled together? That was definitely a success. I mean a half-success. I’m still not quite finished with it yet. So, it wasn’t as much as I’d hoped for, but it’s something at least.

So even if your previous resolutions look like failures, look for the ways you have been successful. It’s not called optimism, it’s called honesty. It’s never uplifting to dwell on your shortcomings and failures. It will only push you down farther.

You may be asking, do I have any New Year’s Resolutions? Yes. Yes, I do. My 2018 New Year’s Resolutions is: Don’t publish a book. Here’s the brilliancy of it: I’ll probably have no trouble keeping that resolution. Then I’ll consider myself successful for being able to stick with it. And, well, if I don’t manage to keep it, by that point I won’t care because I will have PUBLISHED A BOOK. This particular resolution will also (hopefully) remind me to slow down and take the time to enjoy writing, rather than making a mad dash to what I think is the finish line (and really, publication is NOT the finish line).

I’ll see you all in 2018! I hope you have a lovely New Year’s Eve celebration, whether you’re staying up by yourself, partying with friends, sleeping, or getting so lost in a good book that you don’t notice when midnight rolls around. Happy New Year!!

What did you accomplish in 2017?

What do you hope to accomplish in 2018?

Joy to the World

In honor of Christmas, I thought I would write about joy. Joy through trials, that is. I don’t usually write on this topic, but it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing, and I feel like I should post it. It has very little to do with writing, actually. And honestly, how am I qualified to even write about such a topic as trials and suffering? I’m sixteen years old; how much have I actually seen in life? Not much. How much have I actually had to endure? Compared to some others, not much.

But I want to write this post to encourage anyone who is going through some sort of trial right now. I want to remind you that God will use whatever you’re going through in truly spectacular ways. I know it’s nearly impossible to see in the midst of trials, but He will bring something out of it.

Let me tell you a story.

advent-wreath-3008858_640Last winter and spring, I went through a period of depression. It lasted for several months. Everything was meaningless, even things that used to mean everything to me. It was hard to get up every morning and keep going. Even my spiritual life was meaningless. I knew I should find joy in Jesus; I knew He could help me find some meaning in this thing called life again. And even though I knew that, the depression and the tears lingered.

And God did eventually help me find meaning. He did help me find joy. But that’s not really the point of going through trials. The end goal isn’t to get out of them. God wouldn’t do that; He wouldn’t put us through hard things and then bring us back out of them without letting us learn something.

I was reading through some of my old journals the other day. About six or seven months ago, in the midst of my depression, I was writing things like this: “That fiery passion I felt for the Gospel? It’s gone…. I’m afraid I’ll never find it again. How can I lose sight of my calling now, after I’ve come so far?”

The Gospel is something that sets me on fire. At least, it used to, before everything turned gray and became devoid of any meaning. The Gospel has been the calling on my life since I was a child. I’ve always felt that nudge from God. But not then. It scared me. I was afraid I’d never be able to experience the Gospel and all of its beauty again.

And guess what happened? It wasn’t an instant change. Some parts of it were, definitely, and sometimes God does bring us out of our trials instantly like that. But not this one. This one was more gradual. I couldn’t really see God’s amazing work until I zoomed out. But His work was truly amazing.

This past summer, I had another opportunity to serve at Camp Attitude. I’ve gone with a group from church for the past few years, and it’s always an amazing experience. You get to volunteer there to serve disabled kids and their families, which sounds like a boring way to spend a week of your life. But while I was there this summer, God showed me what truly living looks like. He showed me what joy really is. After long, rough months of slogging through life, God showed me what it truly means to be alive.

That week at Camp Attitude was kind of like God chuckling to himself and dramatically reversing my vision of my life. But He works in smaller, less obvious ways, too. Just the other day, I realized that the first new book I wrote after being depressed for so long was Inferno’s Melody. The whole point of that book is the fire God places on our hearts. Of course I didn’t plan it that way. God did.

Seeing the way God works is what brings me joy. And when people say “joy through trials,” it’s easy to picture third-year Ron Weasley, trying to predict Harry’s future: “So you’re gonna suffer, but you’re gonna be happy about it.” But James 1:2-4 says:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Like I said, I don’t have a lot of life experience. I haven’t been through the kinds of trials some people have. Paul, in Philippians, said he had learned to be content no matter what circumstances he got thrown into. I confess I can’t say that about myself while being honest about it. But this I can say: I have learned that you can have joy through trials, if not during them, then definitely after you see what God has done through them.

And what better time to meditate on it than during Christmas, when Jesus came down to Earth as a human? When he came to face trials for our sake? When he came to suffer so that we’d never have to suffer the eternal wrath of God? It doesn’t mean we won’t ever suffer – in the Gospels, Jesus promised us that we would suffer. But when we do, we can have joy because He has already overcome the world.

I hope this encourages you. If you want to talk, please leave a comment, or send me a private email on my contact page. Merry Christmas!!

Do you have a favorite story about how God has worked through trials (it doesn’t have to be about your own life)?

Are you looking forward to Christmas? How do you plan to spend the holidays?

A Year of Blogging and a Critique Giveaway!

Happy Saturday, everyone! Today marks a milestone for me: I started blogging exactly one year ago! (And yet, WordPress still likes to put a squiggly red line under the word “blog”. I don’t understand it.)

In honor of this milestone, I am hosting my very first giveaway! I will be giving away one (1) free critique of the first five hundred words of whatever you’re writing. I’ve seen so many critique giveaways lately, it’s like everyone’s in on it or something. So I thought I’d join in. You can find more details on how to enter at the bottom of this post. But first…

one year of blogging

After one year of blogging, my three most popular posts are…

My Crazy Writing Life (which, coincidentally, was my very first post)

#NaNoPrep: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome + Giveaway!! (the giveaway has long been over, unfortunately, but you can still read the post!)

Introducing: Inferno’s Melody (which is probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever posted)

And just for fun, I’ll also share my fourth most popular post, because it happens to be one of my personal favorites:

An Analysis of a Story. (I love writing about stuff like this.)

Man, I have learned so much by blogging. You’d think it’s just a fun way to be able to write and share my thoughts with the world, but no. It’s hard. I’m the type of person who doesn’t eagerly share my thoughts with anyone (unless these thoughts involve conspiracy theories about Sherlock or facts about quantum physics).

By blogging, I have gotten way more comfortable with letting other people read my writing and hear my thoughts. I have learned that perfection is an illusion (unless it’s God we’re talking about), and that realization is primarily what made me decide to (finally) let people read that book I wrote over a year ago. Although it may not seem like it, that was a big step for me. In fact, getting to that point was harder than getting to the end of NaNoWriMo, which is saying something if you’ve ever attempted NaNo.

Blogging is also very freeing for me. Writing is the primary way I express myself, but since stories take so long to craft, all of my thoughts build up inside, and blogging is a way to get them out. Here, I can tell you what I’m learning about God. Here, I can tell you about the reason why I write the stories that I do.

The last thing I want to mention is how amazing it feels to be able to inspire others. I’ve had multiple people tell me that certain things I’ve blogged about have inspired them. I can remember so many times when I’ve read other people’s blogs and felt greatly inspired, and I think it’s awesome that I’m able to be that person to somebody else.

And without further ado…

critique giveaway

The entry form for the critique giveaway can be found below! The form you’re filling out is technically a contact form, which was the easiest way for me to do it, so after you hit the “Submit” button, you will see a little notice that the “message has been sent.” This just means that I’ve received an email notification of your entry. Nothing you submit will be published or visible to anyone but me, with the exception of the winner’s name. 

If you win, you get to send me the first 500 words of whatever you’re writing… it can be fiction, nonfiction, poetry, whatever you want. It can even be an essay or something like that. The only limitation is that it must be completely clean and PG- (or better-) rated. If you win and your work doesn’t meet those requirements, I may have to choose another winner.

If your work is less than five hundred words, I’ll critique the whole thing. If it’s ridiculously close to 500 (like 502), that’s fine too. It wouldn’t make sense to leave a couple of words out.

You have until midnight on December 23 to enter. I would appreciate it if some of you spread the word through social media (it’s no fun if only a few people enter), but it’s not required.

The winner will be announced Saturday, December 23.

Good luck!

 

What’s something new you’ve tried this year? What has it taught you?

Introducing: Inferno’s Melody

Happy December, everyone! I don’t know about you, but I always get really excited about Christmas. I love picking out a Christmas tree, and decorating it with my family, and baking Christmas cookies and making a huge mess in the kitchen. It’s the best.

I like to use December to get a break from whatever story I happened to be writing for NaNoWriMo. You really do need that break, even if you don’t feel like it. I desperately want to keep working on it this month, but I’m taking a break anyway. I’ve got a couple of other deadlines I have to keep track of for other stories.

I wanted to write more posts last month, but, you know, NaNo keeps you pretty tied up. But today I thought I would tell you how it went. I thought I’d officially introduce you to my newest novel: Inferno’s Melody. I have never told anyone about a book two days after I finish writing it. Never. I almost didn’t post this today. I feel very vulnerable, baring my heart like this. But I think this is something I need to say.

Inferno (1)NaNoWriMo pretty much never goes the way I expect. This year, I’d expected it to be an epic mad dash of writing day after day and a brand-new story emerging from the smoking ashes. Well, I guess that technically happened, but not in the way I’d expected. You see, this is the third novel I’ve written, and I’ve come to expect the newest one to always be my favorite. I was in love with my first novel until I wrote the second one. And yes, I am in love with the story I wrote last month, but my heart isn’t quite there yet. Ironically, that’s exactly what the story is about.

I’d like to ask you all a question: WHY do you do what you do? Whether it’s writing, playing music, art, or another passion you have, why do you do it? What drives you? Do you do what you do for yourself, or do you do it for someone else? Why do you sit down and work at it day after day, even though it can be extremely frustrating at times? I think all of us have at least something that fits these standards. But what makes us do what we do?

For me, that thing… is not writing. *gasps from audience* I figured that out a few months ago, and, well, I decided to write a story about it. Leave it to me to make my entire life ironic. Now, don’t get me wrong here: I LOVE writing. It IS a passion that I have, and I AM driven to do it every day, no matter how hard it gets. But it is not my greatest passion, and here is how I figured it out:

This passion that you have, would you follow it to the end? Would you live your entire life in dedication to this passion? Would it be worth dying for? Or is it not quite that strong?

Writing, for me, does not meet these standards. Not by a long shot. It’s like trying to compare a candle to a bonfire. It can’t be done. The difference is so great, it just wouldn’t make sense. I found that there is another passion that I have. But I was trying to use writing to satisfy it. It seems to work most of the time, but I think later on, it won’t be enough anymore.

God’s love is perhaps one of the most compelling things I have ever known. And really, I think I’ve always known that. It took three novels for me to be able to say it outright like this, but it’s a theme that’s come up again and again in every single one of my stories:

A man dying for his enemies.

A boy being driven by fear until he finds that love is much stronger.

A girl devoting her entire life to a cause until she realizes that her heart is empty.

They are all the same story, and all of them are about me. No, I have never died for my enemies. But I would, if my passion led me there.

Yes, I have been driven by fear. It’s a terrifying ordeal. The thing that finally set me free was the Truth – and I promise, love is much stronger than fear.

Have I ever devoted my entire life to a cause, then realized my heart was empty?  I’m praying that I won’t.

You see, all of these characters had to discover something. They had to discover their passions. They had to discover love. When I say “love” I hope you aren’t envisioning the sappy, romantic love portrayed in the media – I hope you’re envisioning a desperate madness that extends far beyond the boundaries set up by this world. Yes, I have experienced this kind of love before. I have a Savior who loves me like that, more than I could ever imagine. And He has allowed me a very small taste of what it’s like to love someone or something else like that.

I want to say right now that whatever happens, I will always proclaim God’s name. I will always extend the message of his love to everyone else. Because this is what compels me, and this is what drives me. God’s love is burning inside of me like a blazing inferno, too hot and too bright to keep shut up inside.

Its melody is intoxicating, and I will always sing it for the world to hear.

Inferno’s Melody is not just a story. It is real.

I really want to hear what your passion is. Why is it so compelling to you?

Getting Into the Writing Zone

NaNoWriMo is officially halfway over! And I officially no longer have any idea what I’m writing about! But that’s the fun of it, right? I definitely think so. In fact, I’m starting to think that it’s my favorite thing about NaNo. Because normally, I would get stuck in a rut if I didn’t know where my story was going, but during NaNo, it feels good in an I-really-hate-my-writing sort of way to be able to see an entire book unfold right before your disbelieving eyes.

Anyways, the only reason I’ve actually survived NaNo this long is because I have found a foolproof way to trap that elusive fairy we all like to call The Writing Zone. No idea why I just used that strange metaphor there… but it fits. I have heard multiple people I like to call “experts” say that real writers don’t NEED to get into a writing zone to be able to write. Real writers should be able to write anytime, anywhere. In bed at midnight. In a crowded coffee shop. On a yacht stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At your desk at school when you’re supposed to be taking a science test.

I get why people say that, because, let’s face it: when you’re a bestselling novelist, you won’t always be able to crawl into an obscure corner of your room, put on your superhero cape, and pen your thoughts with your favorite purple pen. But hey, this is NaNoWriMo, and the point is to get the words written, no matter what it takes. And if you have to wear a superhero cape to be able to get into the writing zone, then I guess the experts will just have to rethink their philosophies.

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I have several things I do to get into my personal writing zone, and for each writer, it’s probably different. But I’ll share some things with you, because they’re general enough to be applied to everyone.

1. I always write on the floor, at the end of my bed. It’s less comfortable than sitting on my bed, and that’s important, because I might be tempted to curl up and fall asleep. I’ve written in bed before, and woken up at three in the morning with my light still on, and my notebook or laptop still open. More than once. So now, I rarely (if ever) write in bed, or in any place I might want to sleep.

2. Pray. I’m trying to get into the habit of praying before every writing session. It refocuses my mind and gets me thinking about why I’m writing at all. Rather than merely writing the story for the story’s own sake, or writing because I enjoy it, or even writing in order to complete the most well-known international writing challenge, I am writing for my Creator. He gets all the glory. Not me.

3. Here is where the real magic begins: music. I like to listen to the same song every single time, and do you know what that has done for me? It’s rewired my brain somehow, and now every time I hear that song, my brain instantly goes into its writing zone. You may be asking, “What is this magic song?” Well, it’s not just one… I actually have several, depending on what story I’m working on. Pick one that you like, one that inspires you, and most importantly, one that won’t distract you. I’m one of those crazy people who can actually write with lyrics in the background. Yes, sometimes I do end up accidentally writing the lyrics, but if it happens, that’s okay. What do you think the backspace key was invented for?

4. Drink tea. Drink lots and lots of tea. Tea is for me what coffee is for other writers. My mom and I have an entire hoard of tea sitting in the pantry in the kitchen. I could probably drink a cup a day for an entire month and never have the same kind twice. I like to sip on something hot while writing. I think it feeds me ideas. If you don’t like tea, don’t skip this step. Just substitute your favorite hot drink, like coffee or hot chocolate or cider or whatever you want. It’s November, and hot drinks make you feel all warm and cozy in your little writing zone.

5. Write in the dark. No idea why I like to do this. Maybe it eliminates all other possible distractions, like that Harry Potter book sitting so invitingly on my bookshelf, or my half-finished drawing of my side character’s brother’s girlfriend’s neighbor’s archenemy. I think the dark also helps me feel cozy and snug in some weird way. (I think I’m seeing a theme here.) I like how the only thing illuminated by my flashlight is my notebook in front of me.

6. Wear a bathrobe. It makes you feel warm and cozy, and it goes perfectly with your tea and the dark. I mean, you don’t have to wear a nice, warm, soft, fuzzy bathrobe, but Sherlock Holmes went around in his flat in his dressing gown, and he solved all his toughest cases that way. There may actually be some scientific facts behind this. I’ll have to look into it after NaNoWriMo’s over.

And that’s it. That’s how I get the day’s words written. Sometimes I change it up a bit, but if I’m running short on time and I NEED to get writing done, this is what I’ll do. Feel free to let me know about your writing routine in the comments!

Oh, and since we’re on the subject of NaNoWriMo, I’d like to take a moment and fill you in on the novel I’m writing. You can read about it extensively here, but if you’ve already done so, you know that the tentative title was Grandmother’s Secret. Today, I am pleased to announce the actual title: INFERNO’S MELODY. Don’t ask why I named it that. I just did. I’ve also updated the plot summary on my “Stories” page, so definitely give it a read!

How is NaNoWriMo going? Do you have a specific writing routine you like to go through?

The Universal Truth

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

No, not that kind of universal truth. I’m pretty sure the above statement isn’t even true. Mrs. Bennett thought it was, but most of what she says is nonsense anyway, so we shouldn’t use her words as life advice. Today I’m here to talk about a different kind of universal truth. I apologize in advance if I ramble a bit, or if I use the same word four times in the same sentence. NaNoWriMo just started, and my thoughts are everywhere right now.

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I first learned about the Universal Truth from a wonderful lady named Kay Strom. (Her books are excellent, by the way.) According to her, a Universal Truth is like a theme, but it is way more specific. Stories, as you probably know, usually have a theme, that is, a recurring topic the book keeps touching on. It answers the question “What is this book about?”

Universal Truths are usually specific statements or messages about the theme. For example, let’s choose a common theme and look at how it’s presented in different books. I’m going to choose the theme of redemption, because that’s my favorite one. Right off the top of my head, two series (what is the plural of “series?”) with this theme are: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, and The Mission League by Jill Williamson. (I have not finished The Mission League series yet, so NO SPOILERS PLEASE!) Literary critics could analyze these two series and find a plethora of different themes present, but redemption is definitely present in both, so that’s the one I am going to use.

In Harry Potter, a recurring message we see over and over again is this: “Redemption usually requires a selfless act of love.” You know, when Lily did that thing to save Harry, and then later Harry did that thing to save other people. We also get a beautiful contrast between Harry and Voldemort – so similar, yet so different.

In The Mission League (or at least in the first book), we see a totally different statement: “God will keep pursuing you, no matter how long you try to run from him.” Like, throughout the entire first book, Spencer wanted nothing to do with God, but God kept showing up everywhere around him, and eventually Spencer couldn’t ignore it anymore. We also get an interesting contrast here with the villain, but I’m not gonna spoil it for anybody. Plus, who knows how it turns out in the rest of the series.

Both of these series have the same theme, but what they’re saying about them is different. And that is what makes a Universal Truth, my friend.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Universal Truth I’m presenting in my story. It was hard at first, because I’m a pantser who doesn’t know squat about the story before I start writing it. As it turned out, I couldn’t pin down my Universal Truth until I had experienced its trueness firsthand. Oh, it was definitely present in the story – I just couldn’t see it yet.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

-1 John 4:18a

That’s it. A simple statement, not even a full verse. It’s a Bible verse that I’ve known since childhood. Of course I’ve always believed it’s true. But up until recently, I hadn’t actually seen it applied to a real-life situation.

The thing about Universal Truths, to me at least, is that a story wouldn’t be worth anything without one. In the tens of thousands of words that make up my book-in-progress, 146 of them make up a paragraph towards the end. And this one paragraph is where the Universal Truth is revealed. Without this one paragraph, none of the other words matter. Without the Universal Truth, the story is nothing, the characters struggled in vain, and I wasted an entire year of my life writing an empty story.

Even though all stories have a climax, where the tension has never been so high, and everything finally comes together, the Universal Truth is like a climax of its own. Even if it’s woven all throughout the story, there is always a place where the reader stops and says, “Oh. This is what I’ve been reading about. This is what the author wanted to say to me.”

Kay Strom says that Universal Truths should always point to God. They should go beyond the story itself as they transfer the author’s passion to the reader. And really, isn’t that the reason authors write at all? Because they are passionate about something, and they want the world to see it too?

Is there a Universal Truth in your story? How is NaNoWriMo going (if you’re doing it)?

#NaNoPrep: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome + Giveaway!!

Hi everyone! Today I have a very special post as part of the Writers Persevere event that authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are running for the next few days to celebrate their newest book, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma. This book looks at the difficult experiences embedded in our character’s backstory which will shape their motivation and behavior afterward.

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To help them celebrate this release, many of us are posting stories about some of the obstacles we’ve overcome as writers. (I also posted about this on Sunday… if you haven’t had a chance to read about overcoming fears, you can do so here.) As we all know, this isn’t an easy path. Writing is hard and as writers we tend to struggle with doubt. Sometimes too, we don’t always get the support we need to follow our passion, or we have added challenges that make writing more difficult. Because people are sharing their stories this week about how they worked through these challenges to keep writing, I wanted to post about it too.

When it comes to a character’s past (which The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is all about), there is a common problem: the character can’t seem to move past it and change. Ironically, we as writers are prone to the same problem. We feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, and that we’ll never move past the difficult stage we’re in right now. In other words, we feel like impostors. We are constantly presenting our identities as writers to the world for it to see, but when it comes down to it, do we really know what we’re doing?

I realized something yesterday (and I’ve realized it before, but yesterday it really hit me hard). In the three years or so that I’ve been seriously pursuing writing, I have grown. A lot. I laugh every time I remember writing the beginnings of my first novel. I barely knew how to structure a plot, much less map out a character’s growth. I remember getting frustrated because my characters weren’t complex enough to make that neat little chart that shows the steps of a character arc. That feeling lasted for a long time, too. I felt like I couldn’t move past it. 

And now? Character development is my favorite! For my WIP, my main character’s journey was practically the thing that made me want to write the story in the first place.

I also remember my first time trying to edit a draft of a novel as a whole, rather than fixing specific things as I spotted them here and there. I got so bogged down. And now? Now I’m nearly finished with the official second draft of Twelve, and it will be complete by Christmas break. At least, that’s my plan. My deadlines tend to get pushed back.

I have found that the cure for Impostor Syndrome is to just keep writing. You will improve, trust me. But you won’t be able to see any improvement unless you compare where you are now to where you were sometime in the past. So don’t get hung up on what you don’t know now. Instead, look at the things you didn’t know a year ago. And keep writing.

I’d like to give a huge shout-out to Angela and Becca, because I have been following their blog and reading their books for three years now, and they have taught me so much about writing. Like I said a minute ago, you have to keep writing in order to improve your craft. That’s not the only thing you can do, however. You can also learn from professionals – people who have been where you are now, and know exactly what you need to learn.

I highly recommend all of their thesauruses (thesauri?), but The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is by far my favorite. And that is saying a lot. It has taught me much of what I know about character development. You can use it throughout all stages of the writing process, too. If you’re just starting to plan out a character’s journey, it has tons of tips and ideas to get you started. And if you already know everything about your character’s journey, this book will help you go deeper still.

As you can probably tell, I’m really excited about the release of this book, so please join me in celebrating! Do you have a story to share, or some advice for others? You can join Becca and Angela at Writers Helping Writers from October 25-27th, where we are celebrating writers and their stories of perseverance. Stop in, and tell them about a challenge or struggle your faced, or if you like, write a post on your own blog and share it using the hashtag #writerspersevere. Let’s fill social media with your strength and let other writers know that it’s okay to question and have doubts but we shouldn’t let that stop us.

Giveaway Alert!!

There’s a prize vault filled with items that can give your writing career a boost at Writers Helping Writers.

I would love for one of you to win something that will help you get closer to your goal!

The giveaway is only from October 25-27th, so enter asap. And don’t forget to share this using the #writerspersevere hashtag so more prizes will be awarded!

Do you have a story to share, or advice for others?

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#NaNoPrep: Overcoming Obstacles as a Writer

“What have I gotten myself into?”

That’s the question I asked myself last year after I signed up for NaNoWriMo. I was kind of like all of my characters at the beginning of the book, you know? They all just kind of got involved in this humongous plot thinking it would be a fun adventure. Nope. Right before their would-be adventure started, they had second thoughts. But it was too late to back out. Either that, or they were there for a purpose, and their purpose was greater than their fears.

That’s what I want to talk about today. What to do when you hit obstacles (and this doesn’t have to apply only to NaNoWriMo). Not so much the physical obstacles, but the mental obstacles. When you doubt yourself. When your goals are too big to keep pursuing. When you realize you’ve set yourself up for certain failure.

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Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

First of all, there’s no such thing as certain failure. Even when you’re a little hobbit carrying an evil ring into Mordor all by yourself. So, tip #1: Stop telling yourself you’ll fail.

You never know what you’re capable of until you try things. Seriously. Think about it. Say you’re a slow writer (like me). Say you’re a perfectionist (also like me). These two things by themselves are not all bad, but when both of them apply to you, it can take forever to get just the first draft written. Statistically, it’s actually impossible for you to write 50,000 words in one month. How are you going to do it?

Boundaries are key. If you’re anything like me as a writer, you’re constantly setting boundaries for yourself. Just to name a few, you say you can’t write a certain type of story. You say you can’t write enough words in enough time. You say that writing one book is hard enough, so how are you ever going to write a sequel to it?

Most of the time, these boundaries are flimsy walls that you’ve set up unknowingly. And you don’t find that out until you try to break them down. Speaking in terms of NaNoWriMo, if you don’t manage to write fast enough, who cares? You’re still writing! And chances are, you’re a better writer than you were when you started! And that is a reason to risk failure.

But wait. There are more obstacles out there. What about that other looming fear? The fear of rejection? After you get past your initial fear of failure and decide you’re going to try anyway, you run straight into another fear. What if no one else likes what you wrote?

Take J.K. Rowling, for example. Everyone knows who she is. I didn’t even have to tell you what book she wrote. It’s a little-known fact, but multiple (not just one) publishers rejected her manuscript before she finally got it published. And look at Harry Potter now. You may think that everyone loves it because it’s so popular, but that isn’t true. There are crazy people out there who don’t like it. (If you’re one of those people, no offense was meant.) The moral of the story is, even if you’re J.K. Rowling, you still have critics who don’t like your writing. There’s just no way to please everyone. 

For me, the fear of rejection is way harder to deal with than the fear of failure. In fact, I’m so afraid of rejection, that I hesitate to share much of the story I’m writing with anyone, even with my close friends and family. However… I did do something brave and create a new page for my blog dedicated entirely to all of my writing projects.

I’ve found that the best way to combat the fear of rejection is by just letting people read it. Stop editing to make it perfect and just let people read it. (Yes, hello to all the people I’ve promised to let read my manuscript: I will follow my own advice. My manuscript has a few holes in it, and unless you want to be really confused, you don’t want to read it yet.) Until you’re ready to query an agent or to self-publish, your manuscript does not have to be perfect. And, let’s face it. Even when it is published, it won’t be completely perfect.

I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to obstacles in writing, and there’s no way I can address all of them in one post. Besides NaNoPrep, I had another reason for posting this today. On Wednesday, I will have a very special post. This one serves as sort of an introduction, a prelude. I won’t be talking specifically about fears, but the topic will be similar. So stay tuned! I will also make sure to announce it on Facebook when I do post it. In the meantime, let’s talk about obstacles.

What’s the biggest obstacle you face while writing? Do you have any experience dealing with fear?

 

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