#NaNoPrep: Last-Minute Panic

AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH! (<– me screaming) NaNoWriMo starts in THREE DAYS!!! And guess who’s been slacking on their #NaNoPrep posts?? Yep, you guessed it. Me. I had a good reason, though. I was on vacation.

So what do you do when you realize November is literally right around the corner? Well…

KEEP CALM

No. Please don’t freak out. It only gets better from here.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. A quarter of the way through November you’ll hit a wall and feel like giving up. Your characters won’t talk to you, your plot has worn seventeen holes in itself, and worst of all, you’re five thousand words behind schedule. You think Halloween is the perfect time for horror movies? WAIT TILL NEXT MONTH. YOU’LL BE LIVING ONE.

Okay but also:

  • You are embarking on a journey only the bravest dare begin
  • You are defying all odds and achieving the impossible
  • You are pushing past what you thought were your own limitations
  • You are stretching yourself and growing because of it
  • You are finishing what you started
  • You are writing an entire NOVEL in a MONTH

Doesn’t that sound nice? Take it from me. I’m not a NaNo veteran, this is only my third year participating, but NaNoWriMo can be a game-changer when it comes to your writing habits. There is something very satisfying in not giving up. And the satisfaction is purely a personal one – when you realize what you’re actually doing, you feel a great sense of accomplishment. And if it’s hard to keep going, even better. Just don’t give up.

And it’s okay to freak out a little bit. In fact, it’s probably necessary. That’s why NaNoWriMo works the way it does. The intensity is so high, the odds are so impossible, that you don’t even care anymore. At some point, you stop caring that the story is crap and you write it anyway. Maybe it’s just my personality, but when something is impossible, it makes me try even harder. And I usually find out that whatever the thing was wasn’t so impossible after all.

last-minute panicI actually think that this is among the more important topics during NaNoPrep. I’ve seen maaaaaaaany posts about how to get your story ready, but almost none about how to get your mind ready. NaNoWriMo is like running; the hardest part is in your mind. It’s psychological.

Logistically, it’s not that hard (and it’s a lot less physically exerting than running) – you can set aside an hour or so a day for writing. And… that’s it. It’s as simple as rearranging a few things on your schedule and sitting down and focusing.

The rest of it is in your head. Most of it’s determination. Confidence is also helpful, but not 100% necessary. How determined are you to finish?

Notice what I said there? I said finish. I didn’t say win. Winning is awesome, but finishing is an even nobler goal. To win, you have to write 50,000 words by November 30. But to finish means to keep going. Even if you fail. Even if you don’t win, will you keep writing, or will you give up and never go back to the story again?

NaNoWriMo is just the beginning of a book-writing journey. I like it because it forces me to get the story down on paper, a process that would take months under normal circumstances. It’s more motivating, too! Imagine trying to run a marathon by yourself instead of with a bunch of other people.

So there it is. No matter where your story takes you next month, no matter how much your characters hate you, don’t give up. I’ll be honest with you. It’s hard. Exhausting. You will ask yourself why you ever signed up for it. But the reward of seeing yourself finish is so worth it. And when it’s over, you’ll realize that the impossible wasn’t so impossible after all.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?

How do you overcome mental obstacles for writing?

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The Pitiable Antagonist

Gollum. The Phantom of the Opera. Draco Malfoy. Severus Snape.

What do all of these have in common? They’re all antagonists, of course.

And, probably, we have another emotion associated with them besides hate.

Sometimes, we love to hate the villain (Umbridge, anyone?). If they’re evil enough, we might love being terrified. Occasionally, we might even decide we love them, in a weird sort of way (Moriarty!!!). But it is rarer to pity the villain. Why?

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Well, first off, pitiable villains (or antagonists) aren’t right for every story. Certain stories may require certain sorts of villains, depending on the plot and the themes present. I’m going to skip giving you an explanation and assume you can decide for yourself what kind of villain you need. Let’s say you want to create a villain your readers will develop a certain empathy for…

1. Backstory. Please don’t make this a clichéd backstory; we don’t need another villain who is incapable of love because of some dark event from his past. (That is to say, it’s not wrong to write a backstory like that, I just think it would be neat if you were more creative.)

snape2Backstory is key, because that’s usually what makes us pity the villain in the first place. Think how much our attitude changed toward the Phantom once we learned what happened to him. And Snape. I actually hated Snape for the first 6 ¾ books. And even when Harry learned his whole backstory, I still didn’t like him… but there was an empathy present that I had never had for him before.

2. Empathy is different than pity. I know I sometimes use the words interchangeably, but honestly they’re different. Empathy is being able to understand another person, to feel their emotions even. Pity is feeling sorry for someone. A lot of times, the two go hand-in-hand.

But when it comes to villains, empathy is usually already present (or should be). We need to be able to empathize in at least some way with the villain, even if we don’t agree with him or approve of his moral choices. We don’t have to love him, we don’t even have to pity him. But give the villain something the readers will identify with; it can even be something as small as being addicted to bacon (because isn’t everyone addicted to bacon, deep down?).

Pity, when directed toward the villain, plays a completely different role than empathy. Pity unlocks something in our hearts that allows us to feel compassion for someone whom we thought was unlovable. Of course, everyone experiences emotions differently, but I think that’s what generally happens.

For example, Gollum. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a villain, but he’s definitely not a loyal sidekick either. He lies and deceives, and even goes so far as to try to get Frodo killed. Plus, he’s after the Ring, which is never good news no matter who you are. But Gollum is also a very tortured character, twisted and demented by his lust for the Ring. He was not so different from a Hobbit once, and the Sméagol side of him still longs for the way things used to be.

3. Make sure pity doesn’t take away the villain’s strengths. Unless that’s the whole point you’re doing it, of course. Every character has a mix of both strengths and weaknesses. It’s really easy to give the villain too much strength and not enough weakness, but pity can sometimes have a way of flipping that around.

For example (and this is a completely unofficial, off-the-record statement) my villain has… certain persons involved with his backstory that have not yet… been revealed. In fact, I haven’t even decided if I want to write it that way or not. But just plotting out my poor villain’s tragic past has made my pity meter start beeping like crazy (actually, I think it exploded once, it was so bad). Unfortunately, if I choose to actually write about said events, I’m going to have to find a way to not completely strip my villain of everything that makes him the depraved, fearsome, epic bad guy that he is.

That’s all the tips I have for you today, but I love villains (especially when they give you the feels), so I might just have to start writing more about them.

Do you have a favorite villain that you pity?

(Or a favorite villain in general?)

The Writing Bubble

Ah, here we are, at the very end of summer. It sure went by fast. School’s about to start (if it hasn’t already), and it’s almost the season for pumpkin spice and apples and crunchy orange leaves and NaNoWriMo. Perfect time for writing, if  you ask me. It’s very cozy to sit in Starbucks with your laptop and the rain drizzling down the windowpane and the steam from your latte warming your face.

Writing is interesting in that it has bubbles. You know what I mean. Genres, audiences… the like. Lots of people will tell you to stay in your bubble, but those people are only concerned for your public face and not your actual self.

the writing bubble

It’s okay if you want to stay in your bubble. Lots of writers do. They find their niche, settle in, get comfortable, and stay there. Personally, I like my little YA Fantasy bubble, but occasionally I’ll branch out into sci-fi or middle grade fiction or poetry. There’s nothing wrong with bubbles, it’s just that… well, if you stay in them, you’re missing something.

It’s just like music. You can spend your entire life mastering one instrument, but by doing so, you miss everything else. You miss an entire world of skills, songs, and beauty. I’ve spent about ten years of my life taking piano lessons, and it’s taken me that long to realize that there is so much more out there. Music is more than mastering one classical song after another. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of other instruments. And if that’s not enough, there is so much more you can do with music. You can compose a film score. You can be in a band. You can become a YouTube star. You can conduct an orchestra. You can write Broadway musical.

The same goes for writing. You don’t have to stick with your genre, for example, YA Fantasy. You could try writing for middle grade instead. Or branch out even farther and try sci-fi, or historical fiction, or horror or contemporary or thriller or romance.

Or, if you’re especially brave, you could venture outside the fiction bubble. Try nonfiction. Write a memoir, a biography, a cookbook, a Bible study. Or… don’t write a book at all. Write movies. Write plays. Write Studio-C-style sketches.

And if you really want to get outside your bubble, don’t use words at all. Write music to tell a story. Paint a masterpiece. Perform a dance.

See, storytelling is so much more than writing. Every author, every poet, every screenwriter, is telling a story. Every artist, every composer, every dancer, has a story to tell the audience. Creativity is a gift, a means to express yourself, to share pieces of your heart. Use that gift. Even though not everyone tries to tell stories, that’s usually what ends up happening.

Think about it. Traditionally speaking, every book has a theme. Every song has a chorus. Every painting has a focal point.

I’m not saying you should try something outside your bubble. But why not? Don’t let fear hold you back. Don’t tell me you’re not good enough. With experience, you’ll grow. Every storyteller starts out as an amateur.

I’ll close with a quote by J.R.R. Tolkien. I always go back to this quote, and it sums up storytelling pretty much perfectly:

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien

What’s your writing bubble?

Have you ever tried anything different?

The Truth About Clichés

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about clichés. Writers are told to avoid them like the plague. They are a horribly awful very bad idea. A big no-no. Clichés are a sign of lazy writing, amateur writing, and all sorts of other writing that you’d never want to associate with.

Think of the young, orphaned, teenage protagonist who is secretly the Chosen One but doesn’t know it until an old, bearded, magical, wizard-like mentor tells him.

Think of the Super Evil Bad Guy who has a bazillion evil traits and zero good ones, who’s so evil, there’s no hope of redemption.

Think of love triangles, dark and stormy nights, ancient prophecies that always come true, and my personal favorite, quests for magical artifacts.

By the way, I am definitely guilty of most if not all of the above.

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So if you’re not supposed to use clichés, what are you supposed to do? Well, you’ve heard it before. You have to twist the cliché. Do something unexpected with it. For example, if you just have to have a Chosen One in your story, perhaps you could give your protagonist a big ego about his special status. Or maybe the Chosen One isn’t the protagonist at all.

See, agents and editors hate clichés. Readers notice them, too. They roll their eyes and might even stop reading altogether, and that’s the last thing writers want. The solution? Be original.

But that’s not what I’m aiming for. I want to go deeper. Twisting clichés is fun and entertaining, and will probably improve your writing, but there is a line that you are not allowed to cross.

People are afraid of originality.

Let me say that again, just to make sure it sinks in:

People are afraid of originality.

We live in a culture that is addicted to comfort, and can’t handle the unfamiliar. We all have our comfort zones, and we are perfectly happy staying inside them. And yet, we get tired of the same old, same old. If we still read books at all, we are absolutely terrified of anything original. Clichés are familiar, something we know. They’re tried and true, they’re safe. Comfortable. Boring, even. So when authors twist clichés, it’s a win-win. The book still holds that hint of familiarity, and yet it’s something different, something fresh.

But when the author does something completely original – well, that’s when people aren’t sure what to think. Even agents and editors shy away. That’s why J. K. Rowling got twelve rejections before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Sure, there are probably lots of clichés in the Harry Potter franchise, but it’s just that no one had done anything quite like that before. No one knew what to think. And now, twenty years later, millions of other authors have been inspired by her books.

But being original – really original – is hard work to begin with. Even if you do manage to create something amazing, you’ll have to deal with rejections and general disinterest. And I shouldn’t even mention the workload. Tolkien spent years writing The Lord of the Rings. Twelve, to be approximate. And that was just one story. Before that, he wrote The Hobbit, and before that, he was developing the language and lore of Middle-earth.

In conclusion, I highly discourage it. Don’t be original. It’s way too much work. It won’t pay off right away, if ever. Stay in your comfort zone, keep your readers in theirs, and everyone will be okay. Twist those clichés, insert plot twist or two, but don’t go crazy with your originality. Stay safe. No one wants that idea that doesn’t quite fit in with anything else.

Okay. Let me say what I came here to say.

Be brave, dear writer. Pursue things that no author has pursued before. Step out of your comfort zone. Leave behind the familiar. Write about things that scare you, terrify you even. Write about things that make you sad. Write until your tears stain your notebook. Write to embark on a journey of discovery. Write a real, honest story, not the watered-down version that people like. And when you’ve finished, take another step, perhaps the hardest step of all. Let other people read it. It will take them outside of their comfort zones, yes. But that’s good. Let them embark on this journey of discovery, too.

And don’t give up. Giving up will be the easiest path, I can guarantee you that. You may fail. But you can get up again. You can keep trying. You may get ten rejections, you may get a hundred. But you can keep writing. If it’s a story that tugs at your heart and won’t let go, God put it there in front of you for a reason, and you had better keep writing it.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) clichés?

What authors have inspired you?

In Honor of Tolkien

Hi everyone, I’m really sorry I haven’t blogged in a while. Maybe I’ll tell you about my Camp NaNoWriMo adventures sometime, but today I have something special to write about. Apparently there’s this thing going around where lots of bloggers write Tolkien-related posts in honor of the release of The Fellowship of the Ring on July 29, 1954. (I missed the anniversary by a day, but who cares.) Therefore, as a huge fan of Tolkien, I will dedicate this entire post to talking about, and fangirling over, his books.

Favorite Character:

Samwise Gamgee.

If you asked me who my favorite character was, I would not hesitate, not in the least. Sam is my favorite character, hands down, no arguments.

Why?, you ask. Well, first off, I always love the sidekicks for some reason. Sam Gamgee, obviously. Ron Weasley from Harry Potter. John Watson from Sherlock. Even amongst my own characters, I love all the sidekicks the best.

I could give you an exhaustive list of all the reasons I love Sam, but that would just lead into…

Favorite Chapter in the Entire Trilogy:

“The Choices of Master Samwise,” from The Two Towers.

(WARNING: SPOILERS)

If you’ve never read the books, go read them the ending of The Two Towers is quite different from the way its respective movie ended. The book ends in Shelob’s lair, when Sam thinks Frodo is dead, so he takes the Ring with the intent to destroy it himself. (In the movies, we don’t see this part until The Return of the King.)

Anyway, in this chapter, we really get to see Sam’s character come out. He’s in quite the predicament: He’s just traveled across half of Middle-earth with his best friend Frodo, only to be attacked by a gigantic spider when they are so close to the end of their journey. He is devastated because he thinks Frodo is dead, and he is torn between his duty to his friend and his duty to Middle-earth. The last thing he wants to do is take the Ring and destroy it himself. He longs to go back home to the Shire. He can’t bear to leave his friend alone in this dark place. But he knows he can’t stay with Frodo; otherwise the enemy would find them both and take the Ring. His heart longs for vengeance against Gollum for deceiving them and bringing them here in the first place. But he knows that wouldn’t be worth it.

I love seeing Sam’s internal struggle here. Deep down, he knows the answer, but he has to wrestle with it first. Eventually he sees that the fate of Middle-earth rests in his hands and that it is his solemn duty to finish what Frodo started. This passage is the reason Sam is my favorite character in the first place.

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Things I Wish Were in the Movies:

(MORE SPOILERS)

-Tom Bombadil and that whole part about the Barrow-downs

I know Tom Bombadil was a pretty ridiculous character who added almost nothing to the plot, but I liked him. I think there were some things which he said and did that were important. And the Barrow-downs, which also added nothing to the plot, were pretty creepy. They were kind of a part of the whole Tom Bombadil subplot, too. I think it would have been fun to see.

-Éowyn and Faramir’s romance

The movies did mention it, but it was infinitely better in the books. The reader sees them get to know each other, and their love grows as the story goes on. It also offers more closure for both of the characters. It’s one of my favorite parts.

-Arwen

Um… Talia? Arwen is already in the movies… duh!

Exactly my point. She was much different in the books. Now don’t get me wrong; I have no problem with the movie’s version of Arwen. It’s just that she plays a lot bigger part than she did in the books. Like I said, I have no problem with it. It just bothers me a little bit.

Favorite Quotes:

I’m limiting this to book quotes. Otherwise we’ll all be here all day. Also, I’m only going to mention my personal favorite quotes, which does not include the really famous ones that everybody knows and loves.

“You can trust us to stick with you, through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.”

-Merry

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

-Gandalf

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”

-Aragorn

“The Shadow that bred them [the orcs] can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.”

-Frodo

That’s all I have for now, aside from the fact that Tolkien has been an inspiration to fantasy authors everywhere, including me. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you in the comments about anything and everything Tolkien-related.

Do you have a favorite character? A favorite scene or chapter? Or any other Tolkien-related comments?

Leave a comment

An Analysis of a Story

Today I’m going to talk about what makes a good story. No, I’m not going to discuss the roles of the protagonist/antagonist; I’m not going to talk about a good plot, setting the stakes, introducing conflict, or what makes a compelling character arc; I’m not going to talk about how to create a truly magical fantasy world. All of these things are valuable to a story and are worth knowing, but today I’m going to talk about something called… well, I don’t actually know what it’s called.

What makes a story stick with a reader?

(Don’t get this confused with what makes a reader stick with a story. Today we’re flipping that and looking at it the other way around.)

What is it about some stories that stick with us forever, while other stories we forget about within a week, even though it was wonderfully written and kept our attention? What common element can be found in all timeless stories, stories that will never be forgotten, ever?

Like The Lord of the Rings. It’s one of my personal favorites, and I think it is definitely classified as a timeless story. In fact, this example works out perfectly, because Sam Gamgee (who is the best character in the entire saga and no you may not argue with me) actually tells us about, in his opinion, what makes the best stories:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something…. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”

He said this to Frodo in The Two Towers, and he is completely right on every point he made. And he stumbled across that element that should be in all stories if you want them to stick with the reader forever.

Readers want to see characters who fight until the end, even though it looks bleak and impossible. Even though evil will win for sure. Readers want to see characters fight for what they believe anyway. They want to see characters hold on to what little good is left. And of course, good wins in the end. Because these characters fought, even though they had lots of chances to turn back and give up, even if tragedy struck or the darkness ruled, the characters fought and they won.

Readers want to see the timeless truths that are written on their hearts. Everyone, regardless of their religion or worldview, knows instinctively about the constant battle between good and evil. Everyone, whether or not they have ever heard the good news of the Gospel, has an internal longing for redemption. Redemption from anything that holds them captive. And all the best stories illustrate this.

We are a fallen race. We know we are lost. We long to be redeemed. And because of this universal need that drives us, the great stories stay in our minds. If a story depicts an epic display of selfless love, or a dramatic rescue, it will affect us. If we are Christians, the story will especially resonate with us because we know about the saving grace of God. If we are not Christians, the story will leave us thinking about greater things, things that are beyond us, wonderful things we cannot even begin to imagine. And it will still resonate with us because we know that there must be some truth in it somewhere.

And we know that achieving redemption is never easy. There is always a struggle, always a fight. Usually there is a sacrifice. The Harry Potter series is another wonderful example. Regardless of whether or not it was intended, there are countless redemptive messages within that series. The darkness keeps pressing in, evil is overtaking everything, and yet there is a glimmer of hope. There is still the promise of redemption. And the characters had lots of chances to give up. But they never did. They kept fighting until the end, despite tragedy, death, and the general feeling of hopelessness. And they won.

See, all the good stories have that element! A fall from grace and perfection, the long fight against evil, and finally one savior who redeems them all and defeats the evil. This is the Gospel. Sometimes at the end of the story we even get a little glimpse of the end of the end – where everything will be made right again. In The Return of the King, in the very last chapter, we see this. Frodo sails away to the Grey Havens, which is a place where there is no evil and no pain. That part always makes me cry because it’s just so good.

Whether we realize it or not, the Gospel is written on the hearts of humanity. We know the struggle between good and evil is real, and we know we need a savior. Sadly, many of us do not have a personal relationship with the one true Savior: Jesus Christ. And yet, these stories still resonate with us. And maybe, one of them will strike a chord within us and leave us wanting more – and maybe we’ll be led to the Savior.

If you take any great story – any story that has stuck with you from the first time you’ve read it – and you analyze it, I guarantee you will find a story of redemption.

I’ve shared my favorite stories with you, but what are some of yours? Which stories have stuck with you? What was it about them that drew you in so much? I’d love to hear from you!