Reading Rec: Survival Kit for Writers Who Don’t Write Right

Overall Impression

5/5 – Even though I’m absolutely not the target audience of this book, I still learned a lot.

Summary

You may be familiar with the terms “plotter” and “pantser” floating around the writing community. If not, plotters are writers who prefer to outline their stories before starting a draft, pantsers are writers who prefer to discover their story along the way, and plantsers are somewhere in between. Those of you who have been around this blog long enough might be familiar with my neurotically overcomplicated outlines, and exhaustive editing process, from when I shared blank templates of both documents. So why then, did I read a book dedicated to the improvisation masters in the audience?

I was curious.

In each of those posts, I tried to clarify that this is just my process. I have methods that work, so feel free to try them if you want. People asked; I answered. Big Blinking Disclaimer: Results may vary. Pass go, collect your $200. I have a goldfish brain so I need to write everything down to remember a thing, and I think in loose webs of connections and pictures, so I need everything externalized in order to put it in order before I start anything. This also applies to real-life in case you hadn’t noticed from my habitual list-making. Doing it any other way sounds terrifying, but it works for TONS of people, so there’s got to be some merit here that I’m missing. Who knows, maybe I’ll try writing without an outline for my next short story, and see how it goes?

If you’re one of these mysterious discovery writers, this book is for you. Patricia McLinn discusses how bad-faith, dogmatic writing advice and industry standards constantly made her process feel inadequate, until she met others like her. She provides useful tools, tips, dos, and do nots for learning how to experiment with different models without losing her own course, and how to think critically about your writing habits to continue improving them. Part 4 is full of advice for approaching story-structure, character arcs, themes, and file organization from a top-down view, arranging the pieces in order once you have created them, rather than building from the ground up. She also includes brain-hacks to motivate yourself to write and how to avoid guilt.

As I’m slogging through my Storge and Runaways revision, I could sympathise with many of the struggles she mentioned, looking back at the story and realizing you would need to completely restructure parts of it to work properly. Even the most detailed of outlines can’t save you from developmental edits and many of her tips helped me think about my problems from a different perspective and unlock new solutions. It was fascinating to hear from a discovery writer how hostile the market is to their process, despite her huge success and dozens of published works. I want to try and make my corner of the internet inclusive and a space for discussion and sharing resources, because we all have so much to learn from each other. No matter your writing style, I highly recommend checking out this book.

You can find Patricia McLinn and her other fiction books (mostly mystery and romance genres) on her website. Thanks for reading this review! If you like my blog and want to support my writing projects, please consider donating to my Ko-Fi. Next week I’ll be sharing a recently edited excerpt from Storge. Until then, Happy Writing!

How to Finish What You Start

This video by Thomas Frank inspired this blog post. I highly recommend checking it out if you have the time! It’s generalized to any creative process, but I want to offer resources and exercises for authors to do to help us finish our WIPs! Many of these are tried-and-true methods for beating writer’s block, so let me know if you’ve tried them before, and how they work for you!

The Problem: Paralysis of Choice

Tell me if you can relate: You sit down for a writing session. Worlds are at your fingertips. You’ve snatched an hour of time for yourself. Crack your knuckles and prepare for the most productive word sprint of your life. Open the document. Open another document. Open another document. Scroll through the last two chapters of three different stories. Hem and haw for fifteen minutes over which one to choose. Consult your writing buddies to decide. Flip a coin. Change your mind because you disagree with fate. Check the clock to set your pomodoro time and… realize that you’ve only got 10 minutes left.

Not you? How about this: You know exactly which WIP you want to write. You fire up the laptop, pull up a blank page, and… now what? Do you write in order? Follow an outline or go swinging into the wilderness of the plot jungle? Should you jump ahead to the scene that’s been festering in your brain for weeks or finish the stalled chapter that only needs two more pages? Which character should narrate? What POV works best for this story? Maybe you should rewrite the entire thing in present tense instead of past. Maybe you need to fine-tune the first chapter. Again.

Solution: Create Self-Imposed Limitations

The problem in both situations is the spectacle of options available to you. To take the best advantage of the time you have and make effective progress on the project, you need some boundaries.

Deadlines/Time Pressure: Writing sprints are great for this, just start small, and challenge yourself to beat your word count each time or compete with friends. I’ve seen them used most often during National Novel Writing Month (which is a deadline itself), but you can use them anytime, and I know several youtubers, such as Kate Cavanaugh and Sarah Sutton who sometimes host virtual writing sprint livestreams. This is also the inspiration behind my Monthly Goals: maybe I don’t write every day but by the end of the month, the words are done. If a plain vanilla timer isn’t good enough for you, I recommend the Forest app/browser extension combo which locks you out of the internet, and Write or Die, which will shock the fear of the reaper into your bones.

Scope: If you find yourself frustrated by tinkering away with the same project for yeeearrs on end, the issue might be that your skills are not yet up to par with your tastes, and you need to go back to the basics. Shelve the epic and get some practice finishing smaller-scope projects. Maybe start a new short story that’s a character study set in your protagonist’s backstory. Write a field guide entry about an element of the world, as if it were an in-universe textbook. Scale down. If you struggle with too many active WIPs, choose one that’s easy to finish and mark it off your list before starting any new ones. The satisfaction of finishing a small project and the brain-refresh of doing something different will also give you more motivation to go work on the big one again.

Tools: This one calls me out specifically. It’s similarly related to the above point about scope. Do you really need 8 POVs, 4 subplots, or 7 books to tell your story? Are 3 outlines and 4 edits really necessary? Can you hand it off to 5 betas, instead of 20? Could you trim down the number of nations or religions or magical schools to simplify the world-building? Sometimes the answer is no – you need to go through due process in order to complete a quality project. Other times, you might overcomplicate things for yourself. Take a step back and decide what’s really necessary.

Restrict Your Ability to Undo: This strategy is to get rid of perfectionism. If you don’t like what you’ve wrote in a session, you might find yourself deleting those words and ending with no more than when you started, even if you’ve been sitting at the keyboard for hours. Perpetual editing cycles are evil traps. This may seem counterintuitive, especially if your typing speed is much faster than your writing, your handwriting is messy, or you struggle with writer’s cramp, but shut the computer. Forcing yourself to crack open one of those fancy notebooks and commit ink to paper will get your brain unstuck and moving forward. Write in pen. Do not cross out. Don’t write on scrap-paper or regular school loose-leaf, in case you’re tempted to rip out the page, crumple it into a ball, and pitch it in the wastebin. You might slow down at first, because you have to stop and seriously think about how exactly you want to word that next sentence for maximum impact, but you’ll be more likely to keep it. Slow but steady forward progress is better than deleted progress.

Peer Pressure: I’m adding this one since it wasn’t originally in the video but I think it’s one of the most effective if, like me, you are a people-pleaser who takes promises very seriously. Promise that you WILL have something done by a certain date, and if you don’t deliver, their disappointment will haunt you to your grave, or you owe them a soda, or something. Starting this blog and my mailing list keeps me accountable because no matter what other nonsense is going on in my life, I know people are expecting weekly posts and quarterly new stories and victorious goals reports every month. Writing sprints are 150% more fun when you can compete with a friend, share your work, and receive immediate validation. If you’re limiting scope, or tools, try submitting your short story to a magazine or anthology, which often have a certain prompt or theme. Participate in something like Inktober or MerMay but instead of drawing, post flash-fiction. Bring your fancy journal and pen to a coffee shop and make sure that you look busy for the passer-bys. That last one might be more weaponized-social-anxiety, but it works for me at least haha.

Thank you for reading! I hope you found this a useful reference. What’s a project that you want to finish soon? If you like my blog and want to support my writing projects, please consider donating to my Ko-Fi. Next week I’ll be sharing a book review of Patricia McLinn’s Survival Kit for Writers who Don’t Write Right. Until then, happy writing!

Book Review: 8 Steps to a Side Character

Overall Impression

5/5 craft book with an easily accessible style that gave my poor frazzled engineering brain a much needed break from academic drivel, extremely useful summaries that made writing his article about 1,000,000x easier, and rock solid advice I will immedietly be adapting into my ever-expanding Storge excel outline.

Content Summary

Step 1: WTF is a Side Character – This chapter explains the kinds of roles a side character can play in a story. Every character is a plot device; they are vehicles we use to tell the story, but side characters have to do their job from the sidelines, which leaves them in a unique position to meet needs we can’t get from our protagonists. Sacha explains the difference between cameos, minor, and major side characters, to help authors understand the amount of attention each deserves.

Step 2: The Web of Connectivity and Theme – The plot, characters, setting, motifs, and metaphors you use in a story all work together to create your theme, regardless of if you know what that theme is. It’s worth building these pieces with intentionality to make sure they thread together as seamlessly as possible. This chapter discusses how side characters can contribute by challenging the protagonist, representing the theme through their choices, or flipping the script as part of their arc. It also talks about believing theme lies vs theme truths, and how you can use these juxtapositions to create complex inter-character dynamics.

Step 3: Flesh and Blood – Why are your side characters here in the first place? Why are they described like that? This chapter unleashes the inner two-year-old to interrogate your cast for their motivations, positive and negative traits, backstories, and the descriptive details that make them interesting and memorable. It also talks about how to pull off flashbacks, surprises, humor to deepen their POVs and hone their voices. But with so much work going into these guys, it’s also important to understand how to anchor them in the reader’s memory so they don’t get lost among a large cast, and how their relationship with the protagonists takes shape. If you need a primer on creating a side character from the ground up, this chapter is a good place to start.

Step 4: Voice of an Angel – Here resides the most useful definition of Author vs Character Voice I have ever found. I always assumed Voice was some nebulous assesment of your writing style that was a pass/fail scenario. You have a unique and interesting voice, or you don’t. It’s impossible to quanitfy and incredibly difficult to intentionally develop if you don’t know what kind of voice you want to have. This chapter breaks down the process in a way that FINALLY makes sense. It talks about how to use a hero lens and split it into action, dialouge, thoughts, and feelings to convey the character beneathe the words.

Step 5: What do they do anyway? – This chapter details the common archetypes that side characters take in a story, such as the sidekick/best friend, mentor, foil, comic relief, etc. Each role covered includes structure tips, mistakes, and both good and bad examples for you to reference when slotting your side characters into these spots.

Step 6: Arc Weaving – This chapter breaks down all the different types of arcs you can give your side characters: Positive, negative, static, change, growth, and fall. It also talks about how to set up the stakes in order to give the story momentum and the reader a reason to keep turning the page. Character development through the story is what makes them so compelling, so knowing now to build arcs that intersect with plot beats is essential to mastering pacing.

Step 7: Killing your Darlings – Following the idea of establishing the stakes, this chapter shows you what can go wrong if they don’t meet their goals. Side characters are unfortunetly, by nature, more expendible than our heros, so it’s important to make these deaths count in order to carry the emotional weight. This chapter goes over intangible deaths – important losses that hurt the character but leave them breathing, and properly putting them 6 feet under. Sacha shares shit and solid reasons to kill characters, how to make them work before, or during, the story, and how to deal with the reactions of the other characters. Following this guide ensures no character’s death will be without consequence.

Step 8: Fight to the Death – This chapter deals with conflict and how to most effectively cause problems for our beloved fictional children. It goes over inner, micro, macro, and story conflict, and how to build tension to the story’s complex to resolve in a satisfying ending.

Final Thoughts

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to take their writing craft to the next level of professionalism, who’s endeavoring upon a 2nd draft, or who’s side characters have hijacked the plot and taken it careening off a cliff. A warning that it’s quite sweary for anyone who minds that, but I think Sacha understands how to write with intention, and the cusses served to illustrate a point, which I appreciate haha. You can find Sacha’s other books on goodreads, listen to her Rebel Author Podcast for more advice from industry experts during their interviews, and find all her other info on her website.

Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll be sharing a Storge excerpt from the perspective of one of my favorite characters, Keenan, who’s a Debilan guard in the Atilan court. If you like my blog and want to support my writing projects, please consider donating to my Ko-Fi. Until then, happy writing! 🙂

6 Ways DnD Has Made Me A Better Writer

This is a random topic compared to my usual posts, but it’s one that’s been knocking around in my brain for a while. I’m currently in five campaigns (that meet with varying degrees of regularity), I’ve finished several one-shots and two long-running games, and have two more on deck for the summer, so I’ve had plenty of experience coming up with whacky characters and navigating the dilemmas that the DMs throw at as. I’ve only DMed a few times myself, but I am always in storytelling mode, so this was really just the natural result of exposure to the clicky-clacky-math-rocks. This is less focused on mechanics, and more geared toward player dynamics and character creation, but I hope you find it useful!

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How To Write Siblings

(This is a republished version of a guide I wrote on Tumblr a while ago that many people seemed to write. I’m posting it here for the benefit of the wider blogging community and for ease of searching because tumblr’s tagging system is notoriously trash.)

There are a few key aspects of the family dynamic you’ll want to keep in mind that will influence how the different relationships form! Siblings can have such a complex relationship that becomes fascinating to see in larger families: they can be best friends and worst enemies, and it’s a criminally underrated dynamic in fiction. Speaking as someone with 4 younger siblings, I’m here today to show you how to build accurate and compelling relationships for your characters.

Parental Roles:

(I’m using the term “parent” loosely, since it may vary depending on the story, but “legal guardian” sounded weird. Y’know what I mean)

Good parents will encourage mutually respectful relationships between their kids, avoid playing favorites, and work to settle bickering quickly and fairly. Siblings might get on each other’s nerves, but they’ll also be friends and whacky in-jokes abound.

Poor parents will either create an incredibly tight bond between siblings (to compensate for the lack of a reliable/safe adult support structure) or will drive siblings apart (probably by playing favorites, creating a bitter rivalry).

Another thing to consider is if both a mother and father figure are present. Kids being raised by a single parent or a grandparent will have a different dynamic than if both were around. Divorce or parental death can be a major traumatic early life event, and will affect how each child relates to their parent and to each other. I can’t really speak to this because I didn’t grow up in a separated family, but research by reading first-hand experiences. If the kids are orphans, or both parents are neglectful, a sibling might step up into the parenting role, creating a complex, co-dependent relationship.

Birth Order:

People will argue about this for aaaaagggess, but broadly speaking, the following personality traits are accurate:

Oldest/Oldest available (when the actual eldest isn’t around)/Oldest Daughter (when the older brothers are useless around the house):

  • Strengths: organized, responsible, leader, probably half-decent at babysitting, cooking, and cleaning, may be a peacemaker between younger siblings.
  • Weaknesses: bossy/opinionated, default center of attention OR invisible depending on the situation, may bully younger siblings
  • With great privilege comes great responsibility

Middle (depending on place in the middle and age gaps, may lean more towards oldest/youngest behaviors in the family dynamic):

  • Strengths: flexible, independent, more laid-back attitude, probably makes friends outside of the family easily
  • Weaknesses: flighty, deliberately annoying, might feel inadequate or looked over in an older sibling’s “shadow”

Youngest:

  • Strengths: “Go-get-em” attitude. They want to run with the older kids, and parents are too exhausted to stop them, so they learn a lot young. If the eldest could stay at home alone overnight at 16, the youngest is probably doing that at 14. Confident. The other default center of attention.
  • Weaknesses: Tag-along, loud/obnoxious, used to getting their way.

When someone only has one sibling, it’s only the oldest/youngest dynamic, and it’s more likely for both to act independently. The parent’s attention isn’t split so many ways, like it would be in a large family, so carefully consider all the interactions and personalities and how they would affect the dynamic between the two. Specifically, if there’s a large age gap, they may function more like only children that live in the same house.

When you have a large family, pretty much everything in your life rotates around the family’s schedule. When are your parents available to take you to X event? Do you have to be present at Y event, who’s babysitting tonight? Each person has a defined role within the family and the relationships reflect that. More people = more chores to be done around the house and everyone would be expected to pitch in, though the elder siblings might share more of the work.

Shared Life Experiences:

How much time did they spend together growing up, and was that a positive or negative experience? Did their family experience a traumatic event? (probably in the protagonist backstory). How did they react and support each other through that? If there’s common ground, they might not talk about it because nothing needs to be said: they lived through it together. Would they hold grudges for old fights, or keep score or favors? What fond memories can they bond over?

Personality Dynamics/Clashes:

Depending on how you built your characters from the above questions, this can be a highly story-specific question to answer, but I’m just going to throw some generic dynamic ideas together inspired by my own siblings and stories:

  • Oldest and 2nd Oldest sisters are mistaken as twins because they’re on the same mental wavelength 80% of the time. Lots of affectionate exasperation and mutual complaining/info dumping.
  • Middle was the youngest for years until a younger sibling was born. Finds themselves caught between youngest “immaturity” and new expectations to be a good example of an older sibling.
  • Two middle kids (2 years apart) bicker as small children but grow into being chill friends as teenagers once they both mature a little.
  • Younger middle has different favored older siblings to go to for different problems when they can’t get mom or dad’s attention (asking oldest for help with school, older middle for help with friends, etc.)
  • The impartial sibiling mediating arguments between overly concerned but justifiably frustrated parents and overly defensive but justifiably irritated sibling.
  • Parents mediating arguments between overly concerned but justifiably frustrated older sibling and overly defensive but justifiably irritated younger sibling.
  • Younger middle and youngest siblings being absolute agents of chaos together, and that insanity factor growing exponentially for each added person involved.
  • The house is just TOO NOISY with all of this chatter, you’re banished outside until dinner time. Go play.
  • The dynamic of: “oh my gosh they’re such a dumbass, but I love them too much to let them get away with this bad decision.
  • Protective of each other against outsiders, even if they bicker a lot: “The only one allowed to punch my sibling is me.”
  • Complaining with each other about their parents
  • So many dumb in-jokes

Communication

If you’re writing a large family, communication is SUPER important. (communication is always important, but especially when there’s a lot of people in the mix). It’s likely the parents have some sort of tracking system in place so they can keep tabs on where their kids are – not to be controlling (though that’s possible if the parents are especially authoritative) but practically, to coordinate rides, and tell when people are going to be home, and figure out what time is dinner going to be (if they eat together), and who’s in the area to do errands, and to check if the kid got to the place safely.

The kids will also learn patience, because they might have to wait around their school for an hour until someone can pick them up. Middle and younger kids are more likely to find friends to catch a ride, whereas oldest kids might just opt to sit in the cafeteria and get ahead on homework, for example. Any older sibling will inevitably help with taxi duties.

In modern settings, that could be a location sharing app or a groupchat where parents say “text us when you get to school!”, or in fantasy settings you could worldbuild a different solution that accomplishes the same goal. The Weasley’s Clock is a great example of this, but you might also have synchronized charms or beacon bracelets or something else that works within your world!

Culture

How does the world treat families and sibling relationships? Do people live in generational households, growing up with dozens of cousins as pseudo-siblings? How much are children expected to respect and defer to their elders, and would you ever find the oldest sibling play wrestling with their baby brother? What kind of coming of age rituals might affect how older or younger siblings are perceived? Do you maintain ties to your family throughout adulthood or are found families common and accepted by law? Family is the most fundamental building block of a society, so once you design how that dynamic works, it can inform other aspects of your world’s philosophy and cultural practices.

I hope this helped you develop the families in your WIP! Before you go, I’d love some feedback on the site and how it’s working for you. Please take a minute to fill out my form and let me know how I can improve. Happy writing!

Free Templates: Outline and Edit Sheet

Hello my friends, and Happy Thanksgiving if you celebrate! I had meant to share with you today an excerpt from Store, which explains the yellow rose symbol you can see around my blog and social media. This scene comes from chapter 12, and I had left off editing several months ago on chapter 10. Since I took a hiatus to work on Runaways, I needed to reread much of what I already completed in order to figure out what to do next. In the process, I started experimenting with a new method to stay organized. Storge is a hugely complicated read: painfully over-ambitious story, with 3 (and a half) subplots (if you count the Avian drama), and eight POVs, so I needed a new way to keep all the details straight and my old word doc list method didn’t cut it. I’m quite pleased with how my new spreadsheet works, but got so carried away in my analysis, and midterms, and hosting our family’s feast, that I never finished the scene.

But I’ve been talking about this incessantly on tumblr, so I’m not wholly without content for you today. I’ve created a blank version of my sheet, which is available here for you to copy and use for your own stories! I also created a blank version of the outline I use for brainstorming my stories. Both of these documents are shared by clicking on the links, and you will have editing privileges. Kindly don’t write in this document, make a copy, then leave the original blank for others to use! I explained how I use my brainstorming documents in this post and broke down the editing process from first read-through to final draft in this post. With the links out of the way, the rest of this entry will is an updated version of Step 3 in the editing process: the Developmental Edits.

The purpose of developmental edits is to change the content of the story to make it as clear and entertaining as possible. In this step, you stitch together plotholes, build up the character arcs, develop narrative foils, track motifs and foreshadowing, keep the timeline and pacing on track, make sure the world-building is consistent, and balance the POVs and subplots to make sure you don’t accidentally forget one for several chapters.

I have several tabs at the bottom of the sheet to keep track of each item in depth. The first page is an overview master plan. I list the individual scenes down from beginning to end, with the column next to that merging several cells together to show chapters. Then I have color coded boxes to show which POV has each scene, and which subplot is currently being followed. That’s also where I have their length in word count and pages, what kind of scene it is, and the timeline. This lets me set up useful formulas and make graphs, even though getting those incremental numbers from Word is a pain. The program isn’t set up in the google sheet, as it would vary for the number of scenes and chapters each stories has, but the option is there for you to use.

To the right are snapshot boxes for each item I mentioned before. Those columns get their own pages for more detail, because my “thinking out loud” rarely fits nicely here. I’ll do analysis on the appropriate page, then write the things I need to fix on the master sheet. This example is from the characterization sheet, but I laid out the others in the same way, changing the column headers and colors as needed.

This is where the thinking happens: I’m an underwriter, so when I wrote the 1st draft, you only ever saw the characters actions as they moved the plot along, but I wrote next to no introspection or “down time” to release the tension where the characters could show their thought process or growth. This process forces me to slow down and compare what I conceptualize for each scene versus what I actually wrote. Readers aren’t mind readers, and this puts me in the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the full picture. I’ve noticed loads of inconsistencies by filling up these boxes. This method works very well for complex or long novels. I didn’t have these steps for Runaways because it only has 1 POV and no subplots, but I’m finding it really useful here. It’s not for every WIP/writer, but for any outline-happy epic fantasy authors with Too Many Things to keep track of, I’d recommend giving it a try!

Happy Writing!

Symbolism in Addie La Rue

I first encountered The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab on bookstagram where it seemed like everyone was discussing the story. This novel hit the NY Times Bestseller List for 37 weeks straight through July this year, and not without good reason. In my opinion, the story more than lives up to the hype, and it is so effectively compelling because of the symbolism Schwab weaves through the narrative. Today I want to discuss three of the most important motifs that make Addie’s story so memorable and how aspiring authors can learn from Schwab’s writing to create meaningful symbols of their own. This will contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, beware of that before reading.

Synopsis:

Adeline LaRue is a young woman living in the small town of Villon, France in 1741, who desperately wants to see more of the world. She feels trapped in an engagement she doesn’t want, and fears the headlong rushing of time, saying, “I don’t want to live and die in the same ten meter plot.” Her faith is torn between the Christian God of her parent’s and the old gods of her elder friend, Estele. On the night of her wedding, she flees into the woods and pleas for some higher power to save her from her fate, and the night answers. Despite Estele’s warnings to never pray to the gods who answer after dark, Adeline strikes a deal with him. At first, she offers a wooden ring, carved for her as a child by her father, but the god doesn’t deal in “trinkets.” They bargain, and draw their terms: immortality in exchange for her soul when she doesn’t want it anymore.

When she returns to the town, she finds that everyone she knew has forgotten her. She cannot remind them of her name, because every time she tries to speak the words, they get stuck in her throat. She cannot write or leave any permanent mark. Any interactions “reset” the curse. As soon as the other person walks away, they forget her again. However, she can steal. She takes some bare essentials and a wooden bird from her father’s workshop before fleeing the town. The story follows Addie – no longer Adeline – between her past through the centuries, and modern day NYC, as she navigates her curse and meets Henry Strauss, the first person in over 300 years who remembers her.

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How To Write Impactful Symbols

Hello my friends, today we’re covering every English teacher’s favorite subject! (cue collective eye roll). Take it from someone who started an engineering major specifically to avoid taking Lit classes: Symbols can actually be a fascinating and extremely effective technique to elicit emotional reactions from your characters and your audience. It’s one of my favorite, but poorly understood, rhetorical tools in a storyteller’s arsenal, so today I wanted to break down the topic and discuss how to write symbols that work.

What Makes The Curtains Blue? Or, When Does Symbolism Matter?

Whether a trait is a symbol depends on context: specifically in its reoccurrence and connection to the themes. A symbol needs to impact the characters and the way they interact with the world. If a protagonist remarks on the blue curtains and they’re never mentioned again, that’s setting the scene. If the curtains are closed whenever a character experiences a depressive episode, and they’re a barrier to the support system of friends and family reaching out to help, then that could be a symbol for the isolation of mental illness. A symbol is normally a physical object, though this isn’t a requirement. If a character refers in the narration to his depression as a “curtain of fog” throughout the novel, but actual curtains don’t affect the story, that would be an example of an extended metaphor or motif, rather than a symbol. So now with the definitions out of the way…

How To Make Symbols Relevant and memorable

Making an effective symbol is half about making sure readers remember it in the middle of all the other plot stuff going on. It really comes down to pattern recognition. One mention makes it a throwaway detail. Two mentions make it a coincidence. Three or more make it intentional. You also want to make sure you include the symbol in a context where it will be the most memorable, like an emotionally charged scene, rather than just setting up the environment. If you want readers to remember, the characters need to care about the symbol, and draw attention to it in some direct way that points out, “this will be back.” It’s an emotional Checkov’s Gun, where if you tie an object to an emotion, we expect the same object to return to evoke that same emotion again, or remind the character of the original occurrence. I’ll talk about this a bit more in the next section, but keep that reoccurance in mind.

It can also be interesting to compare the contexts in which you introduce the symbol is introduced. If an object is a useful tool in one situation, and serves as a damning marker in another scene, it becomes a more complex and interesting element that carries that context forward. When you introduce a symbol in different frames, not only do you draw a parallel between those two situations, you can also juxtapose them to take advantage of dramatic irony. This is the sort of setup-payoff loop associated with foreshadowing, the kind that makes the audience point at the page and go “oh! so that’s how that comes back!” Additionally, in mysteries, these can take the form of subtle clues and red herrings, to point reader attention away from the relevant details. The possibilities are as endless as your creativity!

The emotional impact of motifs and symbols

Not only can you juxtapose the context to take advantage of dramatic irony, you can also draw parallels and comparisons between the character’s mental states. A symbol can serve as a reminder of a different point in their character arc, to showcase how much they’ve grown or fallen since the last appearance. If they tie their emotions up in a physical object, and they bring that baggage with them, literally. It brings the emotion to the present to impact the reader as well. This is how you can create a mixture of anger and heartbreak to create betrayal over an ex’s ring, or bittersweet at a memento of childhood. How does the character react to the symbol when they don’t want it? Would they try to destroy or throw away the memories associated with the thing, or treasure finding it? If it’s something they keep intentionally, how would they feel if they lost it, or had to give it up?

This doesn’t have to be a simple onetime only setup/payoff event. Recurring motifs let you track those emotions through a story, each time growing more complex, harder to define, and more intense. It might not always be relevant, but each time you bring that object back into play, the reader recognizes, “oh! The symbol is back! This is important!” The trade of tension and relief between appearances also helps to keep the story moving as the audience wonders when the symbol will come back again. Does a character reject it in one scene, then rejoice at its return, only to cast it away again when they realize they are no longer tied to the past? Does the villain taunt them with their past failures, only for the hero to reclaim them as their own? These are the powerful turning points that make up the emotional beats of a story, and symbols let you leverage the backstory in a way that profoundly effects the present.

Was this a useful article for you? Do you have any symbols in your stories? Let me know! Next week, I’ll be discussing a book that uses several symbols spectacularly, to show you just how diverse they can be, and just how much range you can get from them. Until then, Happy Writing! 🙂

How I Make a Magic System

Today’s post is an in-depth break down of how I worldbuild the magic systems in my fantasy stories. I talked a little about Laoche’s magic in an earlier post about my process in general, which you can read here. But at request from @abalonetea (a good friend of mine who’s been on this blog a few times before, once in an interview, and once requesting a Trope Talk), I wanted to do a breakdown on how I come up with the idea for a magic system, how I develop it from the first concept, and how I go about breaking all the rules. I’m not going to pretend my method is the best or most efficient way to create a magic system, since it’s taken me nearly six years to piece together, but for what it’s worth, I hope you find this breakdown useful and interesting!

The Premise

I find it most easy to build out a magic system if you start from a really simple idea that you want to explore. I want to create the feeling that you could get lost in this world trying to discover all the different possibilities. For the sake of the story, I also think it’s best if the magic system supports the themes.

For Laoche, I wanted my characters to be learning about their world and uncovering new truths that shake up the status quo, and so I took an almost scientific approach to building the underlying mechanics. There’s so much about our own universe we cannot even imagine yet, and I want my readers to come away from my stories with a sense of curiosity, by following along with the characters as they chase answers. I needed to understand the physics of my fictional universe, so then I could decide how much of that would be hidden from the characters. There are hard and fast rules that dictate the way the world works, but the way individual characters apply their powers can lead to an infinite variety of effects.

Alternatively, Runaways takes place in our world, and the characters explore the hidden supernatural world. Much of the fantastical worldbuilding comes from folktales, mythology, and other stories that have inspired me over the years, and so I wanted a soft magic system that could account for so many different (possibly contradictory) tropes. I needed a system flexible enough to will all of these things into existence, something based on the pure stubborn belief that the impossible can happen. This is a world where stories have power, faith affects the fabric of reality, the placebo effect works, and heartfelt human tenacity saves the day.

The Building Blocks

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on Laoche for this example. The first step once I came up with my premise was to answer the question of “Well, how does this work?” At this point in the process, I’d already started drafting Storge, and so I knew I needed my magic system to work with the story I’d constructed, without introducing any plot holes or breaking internal consistency. I already had four types of magic in the ways Luca can store the energy, Enne can amplify it, Grace can silence it, and most Atilan could convert it into different spells. (or 5, if you count generation as it’s own category). I also knew that in the Laoche Chronicles, there are instances of all the different types of magic existing in superposition, so I needed to understand what made that state possible.

Since I already knew what I wanted these types to do when used by a human, my next step was to define what these four types of magic are on the most basic physical levels, how they can switch, and how the lines between them can be broken. Then I needed to figure out how that power interacts with the natural world: can other species do magic besides humans? What about plants? What effects do the different types have on gravity, and time? I started exploring how people learn magic, what if feels like to use it, how different people end up with different types of magic.

I was surprised as I put everything together just how many potential plot holes I was able to stitch together! This is also the point where I took my brain dump documents and started to fit in all of my whacky ideas that go, “OH WOULDN’T IT BE COOL IF…” Once I had a framework to build around, I could connect all the dots and come up with explanations that made sense. Thinking about the implications also led me to a bunch of neat “what ifs?” that have been filed away for future reference – little tidbits of canon that may or may not ever make it into the story, but serve to make the world feel more real.

The Restrictions

To keep myself from getting carried away or introducing more holes, I also wanted to define exactly what nonnegotiable rules exist: what’s the most overpowered magic could theoretically be, what are the limitations, and consequences? For the sake of storytelling, I wanted death and time travel to be an absolute no. You can heal mortal wounds, or slow and speed up time slightly, but there’s no chance of resurrecting someone who’s already gone, communing with the dead, or actually stopping/traveling through time. This eliminates a significant chunk of possible plot-holes, and gives clear stakes for my characters to face.

Besides those few limitations, most of the restrictions come from the consequences of trying to do magic. Since magic is treated like a natural part of the world, I’ve also established that it’s an amoral insentient thing to be treated carefully. Like fire or radiation or water, it can be extremely powerful, either beneficially or harmfully if you don’t know what you’re doing with it. Character’s abilities are restricted by how much they’ve practiced and studied, if magic is available for them to use, and if they have the energy and ability to cast properly. There are also societal restrictions, such as the Atilan/Debilan divide in Maaren, where one could do magic, but it comes with political, religious, or inter-personal ramifications.

The combination of possibilities and restrictions gives me a LOT of room to play with, and as long as no one character has inconsistent powers, most of my system should work without loopholes! I have both the flexibility and the framework to add new details as needed, and an internal logic that both my characters and readers can follow.

That was a fairly high overview of the process so If you’d like more information on how I learned this, you can check out my resource rec post (specifically Hello Future Me’s book “On Writing and Worldbuilding” and Brandon Sanderson’s writing lectures!). Happy writing!

Lessons Learned from a Year of Blogging

Storytime: It’s August 3rd, I’ve just wrapped up a month-in-review, which means the next item on my to-do list is to start writing and queuing blog posts, Instagram photos, and tumblr links for the rest of the month. As is my customary routine. I open the WordPress dashboard and realize, “Oh hey, I’ve put up 50 posts on a near-weekly basis, that’s kind of neat!” I file this information aside in the “cool facts” portion of my brain, and go to open a new post, before doing an abrupt about-face as realization dawns on me in a sky-shattering Eureka moment. I madly scroll down my list, half-disbelieving as the date under my first post confirms that I’ve reached my 1-year anniversary of keeping this website, and I nearly missed it.

I reached one year how did that happen???? Honestly I’m still in some denial that I’ve made it this far, and in shock at what this blog has become since this first tentative post. I’ve learned so much over this past year, and changed so much as a person, so I wanted to share some of my biggest take-aways today. If there are any other aspiring authors reading this, I hope this serves as some degree of motivation and advice for you. To whoever is reading this, thank you for your support. I never thought I’d make it, and this milestone is exciting beyond my wildest dreams.

The only point of comparison that matters is past-you: As I’ve become more invested in the indie-author space, learning more about how to create an effective author’s platform, and taking the steps toward self publishing, I’ve also been comparing myself to the successful authors I’m learning from. These writers have multiple books out, thousands of followers, and make a living wage off their full-time author career, and I asked myself, “I’ve been working so hard, why am I not at that level?” That’s not a fair question to ask. I’m an unpublished 20 year old uni student, obviously I’m not going to have that kind of platform yet. But I will eventually, if I keep working hard.

Follow your interests: External validation matters less when you’re intrinsically motivated. It is easy to get caught up in the statistics and feel beholden to creating content that will get the most hits, but if you’re not enjoying the process, then what’s the point? If I write about what I love, keeping this blog won’t feel like a chore, and I’ll be able to maintain consistency which is ultimately more honest than following a quick trend.

Follow your interests: Other people can tell when you care, and that means they care more about reading what you have to say. I never expected anyone to care about my Count of Monte Cristo posts, but those have some of the farthest reach! My personal writing is unpublished and I figured only a few close friends would care, but I’m floored by the number of views my excerpts get when I put them up. Who cares about the way I outline? 50 of you, apparently! Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to share your passions.

Quality > Quantity: I want to put content into the world that’s going to be useful, motivational, and entertaining. If I’m going to spend my time on this project, I want it to matter to someone, not just be mindlessly consumed and then discarded. By putting in the effort, I create articles that I can redirect people back to because I’m confident they still contain solid information. I might not write as prolifically as other bloggers, but even my old posts still get a few hits a day because they’re just as relevant.

Planning -> Consistency: At one point this past year, I was taking 18 credits of chemical engineering and business classes through zoom university, working 20 hours a week at a lab, and still putting out posts on the weekly. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t crazy or losing tons of sleep, but I can say that I would not have been able to maintain that posting schedule if I had to come up with new ideas every week. Knowing what came next meant that I could add it to my to-do list like any other assignment I knew was coming up soon, and it felt like something that could be accomplished and not an extra I’d get to if I had the chance. Even a simple schedule is better than nothing.

Education beats intimidation: I didn’t know anything about web design, blogging, the publishing industry, or author business when I started this. As I’ve done that research, the fear of the unknown was replaced by an understanding of the next steps to take, and even if the amount of work is still intimidating, I know that’s something I can tackle one step at a time. Educate yourself about what scares you. It might still be scary as hell but at least you’ll have the weapon of knowledge to use against it.

Spend your time on what matters most now: I don’t plan to publish for another few years. My stories are not ready to release yet and I want to graduate and have a financially stable job before I go all-in on the self-publishing project. I would be wasting my time on researching Amazon ads and trying to network with authors to get speaking engagements. Will I try both of these things eventually? Probably. But for now, I’m going to focus on what’s attainable: finishing my books, and keeping this blog running in the meantime.

So I find myself writing this in complete disbelief. I’ve wanted to be an author my whole life; as a little kid I hid under the blankets with a flashlight, notebook, and pen, thinking “I wanna write a book!”

Everyone does that, right?

Everyone has big dreams and big plans. But here I am, tentatively holding the half-finished 2nd draft of my manuscript, the almost-finished first draft of a new story, a blog of 50 posts, and countless more ideas, taking the next step towards putting the wildest of my literary endeavors out into the world for real. This is it, guys. I’m going legit. I’m really doing this whole “I’m going to be an author!” thing. I’ve got a website now.

Real Authors have websites, right?

I have slightly more of an idea where to start with this, but I figure a next step, no matter how unsure, is a next step nonetheless. I hope my humble corner of the internet will turn into something more, and I hope I’ll be able to bring you along on the journey.

So let’s take the next step together, shall we?