Tip Tuesday: Have You Tried Plantsing?

An exciting new story idea has taken residence in your brain. The problem becomes: just how do you get it out?

Writers generally fall into one of two camps. There are countless Internet resources that debate the merits of alternate methods to making that scary start: plotting and pantsing (i.e., you write by the seat of your pants, and see where the story takes you).

That’s opposed to the dedicated plotters, who (as a generalization, of course), enjoy sketching out their ideas via incredibly structured outlines, color-coded spreadsheets ensuring the right scenes hit the right beats, and inspirational Pinterest boards (and maybe the occasional 16-hour-long Spotify playlist). Pantsers argue that the outlining process is too restrictive, and places bounds on their creativity.

As in most situations, neither approach is universally better than the other. It’s an individual decision.

But also like most other situations, we don’t have to make that dichotomous choice.

Friends, allow me to make the case for plantsing.

And yes, “plantsing” is just the two words smushed together, but it also has the word “plant” in it. Which is great, because plants provide us with nutrients, and it’s currently raining, which means the plants, aka the seeds of our ideas, are themselves getting nourished by all that water falling from the sky.

You still here?

It’s for the plotters who need their plan but might not know what happens at the end of the story yet. It’s for the pansters who want to keep that spontaneous feeling of discovery, but need a bit of guidance before diving on in.

My favorite way to prep for the actual drafting phase of a new story (which might be my least favorite, I know, blasphemy) is to create a loose outline. It’s flexible and open to any new ideas that might come along later, but still provides a strong framework of a couple major plot points or general character arcs, around which the story can grow.

The truth is, we’ve all plotted and pantsed at one time or another. Our writing processes can and should change depending on the needs of each story. And we don’t need to create dichotomous labels that distract us from our goal of writing.

For more on this topic, check out Lisa Cron’s post at Writer Unboxed, or Alexa Martin’s at All the Kissing.

Happy writing, and happy week!

To Query or Not to Query? That is the Query

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I’m proud of my pile of writing rejections. You might also be asking: why don’t you just stop seeking approval from literary gatekeepers like agents and editors, and go ahead and self-publish? It takes the press of a button on Amazon and you can hold your precious word-baby within weeks, and you get a higher percentage of royalties than you would working with a traditional publishing house anyway.

It’s kind of like a conversation I had with my dad the other day. He commented how you technically could sell your house by yourself, but he’d personally rather hire a real estate agent who knows the business. And I responded, that’s exactly how I feel about book publishing.

To be clear: this post is not knocking self-published authors or declaring that anything that goes through the vetting process of traditional publication is automatically better than the indie market. I have read self-published authors and enjoyed their stories just as much if not more than the books sold by major publishers. Ultimately, one writer’s preferred path to publication is whatever works best for them.

And honestly, they’re not that different. The synopsis paragraph in a query letter could be the same thing a self-published author writes in their blurb to attract readers. We all have the same goal here: to get a reader’s attention and then keep it.

The traditional publishing process is not set up for most writers to be successful. Agents and publishers can only take on so many projects at a time, and so have to be highly selective. Factors influencing their decisions often have nothing to do with the quality of a project – it can come down to projected sales (money) or the author’s platform (potential money) or how similar a story is to other books that have already been published (also money).

It’s not a perfect system.

But neither is self-publishing. The costs of hiring a freelance editor, cover designer, and marketing all add up, making this path prohibitive to new writers who might be struggling to pay the bills they already have. And once the book exists, it’s a constant fight to promote it through your own social media, blog, or perhaps a local school or bookstore.

Really, we’re creating a false dichotomy. I would argue that any self-published book should be able to stand up to a traditionally-published book. Ideally, barring things like cover design and promotion, readers shouldn’t be able to tell which story had the support of an agent and publisher. A quality story is a quality story.

But back to me and my personal choice to go about querying agents and dealing with sometimes numbing rejections.

I’m one person. I don’t have the resources, connections, or knowledge of a publishing house when it comes to marketing and promotion (even though traditionally-published authors are doing more of their own marketing these days). I don’t have a lot of money to be spending on book production without any realistic chance of making it back.

And my book, my precious little book baby, deserves better than that.

A few months ago, an agent told me (in her rejection email!) that my writing was strong, but ultimately she didn’t think she was the best person to represent me and my book.

If I can get that kind of praise from a publishing professional, my work is resonating with someone who knows the business. There’s someone out there, even if I haven’t found them yet, who’s going to fight for my book to be on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, occupying space next to other titles in my genre who have just as passionate champions.

My story deserves the best exposure possible.

Tip Tuesday: How to Make Readers Care About Your Characters

I thought I had a complex, however unlikable, protagonist. She was snarky, complex, and empowered. So why weren’t agents knocking down my door to offer representation? Why did their rejection emails say that they couldn’t connect with the voice or the character? Maybe they just aren’t the right person, I told myself, and kept submitting the same prose.

Then I got feedback from my writing professor as well as comments from a professional editor, and they said similar things. Give her a deeper interiority. Show her vulnerabilities. I don’t feel connected and don’t know why I should care.

After a break from my manuscript (thanks, senior year), I was able to return to it and realize wow, if I wasn’t the writer, I’d have no idea why she is the way she is, either, and I don’t want to spend time with someone I don’t understand!

In this post, I’ll share three strategies to creating that crucial connection between your character and reader that have worked for me.

Give Them a Compelling Ghost

It could be a traumatic experience, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. A ghost is something in your character’s past that is still haunting them, and makes them the way they are.

In Nina Moreno’s debut Don’t Date Rosa Santos, Rosa avoids the sea because of a family curse. In my first novel, the main character chose to live under a new identity to give herself a fresh start after her mother’s death and tense family relationships.

Hey, these days, your character’s ghost might even involve literally getting ghosted. Who knew?

Everyone’s experienced some kind of pain or loss in life. When artfully woven into the story and not dumped haphazardly, your character’s pain will create empathy in your readers. We’re all human.

In short, to paraphrase author Jeff Gerke, make your character vulnerable and watch the emotional sparks fly.

Don’t Drop Tons of Backstory at Once

When you first meet someone, you don’t want to spill all your deep dark secrets. It happens more gradually, as you get to know them over time and get more comfortable with them. Same thing with your characters.

While it’s crucial for your character to captivate readers from the first page, no one’s going to care about all of your character’s tragic past if you haven’t lured them in with a compelling reason.

Eliminate Filters

We’ve discussed some developmental, big-picture strategies to make your readers fall in love with your characters, but every sentence has to contribute. What can you do on the sentence level to keep your readers engaged?

I first learned about the concept of filter words in this excellent video by author Shaelin Bishop. Filters are good for water, coffee, and politeness, but have no place in your writing.

You know the phrase “on the outside looking in”? That’s the same kind of distance filter words create between readers and your characters, like a thick pane of glass separating them.

Filters pull your reader out of the story by telling them what your character is experiencing, rather than showing or dramatizing the experience. For example, compare these two sentences:

She smelled the apple pie baking in the oven.

or

The scent of warm apples filled the kitchen.

Which one draws you more into the scene? (Two side notes: 1. In the first sentence, besides the filtering issue, where else would you bake a pie? 2. Now I want apple pie.)

In my most recent edit, I cut filtering by eliminating most instances of any character senses (phrases like “She saw/smelled/heard/etc.”). In addition, especially when you’re writing in the third person, it’s easy to fall into the trap of filtering characters’ internal experiences, telling the reader what the narrator thought/felt/remembered/wanted/didn’t want instead of showing that thing through body language, dialogue or visceral experiences.

Once I cut all those extra words, I was amazed at how much room to tell the real story had opened, as well as how much closer I felt to my own characters. I can only hope it works the same for readers.

Did you enjoy the first installment of Tip Tuesday? What would you want to read about next week?

You Can’t Edit a Blank Page

Now that it’s summer and I have more time, I’ve embarked upon another round of edits on my first novel (and have finished! Huzzah!). This pass focused on deepening the point of view in both of my narrators, which is something I struggled with for months (more on that in a future post!).

Unlike many other writers, I legitimately enjoy revising and editing. After I’ve vomited up a first draft, I love being able to go back and structure scenes (or sometimes whole plotlines) for maximum impact, and revisit characters’ motivations on the developmental level, and also make the sentences pretty. It’s when I get to take a story I already love and make it even better.

In this particular story’s case, it’s also a chance for me to reread it as a reader and not as a writer. And I’m excited to report that yes, it resonates, although obviously I’ll never get to read it without the lens of being the author.

While this is the part where I think I do my best work, editing a polished project is also a great way to procrastinate on the fresh, uninhibited ideas for new stories that are rolling around in my brain. And this is where I run into unrealistic expectations.

I get so used to toying with and tweaking the clean draft that’s already been revised and edited seven times (that’s a conservative guess) that anything less feels a thousand times worse than it is, which hinders my motivation to keep working on that crappy first draft of something new to bring it to the next level.

My goal for this week is turning off my filter and trying to let the new stories simmer.

What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

Writing is Not Life

Even though I routinely got mistaken for an English major right through my last semester of college, I’ve always struggled to balance the time I spend writing with the time I commit to my other pursuits.

Writers are routinely portrayed as lonely hermits who churn out the contents of their souls in isolated rooms (perhaps a cabin in the woods) and when inspiration hits, don’t have time for anything as mundane as a day job to pay the bills. Maybe they don’t have bills. Teach me your ways?

But that’s not my life. I decided not to go to school for writing (even though I did minor in creative writing) because I knew I would have to write, and could write, without having a degree sanctioning it. If I had to prioritize writing after my regular job, that would demonstrate an extra commitment to the craft.

And I’ve always loved diversifying and connecting interests. My lifelong love of storytelling was probably what got me into psychology in the first place.

Earlier this week, I read author Jennifer Weiner’s advice for writers. What struck me the most was her emphasis on getting life experience to become a stronger writer:

“Go do something that’s going to take you out of your comfort zone, putting you in contact with different kinds of people, perhaps in a different part of the world. Be a waitress… Lead bike trips through Italy, making careful note of the countryside. Be a camp counselor, be a cook, be a nanny…. You’re looking for challenges, for adventure, for new faces and new places.”

All creative types need experiences in order to keep fueled, and experiences involve going out into the world and letting it change you.

So that’s my inspirational writing tidbit of the week! Tomorrow’s my birthday, so I’ll be mainly relaxing and probably spontaneously breaking out into a certain Taylor Swift song.