Book Review: K.M. Weiland Illuminates Theme

Full disclosure: I received a free advance copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

K.M. Weiland is a rock star of writing craft, and with this latest release she shows us once again what thousands of authors gain from her blog, podcast, and books.

I’ve studied her writing craft books for years now, since I was a baby wannabe writer with no idea what went into a novel. More than any of my formal writing education (which has still been valuable!) her explanations of story structure have helped me write two novels.

Writing Your Story’s Theme is perhaps her most comprehensive, layered volume yet, and breaks down one of the most abstract, amorphous, and downright tricky elements of craft: theme. Because we all want our stories to have powerful impacts, to say something about the human condition. But how do you accomplish such a daunting task without preaching to readers in a way that will have them throwing your book across the room?

In this book, Weiland ties together her previous analyses of compelling story structure and character arc to show writers how they can use each plot point, each moment, each word, to tie together these once-disparate elements into stories with even greater resonance. Once woven together, they will transform your theme from an abstract principle or moralistic message into the complex, living, breathing heart of your story.

Writers unfamiliar with Weiland and her terminology may need to refer to some of her other books or her blog for context; seasoned writers may only need to skim or check a few points as references. No matter your place along your writing journey or ultimate publishing goals, this book will help you organically build a more powerful story from the heart out.

Writing Your Story’s Theme is available for purchase at Amazon and Kobo.

Playing for the Feeling: Johnny Cattini & “Margot Robbie”

Morningbird guitarist Johnny Cattini proves just as smooth on his own. Last Friday, April 17th, the London native and Berklee grad released the groovy “Margot Robbie”, off his forthcoming Soul Ride Along EP (release TBD). The latest single followed last year’s “No Woman” and “It’s Too Late,” and adds a distinct disco vibe to the strong blend of timeless guitar chops and modern, glossy production that has become Cattini’s brand. 

Powerful, driving drums kick open the track, as the lyrics share an encounter with a dead ringer for the titular actress: 

Saw her playing drums in the hotel lobby

She shakes the tambourine, she looks like Margot Robbie 

But the song’s subject resists comparison and the classic markers of fame and success: big crowds, spending bigtime money, endless nights spent drinking. What she’s after is the free, infectious joy this song spreads: 

She said to me, “Well you don’t understand

I don’t play for (I don’t play for) 

For anything more than this 

I don’t play for anything other than this feeling” 

Towards the end, the lyrical content fades into the background, as the last minute dissolves into a guitar solo showcasing Cattini’s classic rock influences. 

If this song isn’t on that playlist for your kitchen dance party, you’re doing it wrong. 

Listen here:

For fans of: Mt. Joy, John Mayer, Harry Styles

How My Writing Process Changes Based on What I’m Writing

As some of you know, I recently outlined a new WIP and I’m about 9k into the first draft. Which is super exciting, because that’s, like, more than a tenth of my goal word count. Granted, some of those words are notes to myself and scenes that don’t work anymore because I wrote them before the outline, but it’s all part of letting ideas marinate and creating my draft zero, or as I affectionately call it, a steaming pile of word vomit.

A tenth of the book may not seem like much, but it’s more than I had before. What took me so long to get going on this draft wasn’t a lack of excitement about the idea. It was life transitions, stress, studying, research assistant-ing, and dealing with the fear that this book concept wouldn’t measure up to my first.

Even though I knew, on some level, that each book an author writes goes on its own journey.

I’ve written previously about the dangers of comparing draft #1 to draft #21. I knew I’d grown as a writer since 2016, when I (probably?) started writing Woman of Words (for real), and I wanted all this growth to show in book #2.

I set about making a very detailed outline, in which I would outline the book’s structure and major plot points, character arcs, and the goals and conflict present in every scene, even though I didn’t know what every scene would be. I thought if I could foresee all the story’s problems and fix them NOW, I would save myself immeasurable stress and suffering down the road.

But the thing about writing is it’s like driving around sharp turns in a fog at night with one headlight and no cell reception.

Okay, maybe not that bad. But my point is, foresight is pretty difficult, if not impossible.

After tweaking the over-complicated outline for weeks, I decided the only way this story would move forward was if I started writing.

So I dove in, and I think compromising with a flexible, general outline was the right choice.

Which got me thinking about the ways I write differently for different purposes and audiences. I don’t mean modifying my vocabulary or sentences. Every project I’ve had has brought about a different process.

In college, I rarely wrote more than one draft of an essay, even though as a writing tutor I encouraged heavy revision to many students. I credit my reliance on outlines with saving me so much work on the other end.

For my first book, I tried every pre-writing exercise you can imagine before embarking upon the first draft. Character sheets, scene-by-scene outlines, three act templates, detailed spreadsheets, condensing the story into a synopsis to see what was missing, pages upon pages of notes on character arcs and themes.

I was trying to plan every turn of my long car trip before I’d left. Now I know that you can get a GPS/Google Maps, it can predict the traffic, you can study the map, but you won’t know the exact conditions until you get there.

Okay, I’ll stop with the elaborate driving metaphor. Bottom line: I’ve learned to be more flexible and allow my crazy drafting to fill in my beat sheet-type outline as I go.

Creative writing doesn’t have to fit the same rigid structure of an academic paper or journal article. My sweet spot for novel planning now looks like a list of all the major plot points, how my leading cast will change, settings, snappy dialogue bits, and any other ideas I have. This allows it to be a fluid, changing document rather than something that’s fixed.

Learning how to adapt to the needs of each particular story is something every writer has to do. I’m sure my process will change again in the future, and I’m excited to see what that looks like.

Thanks for reading!

Photo by Cathryn Lavery via Unsplash.

Writing For Yourself vs. Writing For Others

A conversation with a friend inspired my idea for this post. I know several people (myself included) who view writing as a way to process emotions, old wounds, and hopes for the future. We hold up a mirror made of words and hope, through whatever strange alchemy gets them on the page, they’ll guide us to insight and change.

(I mean, maybe my inner psych nerd and future therapist is projecting. But I still think it’s true.).

If that’s the case, then we should write for ourselves first and only. Toni Morrison (RIP) famously said some version of, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Books become medicine for our past selves and supplements for the future.

I do believe that writing is a safe place where we can explore the feelings we can’t say or act on. We can be brave if these come masked from the mouth of a character and not our own.

But then the cynic in me asks, “How can you ever think someone else will connect with what you’re writing if it’s just for you?”

This can leave many writers feeling stuck, without any solid idea of how their book will fit the current market.

There’s no easy answer to this conundrum – both sides make solid advice.

Write for yourself first, to get the frenzied, screaming story out as it demands to be told.

Write for others as you refine that story. It’s not compromising or selling out to take other opinions into account. Other people will create their own versions of your story as they read, anyway.

I learned this with my first book. I thought it was done, but my trusted readers were still like, “Why is she doing this?” On a craft level, you might know exactly what your main character’s motivations are, but if it’s not clear in the text, your readers will still be confused like mine were. If any of you are reading this, please know that book is a lot better now (I think).

My stance on whether we should write for ourselves or others might be summed as:

Write the book you most want to read, but remember that someone else feels the same way.

Who do you think writers should be writing for? Share your opinion in the comments!

Photo by Glenn Carstens Peters via Unsplash.

Why Everyone Should Learn to Query

Even indie authors.

If you want to be traditionally published, pouring your heart and soul into a book is only the first step.

If you want the validation that comes with an agent and editor and marketing team behind you, the writing process doesn’t end with folding the feedback of helpful critique partners into a new draft. You wrote the book of your heart, you fawned over how much it reflects your heart, and now it’s time to break it. Both the book, and your little writer’s heart.

How do you do that? By writing a query letter.

Or, as Delilah S. Dawson put it in what is still my favorite trad-publishing blog post of all time, (the self-publishing version is here) you go insane in only one day. You take your precious 80,000-100,000 words and distill their essence into an enticing one-page business letter, perhaps with a bit about yourself, that has a very high chance of sitting in an agent’s inbox, possibly never earning a thanks but no thanks, no matter how objectively good it is.

Many writers, myself included, wonder why the industry is set up this way, why their chance at success and recognition as an author comes down to the whims/schedules/caffeine habits of a few professionals (mainly) in New York. But as subjective as it is, it’s a necessary evil to ensure that publishers take on projects they can passionately and confidently sell to readers. Some authors, frustrated with the layers of gatekeeping that bar them from a place on bookshelves, turn to indie publishing for higher royalty rates, quicker production, and generally more creative control.

But even self-published authors can’t escape the judgments of others. Even if you’re not looking for agents or editors, you still need readers.

I won’t try to prove that one path to publication is ultimately better than the other. That comes down to your personal goals. What I’m going to say is that even if you choose not to query agents and editors, you should still learn how to query.

Selling a book directly to readers operates on much the same principles as attracting an agent. The synopsis paragraphs that go into a query letter are basically the back-cover copy of your book. They introduce your main character and his or her world, set the stakes, and should leave the reader wanting more. That feeling of I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS is what drives agents to request more pages and hopefully offer representation, and it’s the difference between a reader purchasing your book in the store (or, more realistically, smashing that “buy now” button on Amazon), or walking away empty-handed (-carted?). Your agent becomes your biggest cheerleader because of your pages, and your readers can become your fans.

I know, querying is scary. You’re putting yourself out there. It’s the digital, literary equivalent of wiping your sweaty hands on your jeans, walking up to that handsome stranger, and going hey would you want to get dinner sometime? I sent my first-ever query to an agent who never responded, but over a year later, I still haven’t given up. My book simply wasn’t ready, my query wasn’t doing its job, and I had to take that step and feel the sting of a failure in the form of weeks passing without a response in order to accept the many rounds of revisions that would follow.

All querying looks like is sending an email, but it’s an email that could launch your career as an author. Without the support that comes from a publishing team (how much support you get depends on too many factors to cover here and could be a whole other post), I would argue that self-published books have to be even more polished than traditionally-pubbed ones. Unless you hire a freelance editor, you and your critique partners are the only people standing between your book and the world.

No pressure, right?

Perhaps most importantly and most universally, querying also showed me that rejection wasn’t the end of the world. For every request I received, I probably got five rejections. It hurt, of course, but it thickened my skin. Not everyone is going to love or even like your book, just like not everyone is going to like you. But someone out there will, and it’s those people you need to find.

So take a chance. Put yourself out there. It’s the only way you’ll get noticed by the people who are waiting to find you and listen to what you have to say.

But also improve your chances by doing the most you can to attract those people.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash.

Slow Down

It’s December 1st. For many people, that means the first day of Christmas. For others, Christmas started the day after Thanksgiving. And don’t get me wrong, I love the holidays. But I’m like, “please chill.” Winter pun not intended.

Some people close to me (and I love you dearly still) bragged about how they got most or all of their Christmas shopping done. I, on the other hand, have barely started. Now that’s perhaps mostly because of a million other commitments and less jolly tasks clogging up my brain, but also because I don’t want to feel pressured to rush to Christmas.

It will be here soon enough. I’d much rather live in the moment and be able to enjoy the gradual lead-up to the actual day than lose all the enjoyment in a frenzy of preparation and stress.

Because who likes either of those? As a college student, my life is always a strange mix of preparation and stress (insert sweaty/nervous emoji here).

Above all, this season should be about giving and shifting the focus away from myself.

I love looking at shiny lights, but let’s remember to light up our hearts first.

 

Productivity & Routine

This post has taken me forever to write, which itself should tell you that my routine is non-existent, my habits easily shaken by the unpredictable cadence of everyday life. Happy Monday, everyone! 

These days, we’ve become obsessed with control. Over our identities, how others perceive us. We like to plan out every second of our days for the sake of productivity. And how do we define productivity? By the number of words written, the number of tasks completed, concrete goals achieved. And in case our human limitations fail us, we have limitless smart devices and apps to help us out. We have to make time-efficient, practical decisions. We value people who are good at juggling various responsibilities.

Now, I’m not a numbers girl. I got a 1 on the AP Calc exam and a B+ in stats last semester. I’m old-fashioned, I like the organic feeling of pen on paper over any writing app that claims to simplify my life. Technology’s bells and whistles tend to disrupt rather than improve my work. Considerations of practicality hurt my dreamer’s soul.

I don’t think there’s any secret approach to writing, working, or living that will work for everyone. I certainly don’t want to become a slave to a particular way of doing things. I don’t want to live my life according to a script, repeating the same thing every day.

I’m learning to not let productivity determine my mood. I’ve noticed that if I don’t get any work done I’m not in the best mood and it affects other areas of my life. What I need to do, I will get done.

Perhaps that’s the most practical solution.

On “the Death of the Author”

I loathe “thinkpieces”. But I may have written one anyway. 

In the middle of the last century, the French philosopher Roland Barthes famously claimed that works of literature and art should stand separate from their creators. He called this principle “the death of the author”, meaning that the personal beliefs and lifestyle of an author or artist should remain just that, personal, private. There is no need to dissect the person along with the work; whatever the work says, it should say on its own.

This attitude becomes particularly useful for creators working under pseudonyms. They maintain an extra step of separation from their work. Their backgrounds are untraceable unless they choose to make them known. The pseudonymous author is just a name floating in the ether of space and art, free to define themselves, immune to the currents of real life. There is a certain air of mystery.

Of course, one has the right to remain anonymous or disguised if one chooses. That’s a matter of personal decision. While I do not mean to argue that working under an assumed name is evil or wrong (though I personally tend to agree with that more recent philosopher Ron Swanson, who famously said, “If you believe in something, you sign your name to it.”), I question how separable from their works authors really are.

Ayn Rand would probably not have become the anti-communist radical she was had she not grown up a Jew during the Russian Revolution. Flannery O’Connor’s stories lose their power and regress to depictions of pointless violence rather than visions of the Christian mystery if one does not consider her intense Catholic faith. You could not understand Sylvia Plath’s poetry without first understanding her personal history of depression.

You can appreciate the work without knowing the author, but you cannot mine it for all that it means without understanding where it came from. 

In an article about pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante amid rumors that a renegade journalist revealed her true identity, Suzanne Moore of The Guardian wrote that “if you want to know who Elena Ferrante is, there is a very simple way to find out. Read her books.” Even Ferrante could not write her works without the backdrop of midcentury Italy, even if the persona she presents in her books is fabricated. On a personal note, I know that I could not have written my novel without believing in its central tenets, those of connection and inescapable pasts that haunt my characters like O’Connor’s “Jesus [moving] from tree to tree in the back of his mind”.

In some general sense, then, I think that books need their authors, as context for their origins and their meanings, even if the people choose to be invisible.