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.

5 Things I Learned From Entering #RevPit

Folks, the #RevPit announcements went out today! (If you have no idea what that means, learn more about the annual contest here). As you may have guessed, I ultimately wasn’t chosen as a mentee this year, but it was really fun to haunt that hashtag the last few weeks. While I’m super excited for those authors who are working with editors to overhaul their manuscripts in the next eight weeks, as in similar publishing-related Twitter-based events, it’s not really about winning. Keep reading to know five things I learned (or re-learned) from submitting my book this year.

1. We’re all winners.

It sounds cheesy–and I don’t even have cars to give away to everyone because I’m not Oprah–but it’s true. Writing a book is something so many people dream of doing, but relatively few accomplish. Even if you’re not chosen, submitting the book you’ve spent months or even years on to virtual strangers is a risky leap forward.

Beyond the huge amount of courage involved in that first step, the editors who run #RevPit are all extremely generous, and most of them will give some form of feedback to all entrants (though you might have to ask for it). Whether you get this in an email, a #10Queries tweet, or even form a critique group with other authors, getting feedback is a key part in leveling up as a writer, and something I always appreciate in the often heartbreaking world of publishing where silence means no.

2. Maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way.

Okay, I’m done speaking in time-worn tropes, I promise. But even though only a handful of writers win the ultimate grand prize in events like #RevPit, the rest of us can still benefit from making connections, both with the editors and with one another. The community is incredibly kind and has been offering positivity passes, critique, and general fun threads to follow. We all need a relatively light-hearted place to go, especially given the current state of our world.

3. Get it in ASAP… and then let go of all expectations.

I set an alarm on the Saturday morning the submission window opened so I would be sure my submission would go to my top two editors (one of whom was a last minute switch that worked out really nicely, but that’s another story). Given my track record in previous #RevPit years, in which I had gotten not a single request, I wasn’t too hopeful that it would pan out. I mean, there are so many great writers out there, and most of these events lean very heavily on YA authors anyway. So I kept my expectations low.

A few days later, I was absolutely thrilled to receive a request for my full manuscript from one of the editors. Proof that the best surprises happen when you stop obsessing over them.

4. How to determine whether a #10Queries tweet was about me… rationally.

Okay, I mean, it’s hard not to think every last tweet was about my book, even from the editors I hadn’t submitted to, even the ones about YA fantasy, when I clearly don’t write YA fantasy. It highlights how common different issues are, across genres, and how much all writing has in common. But as I engaged in some reflection, it became easier to compare what the editors were noting in their tweets to what I knew was going on with my first five pages.

5. It’s really not about you.

Like I alluded to above, editors in these types of events have to be very selective about their one winner. They have to have a vision for the book that will resonate with the author, and they have to know they can pull it off within eight weeks. They also have to be confident that the author needs their help at all. The quality of your writing is just one factor in this decision.

These are all important lessons as I continue on my journey as a writer, and I hope that you might benefit from them too. Thanks for reading, and stay well!

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

Writing Tip: Tackle the Query Letter First

Some of you probably can’t think about creating in these crazy times, and that’s okay. Since the quarantine began, I’ve been overwhelmed with offers of various Zoom workshops, conferences, free classes, and like a million social media livestreams to learn how to adjust to working from home, flipping around your daily routine, taking all this alleged extra free time and putting it into a new hobby or craft, or watching my favorite bands perform from their living rooms. What I mean to say is, even though indie and trad publishers are still operating through COVID-19, there’s no pressure from me at least to write anything if you feel like you have bigger priorities. Staying safe and healthy, and keeping your loved ones safe and healthy, will always be number one.

With that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to the point of this post, inspired by a realization I had while going through old files for an abandoned book idea from mid-2019. It was exciting to revisit old characters and themes, so as I got re-energized about tackling this book after I finish my current WIP (hopefully in time for #RevPit in just a couple of weeks!)…

…I found myself rewriting the draft of its query letter. That’s right, perhaps the document authors dread most, besides synopses and, you know, rejections. For a book I hadn’t even fully written.

Why, you might be asking, would I do such a thing? Don’t you know that your book has to be super-extra-polished before you even think about sending it anywhere?

(Yes, I would say, I do know. I learned the hard way).

It’s because I’m crazy.

Well, that’s up for debate, but the real reason I piece together the query so early on is because that handful of paragraphs forces me to consider how to communicate the story’s big picture in its smaller elements. Building the skeleton upfront saves time later on, when I’m actually writing. Knowing who my characters are, what they want, what’s in their way, and why their physical and emotional journeys matter at all (i.e., stakes) creates a framework for the story.

I think not knowing how to do this when I was drafting my first book–back when I had no idea how publishing worked–was precisely why I went through countless drafts, switched up the outline, pushed through another few thousand words and then realized something else wasn’t working. And that’s why that book took me literal years. My second and third concepts have solidified much faster, because now I know how to develop them from the outset.

So my advice: zoom out a little bit from where you are in your story. You might know where your character ends up, or you might not, but you have to be able to say where they are, and why it matters.

If you’re an author seeking the traditional path to publication, you’re gonna have to do it anyway. If you’re an indie author… you’re gonna have to do it anyway. Not for the purposes of attracting an agent or editor, but for hooking the readers who will decide within thirty seconds of reading your book’s Amazon blurb if they want to trade their money for your words.

And maybe you can save yourself some headaches.

So, Uh, It’s Been a While

And this time I’m not just blaming it on the fact that I can never remember any of my passwords, including for this blog.

For the past two weeks, we all know that the world has almost come to a total pause as we social distance and quarantine ourselves in the name of flattening the curve. Kids are home from school, all but essential workers are working from home, restaurants and bars are shut down. Quite the appropriate time to start reading Station Eleven.

As an introvert, I joke that quarantine isn’t much different than what my daily life looked like before the coronapocalypse of 2020. But it feels different when everyone else is in the same situation. As tough as these days have been, I think it’s forcing us to reckon with what we do with ourselves when we don’t have as many distractions, when we don’t have places to go. Maybe God or the universe or (gasp) aliens are making us take a good long look at ourselves.

It’s made us get more creative about how we connect. I’ve made more FaceTime calls and video chats over the past week, both for my online graduate school classes and for fun chats with friends, than I have in my whole life.

And I’ve been learning that more forced time at home doesn’t have to mean more productivity. I thought I would spend every free moment working on my book, but it’s hard to focus in these challenging times, especially when there’s no clear division between work time and chill time. Or, you know, apocalypse-anxiety time.

One of the scariest things about the pandemic is we don’t know how long it will last. My hope for all of you is that not only do you and your loved ones stay healthy, but that you emerge from these seriously weird days with a renewed understanding of what it means to connect even if we have to be apart.

Sending love, and poems.

Zooming Out on My Mental Spaceship

I am in my parents’ living room typing away. It is two days before Christmas. 

Two and a half years ago, I was in this same room, except it was spring break of my sophomore year. I had just wrapped up the first draft of my first manuscript. 

Today, I’m pushing myself to hit that fabled 80,000 word mark on my second novel. 

When I finished the first book, I was closing the door on characters who had been jumping around my head, living, fighting themselves & each other, existing, for years. I had finally gotten all of that story out on the page (well, screen). 

And my brain was quiet. Too quiet. 

The mental chatter stopped, because I figured out what I was trying to say. The story, for all the revisions and editing it would soon enough endure, existed. 

At that point, that’s all it had to do. I would still have to shape it, but for the moment, it and its characters let go of me. 

Between going through more revisions than I can count on that book, spending more energy writing poetry, and cycling through a couple of story ideas before my current WIP grabbed me this summer, I thought I would never write another full novel. I would never have another idea that was worth the time. I wouldn’t know how to work with different characters. 

Beyond those fears, I worried I had lost my grip on the act of creating. That the lessons I’d taken from crafting my first book would slip away. I mean, it had been a few years, and I’d changed a lot. Who was to say my creative process wouldn’t grow with me, making every step into unfamiliar territory? I had outlined the first book gain and again until I thought I had a story good enough, but did I even believe in excessively detailed outlines anymore? 

First book took me seven months to draft, from 0 words to 80,000. 

Second book? I started this past October and I’m sneaking past that mark here in the last few days of December. 

I attribute that to a better understanding of how to write a novel objectively, as well as what works for me personally. This time around, I wrote up a brief synopsis to get the bones down. NaNoWriMo pushed me to reach 50,000 words, and you know I couldn’t leave that draft unfinished, no matter how bad it ended up being. 

For the past couple of months, I wasn’t feeling totally consumed by this story like I had been by the first one. Were the characters not compelling enough? Had I not taken the time to do enough research? WHY DON’T I FEEL AS WRAPPED UP AS I DID BEFORE? I attributed this lack of confidence to some deficiency in my writing, some defect in the story I just couldn’t see. 

But it’s not that. Like I said, all this vomit draft has to do is exist. 

Maybe it’s like how Christmas was so magical as a kid. Now that I’m 22, it’s easy to get lost in the chaos, in the business, in the gift-buying and wrapping and giving and cooking and frenzying around, so bad that we don’t even appreciate the real meaning of the holiday. 

I’m in grad school now. I’m more of an independent adult. I’m more comfortable and confident in myself, shifting in so many ways from the person I was in March 2017. I don’t have the unbroken hours to write like I did in high school when I was planning the first book. 

As I wrapped up my current draft, even in the last 10,000 words or so, my vision for this story expanded. Now I see what it’s really about. 

All the bones are scattered, but they exist. 

Hitting my totally arbitrary 80,000-word goal, scrolling through over 300 pages of sentences of varying quality, stepping away from that mess for a few weeks or a month or whatever it takes to marinate, that’s like zooming out. Watching Earth from a spaceship. You’ve lived in this world for so long, where cities, countries, continents, and seas seemed impossibly vast. And you blink, and now they’re microscopic dots on a globe. 

The problems don’t go away, but for now, that doesn’t matter. 

One day in the new year, I’ll come back down to earth and get my hands dirty with revision. 

For now, I’m enjoying the view. 

And you should too. I’m sincerely grateful for everyone who takes the time to read my blog and has played a part in my 2019. From the bottom of my heart, here’s to happy holidays and a blessed, graceful new year. 

Looking Back on 2019 & Ahead to 2020

I wrapped up finals last week and, surprisingly to anyone who knows me and even to myself, I’m doing better at finding time to breathe amidst the chaotic holiday rush. And with the end of the calendar year comes a retrospective wrap-up at the rollercoaster ride that was my personal 2019.

In all honesty, it was probably one of the most important years of my life. I cried a lot. I also loved a lot. I learned about myself in ways that were sometimes painful, but always profound.

I graduated college, presented at a national conference (and I’m working towards a reappearance at the 2020 event), and got my first publication that wasn’t through a lit mag at my school. Thanks to amazing organizations like The Lit Exhibit and She Will Speak, I got my poetry in front of new audiences I never would’ve found on my own. I joined One Love as a writer and survived my first semester of graduate school (which also involved a lot of writing, but also a lot of staring at SPSS).

(Head on over to Boston Hassle to read about my Top 5 DIY Moments of 2019 that inspired me to keep creating even when life doesn’t make it easy or profitable).

In the gap between my graduation and starting grad school this fall, I took my identity as a writer more seriously. I worked at building my social media presence, including this blog, my Twitter, and Instagram, to connect with the writing community. I took more creative risks and let it transform my relationships with friends, family, and other writers.

In book news, a totally new idea took over during the second half of this year. I started drafting it in October and I’m hoping to have a vaguely book-shaped thing by midnight on January 1.

I’m also excited to share that my personal essay, heavily based on a talk I gave at a retreat back in April, will be printed in this book, available now. If you’re looking for a book full of Christian witness for the holidays, this is it!

Thanks for being a part of my journey this year. I’m going to take a break from this blog over the next few weeks to really be present with my friends and family, so enjoy your holidays and I’ll see you in 2020!

Strategies for Writing

Last night, I wrapped up my last final of my first semester of grad school. The past few months have simultaneously seemed to fly by and drag, if that’s possible. I got used to a new program, new professors, a totally new campus, and a totally different approach to learning, all of which caused some significant shifts in the beautiful chaos that my life had been since starting undergrad.

Don’t take me as the authority on all graduate programs, because I’m sure they vary, but at least in mine, the classes meet once a week for a couple of hours, and there’s even fewer assignments than your typical undergrad class. So the bulk of my final grades this semester were determined by a huge group presentation and a final exam that took the form of multiple essay questions, each question with multiple parts. Still waiting to know my official fate (and it still confuses me that we’re calling essays “exams” now, but I digress).

Are you stressed yet?

Even though I’ve always preferred writing papers to taking exams, these were challenging because 1) I didn’t know what the professors would really expect and 2) most of my energy was spent figuring out exactly what the multiple questions were asking before I even thought about writing.

This got me thinking. Theoretically, I should know a lot about useful learning strategies. I researched them for three years! I presented at a national conference! But most of the strategies that would help you study for a test don’t really work when you move beyond concrete, testable knowledge (think true/false questions, multiple choice, something where there’s an objective, correct answer) to more abstract tasks like paper-writing.

Or… do they?

I’m excited to share that a post I wrote earlier this year is now featured on the Learning Scientists blog. In this piece, I review some previous education and cognitive research and suggest ways we might apply what we know about learning to writing, as well as how writers’ brains work in general.

These tips can work for educators or students at any level, and I hope you find them just as enlightening as I did.

Stay tuned for my year-end retrospective wrap-up, coming within… well, these last few days of THE DECADE (is anyone else just as excited and shocked as I am that we’re entering the 2020s?!).

I’ve also got some extra special things in store before the end of the year, so watch my social media for updates! In the coming weeks, I hope you get to enjoy some holiday cheer.

Photo by Bram Naus via Unsplash.

3 Things That Inspired My WIP

All my favorite bands.

You get +5 points if you got that Dawes reference.

All the time I’ve spent the past decade crawling interviews with artists, watching concert videos, and generally procrastinating has not been in vain! I’ve been imagining this book as a love letter to every artist I’ve loved since I was a kid, and I’ve been putting pieces of them into my fictional rock stars.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about the music I’ve loved without obviously fangirling too hard, and I think it’s finally happening. Get ready for some dusty, indie chic adventures with a folk-rock flair.

Strong Women

I’ve been describing this book as A Star is Born in a post-#MeToo world. It even starts on October 15th, 2017, when Alyssa Milano sent out the Tweet that would spark so much societal outrage and inspire so many women to tell their stories.

It’s one thing to hear celebrities talk about workplace harassment and feel that powerful men will always exist in the structures that have allowed them to do terrible things. That can be easy to look away from.

But it’s quite another thing when someone you know and love relives her own pain and trauma to share her story, and I wanted to honor the stories of women I know while putting my secondhand rage into something productive. Words are the best weapons.

Daisy Jones & the Six.

If you love music, if you love books, if you love learning the psychology and personal conflict behind the creative process of great musical and artwork, read this book. It’s a deep dive into the history of the biggest (fictional) band of the 1970s, and the personal chaos that led to their breakup. It drew me in because author Taylor Jenkins Reid said Fleetwood Mac was a huge inspiration, which is obvious once you dive into the story.

Side note, that cover is goals.

It was up for many awards this year (deservedly so) and it’s going to be an Amazon series, so get on it! OK, I said I wouldn’t fangirl, but this is fangirling over a book, so does it count?

Anyway, reading this music book over the summer solidified my long-term dream into a plan to write one of my own. I told myself that if Taylor Jenkins Reid can write a fictional band so clearly based on real people without a lawsuit, I can write one based on… someone else with whom you may be familiar.

I had originally planned on writing an entirely different book this year, but right around June or July I was hit with the perfect storm of ingredients. I crossed the 50k mark in the draft this November for NaNoWriMo, and I hope to finish the remaining 30-ish thousand words of what I’m affectionately calling my vomit draft by the end of 2019. Cheers to 2020!

And if you’re curious, or just really like indie rock like me, check out the novel’s ever-growing Spotify playlist here.

Photo by Kristopher Roller via Unsplash.