Writing Women: Physical Descriptions

Literature has the power to harm or help the way women are viewed. In the past, women were poorly represented, particularly in literature by men. However, now that women are more likely to be protagonists, there are still some stereotypes and descriptions that I find harmful.

For today, I want to address descriptions and how we can use our descriptions of women to be inclusive and to discourage body shaming.

Below are some practices I use to make sure I’m describing women and girls fairly by not evaluating them based on their appearance. This takes practice. Even I have to break out of the bad habits that have been perpetuated for decades.

Cut the word “beautiful” when describing women

I first noticed this issue when reading Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen. While I enjoyed the other aspects of the book, his descriptions of women grated on me. Every woman introduced in the story was evaluated by the male character as either beautiful, not beautiful, or “could be beautiful without all the dirt” (my summary). This measures the women’s value based on the male’s gaze and opinion of her. Is she attractive? Then she’s interesting. Is she ugly? Then she’s pitiful, poor girl. Is she dirty? Well, she could be beautiful, so maybe that makes her worth talking to.

This is an older book, and I don’t see this quite as often in newer work, but I think writers are still quick to evaluate a woman’s appearance based on her beauty without realizing they are doing it.

It reminds me of a video from the 1950s about body care and grooming that Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed. In the video, women are compared to the “beauties in nature” that are meant to please men. When a woman with a few wardrobe errors walks by a man, she is accused of not letting him enjoy the beauty or “act like a human being.”

This is what our grandparents grew up with, and we’re still recovering from the idea that women exist to be beautiful.

While you may not choose to be this extreme, I’ve personally try to cut the word “beauty” (or any of its synonyms–pretty, attractive, etc.) from my descriptions unless it is necessary. In most cases, it’s simply not important to evaluate the appearance of the character.

However, there are a few cases where an evaluation can say something about the narrator. For instance, in a romance, the narrator will more than likely be attracted to the love interest. But what features do they find attractive, and can most of those features be personal rather than physical? Can you still cut the word “beauty” and be more specific about what the character notices? What physical aspects of women have been traditionally considered unattractive that we can uplift?

There are other reasons to use the word. Maybe you want to use the word beautiful to emphasize a beauty not typically represented. Maybe it’s important to the story that a woman is beautiful. Maybe you want to show that all women are beautiful in their own way.

The main thing I try to do is avoid further engraving the idea that there is only one kind of beauty or that a woman’s worth is connected to her beauty. The problem isn’t in the word “beauty” itself but in how it is used.

Choosing the right words when describing women

Just as the word “beauty” is an evaluative statement of a woman’s appearance, any word that has a negative or positive connotation is an evaluation of a specific feature. While I think it’s okay to use positive connotations, I do avoid negative ones.

Some examples: plain, pasty, unattractive, bony, pudgy

These words highlight the negative aspects of a neutral feature. Instead, neutral or positive words would be better.

The hard part about this is not knowing what words are considered negative or positive to the reader. Everyone has different feelings associated with different words. For instance, people often call me “skinny,” but I have always viewed this as a negative word.

A character may also directly evaluate their own appearance based on things that have been stereotypically represented as “bad,” but it’s important not to overdo this or make your reader self-conscious about their own similar features. Does every girl, for instance, have to be self-conscious about her freckles? Maybe it would be good to have a characters who love their freckles, giving the reader permission to love their own.

But what about villains and unlikeable characters?

Too often, I think, ugliness is associated with meanness. If we can tell someone is a villain or meant to be unlikeable because of a mere description, there may be something wrong. While these characters can certainly be unattractive physically, I think it’s important to avoid perpetuating these stereotypes. Even though you’re describing a villain, negatively associating certain features with villainy can be harmful.

Avoiding evaluations based on weight when describing women

Weight descriptors can especially carry connotations. With this, I think about how I would want someone to describe me. As someone who is perpetually thin (the kind that makes moms beg you to eat seconds when you’re stuffed), I grow very insecure when I’m called “skinny” or “bony,” especially when it’s someone’s first reaction to meeting me. This tells me that this is the first thing people notice about me. I would much rather be described by my personality. If appearances must be described, then yes, smallness is a big part of my appearance and may even affect my personality in some ways–such as how I walk or sit or fidget. Still, I’d want a writer to emphasize something else as well.

I mention this because I’ve noticed that much of the body shaming movement focuses on empowering heavier women while shaming “skinny” women, and that may be why strangers feel it’s okay to tell me I need to eat more (yes, this has happened). It’s important that, in celebrating one type, we aren’t shaming the other type.

People are often insecure about their weight, so I think it’s okay for your characters to mention their concerns about their own appearance by describing themselves negatively. To me, what is more important is how your narrator views others. If they are describing another girl or woman with negative words such as “skeletal” or “pudgy,” for instance, the reader is expected to view the neutral characteristic (thin or full-bodied) as negative.

There are ways to describe size as well with a focus on smaller details. For instead of saying “she was skinny,” you could describe her “thin wrists” or “long fingers.”

The point isn’t to avoid describing weight but to provide neutral or positive descriptions.

Describing all types of women

I don’t think the answer is that we avoid descriptions altogether, nor that we only describe what we as a culture have traditionally considered to be beautiful features.

It’s okay to write that a woman has hunched shoulders, that her nails are dirty, or that her hair is frazzled. And it’s okay to write that a woman has curvy hips and manicured fingers. There are all kinds of women, and their appearance is only a small part of who they are.

If we overthink this, we may never write a description again. Go with your gut and describe as truthfully as you can.

In the end, a woman’s appearance is only a minuscule part of who she is.

That’s why the next point is so important.

Describe non-physical aspects of your characters

Like I said above about how I would want to be described, it’s important to give a full picture of your character. Otherwise, you are only revealing the tip of the iceberg. Show us how she is soft spoken or snorts when she laughs. Show her being bold or cautious. Let her be real and flawed and relatable. Because the point isn’t that you make all of your female characters “perfect” according to a traditional measure. The point is that we don’t determine their value based on their appearances. Instead, we introduce what they look like and then jump into getting to know who they are.

Just Keep Writing: When You Feel Behind

Comparison is the thief of joy

The saying is true. I’m not usually a jealous person. I’m not competitive, and sometimes I even hate winning a game because I feel bad for the other person or don’t know how to be happy for myself without looking arrogant or rude. I’ll even talk down about myself to avoid sounding like I’m bragging.

Internally, though, I am hard on myself. I want to succeed and be the best. When I first started writing as a kid, I dreamed big about being published as one of the youngest fantasy writers of all time. As I grew older, my goals became more grounded, but I still thought I would be further along than I am now. I don’t often compare myself to others, but I do compare my situation to where I want to be. And that summons other negative thoughts about how I’m not good enough, I’ve wasted my time, and I’ll never succeed.

Two days ago, these thoughts hit me hard when I was reading Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The writing is intelligent and thrilling, and when I saw a picture of a young, beautiful woman on the back jacket above a list of impressive credits, a rare jealousy spiked inside me. How had this young woman achieved so much? Why wasn’t I further along than I was, considering I had written throughout my teenage years, majored in English and Creative Writing, and graduated with an MFA?

Today I learned that Moreno-Garcia is actually 40, though I could have sworn she was in her twenties. She published her first short story collection when she was in her early thirties.

This doesn’t discredit all of the other writers who reached fame in their twenties (cough–Victoria Schwab–cough). But even Victoria Schwab describes the time and work she put into her career, and that being an “overnight success” is, for the most part, a myth.

The point is, after a bout of irrational anger and disappointment, I had to remember that everyone is on a different journey. I can’t focus on what others are doing. That’s crippling and halts my writing. I have to focus on what I’m doing by setting my own goals and working to improve.

We have to focus on what we are doing

I wrote recently that I can’t focus on the things that are not in my control, such as whether or not I publish a book. But I can focus on sitting down to write every day and enjoying the journey. As long as I’m writing, I’m growing.

This is a tough lesson for me. I still struggle with this. I want to be as good as Schwab and Moreno-Garcia and so many others. I want my first drafts to sound like their final drafts. I want it to be easy. But that’s not how it works. Every writer puts in countless hours of time into their work, and the only way for me to improve is to do the same.

It’s also important to remember how much we’ve grown. I have to constantly remind myself of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, both as a writer and as a person. Nothing I’ve done was a waste of time, just like going for a run isn’t a waste of time if you never win a competition. Most people don’t run for competition. They simply enjoy doing it because it’s good for them and makes them feel good. Success for an amateur runner is about those daily goals and habits. Writing is the same way when we set aside goals that are out of our control and make reasonable, daily goals. We’re not limping behind writers who have gone ahead but standing on the same platform, cheering each other on. Every published author is doing what you’re doing today: sitting down to write.

I know. You’re probably thinking, “But I want to publish! I want to be read!” Yeah. Me too. And I want to be excellent at what I do. But obsessing over a goal outside of our control is damaging. When my goal is to publish, I think more about marketing and and finding agents/editors than I do about writing. All of those things are good and important, but it becomes dangerous when it takes up more time and energy than my actual writing. When my focus is on becoming a better writer, my focus narrows onto the page and the words and the craft, and I begin to enjoy the process again.

So today I’m choosing to focus on what I can do. I’m congratulating the success of others who have gone before me, remembering how far I’ve come, and, most of all, writing.

*Just as a reminder, these posts are all pep talks that I give to myself when I’m struggling with writing. If you deal with any of these things and want to share how you overcame/are overcoming them, please comment below! I’d love to hear from you!

Just Keep Writing: Everything is Derivative

“Just Keep Writing” is a series of pep talks I’m writing for myself in hopes that it will help you as well.

I just learned from The Myths and Legends podcast that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was derived from a traditional story called Amleth (listen to story here). That’s right. Shakespeare moved the H, changed a few details, and wrote one of his most famous plays.

I am personally terrified of writing unintentionally derivative stories, but this made me consider how many other stories are derived.

Tolkien and Lewis, for instance, gleaned most of their ideas from folklore, mythology, and legends such as Beowolf, Sir Gawain, or The Knights at the Round Table.

Greek, Norse, and various other mythologies have inspired countless media, including super heroes like Thor or books like Percy Jackson series.

The Magnificent Seven, A Bug’s Life, and episodes from Clone Wars and The Mandalorian were inspired by Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. In fact, Star Wars was inspired in part by Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is a retelling of Macbeth. (Side note: My husband and I are on a Kurosawa kick)

Pretty much every Disney cartoon is based on an existing fairytale, book, or story (including Hamlet in The Lion King) that has been retold again and again in various times and settings.

How many books have you read that were inspired by Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or Beauty and the Beast? Or how many stories have your read about a farmer finding a dragon egg or being called away by a wizard?

Everything is derivative.

And that’s okay.

While I do think there’s a difference between an influenced story and a total remake, I am writing all this down to remember that having a 100% original idea is not the point.

I used to wonder how songwriters continued to discover new melodies and lyrics despite the billions of existing songs. But the combination of notes and voice and words and instrument are never ending. In the same way, most inventions are really innovations, and the beauty of photographs and paintings isn’t just about the subject but about the way that subject is seen through angles and lights and motion.

The same is true of stories.

I strive for originality in my stories, but no matter what I do I end up finding a story with similar elements. But the elements don’t make the story. Stories are a tapestry of character, setting, details, voice, and plot.

Many stories come from blending the familiar and the strange. For instance, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson has the classic master-apprentice storyline, but the magic system, characters, and conflict make it unique.

A Bug’s Life is similar to The Seven Samurai, but it’s still a vastly different movie, just as The Lion King is different from Hamlet. (Why we needed a new, word-for-word version of The Lion King, or any other animated Disney movie remake, is lost on me, though it seems like an elaborate money-making scheme).

When we write, we draw from several pools of knowledge and experience–real or imagined–to make something new. We need to widen the pool by consuming more stories.

I’ve found that podcasts like Myths and Legends help me come up with ideas. So does learning new things about history, culture, or nature. For instance, I’m writing a fantasy story with a setting inspired by Santorini, Greece. While I am changing elements to make it original (familiar + strange), I’m drawing from it like an impressionist painter draws from a landscape.

The more input I take in, the more output can flow out. I think this is what it really means to “write what you know.” Keep learning, and you’ll have more to write about.

Just Keep Writing: Really Rough Drafts

First, an Update!

I just finished the second draft of my middle grade fantasy novel!

Funny Celebration Gif

I started the novel two winters ago, so it was my goal to finish the rewrite this month. Because I’m off work right now as a teacher, I was able to pull it off.

And honestly, this draft is rough. I rewrote the first draft because I mostly discovery wrote it. Even though I wrote an outline for the rewrite, I still struggled to settle on the plot, so I still have chapters that don’t belong. I also tried to turn off my internal editor and just write the story even if it wasn’t pretty. The first few chapters are nearly done, but the rest are just the bare bones of what I want it to be.

Despite how bad it is, I’m celebrating because I reached my goal! Now, I plan on doing one more revision pass to make sure all the pieces fit and the characters are developed, then I’ll work on making the prose tighter.

I still have a long way to go, and honestly the draft is so bad that sometimes I want to just move on and write something else. But learning to revise a bad draft is one of the most important things a writer can do, and I am determined to make this book as good as I can possibly make it.

It’s Okay to Write a Rough Draft

Drafts are called “rough” for a reason. I honestly hoped my second draft would be closer to being done than it is, but it’s still better than it was. I had to give myself permission to write poorly so that I could make something better out of it.

Today, instead of being discouraged over a rough draft, I’m picking up inspiration from other writers who have walked through the drafting and revision process. I hope these encourage you as well!

5 Inspiring Quotes on Rough Drafts

Setting and Tracking Writing Goals (with downloadable Excel sheet)

Setting writing goals

Setting daily word count goals has helped me tremendously over the years, particularly when writing my MFA thesis. These goals made my writing time more focused, and tracking those goals made the end of my writing time more satisfying.

Making writing goals can be tricky. You can focus on word count or time or both. An hourly goal can help you focus more on the time you spend rather than on the word count. That way you can achieve your goal even if you haven’t written a word. At least you spent time thinking about, planning, or researching for your book. I like this method, especially because some days I really can’t write. For instance, the other day I stopped writing to plan instead.

Word count goals are more specific, which is often what I need. I like knowing that, at the end of the month, I’ll have written a certain number of words. It also pushes me to write faster and more often even when I don’t “feel like it” or can’t write a pretty sentence. I tend to be perfectionistic about the prose, so having the writing goal forces be to get the draft out no matter how bad it is that first time. It turns off my internal editor so that I can keep going.

The important thing to me is that I work on my book everyday to keep up my momentum. If I plan too long without writing, I lose my momentum, and then I have to just start writing again, knowing I can always fix it in post.

That said, I like to set word-count goals but remain forgiving if I can’t write on a particular day. That’s why I also set weekly goals. If I miss a day, or I work on planning or revising instead, I can make up for the words later in the week and still reach my goal.

Start with practical goals

I like to start simply, especially if I’ve taken a long writing break. 300 words a day is usually doable no matter how busy I am, but even 100 words will get me to sit down and focus on my book for a little while.

Because I’m a teacher and am currently not teaching any classes, I have a lot of time on my hands, so my current daily goal is 1500 words, though sometimes I write far more or far less.

2000 words is a good goal if you have the time. Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson shoot for this, King noting in On Writing that he can draft a novel in three months at this pace, though this depends on the total word count you’re shooting for. Right now, I’m writing a middle grade book, and I was able to draft almost 30,000 words in 4 weeks with an average of 1300 words a day.

Tracking Goals

You can track your goals however you like. Most word processors, and even Scrivener (my preferred software), show word counts.

I personally like tracking my words each day in an Excel sheet with automatic calculators. To me, this gamifies the tracking process, giving me a boost of serotonin when I input my words and see all the numbers go up on the page.

Below is how my Excel sheet looks after 4 weeks.

Again, my goal was 1500 a week, and you can see where I failed to reach that on some days but exceeded it on others. Most weeks I have reached my weekly goal of 7500 (or came close to it–again, have some grace for yourself when you can’t reach the goal.) All those numbers are calculated at the bottom to show my total since I started using the sheet added to what I started with for my grand total.

It may sound silly, but this Excel sheet actually helps motivate me to plug in my numbers every day.

Download Excel Word-Count Tracker

If you want a copy of the spreadsheet I’ve made for myself with all of the calculations already set up, you can download it below! It is currently set up for 1500 words per day for twenty weeks. You can adjust the word count goal, then simply type in your words each day.

Let me know how it works for you!

Just Keep Writing: When You Lose Your Momentum

“Just Keep Writing” is a series of pep talks I’m writing for myself in hopes that it will help you as well.

So–I stopped writing yesterday.

I had great momentum for three weeks, wrote 20,000+ words, and then hit a wall in my story. I knew I wanted certain things to happen in the story, but what I’d written wasn’t leading there. I had to re-evaluate what I had written, mix up the timeline of events, and spend a lot of time brainstorming.

These roadblocks are inevitable, but the problem is when I allow them to steal my confidence and joy in my story. I get frustrated, and all those insecure voices in my head tell me to quit. This led me to sitting at my desk yesterday with a neck ache on the verge of tears. My momentum–and motivation–was gone.

Today, I wrote 2550 words.

To get there, I had to take some steps to get my momentum back.

First, I spent some time writing down possible ways I could fix the story. Then my husband caught me being down and told me to take a bath and relax for the evening, which turned out to be great advice. Sometimes I need a break, especially when I’ve been staring at the story all day.

This morning, I still wasn’t sure where to go. So I went through my options several more times. Again, though, I got stuck in analysis paralysis, not able to decide which solution to try.

Finally, I went to my go-to podcasts, because it usually helps motivate and encourage me to listen to other writers talking about writing problems.

I listened to The Writing Excuses Podcast’s episode on NanoWrimo because writers during National Novel Writing Month have to keep writing no matter what. I also listened to their episode on discovery writing because, while I’m not a discovery writer, I always stray from my outline and deal with many of the problems with re-writes that discovery writers deal with.

And they had some good advice. They suggested that writers just keep writing. (Hey, isn’t that the title of these posts? Why hadn’t I thought of that?)

So, what they mean by that is that, while it’s good to take some time to plan, sometimes the best way to get your momentum back is just to keep writing and see where it goes. You can always fix it in post.

That last part is important to me. To keep writing, I have to remind myself that it’s okay if I have to go back and rewrite it. It’s not a waste of time. I literally spent a week staring at an outline. It would be better–and more fun–to just write as many drafts as I need to if it means I’ll end up with the best solution. After all, if I were preparing to run a marathon, I wouldn’t beat myself up over the days that I ran.

As writers, we need to get more comfortable with the idea of rewriting, even if we have to do it multiple times. It’s my resistance to this process that makes me stress and lose confidence. I start to think I’m not a good writer because I can’t get it right the first time. Or I think I’ll rewrite and rewrite the same book forever, slowly destroying it in the process.

Maybe I need to think of this instead as an exciting journey of discovery. (Journey before destination, right?)

Outlining can freeze my creativity, but writing the story fuels it and gives me more ideas. I think that’s why I can never stick to an outline. The outline comes from a practical side of my brain, while the actual writing comes from the creative part. My creative part will always be better than my practical part, so if I want to get out of analysis paralysis, I really do have to just keep writing.

This is how I worked through my block this week. What about you? How do you regain momentum? Do you discovery write your way through, or can you work with an outline? Let me know in the comments!

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The Wingfeather Tales: A Review for Readers

If you don’t know, I joined the launch team for The Wingfeather Tales, which released in March. I’ve written reviews elsewhere, but I wanted to write a more detailed one here.

The Wingfeather Tales is a collaborative collection from the world of Aerwiar where The Wingfeather Saga takes place. If you haven’t read The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson (which I’ve reviewed here), you can choose to read this book first if you like, but there will be spoilers.

The Tales includes seven stories by five authors (two are by Andrew Peterson) and illustrated by nine different artists. None of the tales feature the main characters of the original saga, but a few side characters do make appearances, including Podo as a young man. Readers will also recognize the characters in “Shadowblade and the Florid Sword,” a comic by Andrew Peterson, though I won’t spoil that here. The fun part of these stories is getting to see this world fleshed out more. We even get to see some new magic and creatures that make the world more breathtaking.

I spend some time in my review of The Wingfeather Tales describing the ideal reading age since the books do get dark (in the most redeemable way). The Wingfeather Tales are no different. Not only are some of them dark (notably “From the Deeps of the Dragon King” and “The Places Beyond the Maps”), but some are also written at a higher reading level. If your kids read The Wingfeather Tales on their own, they are probably fine reading this; however, they may get frustrated with the vocabulary in “The Wooing of Sophelia Strupe” or the gravity of “The Places Beyond the Maps,” which I’ll discuss more below.

The first story (and my favorite) in the collection is Andrew Peterson’s “The Prince of Yorsha Doon.” It’s a classic hero’s journey tale in a setting very much like The Arabian Knights. I was actually surprised by how similar this story is to Aladin (a street rat is the main character), but it somehow fit the world, and the story was lovely. Of all of the stories, this one felt the most like a complete, traditional story, and I think that’s why I liked it so much. It was also the only story with children as main characters, so younger readers may relate to it the most. Finally, it features a cameo from one of the beloved side characters, but I won’t spoil that!

“The Wooing of Sophelia Strupe” by Jennifor Trafton is a hilarious story about Ollister Pebmrick, the writer of the Creaturepedia that is so often referenced in The Wingfeather Tales. With almost as many made-up words as a Dr. Seuss book and just as many high reading level vocabulary, it may be one you want to read aloud to your kids to avoid frustration. That said, this story contains one of the best “sense of wonder” moments I’ve read in awhile, so I won’t give anything else away.

I don’t know if Trafton and Wilson collaborated when they planned their stories, but “Willow Worlds” by N. D. Wilson had an equally powerful “sense of wonder” moment that gave me chills. The magic in both stories is related as well. While I was a little disappointed at the cut-off ending, this story expanded the world of Aewiar in a truly magical way.

“From the Deeps of the Dragon King” by A. S. Peterson shows young Podo in his dragon-killing days. That said, it is not for weak stomachs. In an interview, Peterson actually describes how he had to take out violence in his revision. The issue for me wasn’t the violence but that the violence was happening to baby dragons. However, the story is meant to bother you and make you squirm, so it did it’s job. Even more, it fleshes out the character of Podo and helps us understand him more.

Things get silly again with “The Ballard of Lanric and Rube” by Jonathan Rogers. The poem is a song sung by Armulyn the Bard about two men fighting for the love of one woman. As you can guess, it doesn’t go well. I would love to hear this song set to music one day.

The comic, “Shadowblade and the Florid Sword” by Andrew Peterson is, of course, another fun story with the primary purpose of showing us what happened to two of the characters in the books. It was delightful to see them show up again, especially with the drawings. I would buy a book about these characters if it ever came out.

After all the silliness of the above short stories comes the “The Places Beyond the Maps,” a novella by Douglas McKelvey that reads like a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s beautiful. But it’s slow, with long, poetic sentences that sometimes have to be unravelled. The protagonist is an adult man who lost his daughter and travels to escape his past and confront the Maker. While I think there are some kids who would be eager to read this more complex story, this story is written (intentionally or not) for adults. This confused me, to be honest, because The Wingfeather franchise is targeted for kids. “The Places Beyond the Maps” is a gorgeous story worth reading with the family, but you need to be willing to trudge through the pages as the character literally trudges through landscapes with no one to talk to. The best parts of this story–not to reveal to much–is when the character finds and interacts with strangers (including a very special bard). All of the slow-burning middle builds up to a beautiful ending that, I think, could not have been achieved in a shorter story.

These writers have done a wonderful job collaborating to write seven completely different stories with different tones, settings, and characters, but somehow in a cohesive world and cross-over themes. If you’re interested in how they collaborated, you can listen to an interview with the authors on The Habit podcast here: Wingfeather Tales Podcast

Enjoy your journey (back) to Aewiar!

Just Keep Writing: How to Keep Writing Through Self-Doubt

“Just Keep Writing” is a series of pep talks I’m writing for myself in hopes that it will help you as well.

I’m having one of those self-doubt days where I look at my writing and wonder what I’ve been doing with my life. So today I’m writing to show solidarity with all of you self-doubting writers to encourage you (and myself) to keep writing.

I’m working on a second draft (total re-write) of a middle grade novel. I stopped the first draft at 46,000 words because I could tell the ending wasn’t going to work with what I had written. There were too many broken pieces, so I needed to re-outline and start over.

I’m now at 50,000 words or so of the re-write, but I’m still not feeling like it’s much better. I have good days where I drill out 2500 words and feel productive, but then I have days like today where I write 500 and freeze up out of fear that I’m wasting my time with a broken story.

But I’m not going to give up, and here’s why.

If I don’t finish what I started and make it as good as it can be, then I’ll never learn how to revise a difficult story.

Some stories come out nearly perfect, but others need more time to simmer. That doesn’t mean that this story is bad. It just needs more work before it becomes as good as it can be.

Recognizing the flaws in a story is also not a sign that I’m a terrible writer. Rather, it means that I’m growing as a writer because I’m able to see when things need to be better.

For now, I’m setting aside thoughts of publication and moving forward with the goal to just finish what I started no matter what. I may need to re-write it again, but this is sometimes what authors have to do.

If I do this, then I will have learned how to be patient with a story and work hard at it even when it seems awful.

I will say that I have already learned so much from my failures in this process. For instance, for this draft, I tried to focus primarily on plot with the intention of going back and fleshing out the characters and prose. But without well-developed characters and enjoyable prose, it’s hard to approach the draft with any excitement. I can take this lesson with me when I start my next book, and I’m taking that as a win.

Thanks for reading my rants. I hope they encourage you to stay positive today.

What do you do when you feel discouraged about a draft? Let me know in the comments!

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Just Keep Writing: When You Find a Book Identical to Yours

“Just Keep Writing” is a series of pep talks I’m writing for myself in hopes that it will help you as well.

Last night, I found out about a book almost identical to my own, and despite having a great writing day, I was ready to throw out my book for good.

But this only lasted about five minutes. Because, after doing more research, I decided that I just needed to write my book.

In my last post, I wrote about putting the journey before the destination. In other words, I have to choose every day to focus on enjoying the process no matter where it leads. In this case, my goal is to write the best version of my book that I can write. Not the best version of someone else’s book, or the best book ever, but the best of the story that I intended to write. Whether or not it gets published, I can still achieve this goal to grow as a writer and write a story I love. Maybe I can even give it to my kids or family one day.

I also reminded myself that many, many books are similar, and that’s okay. For instance, it would probably take days to track down and count every story inspired by Cinderella. Why do we want so many books about a humble girl with an evil stepmother becoming a princess? Because each one has a different flavor. It’s all cake–but some of it is vanilla and some is chocolate. Maybe that’s not the best metaphor, but what I’m trying to say is that even if my book has a similar plot line to someone else’s, each book will have a distinct flavor. While one audience may want the other flavor, there will be some who prefer mine.

This comes down to voice, which is really just aesthetic when it comes down to it. What does the book cover look like? What kind of characters are there? Is it funny? Dark? Magical? Grounded? Is it heartwarming or tragic? Is the prose straight-forward or poetic? All of these things make stories different. It’s why we like seeing Cinderella in different time periods or locations. Cinderella in space has a very different aesthetic from Cinderella in a ’50s diner. That’s why millions of people can write stories and every single one will be distinct.

So stop looking up similar books and falling into the pits of despair. While it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the industry and what’s already out there, doing this while you’re 50,000 words into the book is a dangerous step.

Just keep writing the book that excited you until it’s something you’re proud of.

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Just Keep Writing: Journey Before Destination

“Just Keep Writing” is a series of pep talks I’m writing for myself in hopes that it will help you as well.

Recently I was inspired by this video by Brandon Sanderson about lies writers tell you. In it, he explains how writers can set practical goals and how publishing is based on luck. I highly encourage you to watch it (if only to see his adorable parrot using “the force”), but I will also be covering some of the ideas from the video below.

This video made me deeply consider why I’m writing. I do want to get published, but what if that doesn’t happen? Would I still be willing to write?

While Sanderson clearly has been successful, he had to write thirteen unpublished books (including the original version of The Way of Kings) to get there. That process was discouraging, but he eventually decided that he would keep writing even if he died without ever publishing a book. He chose to enjoy the process no matter where it took him.

If you’ve read The Stormlight Archive, you know that “journey before destination” is an important phrase to the character Kaladin. It means that you focus on the process more than the outcome. The outcome may be disappointing, but the journey can still be worth it.

Sanderson explains how this phrase is important to him as a writer.

We can’t know the outcome of our efforts. Success in writing isn’t one of those things you can accomplish just by “setting your mind to it.” You can self-publish, but you can’t guarantee that it will sell.

So what can we do?

We focus on the journey.

Sanderson’s practical suggestion is this: Set goals that you can achieve.

Instead of setting goals around publication that are out of your control, set goals based on your own writing habits and production.

If we never publish, it’s okay. Sanderson argues that writing is worth it. Like playing basketball with friends or playing piano in your living room, you can enjoy the process without being in the major leagues or on a stage. Not only that, but, like playing sports or instruments, it’s good for you to write and to do hard things. It’s good for us to strive after difficult goals and to use our minds creatively.

For me, writing has been wonderful for my mental health. It gives me something to do with all of my imagination besides thinking of worst-case-scenarios.

So today let’s set goals that focus on the journey.

Here are some examples from my own list of goals:

  1. Write 7500 words a week, or revise 3 chapters a week
  2. Write the best possible version of my book
  3. Write a better book next time
  4. Learn more about craft through reading great books, listening to podcasts, and watching videos
  5. Finish the second draft of my by June

I keep these goals on post-it notes on the window by my desk as reminders that these are the things in my control.

What goals do you have? What drives you to write? Tell me in the comments!

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