The Value of Failure

by Jami Gold on July 29, 2014

in Over-Achieving Perfectionist

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I’m back from the RWA National writing conference but still feeling rather zombie-like. Mix an introvert into an extroverted (2000+ attendees!) situation, add tons of great workshops to stretch her brain, and subtract decent sleep for the week leading up to the conference and continuing through the conference, and you have a mess. That is, you have me. *smile*

I want to thank Mary Buckham for going above and beyond with her “takeover” of my blog last week. She did a phenomenal job answering questions and replying to comments—in addition to her great posts on improving our setting descriptions through deep point of view and anchoring our scenes. And congratulations to Amanda and Serena for their wins in Mary’s giveaways. Yay!

My workshop went well and I attended several fantastic sessions, so I’ll be sharing additional thoughts in the upcoming weeks. But for now, I need a topic I can fake being coherent for in a short post. *grin* Then I can return to being brain dead for another day or two.

Perfectionism and Fears

My regular readers know I’m a perfectionist, as I’ve mentioned it many times, but I try not to let it hold me back. After all, logically I know perfection is impossible. So every week I manage to publish blog posts and share my work with others despite its flaws.

However, facing various choices and issues in my writing career has forced me to recognize that sometimes I do suffer from a related fear. And that fear does hold me back.

  1. I’m a perfectionist.
  2. The drive for perfectionism can trigger a fear of failure.

I would bet that I’m not alone with this dual whammy of issues. While I don’t let my perfectionism hold me back in day-to-day life, I struggle when facing choices: What if I choose “wrong”?

This might not be the typical “fear of failure,” but I think it is related. Whether we call it failure or not, it’s a fear of doing something “wrong.”

In writing, it might be a fear of writing our genre wrong, or writing the wrong kind of character. Or maybe we worry about whether an agent or contract is wrong for us. Or maybe we fear the publishing path we’re on will flop or that we’re too late to the game to find success.

In short, this fear of doing things “wrong” can paralyze us from making any choices at all. That paralysis is what’s really wrong.

Failure Isn’t the End

Bestselling author Sylvia Day was the Keynote Speaker at the RWA Annual Conference, and one of the themes of her talk was the danger of failure and fear. She pointed out that not only does fear of failure hold us back, but it also prevents us from learning from our mistakes.

Sure, we might choose “wrong,” but very few mistakes in our life won’t come with a lesson we can take away for the future. With each new book, we can experiment with our writing techniques. Maybe an agent is “wrong” for us, but we can change agents. A “wrong” contract doesn’t prevent us from writing new stories for new options. Self-published authors can change books covers and blurbs if they turn out to be “wrong” for attracting readers.

Even a choice of a publishing path doesn’t have to be permanent. Plenty of authors have gone from traditional to self-publishing and vice versa—or found a middle ground with hybrid publishing.

If we make a choice and it turns out to be a mistake due to one thing or another—and we learn from that mistake—is our choice really a mistake?

The problem isn’t with making mistakes. We all make mistakes every day and can’t avoid that fact. Living life without mistakes is just as impossible as living life perfectly. The problem is only if we don’t learn anything from our mistakes.

Failure Is a Learning Experience

It’s only by “failing” to receive “everything is perfect” feedback that we learn how we can improve our writing. It’s only by receiving rejections that we learn which agents aren’t a good fit for our work. And it’s only by trying that we’ll learn what doesn’t work.

We see this in the rest of our life too. We often need to date several “not right for us” people to learn what we don’t want in a life partner. Or we might have to try a class in school to learn the subject isn’t nearly as interesting to us as we thought.

Writing isn’t any different. It’s only by “failing” that we learn.

But that truth means failure has value. If failure teaches us something, it’s not strictly a bad thing.

If our goal is not to “succeed”
or avoid failure or mistakes,
but to learn something,
we will never fail.

Image of "never fail" quote(Like this quote? )

I’m going to try to apply this perspective to my writing life. If I can stop stressing about “doing something wrong” and instead focus on “learning to do it better next time,” I might be less intimidated by decisions. Maybe I can stop being paralyzed when faced with big choices so I can move forward.  Someday, I might even look forward to the opportunity to make new mistakes. *smile*

Do you agree that a fear of doing something wrong is related to a fear of failure? Do you struggle with the “what if I do something wrong” style of fear of failure? Can failure have value? Do you think it’s always possible to view failure as a learning experience? And if not, what makes that attitude difficult or impossible?

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Anchor on a beach with text: How to Anchor Our Settings

I’m still in San Antonio, getting ready for my presentation at the Romance Writers of America National Conference. But don’t worry, USA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham is back with Part Two of her guest post on writing active settings. *smile*

If you missed Part One, be sure to check Tuesday’s post, where Mary shared one of the biggest hurdles to writing great descriptions. She also gave a simple tip to make our Settings come alive for readers.

(Mary is also offering a different giveaway on each post, so don’t miss your chance to comment and enter. We’ll be selecting a name from each post this weekend.)

Today, she’s going to share the second biggest hurdle to writing great descriptions. Yay! Take it away, Mary!

*****

Anchoring Our Settings (& Our Readers)

Have you ever read a book, set it down at the end of a chapter because it was late or time to stop reading and, when you returned to it, you struggled to get back into the story?

Or you’re reading along and are jarred out of the story because you become confused, especially about where the characters are or how much time has passed since a scene or chapter break?

It’s important to never jar a reader, making them suddenly aware that they are in fact reading rather than experiencing.

How do you get around this? Anchoring.

Anchoring, or orienting the reader as to the when and where of the story, is very important to the success of a novel. Anchoring is created when the reader is better able to picture the where and when as well as the who is in the scene and what are they doing at this particular point in the story, which creates a stronger emotional tie by the reader to the character in the story, and thus to the story.

Is Anchoring Really Such a Major Problem?

Since most of us have only read published novels, it’s hard to show how this small craft detail can separate the published from the unpublished, but if you’ve had the chance to read unpublished work for contests, or worked with newer writers, you’ve likely seen this lack of anchoring time and time again. There’s a reason for this lack—two, actually.

#1: What We Imagine Doesn’t End Up on the Page

The first reason, and the most common one, occurs because as we write we can be so deep into the world of our characters that we assume more information is on the page than is really there.

So when we say mountain we assume the reader can see a ten thousand-foot former volcano while the reader may imagine a thousand-foot bump rising out of a flat landscape, or a jagged granite edifice that fronts more mountains such as how one sees the Rocky Mountains if traveling west from the plains. The reader’s vision is based on their knowledge and experience, not on what you’re showing them on the page.

If your character is flying a plane that’s lost power midair and is heading right for the mountain, these interpretations will make a huge difference.

NOTE: Specific details can paint a much clearer and stronger image for the reader than generic, vague details. If your Setting matters to the story, aim for specific, like making that plane heading for the mountain a Cessna 206. If your Setting does not play as large a part in your story—you could be in any small town in any state—the reader still needs to be anchored from chapter to chapter.

#2: Interruptions at Scene and Chapter Breaks

The second most common mistake is forgetting that the reader may have set the book down at the end of the last chapter, or scene, or you have ended a scene in one location and opened the next chapter, or scene, in a new location. Either way the reader needs to get re-oriented quickly so they can slip back into the story world and move forward with the action.

Especially at the beginning of a chapter, or beginning of a new scene, it’s vital to quickly orient the reader as to where the character is, who the character is and how much time has passed since the last chapter or scene.

Why? Because you the author broke the story suspension by breaking the story.

Think of this as a commercial interruption. You have to re-engage the reader back into the story by raising a story question or hook when you left them off and quickly answer the who, what, when, where questions that are raised if there’s any passage of time since they read the previous chapter or scene.

If the reader is struggling too hard to figure out whose point of view they are in (who), has the action changed (what), passage of time (when), or the Setting (where) they are not as engaged in the story itself. The longer this goes on the easier to set the book down again and walk away.

Solutions: How Should We Anchor Our Scenes?

  • If there’s no passage in time between the last chapter or scene, echo without repeating the same information in the same way to make it quickly clear time and place have not changed.
    Example, a fight ended the last chapter with a hard upper cut to an attacker’s jaw, new chapter starts with the swing that didn’t connect.
  • If there is a passage of time reveal that within the first 2-3 paragraphs by using change in lighting, quick glance at a clock/watch, or in dialogue.
  • If the Setting has changed, reorient the reader with 2-3 sentences of introducing the new Setting—sensory details can help here, as can contrast.
  • If the point of view character is the only change reference from the new character something the old character had noticed or interacted with but in a different way.

Bonus Tip for Finding Missing Anchors:

  • Give your critique partner or beta reader just the first three paragraphs of your new scene or chapter without the previous one and ask how quickly they were pulled back into the story and, if they weren’t, why not.

 *****

Thank you, Mary! This is fantastic information and some great tips! I try to be intentional when writing my setting descriptions, but I need to go check my anchoring at the beginning of each scene.

*makes a mental note to add that to my list of editing items to check*

I especially love the Bonus Tip for how to find those problematic, missing transitions. Thank you so much for sharing!

In Mary’s workshop this past April, she pointed out that the longer we wait to anchor readers at a new scene or chapter, the more confused or disconnected they are. They’ll be looking for any clue to make them feel less adrift, and that means they’re paying less attention to the story. Not good.

Book cover of Writing Active Setting: The Complete How-to GuideIn her Writing Active Setting series, Mary shares tips on subtle ways we can allude to the where (geography, climate, social context, character impression, etc.) and the when (light and shadows, behavior of animals, foreshadowing of events to come, etc.) for our settings.

She shares tons of examples that illustrate how to put her advice into practice. The complete set includes a chapter on anchoring our settings, as well as chapters on each of the other ways we can make our descriptions work harder and smarter.

*****

Mary BuckhamUSA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham writes the Amazon best selling WRITING ACTIVE SETTING series (in e-format and now in book form) as well as Urban Fantasy w/attitude.

Love romance, danger & kick-ass heroines? Find it in her Invisible Recruits series: www.MaryBuckham.com or www.InvisibleRecruits.com.

Writing Active Setting: The Complete How-to Guide with Bonus Section on Hooks Box Set by Mary Buckham in e-book or print versions at your nearest online bookstore!

*****

Mary graciously agreed to hang out in the comments while I’m away, so feel free to ask any questions you have for her. She’ll stop by during the the week and do her best to answer. *smile*
Book cover for Writing Active Setting Book 3
Mary wants to hear from you about whether you’ve ever experienced being disoriented or lost in a story. Have you stopped to ask why? Feel free to share.

As a special treat from Mary, one lucky commenter will win a free e-copy of WRITING ACTIVE SETTING Book 3: Anchoring, Action, as a Character and More! Yay! This is Book Three from her complete series.

Had you heard of this tip to anchor the beginnings of our scenes and chapters? Do you remember to anchor during drafting, or do you need to add this to your editing list (like I do)? Are certain types of transitions harder for you to anchor? Do you struggle with getting the image in your head down on the page? Do you have any tips to add, like how you decide how many (or what kind of) setting details to include?

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Place setting on a table with text: Using Point of View to Bring Settings to Life

I’m in San Antonio this week, presenting at the Romance Writers of America National Conference. But never fear, you’ll be in great hands while I’m gone. *smile*

I’m thrilled to announce that USA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham will be taking over my blog this week! Woo hoo!

Although Mary and I “knew” each other from Twitter before, we didn’t get a chance to connect until I met her in person at the Desert Dreams Conference this past spring. Mary was the featured speaker at Desert Dreams, giving a half-day presentation on writing “active” settings.

(In other words, this week, we’ll all get the benefit of conference-quality information, even though I can’t fit you into my suitcase. *grin*)

Before I turn my blog over to Mary, I want to tell you a bit more about why I was so excited to attend her presentation in April. Way back when I was a newbie writer, setting descriptions were my nemesis…

My Struggles with Writing Descriptions

In my first attempt at an original story, I included—I kid you not—several pages of dry “let me tell you everything the character sees” description. Yikes!

Some of the classics and literary novels can get away with languorous, poetic descriptions that call attention to the language itself or that provide static information just for its own sake. Most of us, especially those of us who write genre fiction, can’t make that approach work.

Our readers come for the story, not the language, so they want the story to keep moving. While our readers do appreciate lovely writing and language, we can’t “pause” the storytelling for a paragraph or more of static description. Their imagination wants movies, not a still life painting.

The trick to sharing setting information (which our readers do need) without dragging down the pace is to write active descriptions. Active descriptions let the reader imagine the setting in their mind, keep them anchored in the story, and slip in information so seamlessly that they never realize they’re reading descriptions.

Enter the fabulous Mary Buckham. She’s an expert on writing active descriptions. Her presentation at Desert Dreams was fantastic, and when I asked her here for a guest post on this tricky aspect of writing, she stepped up with an even better offer: two guest posts!

Today we have Part One, and come back Thursday for Part Two. Take it away, Mary!

*****

Why Writing Effective Setting Description Is Harder than You Think

Want to know one of the biggest hurdles to writing Setting that matters to a story? Forgetting to write the Setting from the POV (Point of View) of your character.

Too many times I see newer writers, and even more experienced ones, describing a room or street or a town based on how they see it, not how their character sees it.

Think about it a moment. Do you see a messed up bathroom the same way as your significant other? Or a teenage boy? Or someone who’s never had a bathroom all to themselves before?

Settings Need a Point of View

Instead of simply placing a character into a Setting ask yourself what matters to this character here, if anything?

Someone running through a room with someone chasing them is not going to notice the type of furniture or what knick knacks are on a mantle place. They’re going to be looking for a place to hide or an object to stop the person chasing them.

A woman who’s entertaining her possible mother-in-law for the first time in her one-room apartment is going to be noticing a whole lot of different things than her future in-law, especially if they come from a different background, social strata or even area of the country.

Using a Point of View Helps Connect Readers to the Character

Create a deeper connection between the reader and your character by revealing some of these all too telling insights. Keeping in mind of course that a little can go a long way.

Think in terms of what’s important for the reader to know about the Setting for the sake of your story and then what your POV character would notice. Put yourself deep into your character’s POV instead of skimming the surface and revealing nothing, unless nothing matters to them.

Setting can really enhance your story or work against what you want your reader to experience. Use your Setting to show more about your character for a richer, deeper experience.

How a Deeper Point of View Enhances Our Descriptions

Let’s look at an example approaching the Setting from a rough draft version to the final version.

First draft:
The wardens led me to a room and left me there.

Pretty bland description. The reader is not deep into this character’s POV because the character does not experience the room. There is no Setting so the reader is kept at arm’s length.

Note: Showing the room through deeper POV allows the reader to experience the room on a more immediate level. The reader is in the room with the character.

Second Draft:
I’m conducted to a room and left alone. It’s the richest place I’ve ever been in.

Better because now we’re given a little more insight into what the POV character is feeling based on the response to the room. But we still have no idea why the character feels this way. Nor can we see the room. Plus it’s straight telling, no showing.

 Final Draft:
Once inside, I’m conducted to a room and left alone. It’s the richest place I’ve ever been in, with thick deep carpets and a velvet couch and chairs. I know velvet because my mother has a dress with a collar made of the stuff. When I sit on the couch, I can’t help running my fingers over the fabric repeatedly. It helps to calm me as I try to prepare for the next hour. The time allotted for the tributes to say goodbye to their loved ones. — Suzanne Collins — The Hunger Games

Here we have more Setting details that allow the author to show some characterization of the POV character, reveal emotions based on her interaction with this room, and all by adding just a few more details of Setting. Not too many details because that’s not the intention of the scene, but enough to start showing you as a reader that this character is out of her comfort zone and grasping at anything that can make her world normal again.

*****

Thank you, Mary! My guest post by Janice Hardy shared how a deep point of view can fix most of our writing woes, and this tip reiterates the importance of that technique. Don’t forget to check out the second part of her post on Thursday too!

As I learned in Mary’s workshop, when we use deep POV to write active descriptions, our story’s settings can perform double or triple (or more) duty. We can make those formerly dry descriptions work harder and smarter.

Per my notes from Mary’s workshop, setting can:

  • show characterization (what do they notice or care about?)
  • show sensory detail (what does the character see, hear, smell, touch, etc.?)
  • show emotion (what’s the mood or tone for the character (or the reader)?)
  • show conflict (how does the character respond to the place?)
  • show backstory (how does the character feel about their surroundings?)

Notice how those aspects of descriptions center on the character. We need to use their POV to include details that matter. And those details will help the setting come to life in our readers’ imaginations.

To be intentional with the descriptions we write, we need to think about:

  • What setting elements do we want to reveal?
  • What does the POV character think about the setting—and why?
  • What emotions do we want to bring out?

Book cover of Writing Active Setting: The Complete How-to GuideIf you want more tips like these, check out Mary’s Writing Active Setting series. The books go into even more detail than she can cover in her workshop.

She analyzes published examples of descriptions that work, as well as gives before and after examples that illuminate how much active settings can make our stories come alive. The complete set includes a chapter on each of those five ways I listed above for how we can put our settings to work and adds several more methods for how to force our descriptions to pull double and triple duty.

*****

Mary BuckhamUSA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham writes the Amazon best selling WRITING ACTIVE SETTING series (in e-format and now in book form) as well as Urban Fantasy w/attitude.

Love romance, danger & kick-ass heroines? Find it in her Invisible Recruits series: www.MaryBuckham.com or www.InvisibleRecruits.com.

Writing Active Setting: The Complete How-to Guide with Bonus Section on Hooks Box Set by Mary Buckham in e-book or print versions at your nearest online bookstore!

*****

Mary graciously agreed to hang out in the comments while I’m away, so feel free to ask any questions you have for her. She’ll stop by during the the week and do her best to answer. *smile*
Book cover for Writing Active Setting Book 1
Mary wants to hear from you about what you think might be the second biggest stumbling block in effectively using Setting in a story. Any thoughts?

As a special treat from Mary, one lucky commenter will win a free e-copy of WRITING ACTIVE SETTING Book 1: Characterization and Sensory Detail! Yay! This is Book One from her complete series.

Have you ever struggled with writing active, non-dry, non-static descriptions? What aspect of writing descriptions is most difficult for you? If you’ve improved your descriptions over the years, what tip was most helpful? Are you able to make your setting descriptions work double and triple duty? Do you have other tips to share on writing effective setting descriptions?

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Train tracks ending on a beach with text: Want a Strong Arc? Start at The End

One technique I teach in my Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story workshop is to figure out the end of the story first. This might seem counter-intuitive when we first hear the idea, but keep reading and it will all make sense. Trust me. *smile*

As I mentioned with the John Truby worksheet I shared last week, it’s often easier to work backward when we’re framing our story. At the very least, knowing the ending often makes it easier to see our character’s arc.

I write by the seat of my pants, so my idea of the ending is usually pretty vague. And by “pretty vague,” I mean really vague:

Um, it’s a romance, so these characters will have a happy ending. *whew* Mark that to-do off the list.

But even that duh statement of the ending is enough to figure out one aspect of the beginning. Let’s take a look at how that works.

Stage 1 Arc Development: Establish a Basic Contrast

If we’re writing a story with a character arc (not all stories contain character arcs, but most do), we want our characters to change from point A (the beginning) to point B (the ending). That means we need to show contrast between point A and point B.

For my example, if point B is happy, point A must be… (all together now) …sad or unfulfilled in some way. In other words, simply by knowing the “status” of the characters at the end, we know to make their beginning status different somehow.

If we’re writing a positive ending, we know we need a scene in the beginning of the story that shows how things aren’t good for the characters. Maybe they know what they want and they’re stymied in how to make it happen. Maybe they know of plot events heading toward them that will make things worse. Or maybe they don’t know what they want, but something’s missing from their lives or they’re going through the motions and feeling unfulfilled.

Stage 2 Arc Development: Establish a Change in Beliefs

The Climax scene at the end of the story typically shows the characters facing the main conflict. In non-tragedies, we’d see the characters overcome the obstacles and “win.”

But overcoming the obstacles shouldn’t be easy. After all, if it was easy, they would have done it back in chapter one (or before the story even started).

In stories with strong character arcs, the Climax often includes a choice the characters must make. This choice is the theme.

Think of choices like: loyalty vs. justice, love vs. survival, advancement vs. compassion, etc. (Here’s a big list of values for ideas of those two ideals to choose between.) In other words, these are two good options. If one was good and the other bad, the choice would be too easy. *smile*

Step 1: Identify the Theme

There’s no wrong answer for our characters (remember, both options are “good”), but their choice does illustrate the theme of the story. For example, if we look at the “loyalty vs. justice” choice:

  • A buddy heist movie along the lines of Ocean’s Eleven might choose loyalty by ending with the characters helping each other escape, even if that means losing the “prize” to the bad guy who screwed them over.
  • A buddy detective movie along the lines of Training Day might choose justice by ending with one character turning in their partner for corruption, even though that means being disloyal to their friend.

In one case, we-the-author are imparting the message that to live a good life, we need to value people over objects. In the second case, we’re sharing the message that to live a good life, we might need to sacrifice friendship for the greater good. That choice is our theme.

Step 2: Identify the Choice

If we know what kind of story we want to tell theme-wise (at least on a basic level), we can think about how we’ll force the characters to make a choice between two good options during the Climax. Often, one option is the point of the story (the way they’re going to choose) and the other option is something else they’d be likely to choose (especially at the beginning of the story).

Being a pantser, I won’t know the specifics of the choice, but I’ll usually have some ideas for the “versus” statement. Maybe it’ll be a “love vs. survival” story, and at the end, the hero or heroine must choose between saving themselves and saving the one they’ve realized they love. That idea is sufficiently vague enough to not stress out my muse. *smile*

Step 3: Identify the Change

To create an emotional impact with our characters’ arc and the story theme, that second good option at the Climax choice should be what the characters would choose if they faced the main conflict at the beginning of the story.

Remember that we want to show contrast between Point A and Point B. So our characters’ beliefs, attitudes, values, etc. at the beginning of the story should point them to pick the second option.

Both options are “good,” so this difference in their choice doesn’t make them “bad.” This is simply how we show the biggest change in their character. The difference shows how their values and beliefs have changed.

Maybe their beliefs changed because they’re no longer operating under a false belief. Maybe they’ve gone through so many life experiences during the story that they’re now more capable. Maybe the plot events have showed them what really matters.

The important thing is that the characters are now willing to do something they weren’t willing to do before. Our story’s “plot” is simply the events that challenge their beliefs/values and the action that forces them to face the choice at the Climax.

Stage 3 Arc Development: Establish the Self-Revelation

Everything that happens in our story should have a trigger. Every effect should have a cause. So something needs to happen that forces our characters to change.

In many stories, the characters change a little bit at a time, but they won’t really change—deep down where it counts (and where it will stick)—until they realize how their beliefs are false. This revelation often happens all at once, right as they’re facing the biggest obstacle during the Climax. This self-revelation gives them the information they need to overcome their fatal flaw and/or solve the conflict.

In stories with strong, emotional Climaxes, this revelation can feel like a magical Hallelujah moment or an epiphany where the puzzle of the character’s life finally clicks into place. In other words, this is often the most dramatic moment of the story.

To make this intense moment work, we have to set it up earlier in the story. Readers should:

  • form the impression our characters would make a different choice at the beginning,
  • see evidence of our characters’ false beliefs, and
  • believe our characters are capable of figuring out their revelation.

As a pantser, I might have a vague idea of what that second option for the Climax choice would be (like “survival”), or I might not. For this stage, my muse often gives me elements to work into the story (that I don’t understand until I draft the ending and see how it all fits together), or I might need to layer it in during revisions. It’s okay to not know this ahead of time, but we can definitely think about it during revision.

…But What Triggers the Self-Revelation?

I sometimes call the self-revelation a “leap of faith” because it’s one time in our story where the cause doesn’t have to match the effect. Usually we want our characters’ emotional reactions to be proportional to the triggers. If they fly off the handle at the smallest thing, readers are going to think they’re hyper-emotional.

But for the revelation, it’s okay if the trigger is small. In a romance, maybe all it takes is the hero giving the heroine a smile at the right moment as they’re facing the big conflict. That small gesture could be enough to trigger a huge epiphany about how much she loves him—really loves him. And that realization can be enough to motivate her to make different choices.

Normally, a mere smile wouldn’t trigger a major epiphany and story-changing action. But the “leap of faith” moment of self-revelation is an exception—if we’ve established the earlier setup.

In fact, this disconnect can give the impression of the character rising to a moment of heroism and exceptional courage. If the epiphany seems like a given or too logically follows the trigger, our characters might not seem special for taking the leap.

Summing Up: Working from the Ending to the Beginning

Even if we’re the pants-iest pantser, we can still use this technique. After all, once we’ve completed the first draft, we know what the ending is, and if we’re happy with our story, that ending isn’t likely to change at the high level.

That means any changes to make a stronger arc need to come from the beginning. During revisions, we can go through these same stages to make sure the beginning is different enough to create a strong arc.

Create Contrast:

  • Ending: Know the “status” of the character(s) at the end (e.g. happy).
  • Beginning: Develop an opposing status for the beginning.

Change in Choice:

  • Ending: Identify what two good values they need to choose between at the end.
  • Beginning: Give clues for how they’d make the opposite choice at the beginning.

Show Self-Revelation:

  • Ending: Think about the epiphany they experience at the end.
  • Beginning: Hint at the false beliefs they have that they later realize are wrong.

Taken together, these elements of contrast, change in their choice, and self-revelation create the structure for character arcs. Along that structure, we can hang backstory wounds, fears, desires, goals, etc., but that basic Point A and Point B gives the arc its strength. Everything else is just details. *smile*

Have you planned stories from end-to-beginning before? Does that method work for you? If not, why not? How many of these elements can you plan in advance? Or do you need to layer them in later? Do you disagree with my theories on any of these story aspects?

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Favorite Stories: Reading vs. Writing

by Jami Gold on July 15, 2014

in Random Musings

Statue of a mother reading to a child with text: Does Your Writing Reflect Your Childhood Favorites?

This past weekend, my family watched an old ’70s movie inspired by one of my favorite childhood books, Escape to Witch Mountain. The movie is only slightly related to the book (two orphans with magical powers have to evade bad guys and find the rest of their people), but we enjoyed the cheesy special effects anyway. After the movie, I dug through my collection of childhood favorites, and sure enough, I still had my copy of the book.

That trip down memory lane got me thinking about the other books I loved when I was a kid. I still have—yes, I kept these too—several books by Ruth Chew, including The Magic CaveSummer Magic, and The Trouble with Magic. Each of those books are about two kids who encounter magic of one sort or another. Hmm…

While I haven’t reread any of those books since I was a kid, I’ve reread one of my other favorites several times over the years. Unlike the others, which were buried, The Chronicles of Narnia lives on my keeper shelf next to my desk (in the original publication order of course).

Notice a trend? Taken as a whole, all of those books involve magic and make a case for my favorite genre as a child being fantasy, specifically contemporary fantasy, where at least part of the story takes place in this world.

So maybe it’s no surprise that as an adult I write paranormal romance (contemporary fantasy in “a kissing book” *grin*). Exchange a sexy hero and a strong heroine for the brother/sister teams of those childhood books, and there are yet more similarities.

Do Our Childhood Reading Preferences Still Affect Us?

That realization this past weekend made me wonder if I was alone with how my childhood preferences carried forward to my adult reading habits. Just like back then, I read more broadly than a single genre, but my favorites tend to cluster around stories with certain elements.

As a child, I loved magical/fantasy stories for their sense of awe and wonder and limitless possibilities. I read classic science fiction for the mind-expanding commentary on what makes us human and on understanding our potential. I enjoyed general fiction for the exploration of relationships between characters.

All of those preferences—awe and limitless possibilities, social commentary, revealing humanity’s potential, and searching for life’s meaning through relationships—still hold true for me today. The stories and genres I read now have grown up and matured, but the aspects that resonate with me haven’t changed.

Or Do Our Reading Preferences Change Along with Us?

I’ve mentioned before that our worldview might not change over our lifetime, and for some of us, maybe this story-type preference is a similar situation. But for others, our reading habits might change along with our evolving personalities.

Those of us who become more cynical in the face of adulthood might find different story elements resonate with us now. Ditto for those scarred by betrayals, grief, or life’s struggles. Still others might see more happiness in life as we age out of the awkwardness and angst of our younger years.

Maybe my preferences have remained the same only because I’m now old enough to have emerged from my cynical phase and circled back to my inherent Pollyanna optimism. As C.S. Lewis wrote to his Goddaughter Lucy Barfield in the dedication of Narnia’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

Click image for full quote(Like this quote? )

Do Those Childhood Preferences Affect Our Writing?

I would never claim that either situation—our preferences staying the same or changing—was “right” or “wrong.” As I mentioned, I believe my preferences have changed over the years.

In my case, discovering the joy of writing helped me circle back to where I started. And this brings up the “part B” of my realization: What I loved reading as a child shares similarities with what I love writing now.

Those elements of “limitless possibilities, social commentary, revealing humanity’s potential, and searching for life’s meaning through relationships” fill my paranormal romance stories. Like most authors, my writing encompasses aspects of everything I’ve experienced. But I still found it interesting to see threads of influences in my writing all the way back to my single-digit years.

Know Ourselves; Know Our Writing

As authors, we tend to question ourselves about everything, all the time. Some of us even question whether we’re writing the “right” genre. Would X genre be better? Or maybe Y? Others of us question our voice, the point of view we use, the mood or tone of our stories, etc.

Maybe looking back at our childhood and seeing those early influences will help us understand why we might be pulled in one direction or another with our writing. Or maybe seeing how our preferences have changed over the years will help us accept that we don’t have to write what we used to read.

Just as understanding our worldview
might help us recognize our themes
,
understanding our reading habits over the years
might help us recognize our influences and preferences.

My understanding of my “love is powerful” worldview showed me why I’m drawn to writing romance stories. And now this understanding of my life-long preference for fantastical stories showed me why everything I write includes something paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction-esque.

Some industry insiders (agents and editors) have stated that paranormal romance is “dead” (they think it’s an over-saturated market), and this attitude has caused me to question my choices for the last several months. However, this new understanding of why I write what I do brought me peace:

I have to write what resonates within me. I can’t change genres without losing a piece of myself.

Not everyone will agree with that attitude. Some don’t mind chasing the market. Some want (or need) to prioritize income. Those aren’t “bad” or “wrong” choices.

Either way, we want to make the right decisions for us. And the best way we can do that is by gaining an understanding of ourselves, our influences, our preferences—and our writing. *smile*

What types of stories did you love as a child? Have the elements that appeal to you changed over your lifetime, and if so, in what way have they changed? If they’ve changed, why do you think that happened? How have your reading preferences influenced your writing? Can you still see some of your childhood loves in your work?

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