Should We Learn to Write Series?

by Jami Gold on April 22, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Connected chain links with text: Should We Write Series?

Many books recently on the bestseller lists have been part of series. From the Divergent series to the new cliffhanger and serial books, series are a popular trend. But what if we don’t naturally write series? Will we be left behind?

The “lessons learned” section in my post about Beverly Kendall’s self-publishing report reiterated the fact that most successful self-published authors write series. Kristen Lamb just posted about series being hot, hot, hot.

Yet at the same time, we see posts like Roni Loren’s asking if readers are becoming too impatient for series. Or from reviewers ticked off and saying authors are doing cliffhangers “wrong.”

What should we believe? And more importantly, when it comes to series, what can we do to achieve success yet avoid the pitfalls?

The Shifting Expectations for Series

Yes, series are popular, especially in certain genres and with certain readers. Children’s books (including Middle Grade and Young Adult (YA)) have long been filled with series. The growth of New Adult (NA) has continued that trend.

Historically, these series would sometimes end with cliffhangers, but more often each book resolved the main conflict by the end. For example, each Harry Potter book ended with open series arc threads about Voldemort and the ongoing threat, but the book-specific conflict about the Chamber of Secrets, etc. was complete. Each Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew story was episodic, with virtually no bearing on future books.

In the past, only a few adult genres, like epic fantasies, embraced cliffhangers. Most genres like mysteries or thrillers expected series to be episodic, with one book not necessarily affecting the next. Genres like romance, which expects a happily-ever-after (HEA) ending for the couple, utilized common settings, secondary characters getting their own book, etc. to create series.

In other words, genre expectations play a huge role in what readers will and won’t accept. So there’s no one right answer for “how to do a series.”

However, some popular YA and NA series have pushed those expectations. They involve the same characters in each book, end with cliffhangers, and if done well, can feel “epic” by the time they reach their conclusion.

Those successes have inspired authors in other genres to push against their expectations as well. Some books calling themselves adult romances now drag out the happily-ever-after for three books. Some genres are experimenting with serial novels, essentially releasing a chapter or so at a time, forcing readers to buy all the parts to receive a complete story.

Sometimes, especially for books on the edge of New Adult or in genres with a history of serial novels, these stories find success. Or some books feel epic enough to justify dragging out the conclusion.

Others? Not so much. Reader backlash has started against series that seem to drag out the story simply for money. Using unimportant obstacles to increase word count is like the series version of a “sagging middle.” Even more readers are complaining about books that don’t feel complete.

In other words, there’s definitely a way to write series that might be more “wrong,” at least as far as the potential dangers. So like any trend, we shouldn’t hop on the bandwagon without knowing the specifics.

The Dangers of Series

If each book is a complete story, either along the lines of each book resolving its conflict, being episodic, or having only setting or secondary characters in common, I think we’re safe in most (all?) genres. Readers won’t usually complain if they pay for and receive a complete story.

The problems come when we try to write and sell an incomplete story. This could be a serial novel (a couple of chapters at a time), a story that doesn’t meet genre expectations (no happily-ever-after at the end of the book), or a cliffhanger story, where the book’s main conflict isn’t resolved.

(A second type of cliffhanger story resolves the main story conflict and then introduces a new conflict in the last scene. This approach essentially incorporates a “teaser excerpt” into the story itself. Again, genre can play a huge role in whether this will be successful.)

With any of those approaches, readers often won’t feel satisfied. Yes, these cliffhangers could lead to sales by readers eager to learn the ending. But they can also lead to potential readers refusing to pick up Book One once they read the reviews and see that it’s not a complete story.

Personally, I won’t read serial novels and I expect a complete story. As I commented on Roni Loren’s post in regards to romance series:

“If the romance is the main plot and it drags on, that’s too angsty for me. Most of those don’t have the plot to support the drama, and it feels like the author is just throwing in kitchen sink obstacles to make more money. I don’t get serials until they’re complete and published in a single edition either.”

More readers seem to be getting tired of the “incomplete story” ploy. They’re waiting for the complete series to make sure the payoff will…:

  1. happen…
    (Many a traditionally published series has been cancelled mid-series, and some self-published authors don’t have the dedication they claim they do.)
  2. and be worth it.
    (We don’t want to invest many hours reading a series only to have the final act fall to pieces, leave too many unanswered questions, go in the “wrong” direction, suffer from slow pacing or pointless obstacles, etc.)

But what if the majority of readers takes this attitude? The series will look like a failure because everyone is waiting for its completion before they start reading.

The Bottom Line on Series

In other words, while series are popular, we shouldn’t feel pressured to write against our natural inclinations just because it’s trendy. Series have plenty of pitfalls that might come back to bite those authors who jump on the trend.

If we want to join the series bandwagon, we can do it while still writing connected-yet-standalone stories. In other words, we can market books as a series without featuring the same characters or cliffhangers.

When we hear about series books helping self-published authors, that doesn’t indicate we have to change our writing style. If we want to write series with a big series arc or continuing characters, we can target readers who enjoy that approach. But if we want to write series with connected-standalone stories, that can be hugely successful too.

So when we decide whether our future writing will include series, we can keep several points in mind:

  • What are the expectations of our genre?
  • What types of series could meet those expectations? (episodic, connected standalones, series arcs, etc.)
  • Does our genre have a history of serial novels or cliffhanger stories?
  • Does our genre have a history (or current rumblings) of backlash against those techniques?
  • What risks are we willing to take with our stories and marketing?
  • If we want to write cliffhanger stories, do we have enough conflict to create an epic feel and avoid pacing/sagging-middle issues?
  • If we don’t want to write cliffhanger stories but want more than episodic, could we use connected standalones (maybe with a series arc building in the background)?
  • What elements of our story could connect to other stories (setting, worldbuilding, themes, minor characters, unseen relatives or other referenced-but-off-the-page characters, villains (or villain organizations), types of conflicts, etc.)?

My current stories take the connected-standalone approach. My paranormal romance series started with a standalone novel, but as soon as I thought about the basis for the paranormal aspect, ideas filled my head with additional standalone stories connected by worldbuilding.

I see this as the best of both worlds for my genre. I’m able to meet the genre expectations for paranormal romance, complete with a happily-ever-after ending for each couple at the end of each book, and I’ll be able to market them as a series.

We’re asking for writer’s block if we try forcing writing styles that don’t work for us. But if we’re creative, we can meet marketing trends and keep our muse happy. In fact, writing a series doesn’t require learning anything new except for thinking broader about the possibilities. *smile*

Are you able to write book series? If you’ve struggled, have you worried about how to capitalize on the “pros” of having a series? As a reader, do you read some types of series and not others? Do you enjoy serial novels or cliffhangers or do they disappoint you? Does this post give you ideas for how to approach series?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Learn all about Beat Sheets on 5/8 & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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Can Genre Fiction Be “Art”?

by Jami Gold on April 17, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Piet Mondrian's

My last post about our preferences for genre vs. literary fiction sparked a fantastic conversation. Discussions continued in the post’s comments, Twitter, Facebook, and private messages, and everyone brought great insights to the issue.

One thing that quickly became apparent is that we have a hard time defining literary fiction. In that post, I shared Mary Buckham‘s thoughts from a workshop I attended, but others disagreed—often pointing to society’s assumptions on the relative value of genre vs. literary fiction.

I don’t disagree that society holds these attitudes, so this isn’t meant to pick on anyone for expressing those ideas. However, those assumptions miss the point I was trying to make, which is that assigning value judgments to the labels “literary” and “genre” doesn’t make sense because preferences are subjective opinions and there’s no “better” or “worse.”

So let’s take those ideas from society and see what it says about our perspectives, and more importantly, what we can learn from them to improve our stories. *smile*

Assumption #1: The “Classics” Are Literary Fiction

Many books we consider “classics,” from Shakespeare to Fahrenheit 451, are often lumped together with literary fiction. After all, schools include them in their curriculum, so they must be “important.” Also, the language of some of these stories—which reflects the time when they were written—often feels like it must be literary.

However, when they were released, many of the classics were considered genre fiction. They’re classics because they’ve stood the test of time, and passing that test “earns” a genre story the respect of literary fiction.

That test doesn’t change the story itself though. Many of the classics are solidly genre in their subject matter, characters, setting, and story structure. Why, it’s almost as though these stories were granted a “literary fiction” crown to avoid giving any respect to genre fiction. That brings us to…

Assumption #2: If It’s Good, It Must Be Literary Fiction

Classics aren’t the only stories that can “earn” a literary fiction label. New genre stories that reach a certain level of respect are often embraced into the literary fold.

This creates a “guilty until proven innocent” problem for genre fiction. Genre fiction is assumed to be shallow, meaningless, and without value, and then as soon as a genre story proves itself otherwise, its genre label is nearly erased.

Why can’t genre fiction be seen to have a full range of story quality, from bad to good? Why does being recognized as a good story not erase this assumption that genre stories can’t be of good quality?

The re-labeling of good quality genre stories perpetuates the assumption that literary is the only place good quality fiction can be found. That brings us to the corollary…

Assumption #3: If It’s Literary Fiction, It Must Be Good

Literary fiction, on the other hand, enjoys an “innocent until proven guilty” position. No, worse. If a story has a literary fiction label, it’s often assumed that it must be good.

In fact, if a reader thinks a literary fiction story isn’t of good quality, they’re sometimes looked down upon for not “getting it.” Maybe they didn’t think it through deep enough or aren’t educated enough to appreciate the language.

In other words, when a genre fiction story proves assumption #2 false, the label must be wrong. When a literary fiction story proves assumption #3 false, the reader must be at fault. Neither of these attitudes help society avoid stereotyping (or disrespecting readers).

Assumption #4: Literary Fiction Is “Art,” and Genre Fiction Is “Entertainment”

In many ways, this is the base assumption behind all of the others. It’s the assumption that genre fiction is merely entertainment that causes the re-labeling of good quality genre stories. After all, if they do more than entertain, they must be art and therefore literary.

However, art—as anyone in the art world would admit—is subjective. Some look at modern/contemporary art, with its color blocks like the Mondrian print at the top of this post, and sniff: “I could do that. That’s not art.”

The same is said of genre fiction all the time. People stick up their nose and say, “I could do that. That’s not art.”

(I say, “Go ahead and try.” *smile* The best genre novels sneak in the same deep characters, emotions, and messages as literary novels and entertain at the same time, tricking readers into internalizing insights they might reject without the entertainment aspect. That’s talent.)

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a fan of modern art in general, but one of my favorite artworks of all time is You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies by Yayoi Kusama. I could spend hours with this exhibit while I ponder the meaning of life and my place in the universe.

I’m not the only one. People have come away from “Fireflies” near tears, and it’s the most popular exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. Yet no one would think to strip it of the “modern art” label, simply because it succeeds at connecting deeply with visitors.

Value Judgments Are Limiting to Both Sides

Art and entertainment are both valid goals, despite another societal assumption that art is more important than entertainment. (Look within other art forms, like music or movies, to see this value judgment play out over and over.) Art is seen as high brow and cultured—and most divisively, important–and entertainment is seen as…less so.

Furthermore, those “literary is art and genre is entertainment” attitudes make assumptions on the intentions of the author. As a genre author, I can tell you my intentions:

  • The number of times I think about writing an entertaining story? Zero.
  • The number of times I think about writing a story with deep emotions and characters who have deep things to say about life and what makes it worthwhile? 123,456,789 times per book (approximately). *smile*

Obviously, I hope my stories are entertaining as well, but that’s not something I consciously plan when I write. I figure the entertainment will come out of the story itself, so I don’t worry about specifically adding in that aspect.

In contrast, I do think about my themes, characters, emotions, etc.—constantly. I strive to add depth in every way possible.

Now, I don’t claim my stories are literary-ish. They’re solidly genre with a happily-ever-after romance. But that doesn’t mean they can’t also offer more to readers.

And that’s my point. Labels like “art” or “entertainment” don’t help when applied exclusively to one style or another. They bring along the baggage of inherent value judgments, assumptions about the author’s intentions, and ignore the fact that some stories—literary or genre fiction—succeed at being both art and entertainment.

If, as one of my commenters stated last time, art is that which moves us, guess what? Art is subjective.

What moves me, makes me think, or connects me to the meaning of life is going to be very different from what works for you or anyone else. For me, what meets that definition of art is good quality genre fiction.

At the same time, literary fiction can also be entertainment. That “being sucked in by a good story” feeling is escape from our everyday lives. It is entertainment.

The Problem with All Those Assumptions

Fiction of either type is a rich and varied world. Some will fit the “worst of” stereotypes (like a navel-gazing literary story or a shallow genre story), but other authors strive to write better than any limitations.

Some literary novels suck readers in with the story, capturing them with compelling twists and tension-filled emotions. Some genre novels speak to readers’ souls with insights about human nature, how we decide what to value, or the meaning of life.

The vast majority of comments across all of the conversations about my last post shared a desire to read good stories, with complex characters who struggle against obstacles and come out changed on the other side, just as we’re changed by the experience of reading along with them. We want to feel as though reading the book was time well spent. I can’t think of many readers who would disagree with that goal.

We don’t care about the label of that story. Literary? Genre? *pfft* If it’s good, it’s good.

Or I should say: If it’s good for us, it’s good.

Because again, “good” is a subjective term. The characters I find engaging, the obstacles I find worthy of struggle, the growth and changes I want to root for, the messages inherent in the story that resonate with me (as well as how “on the nose” I want those messages to be)—all of that can be very different for someone else.

The  stories that are going to keep us engaged and speak to us or feel relevant to us will be unique to us. We are all different in our worldviews, preferences, and what resonates with us. And that subjectivity is exactly why we should avoid value-judgment words like “art vs. entertainment” or any of those other assumptions about what literary or genre is capable of.

Instead, as authors, we should strive to write the best story we can in whichever style we think will work best. Then we can take the lessons from the other style to add more. Genre authors can work on deep characters and emotions, and literary authors can work on compelling events and adding tension.

However we approach our story, our choices will work for some and not for others. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with our choices. If we made different choices, our story would work for others and not for some. *grin*

Similarly, our choices about whether we choose to write genre or literary say nothing about the quality of the story we can tell. Both literary and genre can produce good and bad quality stories. And our goal can simply be to do everything we can to write the good ones in whichever form we choose. *smile*

P.S. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion over the past couple of days. I could have filled this whole post with quotes from your insightful comments. *hugs for everyone*

What makes you consider something “art”? Do you think genre fiction can qualify as art? Do you think literary fiction can qualify as entertainment? Can the best stories can take lessons from genre and literary and meet both goals? When you write, do you aim for both art and entertainment, just one, or for another goal?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Build a Website on 4/22, Learn Beat Sheets on 5/8, & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

Image Credit to Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red Blue Yellow

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Rustic gate opening to a wildflower field with text: Our Reading Habits: Do You Believe in Fate?

Last time we talked about how our literary education can affect our reading habits later in life. One interesting result of that conversation revealed—once again—just how subjective reading for enjoyment can be. The stories some of us hated, others loved.

Personally, I have no interest in non-genre stories. As I’ve said before, this is not a sign of my inability to think deeply, but rather a personal preference.

At the Desert Dreams conference a week ago, something the delightful Mary Buckham mentioned in her character workshop struck me, and I wondered if her idea could be related to this genre vs. literary preference. Let’s compare notes and find out. *smile*

Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction

Before we dig into the question, I first want to share what Mary Buckham said in her Down and Dirty Ways to Create Stronger Characters workshop. My note-taking skills aren’t quite what they used to be, so these definitions are paraphrased from her descriptions.

Literary Fiction

The point of the story is for the character(s) to understand themselves better. This is achieved through episodic events that force understanding. However, characters aren’t forced to internally change or to change their situations.

Commercial Fiction

The point of the story is to focus on how people change. This is achieved through external events that trigger choices and force internal changes in the character(s), both of which lead to external changes in their situations.

Obviously, those are simplified definitions, but I think there’s a lot of validity to Mary’s perspective. More importantly for my question, those different approaches create even more diverse themes.

Themes in Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction

Mary then compared what each style has to say about life and fate (again, this is paraphrased):

Literary Fiction

The lack of internal change in literary fiction creates the impression that things just happen and that there’s not a lot we can do about it. Whether intended or not, this subtext develops a theme that applies to most literary fiction stories: “Life sucks and then you die.”

Commercial Fiction

In contrast, commercial fiction often shows characters facing choices, and how they decide greatly affects the rest of the story (for good or bad). In other words, in genre stories, things happen and there is something we can do about it. This subtext creates a theme that applies to most commercial fiction stories: “Write your own fate.”

Story Themes and Our Worldview

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed how our favorite stories often have themes in common with each other and with our worldview. I mentioned how our reading preferences—from themes to types of characters—might be driven by our worldview.

I also suspect our worldview affects our preferences for literary vs. genre fiction. After all, we’re more likely to read stories that resonate deeply with within us, and the subtext of literary vs. genre is often very different.

As I’ve said about romance novels:

“Most modern romances contain the subtext of celebrating people who are empowered, those who are willing to fight for what they want and take responsibility for creating their own happiness.”

Empowered. Fight for what they want. Take responsibility for creating their own happiness. That certainly qualifies for the “write our own fate” theme of genre fiction.

Personally, I believe that we can change our future through our choices and that we do write our own fate. I believe all that because I have changed my own fate several times in my life. I’ve rewritten my future more times than I can count (and in hugely significant ways) by making choice A rather than B and by changing internally.

So really, is it any surprise that I prefer genre stories? Is it any surprise that stories where the characters don’t end up in a significantly different place from where they started (often because they never learn, never change, and keep making the same mistakes) irritate the hell out of me?

To me, drama and angst is pointless without a takeaway message shown through a character changing and learning. Without that, those characters deserve a “Too Stupid To Live” label. In the most frustrating “nothing changes” literary stories, I start wishing for a good ol’ genre attack (aliens, zombies, whatever) to take them all out and save me from their misery. *grin*

Obviously, that’s just my personal opinion. I’m not “right” and others aren’t “wrong.”

Plenty of people love the literary fiction books recommended by the Oprahs of the world. And I suspect that difference in preference has to do with our worldviews.

How Might Our Worldview Affect Our Reading Habits?

Some people might believe we can change our fate, but that change is too difficult for most people or often results in more problems. Others might believe only the privileged can change their fate. Others might believe the best human intentions will eventually succumb to the entropy of bad habits. Etc., etc.

Again, there’s no wrong answer. But if those are our beliefs, we’re more likely to enjoy stories that reflect our thoughts:

  • If we think change is possible but extremely difficult for most, we might be more accepting of stories where characters try to change but fail.
  • If we believe change causes more problems, we might gravitate to tragedies where characters’ choices make their lives worse.
  • If we think only the privileged can change their fate, we might be drawn to the trials of the underprivileged.
  • If we believe “life sucks and then you die,” we’d feel at home with stories that focus on unresolvable struggles.
  • And so on…

Of course we can encounter exceptions. Maybe we don’t relate to the worldview posed in a story, but we love the protagonist. Or we grew up in the same setting and read for the nostalgia. Or we’re in a similar situation and want to feel as though someone understands what we’re going through.

We can also read and enjoy different types of stories depending on our mood. Maybe some days we’re more optimistic than others. Or maybe some days we’re more irritated with people than others. *snicker*

More importantly, this theory of worldview and reading preferences should bury for eternity the idea that literary stories are somehow “better” than genre stories. As I’ve said before, genre stories can have the same well-developed characters, lovely turns of phrase, etc. as literary stories.

The difference isn’t in quality but in worldview. It’s not “better” or “superior” to believe that people can’t change or that fate can’t be avoided. And the idea that choices and changes can affect our future isn’t contemptible. It’s simply a different point of view.

As for me, the Oprahs of the world can keep their tales of woe. I won’t put down their perspective—or feel guilty for my own. I’ll just continue to embrace my Pollyanna worldview and enjoy my genre stories.  *smile*

Do you agree or disagree with Mary’s take on the point, theme, and subtext of literary vs. genre stories? What type of fiction do you prefer? Does this preference match with some of your worldviews? How so? If you like stories opposite your worldviews, what makes them enjoyable to you?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Build a Website on 4/22, Learn Beat Sheets on 5/8, & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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Rediscovering Our Love of Reading

by Jami Gold on April 10, 2014

in Random Musings

Woman reading on a beach with text: The Importance of Reading for Pleasure

I read one of those “sad but true” posts the other day. Over at Writer Unboxed, Keith Cronin wrote about how to make someone hate reading. His theory? Send them to an American high school.

As I stated last week, schools too often do a poor job of teaching fiction. They rarely teach fiction writing, and when they do mention fiction, it’s usually as part of a literary analysis unit. Worse, that analysis focuses on nebulous concepts like theme and symbolism.

Heaven forbid we talk about what makes a story enjoyable. Or why we like or don’t like a character. Or whether or not the story grabbed us.

No… We can’t possibly encourage kids to like reading and see stories as something to enjoy—for fun. We have to turn reading into analyzing “classic” stories with subjective questions about whether the wall color in a scene reflects the character’s mood or whether the dusty kitchen table foreshadows the ending.

Too many kids who were voracious readers earlier in their life learn to hate reading during their teenage years in high school and college. According to Keith’s post, one third of high school graduates won’t read another book—for the rest of their lives.

For too many, reading becomes a means to an end. Absorbing knowledge. Period. And reading for pleasure now seems like a faraway dream. Maybe even an immature activity.

That’s not to say all teenagers will fall victim to the school system’s perspective, but far too many do. I know. I was one of them.

My Confession about Reading

I’ve mentioned before how much J.K. Rowling has influenced my life. Her Harry Potter books inspired me to write a fan fiction story, my first foray into fiction writing. What I haven’t mentioned before—what I actually misrepresented the truth about—was how those books inspired me to once again read.

In my previous post about her influence, I said:

“Starting with the fourth book, I bought the books in hardcover. However, as I’ve mentioned here before, my to-be-read pile is scary-huge, so I didn’t actually read any of them until after the fifth book was released.”

That wasn’t quite true. While I read constantly as a child, once I was done with college, I bought books only rarely, and I would reread one of my childhood favorites, like the Chronicles of Narnia, about once a year. But I didn’t read any new fiction books.

In my previous post, I made it sound like I’d always had the TBR pile I now have (which is scary-huge) because the fact that for a time I’d stopped exploring new fiction worlds seemed like sacrilege for someone wanting to become an author.

Shouldn’t authors be so secure in their love of books that even awful literary classes wouldn’t come between them and their love? How much could I really love books if a dozen term papers got in my way? I was ashamed of my past as a “fallen” reader.

But Keith’s post helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault. That my experience was, in fact, all too common.

Rediscovering Reading for Enjoyment

What I’d stated before about buying all the Harry Potter books in hardcover was true. Also true was how I started reading them after the fifth book was released. A coworker of mine convinced me to buy them, and after the fifth book, I decided I should actually read these things if I was going to spend hardcover money on them. *smile*

But I didn’t just read them. I inhaled them. I think I read all five in a week or two. And I wondered why I’d ever stopped reading for enjoyment.

It all comes back to being forced to read books I had no interest in. Even worse, I then had to write long analyses and participate in discussion groups about these tear-my-hair-out books.

(I’m shamefully proud that I learned to analyze the story by listening to the first five minutes of discussion and then fake my knowledge of the story well enough to fully participate in group discussions without ever reading some of the books—or the Cliff Notes. Maybe this is how I first developed my understanding of story structure, tropes, and plot flow. *grin*)

I’m happy to say that I’m back to my previous love of books, and I wish I had more hours in the day to make a dent in my to-be-read pile. (Current stats: 291 on Kindle, and about 100 more in other ebook formats, as well as about 250 print books on my desk and in my bedroom.)

Is It Possible to Teach Literary Analysis in a Way Students Won’t Hate?

(Maybe I should add a disclaimer and say “Students Might Hate Less.” *smile*)

My point with this post isn’t to say that students should never analyze stories for theme, structure, symbolism, etc. Far from it.

Learning to see the depth in fiction is a fantastic way of getting people to value fiction more. Non-fiction is easy to value. If it teaches us what we want to know, it’s valuable. Fiction is harder to value and appreciate.

However, it does no good to try to get people to value a book they hate. In fact, that approach is likely to make people value fiction less.

Instead, I say we should let students analyze stories they already enjoy. Some teachers in a school system here have assigned their students to read all of the next grade’s Literature books (about 8-10 books) over the summer before the school year starts.

The teachers don’t care if the students skim read the ones they ones they don’t like, as long as they get the gist of the story. The point is to provide opportunities for the students to read books they might not usually choose. Exposure, not torture. *grin*

When the school year starts, the students each choose their favorite four books. Those are the books they’ll analyze during the year in small discussion groups with other students who chose the same ones.

This approach would still teach literary analysis and get students to think of all those theme and symbolism aspects. But it would also encourage students to discover more ways to value the stories they do enjoy. Win-win.

Themes, Schmemes…

While I’m ranting at windmills, let me propose that teachers not insist there’s only one correct theme to take away from a story. As we discussed last week, a story can have many themes—based on the story arc, character arcs, etc.—and themes often grow out of a lesson learned. In other words, any lesson a reader takes away from a story can lead to a valid theme.

As authors, we should be conscious and intentional about as much of our writing as possible. (If nothing else, we want to make sure we’re creating the right impression for our readers.) However, our subconscious has a mind of its own and reading is extremely subjective. So teachers do students a great disservice if they act as though there’s only one way to interpret a story.

I could go on ranting about how many of these issues are driven by the structure of the school system in general and not teachers’ fault, but I’ll stop here. My point is that while the current approach is more convenient for teachers—only one book to cover at a time, fewer lessons to develop, etc.—any approach that kills the love of fiction for so many is broken and should be changed.

I know. I was there. When I think of how much I loved reading as a child—complete with library visits, bringing a book to baseball games (they go so slow!), and sneaking a flashlight under the covers—I weep at how much time I lost to forgetting that it is possible to read for fun.

It’s a tragedy I hope we can avoid in the future. Again, if the goal of literary analysis is to teach kids to find the deeper meanings within fiction, we need to find an approach that meets that goal and encourages a sense of the value of fiction, or all our efforts are for naught. Who’s with me? *smile*

P.S. This might have something to do with why I’m a genre girl now. *grin*

P.P.S. None of this is meant to bash teachers, who often have too little to work with and too much to do. Rather, I hope this inspires new thoughts for an approach to teaching that respects the kids and the goal of valuing fiction.

P.P.S. Feel free to share this rant with your kids’ teachers. The green sharing button at the bottom-right below allows you to email this post to anyone. Teachers might listen to us as authors, and maybe we can make a difference. *pumps fist*

Did you struggle with Literature classes? If you didn’t, what made it work for you? Did you go through a post-formal-schooling fiction-reading drought? What turned you into a reader again? Do you have other insights into how we could improve the current approach to literary analysis?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Build a Website on 4/22, Learn Beat Sheets on 5/8, & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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5 Insights from Bestselling Authors

by Jami Gold on April 8, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Close up of a dandelion at seed with text: 5 Insights from a Writing Conference

After nearly two years of sticking with only online writing conferences, I broke down and attended my fourth in-person conference this past weekend, where I presented my “Twitter for Introverts” workshop. I’m happy to say my class went well and I survived my pre-conference panic attack.

In fact, I had a great time at the Desert Dreams Writing Conference, which always exceeds my expectations. Desert Dreams is considered a “regional” conference, with bigger names and more workshops and events. Lucky for me, it’s local.

However, not all of us are so lucky to have easy access to quality writing conferences, so I wanted to share my top takeaways from the conference. I hope you find these ideas as insightful or inspiring as I do. *smile*

#1: Rejections Are Not a “Sign”

Christie Craig, New York Times bestselling author, was the Keynote Speaker for the Desert Dreams conference. Her speech was so inspiring I don’t want to spoil the punch line, but let’s just say that it had to do with the avalanche of rejections she’s received over her writing life.

Sometimes we might look at X number of rejections and take it as a sign. Maybe we’re not meant to be a writer. Maybe we can’t cut it. Maybe we should give up.

She persevered through countless (and I do mean countless—she brought a big box-load of proof) rejections. Not giving up is how she reached where she is today.

If rejections come with a message, it’s simply “not now.” With determination, we can later turn that “not now” into a “yes.”

#2: Be a Storyteller First

Christie also shared why she didn’t give up. Partly it was stubbornness, but a bigger part was knowing that she could tell stories. If we can tell stories, we’ll succeed if we keep at it, because writing can be learned.

Even in the worst-case scenario, where we’re receiving rejections because we’re not yet “good enough,” we can study writing craft and change our fate.

As Mary Buckham pointed out in a workshop, that “changing fate through our choices” perspective powers most commercial and genre fiction. We can absorb that mindset for our own future too.

Christie is a dyslexic high-school dropout. She didn’t have writing skills when she started. But she could tell stories, and that’s what really matters. Everything else can be learned.

By studying, we can change our fate. How cool is that?

#3: Make Settings Earn Their Word Count

USA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham was the featured presenter. She gave an intensive workshop on “Active Settings for All Fiction Genres.”

We often try to minimize our setting descriptions because they’re dry and boring. (She entered the living room and passed the couch to sit on the chair. *yawn*) Mary’s workshop shared techniques for making our setting descriptions work harder.

When we use deep point of view, our descriptions can show characterization, emotion, foreshadowing, backstory, etc. (Her mother’s living room beckoned, as it always did. The comfortably worn-in tweed couch whispered its memories of cushion forts and awkward teenage groping. She headed to the chair instead, just in case her mom hadn’t cleaned the sofa’s fabric since that drinking-night debacle with her brother Billy.)

If our setting descriptions are doing double or triple duty (establishing setting and backstory and characterization, or whatever combination works for the scene), we can use as many words as we need. Mary’s going to join us for a guest post soon (Yay!), but until then, we can learn from her Writing Active Setting book, where she shares tons of examples on how to empower our settings.

#4: Every Character Trait Can Be Good and Bad

Mary presented a second workshop as well: Down and Dirty Ways to Create Stronger Characters. She started by having everyone complete an Enneagram type quiz.

Surprisingly, I turned out to have nearly equal strengths in several traits: perfectionist and achiever (which I think means that I accomplish things despite my perfectionism *whew*), analyzer, nurturer, leader, and peacemaker. Apparently I’m an overachiever in Enneagram quizzes too. *smile*

Her point was for us to learn more about ourselves so we can ensure that we’re not just creating clones of ourselves for our characters. She then shared several techniques for developing unique characters.

One technique was to think of how our characters’ positive traits could be negative, like we discussed last year (where I covered Enneagram Types too). Specifically, she recommended thinking of ways every positive trait has a cost.

For example, if a character is a nurturer, what potential “costs” might that character pay for their trait? Maybe they forget to take care of themselves. Or maybe they’re a busybody who tries to force people to take their advice.

Mary suggested that we ask friends and family to help us brainstorm these “at what cost?” opposite traits. Especially if we just give them a list of traits (without knowing the character at all), we might gain new insights into our character by seeing their list of potential opposite traits.

#5: The “Duh” Insight: Writers Are Awesome

Finally, every author I met was fantastic. Several multi-published, bestselling authors let me pick their brains and shared great advice (including Christie, Mary, Calista Fox, Erin Quinn, Morgan Kearns, and Jennifer Ashley).

The lesson I took away was that no matter our situation, we can connect with other writers and grow our knowledge and our circle of friends. These bestsellers didn’t hoard their expertise. Instead they shared their insights with someone who has a blue streak in her hair. *grin*

I experienced embarrassment (Ack! Spotlight on the introvert!) and thankfulness when many authors stopped me to say how much my blog, beat sheets, and workshops have helped them. (Aww, warm fuzzies.) And I met a great group of women among the attendees (Lisa, Mary, Andrea, Carol, Christine, and a bonus dinner with Ann) and reconnected with a friend from the last Desert Dreams (Rose!).

In short, although the workshops and keynote were wonderful, what really makes conferences special are the people. The interactions with those willing to connect with us often stay in our memory far longer than any one workshop tip or speech insight, especially when we see authors take the time to help each other.

It’s those same connections that make online interactions with writers so special too. Thank you to all of you who read my blog, share your insights and advice, or reach out to me on social media. You. Are. Awesome. *smile*

Which of these was your favorite insight (or the one you want to hear more about)? Have you ever wondered if you should see rejections as a “sign”? Do you agree that storytelling comes first because writing craft can be learned? Do you struggle to make setting descriptions interesting or to create unique characters? If you’ve been to a writing conference, what’s been your favorite part?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Build a Website on 4/22, Learn Beat Sheets on 5/8, & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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Building a Theme through Character Arcs

April 3, 2014 Writing Stuff
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We normally create stories where the point—the theme—is in line with our worldview. But it’s not unusual for our characters to hold opposite beliefs, even our protagonists. At least to start. And their story journey is often where our theme lies.

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Story Themes: What’s Your Worldview?

April 1, 2014 Writing Stuff
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We often struggle with identifying a story’s theme, and when it comes to including themes in our own stories, we might be at a loss for how to do so. This past weekend, a writing workshop for preteens included lessons on how to write with themes. The processes the kids went through to discover how to incorporate themes in their stories might help us too.

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How to Organize Our Writing Research & Notes — Guest: Jenny Hansen

March 27, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Today’s post continues the “secret weapon” theme from Tuesday’s post, but this time we’re going to talk about issues related to our writing. And this time, the secret weapon is Microsoft’s OneNote. Researching character or location pictures? Use OneNote. Want to capture the most useful tips on a blog post? Use OneNote. Want to remember […]

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Fix Showing vs. Telling with Macros & Word Lists

March 25, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Many writers will search in MS Word for red flag words that indicate telling. But there are a lot of those words, and that would be a lot of searches. That’s where macros can help, and today we’ll learn how to build our own trouble-searching macros with a few secret weapons.

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Hiring a Developmental Editor — Guest: Stacy Jerger

March 20, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Those of us who haven’t been through the editing process with professionals don’t know what to expect. In the case of developmental editing, we might not even know what editors do. That’s not good. We need to understand what’s involved with the different stages of editing to judge whether an editor is right for us and will meet our needs.

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