Pre-Vacation Update

I’m going on vacation TOMORROW, y’all.

Six days at Walt Disney World, six days in Portland, Oregon to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday, and three days of post-travel recovery (resting, restocking groceries, getting over any crud I might catch along the way) at home.

I gave myself the three extra days first because I subscribe to Kelly Conaboy’s It Should Be Vacation + One Or Two Days theory — “after you return from vacation you should have a mandatory one- or two-day period to readjust before you go back to normal life” — and second because I told myself that the one thing I was going to do in 2019 was take two consecutive weeks off.*

(I have not done this in forever. My last vacation was four days long.)

I will not be posting on vacation, so here are some updates before I leave:

  • I went through and blocked out the rest of NEXT BOOK’s plot using the technique I showed you last week, which means I know where I’m going with the draft and all I have to do is use Jami Attenberg’s 1000 Words of Summer (write 1000 words every day between June 17 and July 1) as motivation to finish it up.
  • I also gave NEXT BOOK a title: A COINCIDENCE OF DOORS. I am fighting very hard against the impulse to make the cover look like a door that you open to read the book, because that is not the Trend For Covers These Days and I know I need to put a Dreaming Woman on the front. (I wonder how much it would cost to do one of those covers where it looks like a door with a cutout keyhole that you can see through and then when you open the door you can see the full-color illustration of what’s behind the keyhole. This is also not On Trend, but it would be super-cool.)
  • I’m also fighting very hard against the whole “what if I was able to get this book self-published this year” thing. I want this book to be THE BEST IT CAN BE, not THE FASTEST IT CAN BE. (I’m also thinking about how much money I’m willing to put towards “the best,” but that’s a discussion for another day.)
  • I’ll owe you a financial update while I’m on vacation, so here’s the gist: May was my highest-earning month EVER. I brought in $13,311 in freelancing income and $14.51 in publishing revenue. I also got a $1,337.74 tax refund I wasn’t expecting because it turns out I did my taxes wrong (long story, can tell you when I get back if you want, good to know the IRS keeps an eye out for your mistakes). Current net worth is $116,293.34.
  • However, this vacation is going to cost me roughly $4,500 in unearned freelance income (which is to say that if I weren’t going on vacation and were able to complete my usual schedule of work, I’d earn $4,500 over the next two weeks). This is in addition to the $2,200 budgeted for the Disney trip and the $1,100 budgeted for the family trip. Soooooooooo…. actually, I’m fine with this. Paid time off is great, but I’d rather be a freelancer any day of the week. (Including the vacation days.)

See you all in June! ❤️

*Yes, I did realize that Thursday to Thursday to Thursday is actually two weeks and one day. Bonus!

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On Making Sure Your Story Answers Its Own Questions

I got stuck again with NEXT BOOK—which seems to be happening every week-to-two-weeks, now that I’m in the part of the story where I have to put all the pieces together, balance and resolve the tensions, and get everyone to the end.

Then I read a Time Magazine article about the end of Game of Thrones that included this quote:

A happy ending isn’t the same thing as an ending satisfying enough to keep you up at night, thinking about how the show’s elemental questions were resolved (see: Six Feet UnderMad Men and, just this week, Fleabag).

This made me ask myself what elemental questions were at the core of NEXT BOOK. I’d always known it would be a story about “stuckness vs. possibility,” as well as “what would happen if an adult with responsibilities found herself in the middle of a portal fantasy,” but as I’d been writing the draft, I’d also realized that this was a book about family, and that many of the questions re: stuckness and possibility were tied up in my protagonist’s experience with her extended family.

So I decided to do this exercise I learned in theater school, where I break down every “scene” by what the protagonist wants, what the protagonist does to get what they want, what the other characters do that gets in the way, and how that reaction changes what the protagonist wants.

I mean, the big thing the protagonist wants generally stays constant throughout the whole act (that’d be the superobjective) but the thing the protagonist wants in each scene (the objective) is generally different.

With that in mind, here’s how I broke down the first big chunk of NEXT BOOK. Spoilers ahead, but not too many:

Because Ellen feels stuck in a caregiving role, she wants to find ways of separating from her extended family and its responsibilities/routines.

She tries doing a Solstice ritual to celebrate her own winter holiday and bring magic into her life

But the ritual doesn’t make her feel better.

Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever.

***

Because Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever, Ellen wants to connect with her family.

She tries inviting her sister to tour the Banner House holiday decorations

But Grace (who is newly pregnant and not feeling well) stays in the car.

Ellen takes the tour by herself and connects with Robin instead.

***

Because Ellen has connected with Robin, Ellen wants to learn more about Robin.

She tries asking her grandmother, her friends, and the Banner House staff

But they do not give her answers.

Ellen decides to return to the Banner House and find Robin herself.

***

Because Ellen finds Robin herself, Ellen wants Robin to be as interested in her as she is in him.

She tries flirting and following Robin upstairs

But then he asks her to follow him into his world, which is something she is not ready to do.

Ellen goes back to her unsatisfying life and its responsibilities.

***

Because Ellen is unsatisfied with her life, she wants to know whether Robin’s story is true.

She tries asking her grandmother why she always claimed to have been brought home through a fairy door,

But learns that the family story was put in place to hide Grandma Trudy’s true parentage.

Ellen is angry that it’s all about family again.

***

Because Ellen is angry, she wants to be alone.

She tries going for a bike ride

But Robin finds her and asks her to follow him again.

Ellen says she will think about it and arranges to meet Robin later.

***

Because Ellen said she will think about it, she wants to get a few more questions answered.

She tries asking Robin for details about his world

And he provides them.

Then she asks for a favor and he agrees.

Since Ellen has what she wants, and since Robin has shown that he will care for her needs, she is ready to ask herself how to separate from her family and move forward.

So. Writing this out showed me where my scenes didn’t match up with what was in my draft—that is, the “because this, then that” is either unclear or nonexistent. In other words: as I was writing this, I was making notes to myself like “we need another conversation between Ellen and her friends HERE,” or “we need to make it clear that the reason Ellen accepts Robin’s invitation is because he is providing care to her, which nobody else in her life is doing at the moment.”

Writing this out also showed me that some of my scenes might not follow each other super-logically. Does Ellen start asking herself whether there could really be a portal to another world because she is unsatisfied with her life, or because SHE JUST DISCOVERED THERE MIGHT BE A PORTAL TO ANOTHER WORLD? Is there ever a moment where a person who made that discovery would legitimately say “sorry, gotta go back to my everyday life and not think about this for a while?”

I’ve faked it a little by having a responsibility that Ellen needs to get back to right away, during which she can remind herself that she is unsatisfied with her life and that she can’t stop thinking about this Robin fellow and his secret door, and that might work.

Likewise, the “because Ellen finds Robin herself, she wants Robin to be interested in her” thing doesn’t match up. I have a scene where Ellen’s friends are all “did you finally meet someone who could be a romantic partner,” so that could be how it matches up: because Ellen’s friends suggest Robin could be a romantic partner, Ellen tries flirting. Either way, I know that section needs more work because the cause and effect don’t quite harmonize yet.

But again—this is why it’s a draft, and why I’m doing exercises like this, and why I’ve given myself a good long time to play with this story.

Because I want readers to end the book thinking about the way the story’s elemental questions were resolved. ❤️

A NEXT BOOK Update

I’m at a very strange point in NEXT BOOK.

I had an outline before I started, with some gaps at certain points where I knew that I’d have to get the characters from A to B eventually but didn’t know how they’d get there.

I’m in one of those gaps at the moment, and the way I’m solving it is by, like, literally writing down what the characters do and how they feel about it.

Which is, pretty much, the essence of storytelling.

But it’s not all of what makes a good story.

Here’s what I mean:

So I’ve already told you that this book is a portal fantasy, and because of that it should come as no surprise that my main character goes through the portal. Like, that’s barely even a spoiler.

It might be a bit of a spoiler to say that she goes back into her own world and then has to make the decision of whether to return to the portal world (and for how long, and how often, and whether it should be a permanent transition, etc.).

I know the choice this character makes, but I left myself a gap in “figuring out how she gets there.”

Which means I’ve started writing scenes like this:

The buses began running again on Saturday morning, so Ellen was able to get to the assisted living center without booking a Lyft and leaving a digital trail. Getting to the Banner House would be more difficult; they ended up setting up a new account under Grandma Trudy’s name, Ellen trying to be patient as her grandmother tapped her credit card number into her tablet, hoping nobody she knew would see her. She thought about running down the hall, bursting into Millicent Banner Hayward’s room, saying “guess where we’re going!” She still had to talk to Millicent at some point. Maybe. Once she figured out what to say.

This feels like 70 percent of a story. It tells you what’s going on, it tells you why it’s going on, and it tells you what Ellen is thinking and feeling.

But there’s something missing. Too much logistics, maybe. Not enough sensory detail. The obvious fact that neither Ellen nor I know whether she’ll end up talking to Millicent Banner Hayward (or whether Millicent will end up being a character in the story long-term; she might not actually have a role to play beyond “being the person who did the SPOILER SPOILER thing, fifty years ago”).

Still, I’ll keep writing. I’ve already told myself that I’m going to have to go back and rework a lot of this later, so that means the part of the story I write today can be as tactical and sparse as it needs to be, as long as I keep putting words on the page every morning. ❤️

On Following Your Dreams

You know that song I shared in Friday’s Open Thread? One of the handful of songs I wrote all those years ago that I still like?

It came to me in a dream.

Melody, almost in full, and several of the lyrics.

I sang everything I could remember into my phone’s voice recorder as soon as I woke up, and spent the next few days putting the piece together.

The mysterious house at the core of NEXT BOOK was part of a dream, too.

A recurring dream, spent visiting the places in the house that I had grown to love in previous dreams. Attics and basements and secret rooms and staircases that went up and up and up forever.

I hope I end up loving the book as much as I love that song. ❤️

On Storytelling and Perspective

So I wanted to give you a quick NEXT BOOK update!

First, the word count has ticked up considerably since I switched back to writing in the mornings instead of the afternoons.

(Current word count: 28,010.)

Second, I spent all of last week doing what I initially didn’t want to do with this book: jump out of the protagonist’s perspective and into somebody else’s head.

But I’m at the part of the story where the protag gets separated from the other characters, and so it felt like a natural opportunity to see what those other characters were thinking and feeling.

Maybe I’d set it apart from the rest of the book by making it a unique section, or something. Or maybe I’d like it so much that I’d go back and include multiple perspectives from the very beginning!

Nope.

None of that.

Turns out I hated it. I mean, it was a fun way to explore some of the secondary characters a little better, and I’ll use what I learned in the rest of the draft, but… it’s not their story.

Also, turns out those characters weren’t doing all that much, in terms of plot-relevant stuff. They had plenty of thoughts and feelings, but there was a limit to how much they could sit around and think about the BIG EVENT to come, or meet up after work to discuss how they felt about what might happen next (which can’t happen until the protagonist gets back).

So that was a learning experience, and a digression well worth taking, and an interesting reminder that my instincts, at least in this case, were correct.

This story is best told from a single person’s perspective.

It’s her Hero’s Journey, after all. ❤️

In Which I Reconfigure My Schedule YET AGAIN

Sooooo… remember how I used to tweet out the number of words I’d written on NEXT BOOK, and then I kind of stopped?

Remember how it coincided with my newest freelance gig, where I pitch/write/file stories in the morning instead of the afternoon?

Remember how I told myself that I could switch my schedule around and do creative writing later in the day, after I did all my freelancing and admin and the rest of it, and how it would totally work?

Turns out it totally didn’t.

I’d dutifully close out my email and all my tabs and fill my laptop screen with nothing but NEXT BOOK, and then I’d stare at it.

And re-read it.

And identify a problem with the story that was probably keeping me blocked.

And solve the problem.

And then stare at the draft again.

I was able to write both volumes of The Biographies of Ordinary People on evenings and weekends, but for whatever reason—maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because my freelance career has grown and I’m taking on more challenging work—I can’t do 3,000 words of freelance writing and then another 1,000 words of novel-writing.

So I switched it back, and I’ve been working on NEXT BOOK first thing every morning again.

I’m not giving NEXT BOOK quite as much time as I was able to give it prior to my new freelancing gig, because I also want to prioritize sleep—but I’m working on the draft for at least a half hour every day, and I’m waking up excited to spend time with the characters and see where we go next, and the words and the ideas and the creative energy are all flowing just like they used to.

As of this morning, the draft includes 25,853 words. ❤️

Why Conflict Between Characters Is an Essential Part of Storytelling

So… there was this one time, when I was playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I killed this monster that loot-dropped a basket.

“The basket contains infinite food,” the DM told me.

“I use it to destroy the global economy,” I replied.

The DM immediately clarified that the basket only provided enough food for one person, for one day. After I started trying to use the food supply as weapons, he told me that the only food in the basket was muffins, which I thought was a little unfair.

But I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to take magical objects to their logical extreme—and part of the fun of writing NEXT BOOK has been creating a character who shares that perspective.

This character is unlike me in a number of ways; she’s a cynic, for starters. She does not approach the possibilities of other worlds with anything like joy and wonder; she understands that once the general population gets wind of a portal to a magical kingdom, for example, it’ll just lead to more wars and resource battles.

There is another character, of course, who provides the opposite perspective. Who believes that a doorway to a new world could lead to something wonderful, instead of something terrible.

Then I introduced a planned obstacle—like, one that had been in the plot from the very beginning—and had these two characters react to it in the exact same way.

Because that’s the only way people could react to this particular plot development, right? No option for optimism here, not as we head into the third act!

And then my draft died.

I’d open it up, write a couple hundred words, erase them, rewrite them, and then close the laptop and tell myself I’d try again tomorrow.

Then I had a shower thought.

What if I had my positive thinker continue to think positively, even in this particular situation? What if this character saw the problem as an opportunity for growth and connection, rather than the destructive force my more cynical protagonist (and myself, as the author) initially assumed it was?

This not only made my narrative immediately more interesting, it also brought conflict back into the story. I mean, obviously the main conflict is characters vs. obstacle, but you know that these characters are going to overcome the obstacle eventually because that’s how stories work.

Which means the conflict that really matters is the conflict between the characters. That’s the part of the story that helps us understand how to be human, after all.

It was a good lesson to learn, even if it took me nearly a week of junky writing to figure it out. ❤️

A Very Very Brief Excerpt of NEXT BOOK

310 of the current 13,093 words. ALL OF THESE WORDS ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

I haven’t named Ellen’s Slack friends yet. But I have begun to suss out their personalities.

ellen.everton: so hypothetically

ellen.everton: if you had the chance to go to Narnia or fairyland or whatever

ellen.everton: would you?

NAME NAME 1: HUNDO PEE

NAME NAME 1: BRING ON THE QUEST

NAME NAME 1: I WILL DRAW MY SWORD AND FIGHT

ellen.everton: what if you don’t know how to do a sword

NAME NAME 1: there’ll be a training montage

NAME NAME 2: idk do you really want to be Frodo though, or Bilbo

NAME NAME 2: it wasn’t all second breakfasts

NAME NAME 3: more like second breakfasts and PTSD

NAME NAME 3: if you examine the literature, you’ve got, like, “everyone dies and they dance around in Aslan heaven” (Narnia) “everyone learns that fantasy kingdoms are a lot harder to govern than they thought” (The Magicians, also a lot of people die) “everyone gets kicked back into their own worlds and they spend their lives struggling to adjust” (6/7 of Narnia, Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children, potentially stuff like Neverwhere and LOTR)

NAME NAME 3: (if you count the Shire as a separate world)

NAME NAME 2: but that’s how the hero’s journey goes according to Joey C: you always end up home again

NAME NAME 2: what’s that TS Eliot quote about returning and seeing the place you once knew as if for the first time

ellen.everton: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” thanks Google

NAME NAME 2: there you go

ellen.everton: so the question then becomes: is it worth it to do the exploring

NAME NAME 1: did you not read the quote you just copy-pasted

NAME NAME 1: WE SHALL NOT CEASE

NAME NAME 1: it can’t be not worth it because you can’t not do it

Also, for those of you following me on Twitter and wondering how this book can have both a mysterious old house with a bunch of secret doors and, like, Slack, let me remind you that this is 2019, we can have all of this AND MORE. ❤️

On Writing for the Reader, Not (Just) for Yourself

My NEXT BOOK draft is currently at 8,916 words, and I’m hoping to break 10,000 by this weekend.

(Remember, I started drafting on February 21, so… two weeks ago.)

This draft is delightfully messy and somewhat ridiculous, in the “I don’t know which vivid description is the vividest so I’m just going to write three different options in a row and pick one later” sense. It’s a very different process from The Biographies of Ordinary People, in part because it’s a very different book — this story is about mysterious strangers and hidden doors and unexpected worlds, and since I’m not doing the whole “let’s just describe the library in my hometown but make it a little different” thing, there’s a lot more “is it this? is it that? let’s get something on the page now and we can make it more specific later.”

There is one area in which I am trying to stretch myself, and it has to do with something I learned at the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams seminar: whenever possible, make the most exciting choice.

This has made this draft… a lot more fun. 😉

The trouble is that I’m second-guessing myself, a bit, on what I might find exciting compared to what a reader might find exciting. For example: at one point in the story our heroine sees the Mysterious Stranger, for whom she’s actively been looking after committing the grievous error of refusing his initial call to adventure. (Because that’s how heroes journey, y’all.)

So.

Option one: she goes to Mystery House and there he is, just hanging out in the lobby. Meh.

Option two: she goes to Mystery House, thinks he isn’t there, and then when she turns around to leave THERE HE IS. Slightly more exciting. Also kind of cinematic, but in a cliched way. What you’d expect, really.

The option that’s currently in the draft: she goes to Mystery House, does not find him, gets frustrated with this whole biz, pushes her way through a group of people who are getting ready to tour the Historical Landmark House That Is Definitely Not Full Of Hidden Doorways, opens the coat closet, and MYSTERIOUS STRANGER IS THERE AND HE PULLS HER INSIDE.

Now, I’m already seeing as I write this blog post that the way to fix this scene is to change the PULLING ASPECT, which is EXCITING TO ME (because I have had the specific experience of being pulled into a secret makeout nook by this person I had a crush on, and even though I had not verbally consented I had already consented multiple times in my imagination, so I was all, like, finally*) but PROBABLY NOT EXCITING TO EVERYONE FOR REASONS THAT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS, to a BECKONING ASPECT.

I can probably keep the part where he takes her hand. That’s exciting! His mysterious touch is mysteriously electric! I can definitely keep the part where they hang out in the closet until the tour group goes by and then sneak out so they can go into one of the Hidden Doorways, because that’s also exciting IF WE KNOW AS A READER THAT OUR HEROINE WANTS TO BE THERE.

Which I’ve totally established with the whole “she goes back to Mystery House looking for adventure” thing, but could make a little clearer by having him take her hand — or even just hold it out, Aladdin-style — and say something like “Come in,” or “you can hide in here,” or whatever, you get the idea. An exciting version of that.

I mean, there’s got to be some balance at this point in the story, because our heroine isn’t full-on ADVENTURE LET’S DO THIS yet. She’s more like “I can’t stop thinking about that mysterious guy and his stinkin’ mystery doors, so I’d better go back to the mystery house so I can just stop asking myself whether I should go back to the mystery house.” This part of the story shouldn’t be THIS IS EXCITING, it should be more like IS THIS EXCITING? YES IT IS! BUT ALSO A LITTLE SCARY.

But the scary part shouldn’t be WORRYING THAT THIS GUY JUST PULLED HER INTO A COAT CLOSET WITHOUT ASKING.

Okay, so I think I just solved this problem.

Anyway, MAKE EXCITING CHOICES! And then figure out if they’re equally exciting to the reader, for the right reasons.

Also, feel free to take bets on whether any part of the “getting all flirty in a coat closet” thing will make it into the final draft. It’s a little Chronicles of Narnia-esque, plus there are connotations associated with the words “hiding in the closet” that I may want to avoid. So maybe he invites her to hide in the pantry, instead. Or something else. I’ll figure it out. ❤️

*I should note that, although being pulled into Secret Makeout Nook by Secret Crush ranks as one of the best makeouts I’ve ever had, it was also a good prognosticator of the way that very brief non-relationship was going to go (he got to decide when and where and how we interacted, I got the anxiety of sitting around waiting for him to decide to spend time with me). INTERESTING.