NaNo Need-to-Knows: Your Story’s Goal

This post is part of my ongoing-series about prepping for and surviving NaNoWriMo. Click here to find the rest of the series as it goes live.

Last week, I was talking about characterization and using a character’s motivation to set the main story goal. This week, I want to go into this goal and its close buddy, the inciting incident.

For me, this order of doing things, of exploring the character before deciding on the goal, makes sense because I’m more character-driven. If you’re plot-driven, you’re probably going to want to decide on the story goal first and then create characters that will make the story of achieving said goal interesting. Both approaches work fine, especially if you pay attention not to sacrifice your character strength for your plot, or your plot’s strength to preserve character.

But the point here is that, if you want a decent shot at finishing NaNoWriMo, your story needs a goal, and it’s going to be incredibly helpful to know what that goal will be before you start.

But What Is This Goal I Speak Of?

Let me just get this off my chest quickly: I’m not talking about those highly nebulous goals writers have for their stories, like “I want to teach children that it’s okay to dream big.” or “I want to write about homeless people.” Nor will I go into why I don’t (and probably won’t ever) agree that such an approach is a good idea for genre writing. (I’m looking at you, Mark Twain, who stuffed up a perfectly good Arthurian time-travel tale with your incessant preaching.) Really. Don’t get me started on that.

Instead, I’m talking about the goal that forms the heart of your story itself. That thing that a character sets out to do, and the reason why readers keep turning pages to find out whether that thing comes about.

In other words, the goal is the reason why a story should be read. A good example of a goal from books is Frodo’s goal of destroying the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.

Or it can be an unstated (at least in the story itself) goal of the characters falling in love in your standard romance. Or of a character needing to move on, such as in Under the Tuscan Sun. But it’s worth noting that often these goals tend to come with another, stated goal, and often come secondary to that stated goal. In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances moves into an old, nearly decrepit house in Tuscany, and somehow needs to overcome the language and culture barrier in order to fix it up.

So why is the goal so important to me, coming second to (or maybe even standing even with) only characterization? Because the story’s goal is its entire point. And every other plot aspect to a story has the goal at its foundation.

If you approach plot by structuring according to the three-act structure, or according to beats a la Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, the goal is still the lynch pin you’re building it up around. For example, the dark night of the soul, that moment where all hope is lost and the character has to dig deeper than ever before in order to succeed… What does that hope center on? The hope that the main story goal will be achieved. And what must the character succeed at? Yep. The goal.

The inciting incident is the moment that acts as the catalyst of setting the goal and so kicks off the story after the character introduction.

The conflict in the story is anything and everything that complicates or makes the goal impossible to achieve.

The stakes of a story are the costs associated with failure to attain the goal.

And back to the three-act structure: What’s the climax of any story about? 90% of the time, it’s going to be about the last big push to try and achieve that goal. The rest of the time, it’s about a major decision about that goal, or a major failure to achieve the goal.

Even the themes and messages from your story will be rooted in either the goal itself, or in the discoveries that characters make as they go after the goal.

In other words, the goal is everywhere and it’s everything. And as soon as you have readers caring about the characters and their journey, the goal and the success or failure at achieving it forms the major question that drives the readers to keep reading. Will Frodo destroy the One Ring? Will Frances succeed in fixing the house and will she find happiness again?

Depending on the genre, setting this goal to be impossible and dangerous enough can be a major driver of a story’s tension. Take Katniss’s goal of surviving in The Hunger Games. But this also plays in with the conflict and stakes, which I will still get into.

At any rate, knowing your goal, even if you’re a pantser like me, gives you something to write towards. A point that pulls your writing forward and prevents you from waffling around too much, trying to find a direction for your story. (Although in saying this, I will admit that most of my rough drafts are focused almost exclusively on finding the goal in the first place. Yes, I’m secretly that character-driven. And that much of a pantser.)

How Does One Set the Goal?

There are a myriad of ways in which to do this, so I’ll list a few.

1) Like I mentioned in my post on characters, you can let the goal come out of your character’s motivation. Think of your character and the type of person they are. What kind of goal would they set in a given situation?

2) Write without setting the goal and hope for the best, or write a rough draft specifically to discover the goal. (Although realize that this probably will require you rewriting the entire thing once you’ve found your direction.)

3) Decide first thing what you want the goal to be and build the concept, scenarios and characters around it.

4) Look at your main character again. Decide what goal would create the most internal (and/or external) conflict for a character, push them to (or beyond) their limits, and/or provide the greatest measure of character growth.

5) If you’re going with a genre that has an inherent, unstated goal (like the happily-ever-after in romances), what goal would you like to set (and state) that will act as a nice backdrop to, and will help create conflicts for the unstated main goal? A good example of this can be found in the movie You’ve Got Mail. Two characters have been anonymously chatting online and they’re obviously made for each other. Problem is that they actually know each other in real life and hate each other because one’s goal is to put the other’s family business…out of business.

These are approaches I’ve taken to set goals in my stories, but I’m sure there are more ways that I haven’t thought of.

How do you find your story’s main goal? 

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NaNo Need-to-Knows: An Introduction

It was a bit of a shock a few days ago when I received a reminder from NaNoWriMo to announce my NaNo novel for this year. Silly, I know. You’d think I have a firmer hold on the progress of time, but there you go.

If you’re new to writing and stumbled onto my blog, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write a “novel” or part of a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November.

It’s a huge amount of fun, if you can handle the pressure, and the nice thing about it is that you’re part of a larger NaNo community during this time. In fact, I met one of my best friends because of a NaNo event in my area. So yeah, it’s a great way to get involved. Just click on the link up top for more information.

Anyway, since NaNoWriMo can be a bit overwhelming, especially for first-timers, I thought I’d spend the rest of October and November to give a bit of advice from my eight years of NaNo experience.

On Mondays, I’ll do a series of blog posts (although the first post in this series will be on Wednesday to fit everything in, and I might use more Wednesdays if I need to). On Fridays, I’ll be updating on my YouTube Channel. But don’t worry, I’ll be posting the video and my script on my blogs as well.

If you are joining and you want to buddy up with me, click here.

Okay, so before I start, I just want to clarify something about my approach. I’m a full-blown character-driven pantser, so I don’t do much in the way of planning before I start a rough draft. That said, these posts will be useful to plot-driven plotters (which would be my polar opposites) as well. All you have to do is take my plot-related posts as reminders to include later if you’re a pantser, and as some things to keep in mind if you plan if you’re a plotter. And depending on whether you’re a plot-driven or character-driven writer, you can scramble the order of my suggestions to fit you. All writing methods are valid, as long as your method helps you create a strong foundation to your story.

And the first few posts I’ll be writing will be about the things you need to build that foundation. Then as we go into NaNo itself, I’ll be changing to focus more on NaNo survival. (Because hey, no one said NaNo is easy.)

For ease of use, I’ll be using this post as a table of contents for you to refer to.

Table of Contents:

  1. Your Characters
  2. Picking Your Story Idea
  3. Your Story’s Goal
  4. The Inciting Incident
Who’s going to join NaNoWriMo? What are you doing to prepare?

Why Writers Need Critique Partners

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On September 4th, 2016, I had decided to use my knowledge gained from about sixteen years of writing in order to stabilize my income. I started freelancing as an editor and critique partner on Fiverr and Upwork.

For the most part, I love this job, because it basically pays me to read. A lot.

But there’s a flip-side: I sometimes have to deal with a lot of writing by people learning the craft. Don’t get me wrong. I love helping people. But the truth is that often, an editorial letter and comments written into the margins of a manuscript just aren’t enough to explain exactly what I mean.

The biggest reason for this is the huge disconnect in experience between me and my client. At the moment, probably close to two thirds of my clients for content edits are first-time writers. They paid for me to tell them how to improve their stories.

But when it comes to things that I take for granted, they never even thought about it. Within this blogging community, we’ve formed a sort of short-hand. When someone’s offering to exchange critiques with me, I know it’s okay for us to use that short-hand, because we do share a common background when it comes to how and where we find our knowledge.

So in a lot of ways, the bloggosphere forms a sort of hive-mind. Although the transmission of information isn’t perfect, I usually know, when I picked another blogger’s work up to critique, more or less what the level is that I’m batting for. So when I say, “Your opening isn’t really hooking me,” I’m pretty dang sure the writer I’m critiquing either knows what I mean, or knows where to find the information they need to correct this issue.

My belief that this is so is further reinforced by the general level of writing I’ve critiqued over the last seven years. You can see when someone has a concept of what’s going on.

I believe there are certain fundamentals to the plot and development of fiction (regardless of genre). And most of the time, people in my network get the majority of those fundamentals right. In this way, then, content editing is more about catching where the writer slipped than anything else. I think it’s because we are a network that shares what we learned and often I would critique someone, who critiques someone else, who critiques someone else, etc. Because a large amount of us are connected in multiple degrees (I have 20 people or more in my network who are also in your network), it means that the information I share gets refined and then applied to my work again when one of you reads for me. And just so, if I learn something new because of something one of my critique partners (CPs) picked up, I can take that information, refine it, and apply it to that CP’s work, and also the work of all my other CPs.

And so, overall, the quality of our output increases.

But when I’m freelancing, all those assumptions go out the window. I can’t say “This opening isn’t a good hook,” because the writer has no idea what a hook is.

And often, none of the fundamentals are there.

Without any of the fundamentals in place, it’s almost impossible to improve the writing without rewriting the whole thing first. And no matter how nicely I try to put it, that’s an incredibly demoralizing thing for a new writer to find out.

I’m talking about things like character arcs. I’m talking about motivation. I’m talking about internal logic. I’m talking about obedience to the set-up. I’m talking about having the set-up be in the writing, in a way that’s palpable to the reader. I’m talking about not having certain plot points in the writing because it’s “done” in the genre, but have that be at the cost of believability. I’m talking about the ways to create tension and to keep the pacing at a reasonable clip.

These things rarely come naturally to writers. They’re learned by trial and error. And honestly, I don’t think learning all that by paying an editor is the best way to do that.

So my suggestion: Don’t give up on writing. On the contrary, write more. Practice. But improve on your craft by learning from other writers. Get critique partners and learn both from the critiques you get and the ones you give. Read up to understand why your CPs are suggesting certain things. Learn.

That way, your developmental editor is there to help you perfect what you wrote and revised, instead of finding gaping holes that will make you want to write off your skill as a writer entirely.

Also, it’s easier for a content editor to write a thousand-word outline of why this one thing needs work. Not so much when all of your fundamentals are missing. It’s simply too much knowledge for someone to impart in one go, and it’s also too much for you, with your small amount of experience, to understand.

All of us had to start somewhere. But those of us who are here after ten years or more crawled before we ran.

And if you’re a new writer paying for an editor without having critique partners look at your writing first, you basically tried to skip to riding a unicycle.

Do you have critique partners? If so, how did you find them? Any tips for finding and being an awesome critique partner?

Update Day: The End of Year 1

Today is the last Friday of the month, which means it’s time for another update on the Got Goals Bloghop. For those of you unfamiliar with Update Day, a bunch of us set some crazy or just plain important goals and update each other on our progress once a month. If you would like more information or to just see who else is taking part, please click here.

PLEASE NOTE IF YOU ARE ALREADY A PARTICIPANT: The site hosting the linky sign-up is down, so please follow the link above to be taken to a blog post where you can leave your update link.

On 4 September, 2016, I had decided to reset my goals and approach writing as a full-time job, where I use my writing knowledge in various ways in order to make a sustainable income.

When I started out, a lot of people thought I was nuts. Heck. Some days, especially in November, I felt I was nuts.

But here I am.

I made it.

So I thought I’d share my thoughts on my progress.

I’ve been earning minimum wage pretty much consistently this year.

This is both a good and a bad thing. On the good side, the money I earned was enough to keep me and my family going during hard times.

On the bad, I would have liked to earn more by now.

The probable reason why I didn’t? When I had started out, I had planned to use the money I make to market my books to sell more of them, which would have generated extra income aside from the freelancing I now do.

But that money basically went into surviving for a large chunk of the year, and otherwise to keep my freelance side of the business afloat. So about 90% of my income is from freelancing, where I would have liked a more even split between my sources of income. And given that those other sources of income would have been passive, meaning I didn’t need to do much myself to earn the money, I fell short of where I wanted to be.

That said, the fact that I’ve been generating pretty much an even income every month means that I should be able to use my freelance work as a spine as I spend next year preparing to publish more books again.

I finally finished Book 3.

Ah yes. Book 3.

Number 1 reason why I didn’t publish anything this year: My life went to hell in a handbasket starting around February.

Number 2 reason: Book 3 itself. The War of Six Crowns is my major focus, writing-wise, so I’ve basically put all my available time into getting it publishing-ready. The problem is I completely underestimated the sheer size of this project.

A lot of times this year, Book 3 felt like a bottomless, endless pit and, it wasn’t only a case of not being able to finish it on schedule, but also the fact that I literally couldn’t work on anything else all year.

I finished rewriting Book 3 in August, about nine months after I had planned to publish it. Now I’m taking the approach of it’s going to take as long as it’s going to take, because after putting in this amount of work, I’m really not excited to rush it to market without being happy with the quality.

Getting something done is like opening a nesting doll.

Maybe it’s because of the way I look at things, but sometimes it feels like everything is connected to everything else. And sometimes, it can be hard to see what needs to be done first. Do I finish writing a book or do I update my website? Do I update my covers and interior or do I set up the newsletter so I can include the newsletter sign-up? Do I spend the morning freelancing so I can get this job out of the way, or do I spend it writing so I can actually make progress on my own work?

And so on.

And if I do manage to finish one thing, I take another look and see a thousand more. This often makes it feel like I’m not really making a lot of progress, but as I sit here, looking back, I’m awed.

And I know that I laid some groundwork for an astounding Year 2.

How are you doing? Do you have any major goals you’re working on?

Unless the wheels have spectacularly come off my life in some way, people have a tendency to be amazed by how much I get done in a month. And every now and then, someone will ask me how I manage it.

After all, we writers have the same amount of hours in the day. So how do I stretch mine to get so much done?

Step 1: Set Goals and Break Them Into Smaller Chunks

How does that help a writer stretch time? you might ask. Well. One of my big secrets to getting stuff done is knowing what I want to do.

So I set myself some huge goals, and then I break them into progressively smaller chunks.

For example:

Goal 1: Make a living wage from writing books. 

  1. Write books.
    1. Write this one book.
      1. Write 1,000 words every day.
      2. Write 50,000 words.
    2. Write the next book.
      1. Write 1,000 words every day.
      2. Write 50,000 words.
  2. Edit books.
    1. Revisions
    2. Edits
    3. Proofread
  3. Publish books
    1. Format books.
    2. Upload them to retailers.

And so on. Now I not only have this big goal, but I also see the steps to get to that goal. (The ones that are in my control, anyway.)

I often break even the steps into smaller steps, until I have hundreds of little things I need to do.

Which might sound terrifying, but what sounds easier:

Make a living from writing? Or write 1,000 words today?

So what I’m doing is to break all of my goals into smaller, bite-sized chunks. And then I move onto Step 2.

Step 2: Set Your Priorities.

Once I know what I want and how I’m planning to get there, I can sit down and decide what’s the most important to me.

But here’s the important thing: I decide what’s important to me right now.

This bit is a trick to my success, because a lot of those big goals I set are pretty much equal when it comes to how important they are in my life.

I don’t have kids, but if I had, I wouldn’t be able to say writing is more important than my children. But I wouldn’t ever be able to call writing unimportant either.

So the thing is, if you’re sitting down to get going, there will be things on that specific day that’s more important. If you know you want to focus on that, then focus on that. But also know when you’ve neglected some other aspect, so you can temporarily bump that thing up your priority list in order to even everything out.

Step 3: Create a To-Do List.

Once I know all the things that are really important, I can quickly write down the 10 things that are weighing on me the most. (I like 10 for being a nice, even number, but pick whatever works for you.)

Next thing I do is to number the order in which I’d like to do those 10 things.

Why?

Because if I decide upfront what I want to do after I’ve finished the task at hand, I don’t have to waste time later trying to decide what I should be doing.

How do I pick the order?

This depends. Some days, it’s in order of the shortest deadline to the longest. Other days, it’s Writing first and everything else next. Today I’m not feeling a bit lethargic, so I’m making up for it by starting with something easy, then something hard, then easy, then hard etc.

Step 4: Start Doing

Yeah I know. Obvious, right? But sometimes, people underestimate how important it is to just get going. There’s a reason why, when it comes to the setting of my to-do list, I keep things simple. I don’t try to schedule anything because I know it takes longer for me to schedule and re-schedule as my day shifts. Time that I could actually be using to tick stuff off my to-do list.

So once I have my 10 things and I know in which order I’d like to do things. I start. If something happens to prevent me from completing one task, I move onto the next. (Writing this blog is task number 4. Number 3 is postponed because I’m waiting for information.) I might get back to it later. I might postpone to tomorrow.

And no, there’s nothing wrong with postponing as long as it’s not going to break a deadline. Because unless you set the bar really low, there’s no way you’re going to finish all the tasks you set for yourself.

So move the stuff you didn’t get to. Just as long as you get it done.

And My Big Secret?

I don’t multitask.

Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?

Yeah, I know. People usually act like multitasking is the way to go. Especially if you have as many and as varied goals as I do.

But here’s the thing. No one actually multitasks.

You’re just rapidly switching your focus from one thing to the next thing.

As I’m sitting here, I’m writing this post without looking at my twitter. When I’m doing my social networking stuff, I don’t do it while watching T.V. When I am doing something to relax, I try to do so without bringing “work” along. Unless you count crafting as work. But that’s a whole other story.

Point is: If I’m at task number 1, I focus on that task until it’s done, or until I take a break.

And then I focus on the next thing.

And the next thing.

And the next.

Why?

Because when I’m focusing, I’m making fewer mistakes. And I actually speed up. Because I don’t even have the smallest moment of thinking “what did I want to do here again?”

And so, things get done one little step at a time. And then at the end of the month, I take stock and actually realize how much I have achieved.

What about you? Are you a multitasker? Do you have a system for getting everything done? What tips do you have? 

Camp NaNoWriMo Progress Update: Nooooooooo!

Still ahead of schedule… Just.
I know that second weeks of NaNoWriMo months are harsh. They’re kinda notorious for being as difficult to get through as swimming through molasses. That’s why all of the encouragement we get from the organizers in week two features some version of “Hey it’s okay to struggle. You’re far from the only one, so just keep chipping away and things will get easier.”

To be honest, though, I thought I’d skip the difficult second week. Not because week one was epic (and it was), but because I’m in the final sixth of my book. These are the final chapters leading up to the climactic point and the last ones to finish the book off.

They write themselves.

They always have.

Usually when I hit the last quarter of a book, I can easily write up to 6k words in a day. (My record is 10k in a single push.)

But what I didn’t count on was that, when I threw a huge curve ball at my characters, they would retaliate with a massive one in return.

You’d think, after having about six iterations of this same event in my draft novels without much of a dent, nothing would change when I let the same thing happen now.

Boy, was I wrong.

Because I hadn’t taken into account one major thing: Every time before, the thing happened early in the story. This time, it happened near the end.

And because of everything that had happened before the event, the characters were now armed with a set of information that pointed to something I hadn’t even looked at.

Et voila. 

Devastation.

I’ve been struggling to write even 1000 words a day since Tuesday. The moment I get to scenes around this event, my unwilling fingers slow down to a drag and I want to burst into tears.

But hey! Drama’s good. So I can’t complain too much.

I just have to get over this.

And hopefully my poor readers will cry just as hard when they hit this scene. I’m not going to say what it was, but… I think you’ll know when you see it.

How are you doing? Have you ever had a character spring a whole new world of pain on you? How did you recover?

The Importance of Stepping Back

Hey lovely people! My vlog post ended up coming a week late, because I caught the flu. Sigh. Really complicated everything. It’s finally done, though, so I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

Going off of the comments I got last time, I decided to keep posting my script below the video for those of you who prefer to read.

I want to talk about a really understated bit of advice that can be vital to your survival as a writer. Namely: That sometimes, you just need to step back, take your foot off the gas pedal.

As you might know from my more recent vlog updates, things haven’t been going well with me lately. Basically, nothing has been quite going my way since 2014, but that was okay, because I was taught that old truism that we all get fed with mother’s milk:

If you work hard, everything will work out. 

Eh…

Turns out not so much.

See, in the years since 2014, I’d worked 16 hour days, often more in order to do more, and I’d do that until I was on the edge of breaking emotionally. I never stopped writing. Never stopped building at businesses and marketing and literally anything that I *knew* would get me ahead.

And it just kept feeling like everything was turning to dust under my feet.

The worst part? None of the hours I’d spent, of the health I’d risked, of the life I’d postponed… none of it actually meant anything.

Because there are always assholes out to get you. And they will steal your life and your hours of work and your very soul if they can, just to benefit themselves.

So yeah. After relentlessly pushing myself for almost four years, there came a point where I just…couldn’t. Not going to go into detail, but I came to the point where I was so exhausted that I couldn’t fight anymore.

I couldn’t keep acting like everything was okay and that it was business as usual, because it wasn’t.

And so, I pulled back. From as much as I could. Obviously there are some commitments you can’t avoid without incurring long-term damage, but if there was something I could leave with a cost I could tolerate, I did it.

This sadly included my writing, because the stresses of my life had basically drained my creativity. So instead of forcing myself to write, I forced myself not to. Instead, I spent my writing hours doing needlepoint or crocheting. Anything with an almost mindless, repetitive motion.

What this did was it allowed me to grieve. It allowed me to feel. It let me process my pain and frustration instead of allowing me to suppress them like I’d been doing for years. It put me in a place where I could regain some perspective. Where I could look at the problems and at least get to the point where I could see the value in the things I was doing again.

And that’s probably the most important thing about stepping back. When we’re writers, we basically take on an extra job, and when we’re published, marketing that book becomes another job. Which means that it’s go go go go all the time with no stopping, and when things aren’t going as well as they should, it’s so easy to be overwhelmed. It’s too easy to lose the meaning of what we’re doing in the mad rush to get it all done.

So it becomes imperative that we step back and breathe at least for a few days, just to regain a sense of balance before taking everything on again.

What do you do to recharge when you’re pulling back?