On Writers’ Block

Hello, friends!

Sometimes, writing is hard — and not for any particular reason. Sometimes, the words just won’t come.

There are various opinions on this sort of blockage and how to address it. Some advice suggests working through it. Some people believe in taking breaks.

Obviously, there’s no one-size solution to writers’ block. Sometimes, I just take a day. Or entertain a new idea. Or I read a book, or watch something new.

But I do believe that it’s important to write, even if there’s a block. At least a little bit, every day. It doesn’t have to be good writing. In fact, a lot of days I feel like I’m writing trash. And that’s okay! Some writing is better than none.

The good thing about writers’ block is that it ends. Eventually. After a day or a week, I get back into the groove of things. Something becomes clear about my story or a character, and I find a renewed vigor in my writing.

And honestly, some of my biggest breakthroughs are at the end of a block. Last year, when writing the first draft of Scion’s sequel, I hit a point where I couldn’t figure out how to continue with my outline. And then, after a couple of days of letting this problem stew on the back burner, I realized that the solution had been in front of me the whole time, in the form of an under-utilized character with bigger ambitions that I had planned for her. I quickly drew up an outline for her arc, and then incorporated it into the draft. She ended up being a great addition, and when I plan my next draft, her arc will only continue to help the story along.

So, here’s to the light at the end of the tunnel. Or the inspiration after the block.

What I wrote this week: Finley, prep work, outlining, beat sheets.

What I read this week: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff; Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

On Dramatis Personae: Part II

Hello friends!

I’m gearing up to focus more on Finley’s Fabulous Fun Park, so I thought I’d share some about the story and characters.

Firstly, FFFP is set in a fictional theme park, in a world like ours but with monsters. Big monsters, small monsters, everything in between. Some are harmless, but others are more sinister. One of the more sinister kind has made itself at home in the park, where it feeds on children. The park founder cut a deal with this monster decades ago: children in exchange for success and profit.

The story, as I’m working it now, takes place mostly inside the park. Really, theme parks are worlds unto themselves, with their own rules and restrictions and idiosyncrasies. Finley’s Park is no different. And like any world, I have to populate it with interesting characters.

Inside the Park

Alice Montgomery: The heroine. At the start, she’s a high school dropout in her early twenties who has a decent amount of experience with monsters. She’s even killed a couple smaller ones. But when she discovers the monster in the bowels of the park, she realizes that to defeat this villain, she’ll have to play a much longer game.

Finley the Frog: The monster in the park. Having taken on the form of the beloved cartoon frog, the monster loves a deal and requires specific sustenance to stay alive. It takes a particular liking to Alice.

Daniel Yost: A park executive. Yost is all business and Alice reports directly to him. As the years pass, they become friendly acquaintances, but never quite friends.

Gabriela Huerta: A park worker. She’s also had some monstrous encounters, something Alice realizes very soon after meeting her.

The Outside World

Sadie Miller: Alice’s partner. She learns the exact details of Alice’s job and is horrified. She remains supportive of Alice, but over the years they grow apart.

The Children

As mentioned above, Finley feeds on children. Currently, I’m planning on 53 children being lured away by the monster. And yes, I have named every single one.

At least 3 children will be very important:

Claudia Rivera: The first child Alice rescues.

Ryan Rodriguez: A child Alice gives a whole lot to save.

Daynee Blake: The last child Alice negotiates for.

Stay tuned for next week, where I’ll introduce the park itself!

What I wrote this week: Finley prep and outlining.

What I read this week: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall; The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman; Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey.

On Critiques: Giving

Hello friends!

Giving critique is also important! As I’ve mentioned, I have a writing buddy, and our writing relationship is built on giving each other sound, quality feedback on our work. When giving her feedback, I read everything twice. She usually asks me specific questions, but I don’t even look at them until my second readthrough. First pass is for my initial thoughts and reactions, second pass is for a harder look and addressing particular issues.

Every story and writer has different needs. I would never give the same feedback to, say, a romance that I would give to a tragedy. I wouldn’t make a suggestion that would wildly alter the tone of the piece if that wasn’t the writer’s goal. When I’m giving critique, my job is to help the writer make their story better, but it’s still their story. I always try to be careful to not rewrite the story. No “if I was writing this…” BS.

I think it’s also important to know what sort of feedback someone is looking for. Are they worried about grammar and spelling? Focusing more on character and dialogue? Worldbuilding and plot structure?

If I’m giving critique to someone new, someone I don’t know very well or whose work I haven’t read before, I try to refrain from unsolicited advice. (But once I know you, all bets are off; most of my critique to my writing buddy at this point is not in response to her specific questions.) If someone isn’t worried about character yet, then they don’t need feedback on that.

As with everything, there are exceptions. If someone has asked not to get feedback on, say, grammar, but the errors are excessive to the point of distracting, I’ll mention it. Or if there’s a major issue that will present problems in the future, it’s worth addressing right away.

In my opinion, the most important thing to do when giving a critique is to be constructive! Be encouraging! I always try to call out things I like, whether it be the flow of a sentence or some strong word choice. If something makes me laugh or gasp, I say so. If I’m rooting for a specific character and their goals, I make it clear. I try really hard to balance out things I enjoyed with suggestions for improvement.

I really enjoy giving critiques, to be honest. It’s way less nerve-wracking than receiving critique, and I like feeling that I’ve helped. 

What I wrote this week: Draft 4, reassembly and targeted word choice adjustments.

What I read this week: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall; The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black; How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black.

On Finishing

Hello friends!

In my humble opinion, one of the best writer feelings is finishing a draft. Especially when I’ve put a lot of work into AND I finish ahead of schedule.

Which is to say, I finished the fourth full draft of Scion of Victory over this week. My goal was to finish the draft by the end of May, so I’m about 2 weeks ahead of schedule. I feel good about this draft for a few reasons:

  1. It has a brand-new, never-before-seen beginning (technically this draft has 2 different beginnings).
  2. I cut several plot points that didn’t add much to the story and/or created unnecessary drama.
  3. I strengthened Eva’s development and gave her a more defined goal to work towards.
  4. I added more dimension to Kita and explored her romance with Fahvitt in different ways.

Because I worked through this draft by separating chapters according to narrator, I am currently doing “reassembly.” I typically write straight through the narrative, so this step is new for me. Once I’m satisfied with the order, I’ll read through the manuscript for cohesiveness and consistency. Then, I’ll be sending it off to my stellar writing buddy for her in-depth critique, as well as sharing it with my local writing group so they can tear it apart.

After that, I’ll incorporate any necessary edits (without doing another full rewrite). And then, it’ll be time to send my baby out into the world!

I had definitely planned to post about giving critiques this week, but finishing this draft was just too exciting not to share. 

What I wrote this week: Draft 4, Kita’s arc.

What I read this week: The Wicked King by Holly Black; Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall.

On Critiques: Receiving

Hello friends!

An important part of the writing process is, unnervingly, letting other people read your work.

This is, as most writers can attest, absolutely terrifying. 

What do you mean, other people have to read my work? Why would I want that? They’ll just judge it or hate it or think it’s a waste of time. 

Or maybe that’s just my fear.

Of course, after the reading comes the critiquing. Which some might argue is even worse, but in my opinion, it’s better than the reading phase. 

Now, I’m gonna proceed under the assumption that the readers in question are actually giving good feedback and not just saying, “cool story.”

When getting critique on your work, it can be so easy to get defensive. Your work is your baby, it’s perfect, and nothing needs to change. 

But change isn’t necessarily bad. Sometimes, change can make your story better. Maybe your story just needs fresh eyes to take it to the next level. Maybe there’s a gaping plothole you haven’t noticed yet that needs to be addressed.

In the end, it’s better to just take the critique. After all, you don’t have to incorporate anything others say. Not all feedback is created equal. Sometimes the person has an idea that doesn’t fit at all with the tone or theme you’re going for. I remember one workshop I had where a classmate would, without fail, suggest some wild plot twist in his every critique, despite the genre or tone of the piece. I submitted a short story about a woman finding a letter from her recently deceased mother, and he suggested that instead of the letter she find a gun instead. Obviously, I did not make this change.

You know your story best, and you know what it needs to improve. Others can help, but they can’t rewrite the story for you.

What I wrote this week: Draft 4, Kita’s arc.

What I read this week: The Stone Sky by NK Jemisin; The Cruel Prince by Holly Black.

On Writing What You Know

Hello, friends!

Write what you know.

I’ve heard that so many times in my life, it kinda drives me nuts. Do you know how bored I would be if I only wrote what I know? Sure, there would be cool things: an impressive amount of pop punk lyrics, random tidbits about Greek mythological figures (but mostly Medea), and more Harry Potter trivia than any one person needs. But there would also be spreadsheets, formulas I didn’t realize I still knew, and features of very specific appliance models.

I don’t wanna write what I know. That would become a chore very, very quickly.

However, I am guilty of bastardizing what I know. I have a knack for taking something in my life (be it something that happened to me or something I observed), upping the stakes, and turning it into a story. I’ve done this…a lot.

Prime examples:

I turned a night at the beach with a friend, discussing love and failed relationships (among, um, other things), into first a ten-minute play about two friends hooking up at the beach shortly before one character’s wedding. Then I wrote a short story of the events immediately leading up to the ten-minute play. Then I turned that into a full-length play spanning years. And now I’m developing “Beached” as a collection of shorts revolving around these two friends and their mixed-up relationship. I got all of that from one night with a friend.

One night in college, I was watching Hercules with some friends. I was struck by the scene where a powerless Herc looks out on the world with Meg, watching the destruction as the sun rises. And from that moment was born the first scene I ever wrote about Kita: where she stands with a man she loves, looking over her kingdom, as the future looms uncertainly; however, Kita has a secret that will ensure her success. This scene didn’t even make it into the first draft, but that scene transformed into a whole other world, and Kita’s story now involves so many others.

I have another short story set in an abandoned shopping mall that examines an old romance; I had a high school romance that involved lots of romping around the local mall. I got stuck on a ride at Disneyland and turned it into a story set in the bowels of a theme park. My mother told me my abuela left me a sewing machine, and I wrote about a woman who inherits a sewing machine she can’t bear to use or abandon.

I. Bastardize. Everything.

So, write what you know, if you want to. Bastardize what you know. Take one detail and change everything else about the circumstances. Write what you don’t know and use that as a chance to learn! 

Basically: Don’t constrain yourself. Write whatever the hell you want.

What I wrote this week: Draft 4, Kita’s arc.

What I read this week: Creating Character Arcs by KM Weiland; The Stone Sky by NK Jemisin.

On Teachers and Mentors

Hello friends!

I’ve already made clear my opinion on writing being a solitary occupation (it’s not). And while I’ve been influenced by fellow writers and critique partners, I’ve also been lucky enough to have encountered several mentors throughout my life. Today, I wanna talk about two of them in particular.

First up: my tenth grade world lit teacher, Mr. D. I only had him for this one year, but my high school was tiny, so I saw a lot of him over the next two years, too. Not only did I genuinely enjoy his class and his approach to teaching, but Mr. D also knew about my dream of being an author and fully supported me. The next year, when I applied to the California State Summer School for the Arts (check out their mission here), I asked if he’d fill out the teacher recommendation form for me. He didn’t hesitate for a second, and filled out the form right there, in front of me. He helped me believe in myself with that simple act, and I had an incredible summer at CSSSA. 

When senior year rolled around, he helped me find a college that would be a good fit. He wrote a heartfelt letter of rec that brought tears to my eyes. He helped me revise the stories I submitted to the college’s English department, which got me a scholarship that basically guaranteed I’d be able to afford my dream school. Mr. D. spent years giving me unconditional support and encouraging me to push for what I wanted. He celebrated every success with me. On top of all that, he nourished in me a love of plays and theatre, as he included many in his curriculum. When you’re seventeen and feel like the world is against you, it’s invaluable to have someone in your corner cheering you on.

And then I left my tiny high school and went to a tiny college across the country. 

I met my next mentor during orientation. Prof. M. was in the Theatre Arts Department and taught playwriting, which I desperately wanted to take. He expressed his reluctance to take first years into the course, but asked me to send him my latest project. I did, and the sample convinced him I’d be a good fit. I tried to register for the course the next quarter, but it was full. However, over winter break, Prof. M. emailed me to let me know a spot had opened up and I needed to jump on it. His playwriting course was the first of several classes I took with him, and a large part of why I took on Theatre Arts as a second major, in addition to English/Writing.

That play I submitted to Prof. M. during orientation? It was the very first draft of “Family Crimes,” a one-act play about a family of criminals, the matriarch of which is haunted by her murdered husband. Over the next three years, I returned to it several times, trying to find the right way to tell the story, and then at the end of my junior year, it hit me. I churned out a new draft in record time and submitted it to the Theatre Department with two proposals: one to make the revision of this play my senior thesis with the department (a requirement for graduation, and a marriage of my two majors) and a second to direct a production the following winter. Here, Prof. M. hesitated. Was I sure I wanted to tackle these two big projects? Where Mr. D.’s encouragement bolstered me, Prof. M.’s hesitation did the same: I wanted to prove that I could pull it off. Once I made my dedication clear, both projects were approved. Prof. M. helped me revise “Family Crimes” all summer, and when I submitted to him my finished, four-hundred page thesis in the fall (complete with that very first draft and three subsequent revisions), he read it that same weekend and posted my grade in two days. In the winter, he advised me as I directed the production, asking questions I hadn’t thought of and offering decades of experience and knowledge. We ran for four days over Valentine’s Day weekend, and it was honestly my crowning achievement in undergrad.

Both of these mentors had a huge hand in my growth as a writer. Both of them helped me find my voice and the confidence to use it, and they helped shape the things I wanted to say. With Mr. D. in my corner, I wrote a short novel that examined grief and loss, a subject I still return to often. With Prof. M.’s help, I turned “Family Crimes” into a story of love and shame and marginalization. These are subjects I return to frequently, even today. Their influence still shows in my work all these years later.

What I wrote this week: Draft 4, Kita’s arc.

What I read this week: The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin; Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz.

On Introversion

Hello friends!

Like many other writers, I am an introvert. I figured this out sometime in childhood, when at every family function I would go hide with a book, but I didn’t really understand it until college. I was raised in a tight-knit church community that met every Sunday and during any given week had two or three other social functions. The combination of these two things meant that I was socializing daily, and so when I left for college and was no longer in this environment, I realized: I was so, so tired. I had been tired for eighteen years.

I don’t mean this as a slight against the community I was raised in. I simply didn’t understand my own mental health needs until I was a young adult. I didn’t realize how much recharge time I need between social interactions until I suddenly could have that down time more easily.

I’ve also been lucky enough to have known people who don’t take up much social energy when I’m with them. One of them was my college roommate, who I chose to live with in later years because I felt comfortable with her and could easily recharge myself even in hanging out with just her.

Another of these people is my partner, who is an introvert from a family of introverts. Much of the time we spend together is in a shared space doing separate activities.

Being introverted doesn’t necessarily mean I dislike socializing. Sometimes I enjoy it! Would I choose to go to a club or a loud party? Probably not. Will I if it’s a special occasion or a more extroverted friend invites me out? Probably, especially if I know I’ll be able to recover the following day.

I’ve also been “adopted” by many extroverts in my time. My best friend of fourteen years is loud and opinionated and can make conversation with just about anyone in any context. I was especially close with a couple of extroverts in college (and still am!) who seemed to know everyone on campus and in town, and they encouraged me to branch out and try new things. They dragged me to keg parties and school functions. I was in the Theatre Arts department and surrounded by energetic extroverts every night for weeks whenever I took part in a production.

But all of this worked because at the end of the day, I could go be alone and recharge.

The world has become a far less social place in the last year, and for the first half of that, I was loving it. I loved not having to be anywhere or deal with people. I loved only seeing my partner. But the second half? The second half has made me realize that I do need some socialization. Not much, but some. Pre-pandemic, my partner and I hosted a weekly D&D game with a few other friends. Now, I sorely miss that interaction; it’s just not the same through a screen. We also had a larger group of friends we met with every month for a board game night, and I honestly can’t wait to have that back.

Everyone’s needs are different, and it’s been interesting to understand my own more clearly over the last year. I’m still an introvert, but I also need to socialize now and then to feel content. Maybe over time that will shift and evolve; maybe it won’t. But at the very least, for now I don’t have to go to parties.

What I wrote this week: Draft 4, Kita’s arc.

What I read this week: The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin; The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin.

On Patience

Hello friends!

As a reader, sometimes I don’t want a story to end. But tough luck, there’s only three books in the series and that last one came out years ago and the author has said nothing since.

Until, one day, they do.

I’ve mentioned the book Graceling by Kristin Cashore before. It was a favorite of mine in high school, and when I reread it in college, I still really enjoyed it. In March of 2020, I longed for something familiar and picked it up once more. I found that I still loved it, in so many ways. And I finally decided to read the sequels.

Now, “sequels” is a pretty loose term here. The second book that was released takes place some 50 years before the first book, with an entirely new cast of characters. The third book is set eight years after the first, with some new faces but mostly familiar ones. I didn’t read the sequels in high school because I was being petty over the fact that my favorite characters weren’t in two, and if I didn’t read two, what business did I have reading three?

I read a lot of ebooks, and I check most of them out from the library, because as much as I would love to spend all my money on books, I have to pay bills. Both Fire (book 2) and Bitterblue (book 3) were immediately available from the library, so I read the whole trilogy straight through. I really wish I hadn’t been so petty in high school, because I thoroughly enjoyed both follow-ups. I wanted more! But Bitterblue released in 2012, so I didn’t let myself hold out hope.

And then Cashore announced book four, Winterkeep, that summer. 

I read Winterkeep in February and loved it. It was a winner to me. Sometimes it just takes nine years to find the right follow up.

I’d like to think I’m a fairly patient person. But with books? No, I just want them all, thank you. With Winterkeep I barely had to wait. With something like, say, the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown, I’m anxiously awaiting the next installment and have been waiting years.

Some books are worth the wait. And some are just frustrating.

What I wrote this week: Draft 4 prologue; Draft 4, Kita’s arc.

What I read this week: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones; The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin.

On Branching Out

Hello friends!

As you may know, my current Big Project is a fantasy trilogy. I’m talking magic and castles and the like. However, I don’t write only fantasy. Over the years, I’ve tried my hand at various styles and genres, from playwriting to creative nonfiction. (Poetry and I are not friends, so my forays into that were very brief.) I really enjoy writing short stories, though those tend to be much more realistic fiction. I have experimented with magical realism and horror, and even fairy tales, but despite my eagerness to explore different genres, I remain fairly consistent in tone and style.

When writing, I default to third person past tense. And I use a lot of dialogue (thank you, playwriting). Over the years I’ve tried to combat these defaults specifically and branch out, with varying degrees of success. My short story “Don’t” is written in first person present tense, but also very heavy in terms of dialogue. Conversely, another short of mine, “Post-Mortem,” has only a handful of dialogue while remaining in first-present — but the story is also about memory and nostalgia, so though the narrator addresses her surroundings in the present tense, she’s very much examining her past.

Over the course of my MFA, I took about a half a dozen workshops, and for each one I tried something new. I resisted the urge to present novel excerpts, because while I would have loved the feedback, I felt I’d benefit more by getting feedback on shorter, contained pieces.

Even if some of these stories never go anywhere, and most of them have yet to find homes in publications, they presented good practice for my writing. I probably won’t ever be comfortable writing first person present tense, but it’s not something I’ve shied away from. 

Last October, I planned out three novellas to serve as prequels to Scion of Victory, following major side characters and their stories. I also took this chance to experiment with style. The first novella, following the history of Jekk, begins in third-person omniscient and tightens as Jekk grows older. This novella also uses journal entries, something I hadn’t tried before. The second novella explores the last years of Isanto’s life and is written in first person-present, because Isanto is the sort of character who’s full of life and charm, and I wanted to capture his voice. The third novella, which is yet unfinished, follows the early years of Fahvitt, and while I chose third person-past, I also make use of the letters he writes to his sister to more closely capture his inner conflicts.

I guess in summary, I think it’s important to know what kind of writing you’re most comfortable with and what you default to. And I think it’s important to challenge those boundaries, because you never know what you’ll discover about yourself, your characters, and your story.

What I wrote this week: Draft 4, Ramint’s arc.

What I read this week: Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo; The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones; The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin.