It's almost time to ring in the new year, so to celebrate, I thought it would be fun to continue with last week’s theme of lessons learned over the last year.
So, as we inch our way closer to counting down until the ball drops, I wanted to count down some of the best clips from the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast in 2021.
In this blog post, I'm sharing tips from the top 10 most listened to episodes of the podcast, so I know it’s going to be full of good stuff. Let's dive right in!
This tip comes from episode #8, The 7 Secrets to Success That Every Writer Should Know. And in this episode, I talk about seven secrets that will completely transform your writing practice.
These secrets really come from years and years of working with writers and noticing which traits and habits make some writers more successful than others.
And in this clip, I’m talking about getting clear on your goals so that you’ll have a better chance of accomplishing them. So, let’s check it out.
"The third secret to success is having clarity. In other words, you have to be clear about what your goals are and how you're going to accomplish those goals.
So, first, get clear on what you're trying to do. If your goal is to write a book, what kind of book are you going to write? A 12-page children's book? An 80,000-word novel? Something else?
Then, once you have clarity around what goal you're trying to accomplish, you need to get clear on how you'll accomplish it. So, if your goal is to write an 80,000-word novel, how will you know that you've accomplished your goal? Is there a deadline by which you'd like to have a first draft completed?
For example, say you want to write an 80,000-word first draft in 8 months. That means you'll have to write 10,000 words each month. So, how will you get this done? Will you write 2,500 words each week? Or break up the workload in a different way? Then, determine where you'll do the work. Can you write those 10,000 words each month at home or do you need to make other arrangements?
These questions help us turn the larger goal of writing a book into smaller, more actionable steps.
The final thing you'll want to get clear on is your motivation. So, what's driving you to write a book in the first place? Why do you care so much about being a writer? Keep digging into what's motivating you until you come up with an answer that will sustain you all the way until "The End."
Once you’ve gotten clear on those three things, you can drill down even further and get clear on what kind of story you're writing. So, what’s your genre? Who is your protagonist? What does he or she want? What's the central conflict of your story? Things like that. The more clear you can be with your goals, the better."
That's such an important step, and unfortunately, it's not one many writers take the time to do. So, go check out that episode if you want me to walk you through the other secrets to success that every writer should know. Moving on to tip #9...
This tip comes from episode #4, How to Identify Your Story’s Ideal Reader where I talk about why it’s important to know who your ideal reader is.
In this clip, I explain what an ideal reader is, and then four ways that knowing your ideal reader can help you on your writing journey. Let’s take a listen.
"An ideal reader is the ONE person who's going to love your book just as much as you do. They can be someone you know, someone you made up, or a mixture of both. Either way, he or she represents the type of person who would pick up your book, enjoy reading it, and recommend it to his or her friends.
#1. Write with purpose.
When you know who your ideal reader is before you write, it’ll be easier to craft your story to meet their wants, needs, and expectations. You’ll be able to create characters, plot events, settings, and themes that will appeal directly to your target audience and that will deliver the emotional experience he or she is looking for.
#2. Focus on what’s important when it’s time to edit.
Editing can be overwhelming, but when you know who you’re writing for—and what those readers want, need, and expect from your story—it makes it a whole lot easier to get rid of any characters, plot events, settings, etc. that won’t appeal to your target audience.
#3. Pitch agents.
Agents want to know that you (the writer) know exactly who your target audience is, since this is the first step they need to take in figuring out how to reach them. If you can speak knowingly about your target audience, agents will know you’ve put in the work and thought about the marketplace in which your book is about to enter. This will make the process of finding and pitching agents to represent your book that much easier.
#4. Market your book.
If you’re going the route of self-publishing, understanding your target audience will help you figure out which communities you should be reaching out to and how you can get those people interested in your book. This will save you from spinning your wheels and wasting time and energy getting your book in front of people who aren’t going to enjoy your book even if it is well-written."
I really love that tip because it’s not something we think about all the time, right?
But it’s so, so important. If you haven’t identified your ideal reader, go check out that episode and the exercise that goes along with it. You’ll get to know your ideal reader in no time!
This tip comes from episode #43, 10 Tips for Writing Better Scenes. And this one’s fun because writers ask me all the time, Do you have any tips for writing a better first draft? Or is there anything I can do to make this whole 'writing a book' thing easier!?
And my answer is always YES!
If you can learn how to write a well-structured scene, it will make A HUGE difference in your ability to write a story that works. So, let’s just dive right into the clip.
"The third tip I have for you is to make sure that your character has a specific goal in each and every scene. So, what does your character want to achieve or accomplish or learn in this particular scene? What are they specifically trying to do?
Their goal could literally be anything -- it could be something simple like your character wanting to go down to the river to fill up a bucket of water so that he can make breakfast for his family. Or it can be as complex as your character wanting to confront and defeat the evil Dark Lord so that humanity can survive.
Regardless of what it is, your character needs to be trying to accomplish something, and their goal needs to be clear in the first few paragraphs. This is how readers relate to and invest in your character throughout the entire story.
This is also how you’ll help or prevent your character from achieving or accomplishing their big picture story goal, too -- one scene at a time.
Now, I should mention that this seems to be something that confuses a lot of writers. Some writers feel like the word “goal” is too big or lofty. So, if you’d like, feel free to just ask yourself what is this character trying to do in this scene?
You’re probably not doing your story justice if your character is sitting on the couch with no goal or ambition, waiting for the plot events to move them into action.
And the reason that doesn’t work is that a) your character doesn’t seem real -- in real life, we all have goals big and small, and b) this doesn’t provide any room for conflict. If your character has no goal, then nothing can get in the way.
And if there’s no conflict then you don’t have a story."
Another good tip, right? I love that episode. It's probably one of my favorites, and it's definitely a listener favorite, so go check it out if you haven't heard the whole thing already.
I don’t ever go back and listen to the episodes once they’re published, but I re-listened to the ones I’m including in today’s episode, and that one about writing better scenes, episode number forty-three, oh man that was a good one. Definitely add that to your list of episodes to check out.
This tip comes from episode #40, How to Write a Well-Structured Scene. And this clip is all about making your character face tough choices, scene by scene. So, here it is...
"Commandment number three is that there needs to be a crisis moment or a moment where your character faces a decision about how to move forward.
So, after the turning point comes in and ruins your character’s plans for achieving their scene goal, they have to decide what to do next–will they do X or will they do Y?
And ideally, you want these options to carry the same weight. In other words, your character should face a choice between two equally good things or two equally bad things.
And the reason for that is because if you have to choose between a good thing and a bad thing, you’re obviously going to choose the good thing, right? It’s a predictable decision. If you had to choose between two equally bad or two equally good things, then the choice is more interesting.
With either choice, there needs to be something at stake, too.
So, if they choose X, what do they stand to lose or gain? If they choose Y, what do they stand to lose or gain? This is how you make things interesting and keep readers on the edge of their seats throughout the whole story."
I love that tip so much. If you remember one thing about writing scenes, make it this tip. It will completely change the quality of your drafts. Now, let's move on to number six.
This tip comes from episode #5, 3 Ways to Figure Out the Theme of Your Story. And in this episode, I talk about a few different ways you can uncover the theme of your story.
I also talk about a common fear that always crops up whenever a writer talks about theme. What if my theme isn’t unique enough? Or what if it’s cliche? So, here's the tip:
"I’ll let you in on a secret -- themes are almost always generic or cliché in the beginning.
How many books have you read that could be boiled down to “good vs. evil” or “love conquers all?” You could write about either of these themes for hundreds of years and never run out of unique perspectives.
Readers don’t get tired of these universal themes. They get tired of the same themes being expressed in the same way, in the same genre, with the same plot and characters and the way they’re combined.
So, don’t worry if what you’ve come up with sounds generic or cliché. Your theme will grow, deepen, and change as you get to know your story better. If you can articulate what your book is about—and why telling this story matters to you—that is more than enough to guide you through your first few drafts!"
And that’s so true, right? As a reader, I tend to like stories that revolve around the same themes. I love that I can read so many books that express similar sentiments. So, just keep that in mind as you write your own novel. Moving on to number five...
This tip comes from episode #6, 3 Reasons You Should Write in Scenes vs. Chapters. And in this episode, I talk about why you should write and edit your first draft scene by scene, not chapter by chapter. So, here's the tip:
"I've worked with a lot of writers who worry about ending chapters on cliffhangers or who agonize over writing perfect chapter opening. They worry about these things so much that they never end up making progress or finishing their drafts.
But, if you can get in the habit of writing in scenes versus chapters, there are many benefits.
First, you'll be able to write a more “complete” and well-fleshed out draft. That's because you'll be focused on creating scenes that work instead of ending chapters on cliffhangers.
Second, you won’t have to worry about how each chapter ends or how it transitions into the next chapter. You can just write each complete scene and move on to the next scene, and then the next scene until you’re finished.
Then, when it’s time to break your story into chapters, you can make sure the chapter breaks fall at the most exciting or interesting parts of a scene. That way the reader will feel that "tug" and want to keep reading.
Third, this also helps writers avoid writing "a bunch of things that happen" in each chapter to writing actual scenes that advance the story and the plot. And as I mentioned earlier, this will make a huge impact on the quality of your first draft."
And I love this tip. The idea of writing in scenes vs. chapters is usually a big “ah-ha” moment for the writers I work with, too. If you’ve never tried writing your draft in scenes, and if you’ve always focused on chapters, I highly recommend giving it a try.
This tip comes from episode #3, How to Decide Which Story Idea to Write Next. And in this episode, I give five different ways you can decide which story to work on next if you’re torn between multiple different ideas. Here's question number one:
This question requires a realistic understanding of where your abilities are at right now, and what you want to learn next. So, for example, I worked with a writer recently who had two different story ideas that she was trying to decide between.
One of them was an idea for a romance novel that "felt really fun and more fleshed out." The other was an idea for a memoir that "felt more complicated" because it was based on her real-life experiences, and she felt a lot of pressure to “get it right.”
Since she was brand new to writing, my advice to her was to go with the idea that felt more fun and exciting, and less complex, so that she could focus on learning the fundamental writing skills that are required in order to write a story that works before she tackled the story that was more complex and challenging.
Another example that comes to mind would be if you were considering writing a story with a single point of view character versus a story with multiple point of view characters.
If you’re brand new to writing, I’m always going to recommend sticking with a story that has a single point of view character so that you can learn what it takes to write a story that works before complicating things with additional points of view.
On the other hand, if you’ve already mastered writing a story with a single point of view character, then maybe a story with multiple points of view would be a great next step for you."
I don’t know about you, but I love flexible answers. Like, if you’re in this spot in the process, do this. But if you’re at this spot, do that. I like knowing there are options… but again, maybe that’s just me! Let’s move on to tip number three.
This tip comes from episode #7, 5 Questions to Help You Write Better Characters. And this is a great episode to listen to if you need to flesh out your story’s protagonist. And the tip I’m going to share with you is all about your character’s backstory. Here it is:
"Just like in real life, your character has a past. This is called your character’s backstory.
Knowing your character’s backstory is important because everything that happened before we meet your character on page one will color everything that’s happening to him or her now.
That means you’ll need to dig into your character’s relevant backstory to uncover useful pieces of information that will not only help your character seem like a real person but will also help you create inner conflict for your character to face.
Inner conflict comes from inside the character themselves. It’s whatever they bring to the story both emotionally and intellectually. For example, this could be doubt, confusion, a false belief about themselves or the world, etc.
Whatever it is, your character will need to face and overcome this internal conflict in order to succeed in dealing with the external conflict (or the plot events) in your story.
For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry has a hard time accepting all the attention and fame that comes with being "The Boy Who Lived." He doesn't feel like he can take credit for defeating Voldemort because he doesn't really remember what happened that night. Plus, all he's ever had to go on is how the Dursley's treated him. Add all of that up and that's the inner conflict Harry has to face and overcome in order to defeat Voldemort."
And this is one of the biggest things writers need help with when I coach them 1:1. So, if you’re having trouble digging into your character’s past, you’re not alone. But if you can get this right, if you can create a character who has something internal growing and changing to do, that’s what will help you craft a character who feels believable and three-dimensional. So, go check out that episode if you need some help crafting characters!
This tip comes from episode #2, Understanding Genre: How to Write Better Stories. And I have to tell you, writers email me all the time saying, Can you please do an episode on the key scenes and conventions of science fiction and fantasy? And every time, I feel so bad saying no, but in this clip, I share why. So, here it is.
"Fantasy and science fiction are consumer-facing genre labels. These labels tell the reader that there will be fantastic, magical, scientific, or futuristic elements in a novel, but it doesn’t really tell the reader what the story will be about.
Fantasy and science fiction stories need to include at least one of the content genres in order to work -- sometimes one external genre and one internal genre.
For example, you could write an action story that takes place in a futuristic setting or a romance that takes place in a made-up world full of magic. In other words, your story would include the obligatory scenes and conventions for the external and internal content genres that take place in a particular setting that’s not in the real world.
When you're writing speculative fiction, there's already so much stuff to remember and keep track of. You have to build believable worlds, create whole magic systems, make up new technology, and maybe even figure out how space travel works. With all of that on your plate, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and maybe even give up on your story.
But if you can nail down your story's global genre, you'll gain a sense of clarity and focus that will enable you to finish your draft and write a story that works."
And I'm not lying when I say that this was one of the biggest “ah-ha” moments for me with my own current draft in progress! A lot of you know that I am working on a fantasy series, and when I learned about this whole “content genre” thing, it really freed me up and gave me the tools I needed to start making actual progress.
So, if you haven’t listened to this episode, go check it out or add that to your list of things to catch up on over the holidays. You won't regret it!
And finally, our number one tip comes from the most listened to episode of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast -- episode #1, The #1 Myth That Holds Writers Back. Here it is:
"The number one myth that holds writers back is this: if you can write beautiful words, then that's what makes you a real writer. Or if you can write beautiful sentences, that's what will make readers fall in love with your story.
And at the root of this myth is the belief that these beautiful sentences or beautiful words matter more than anything else.
Where does this insidious myth come from?
Why do we believe that you have to write beautiful words in order to write a great story or to be a “real writer?”
Well, most of us writers are avid readers, right? And we're so used to seeing a book in its final state that we can't help but compare our messy draft-in-progress to someone else's finished product. It's just human nature.
I’m guilty of this myself sometimes... The second I start thinking about the worldbuilding in the Harry Potter series, I start feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.
Or when I reread The Name of the Wind for the billionth time, I agonize over not being able to write the type of beautiful, lyrical sentences that Patrick Rothfuss does.
So, what’s my point here?
My point is that we don't seem to realize that our nugget of an idea, or our messy pages, and someone else's finished draft are completely different things.
And it's this kind of comparison that feeds this belief that we can't be "real writers" unless we write beautiful, polished prose. And the more we do it, the more deeply ingrained this belief becomes.
But the truth is, no matter how beautiful your words are… this is not what engages readers in a story.
They may appreciate your beautiful prose, but they won’t feel engaged. Instead, it’s the STORY underneath those words that captures a reader's heart and mind.
And without a story, those “beautiful” words are empty and devoid of meaning.
So, always, always, always focus on crafting a compelling story first.
And there you have it! Those are my favorite clips from the top 10 most listened to episodes of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast in 2021! If any of these clips sparked your attention and you haven't checked out the full episode yet, be sure to go back and take a listen.
Thank you so much for counting down these tips with me. I can’t wait for you to see what I have in store for you in 2022, so be sure to follow the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast or subscribe to it wherever you listen to your podcasts.
And, of course, share it with all your writer friends so that we can all work together next year to get more amazing stories into the world.
Thank you so much for joining me, not only today but week after week or whenever there’s a new episode. I am so grateful that I get to show up for you and that I get to share all these writing tips and strategies with you. And I'm so excited to see all the wonderful things 2022 has in store for us–see you in the new year!
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