3 Lessons Learned From Assignments I Hated

For some writers, we’re able to make some type of writing our day job. So long as this much writing doesn’t “kill your creativity,” as Kerri Majors says in This is Not A Writing Manual, it can be great. But no matter how great it is, you’ll probably get stuck with an assignment that makes you want to claw your eyes out. After years as a writing student, a blogger, a journalist, a public relations writer, and now a tourism marketing writer, I’ve begrudgingly had to acknowledge how some of these assignments I hated came in handy.

1. IMITATIONS OF STYLE

Lesson taught: senior year of high school, various fiction and creative nonfiction classes in college

“Imitations of Style” was a pain for everyone. You take the piece of writing you want to imitate, and you type out the whole thing verbatim. Many of my classmates copied and pasted from the internet to save themselves from a little tedium. After the whole thing is copied, you write your own imitation piece. Depending on the class, you either wrote an original piece in the other author’s style, or you rewrote the author’s piece in an alternative style.

From E.B. White’s Once More To The Lake, I wrote a memoir piece titled “Lost and Unlost.” From Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I wrote the short story “A Rose of Success.” There are half a dozen more imitations on my computer. One of those pieces reached publication, but otherwise there were no benefits.

Lesson learned: working in public relations

In PR, my duties varied widely. When writing press releases, everything had to be in the company’s branded voice. For certain individuals, I had to draft their quotes for press releases, blog posts, and responses to emails. Every blog post had to have the brand’s voice, but different from the press releases.

There was no manual on how to do any of that, let alone what distinguishes each voice. I had an assignment and an immediate deadline. So I did the first thing that popped in my head: pull up old press releases/articles where person X is quoted/blog posts, and retype them. Doing this gave me a feel for the voices I needed to write in—cadence, sentence structure and length, type of vocabulary, and what sort of information they wanted to highlight. Once I picked it up and practiced, it got difficult to pick out which parts I wrote from the rest.

Always smiling, no matter what. Image via IMDB.

2. FRAME EVERYTHING TO SOUND POSITIVE

Lesson taught: working in public relations

This was always a pet peeve of mine. I would receive edits on blog posts that said to make everything sound more positive. Make it more peppy and upbeat. A coworker used to do this by adding puns and snappy final lines while I continued banging my head against a wall. Everything had to sound like the best thing since macaroni married cheese.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

While writing a brief guide to beaches in the area, I had to include some of the most important rules visitors should know. Some beaches allow dogs or alcohol while others don’t. Several prohibit glass containers of any kind, and violators face huge fines. But one beach has more rules than the others. My first few drafts sounded like, “This beach does not allow fun of any sort between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., but it’s here if you’re into that sort of thing.”

It took some finesse, but I described the beach as the ideal location for people who just want to swim or relax in the sun without having to worry about getting hit by a frisbee. Thankfully, I managed to do so without a single pun.

3. TRANSCRIBE THE WHOLE INTERVIEW

Lesson taught: high school and college journalism

At my college journalism job, a writer desperately needed help editing her article. I asked for her interview notes and transcription and was shocked to see that she hadn’t taken any notes during the interview. Worse, though, was her transcription. Instead of typing out what her source had said, she made bullet points and summarized what she felt had been important. The worst was that she had made up the majority of quotes she’d used in her article.

With our deadline upon us—hers to finish writing the article, and mine to edit and post it online—there wasn’t much I could do besides take over. I put on her headphones and transcribed every word her source said. After pulling all the information the article needed and the best quotes, it took 20 minutes to complete the article. It has always been my method to write articles this way, but I do so because it works for me.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

During my time in PR, sometimes there wasn’t time to record and transcribe a whole interview or presentation. I relied only on my notes. During an interview for one of my first articles, I got my source comfortable by asking him about the history of the building he owned. The first 45 minutes of our recorded interview was full of the building’s history, some personal anecdotes, and several first- and second-hand accounts of ghost sightings. This is Savannah, after all.

That put all the facts I needed for my article in the last 15 minutes of our conversation. It took me about four hours to transcribe the interview. Maybe I could have saved time by skipping past the ghost parts. Part of me wondered if there might be some place for those stories in my article. In the end, I transcribed them because I thought they were amazing. When I related some of the ghost stories to a coworker, she was ecstatic. Local ghost stories are perfect for our publications.

Ending the first novel in a series

As I near finishing draft five of The Thieves of Traska, the ending is a problem child again. How do you end the first novel in a series when the story isn’t yet over? The end is supposed to tie up all those pesky loose ends and satisfy the reader. But now it also has to entice the reader to obtain the next book and continue the adventure. Yikes!

Just about every how-to I’ve looked at says the end of book one should feel resolved, but still have a few loose ends. That way the reader can be satisfied, even if they don’t go on to the next book. In theory, that makes perfect sense. In the trenches of novel-writing, however, it doesn’t offer much direction. Which part is supposed to be resolved? Which part isn’t? Does that mean I have to do a cliffhanger?

I’m of the opinion that the ending of the first book should not be a cliffhanger. Leave readers wanting to know what happens next? Yes. Introduce a new, life-changing problem at the end and make the reader wait through a whole other book to resolve it? That’s better suited for book two. So let’s take a look at what to close and what to leave open at the end of book one.

Resolve: What brought your character into the story?

Your inciting incident gets your hero involved in the events of the story. It might relate to the overall plot, but it’s also personal to the hero. Why else does he leave his old life behind? I refer to this as the character’s selfish goal.

Why “selfish” and not just “personal,” like so many others call it? It’s a simple goal ignoring the reality of the character’s situation, and how it affects others. Your character has three ways to resolve their selfish goal:

  • Achieve. One option is to have the hero get what he was after in the first place. It resolves the main conflict of this installment, but not the series plot (winning the battle as opposed to the war). For an ending, it’s the point where the hero could stop and still be satisfied with their accomplishment (just like the reader). But there is still much to do, and the hero has made the big problem his problem.
  • Abandon. Another way to resolve the hero’s selfish goal is to have him abandon it. The person/thing he’s been searching for is dead/destroyed. He decides not to take his revenge. Like the previous option, the hero’s main conflict is resolved and the series conflict remains for the later installments. He lost the battle, but the war is still ongoing.
  • Postpone. At first glance, this resembles the previous options. As far as the reader knows, the hero has either achieved or abandoned his selfish goal. But they are in for a surprise. That person isn’t really dead! It was stolen, not destroyed! He had it with him all along! They caught the wrong culprit! But all that happens after book one.

Leave open: What keeps your character in the story?

Remember, the ending of book one is where the hero got (or thinks he got) what he wanted. He could turn away from the greater conflict, but then there’d be no need for a sequel or two. This is where he declares his heroic goal. It’s the daunting, nebulous task the hero chooses to take on.

Just because I call it “heroic” doesn’t mean that goal has to be saving the world. If you’re working with an anti-hero, the heroic goal could involve revenge or something equally not so goody-goody. It could be a broader selfish goal, like rising in power or conquering an enemy.

Whether your hero decides to do something good, bad, or a bit of both, he should have some vague idea of what that thing is. The “why” should already be answered by the events of book one. The “how” is the plot of the rest of the series.

This declaration is an invitation to the reader to proceed to the next book. The ending answers most of the questions, so the reader could stop there. There are just enough unanswered questions — about how the hero will reach his heroic goal — to interest readers in the next installment.

What are your hero’s selfish and heroic goals?

Yo-yo characters: Back and forth in development

While backing up the current draft of The Thieves of Traska, I found the backups for some earlier drafts. I skimmed through, old scenes making me nostalgic and, sometimes, embarrassed. So much of the story and each character has changed. But I was surprised to find places where I’d gone back and forth on my revisions.

Mostly, I can’t seem to decide how friendly I want characters to be with one another. One character in particular, the Messenger, is getting whiplash from his revisions. He has always been mysterious and a little scary. Then I gave him some charming lines and he became a friend to Claire and a trustworthy superior.

In the fifth draft, he’s changing back to something closer to his original self. It suits his role as Claire’s superior; he is now someone she respects, but doesn’t always like. Their relationship is friendly when they agree, and professional when they don’t.

character quote-the messenger
He also now has the most popular quotes among those I’ve shared on Twitter.

Even though this change means I have to cut some scenes I loved, I think they were still necessary to write. Exploring the Messenger’s personal side and making him a friend to Claire showed me the parts of him that I like. He’s more than just an ominous figure that tends to deliver bad news.

Where did his sense of morality develop? What grey areas make him struggle between duty and desire, and why? I know everything he sacrificed to get to where he is now. Most of that backstory won’t make it back onto the page—at least not in this draft—but all of the Messenger’s actions reflect on it.

The Messenger isn’t the first character to sidetrack me with his personal story. Pages in my notebook hold detailed explorations of how certain characters met. I’ve scribbled some conversations that happen during the events of the book, but never make it to the reader. So many tangent scenes that reveal the depths of certain relationships have been cut.

So why go through all that effort if none of it ends up on the page? Because it all builds character.

#writeforum: A good place for writing advice

I tried something new yesterday: I joined the #writeforum discussion on Twitter. I had seen the tag a few times in my feed every once in a while, but never spared it more than a glance. I looked a little longer yesterday and found that not only was the discussion just about to start, but it was going to focus on something I want to understand more:

The writers I met through this discussion (and am now following!) come from different backgrounds and genres, but they all seem to have published at least one novel. Since the conversation started with a focus on promoting published work, I kept quiet and absorbed what they said without contributing. Following a comment about strategies for promoting a series, I couldn’t resist jumping in with my question: What about when you’re looking to promote the first book when launching a series?

There are a number of obstacles I face when it comes to promoting my writing, and I know I am not the only one.

  1. Despite being in the revision process for The Thieves of Traska and drafting The Raiders of Vaskegon, I have no actual book to promote.
  2. My list of published short stories is abysmally short.
  3. The short stories I like to write are a completely different genre from the books I want to write am writing.
  4. I struggle to keep up with the online writing communities I throw myself at.

For those reasons and more, I basically suck at using social media to promote my writing. There isn’t a vetted, published product to promote. I feel silly trying to join the conversation with these people who are at the level I so badly want to reach.

But I do silly things all the time. Yesterday, the risk of showing how embarrassingly green I am to my tiny Twitter following didn’t sound so bad.

And wouldn’t you know it, I showed my greenness and no one cared. #writeforum gave me some valuable information and strategies — most of which will be far more useful when I do have a print product coming out — and broadened my network. Best of all, I have some solid ideas on how to promote The Thieves of Traska when it finally gets to publication.

And who knows? I might just reconsider that whole plan to draft the entire trilogy before I start pitching the first book. And then we’ll see how effective those ideas are.

Book two, chapter one: A messy first draft

I wish I could say the prolonged silence on my blog for the last few weeks was due to some intense writing on the first draft of the next project— the kind where I neglect a meal or a shower here and there because the muse is stranded in my head with a flat tire. I’d also like to say that I’m rolling in a mixture of glee and self-loathing after receiving all the comments from my beta readers. But I’m actually stuck.

This is no surprise. After sending out The Thieves of Traska, I forced myself to take a step back from the story. That lasted maybe a week before I realized that I could start working on its sequel, The Raiders of Vaskegon. Same cast, different story — that still counts as taking a step back, right?

Well, in the eight weeks since I started the first draft, I’ve already restarted numerous times. The first chapter alone is in its fifth revision. I thought there would be progress when I finally put a couple pages into chapter two, but I stalled when I realized the foundation of the first chapter still wasn’t stable. Why? Because I’m making mistakes that, by this point, I ought to know how to avoid.

(Non)obligatory summary of book one

Yep, I went there first. What if a new reader gets to book two before book one? What if people who read book one have to wait months or years before getting book two? They’ve got to be caught up on the story so far!

If the events of book one could enjoyably be covered in the span of a few paragraphs, I wouldn’t have written over 50,000 words on it already. Book two has a job to do: continue the story, not retell it.

Reintroducing familiar characters by ignoring stages of development

Did that, too. Book two starts a few days after the end of book one, yet the familiar characters had apparently gone through months’ worth of development while no one was looking. They almost have to be different people to handle the new problems ahead of them — why not start them over with the new book?

Let’s refer back to book two’s job: continue the story, not restart it.

Forget everything else and charge full speed ahead into the plot

I’m getting closer, but this still isn’t the way to go. Readers of the first book won’t get annoyed with boring recaps of stuff they’ve already read, and newcomers will just have to go get book one if they want to figure out what’s going on. We’re continuing the story here, right? So let’s introduce seven new characters in two pages and go from there.

Book two still has to be a book with structure to its narrative. Right now, it’s a crazy mess. But it’s also a first draft.

While I have received some feedback from my beta readers — with lots of positive comments! — I haven’t gone back to work on The Thieves of Traska yet. If anything, I’m reading it and letting myself fall in love with the characters as if they were someone else’s. I’m thinking about that feeling when you finally get the next book and it’s like you’re seeing an old friend again. It’s a tall order, but I’m up to the challenge of filling it.

Skipping time in your story

Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, you might come to a point where you want to skip ahead to the next thing that happens. This can be a great way to keep the momentum going for your readers if the “down time” between events drags the story down. It could be a little jump of hours or days, or a huge jump of months or even years. So how do you gloss over that time?

Short Jumps

Hours

This one is really easy; you’re not taking the reader too far from where they’ve been, so they won’t miss much. The transition can be as simple as starting a new paragraph with “later” or “after.”

Later in the evening, Molly found an unexpected package by her front door.

After finishing the morning chores, Tom bathed and dressed for a trip into town.

We’re not sure what exactly happened in those hours between the last time we saw Molly and when she found the package, but we trust that it wasn’t important to the story. It might have been interesting to read about Tom’s morning chores, but his trip into town is what we’re really waiting for.

Summarize what the reader doesn’t need to spend a lot of time on. Idle conversations, studying, training, eating, working… Whatever your reader probably won’t be thrilled to read can be skipped over this way.

Days

You can easily skip a day or two to keep the story going. It’s still not a huge jump, so your reader won’t be jarred if one paragraph ends on Tuesday and the next opens on Wednesday. Even if you jump ahead to Saturday, it’s unlikely you’ll cause some waves.

The week passed annoyingly slowly, as if it it were determined to make Martha wait that much longer until she could see Andrew again.

Remember: you’re skipping this time because nothing crucial to the story happens here. If your character is supposed to see/find/do something important, that’s not something you want your readers to miss. But if there’s important information you want to cover without going through days of scenes, just use summary:

He’d spent days going over witnesses’ statements, calling them to double-check some of the information. Of course, their stories changed a little. Day by day, the murder got a bit fuzzier to them. By the end of the week, it looked like their suspects drove a “dark” SUV with Indiana—maybe Illinois—plates.

Long Jumps

Months

Here’s were it can get tricky; if a month or two has passed since the last event, you’re going to need to go over some of the things your reader missed. A lot can happen in a month. Even if nothing critical happens, the lack of events can be a great way to build tension for your characters.

Leo didn’t leave work until well after dark most days. He didn’t notice at first, what with October seeming to roll right into December and the sun set by 4:00. At some point, Kara had yelled at him for forgetting the kids’ Christmas presents, then forgetting Christmas altogether. The house had gotten a lot quieter since then, not that Leo noticed.

While you’re writing the same person as before, something about their attitude has to be different. Are they stressed? Has obsession driven your character’s loved ones away? Have they forgotten tragedy in the face of something wonderful they’ve been waiting for?

Years

At this point, your character might be a very different person than the last time your reader saw them. Maybe the differences are small, but they cannot be completely unchanged. They could be wiser, more mature, more focused on their goal. They could be more foolish, childish, and highly distracted. Whatever the last event was before you jumped ahead, it should be some sort of pivotal moment that instills change in your character. A jump this big should be used for showing the stark changes between who the character was and who they are now, with the reader sometimes thinking about how the old character might have responded differently.

Cate liked having money; it took care of everything. Floors dirty? Hire a maid. Too tired to make dinner? Hire a cook. Lonely? You could hire anyone to keep you company for as long as you wanted. It certainly could have taken care of her brother’s debt and the wedding he’d put off for two years, but he always chose the worst times to ask if she’d remembered her promises. She couldn’t very well talk of giving loans while entertaining guests! What might her new friends think?

If you are skipping forward in time, remember that the story is told from that point forward. Don’t tell your reader it’s three months from the last time they saw the main character, then write the scene for the day after that time three months ago. It will disorient your reader and make them wonder why you couldn’t just skip ahead three months from the next day.

By the way, what is Traska?

For this week’s Writing Wednesday, I’ve decided to give you all a look into the city of Traska, the fictional setting of The Thieves of Traska. The name is actually derived from a couple of real places I’ve visited many times in Michigan: Traverse City and Kalkaska.

I remember being in the car about two years ago, traveling between Michigan and Virginia with my family. All I had was an idea to expand a short story about a thief breaking out of jail — I still needed a new name for that thief, a location, a plot, and just about everything else. Every so often, I wrote down the names of cities and towns we passed through, picking apart the sounds I liked in each. After testing a few options on my family, I decided on Traska.

Even the Toskey River, which cuts through the city, got its name from the petoskey stones my family collects in Michigan. Though the landscape and the names are inspired by my time up north, the city is nothing like what I’ve seen there.

This is a partial image of an unfinished painting of Traska from the earlier drafts. The city was smaller, but still occupied the north and south banks of the Toskey River.

And now, for your reading pleasure, an excerpt from The Thieves of Traska about the city itself. As the book is yet unpublished, the following text is subject to change before being finalized.

Excerpt

Late in the morning, the forest ended abruptly, cut back for farming. The ground sloped upward, a number of farmhouses and villages dotting the countryside. Further ahead, Claire could make out the serene blue of a bay, rounded mountains spanning the horizon, and a river that popped in and out of sight among clumps of forest. If she had to guess, that was the Toskey River, and it fed right into the bay.

And the dark shape next to it could only be Traska.

Before reaching the city proper, they passed through a town that spread along the edge of the bay all the way to the massive stone wall surrounding Traska. According to locals, the area was called Skeggs, though they couldn’t agree on whether it was a town on its own or one of Traska’s districts.

As they neared the gate separating Skeggs from Traska, they entered a swelling stream of people bustling in and out of the gate. Once Claire and Garrison passed under the shadow of the gate, the air had a different charge to it. She could feel the life of the city pulsing around her and in the bluish stones beneath her feet. The sounds of peddlers hawking goods and horse-drawn carts rattling by carried over the crowd from an open marketplace further up the road and echoed off stone and mortar walls. There wasn’t a single building in sight with fewer than two floors; some towered more than twice that further in. The buildings were the same blue-grey as the roads, many of them displaying glittering tiled mosaics on one wall or another.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into The Thieves of Traska! Be sure to check back on the blog for details on my upcoming giveaway to celebrate the fourth draft.