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Process: How I wrote “Penelope’s Test”

I just posted what has to be the hardest story I’ve written in a long time. You can check it out here, on the Muses blog. Because it was so hard, I thought I’d give a breakdown on how I wrote it. Or rather how I re-wrote it!

This was the prompt:

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Like most of my stories, it started with a train of thought draft, just to see what I was interested in. I was hoping for something light and fluffy, but of course, as I’m known to do, the story quickly morphed into something more serious and dark. I’ve been reading a lot of news articles lately – specifically looking at the comments section – and it astounds me that people have such different opinions. One person can be lauded as both a savior and a devil. And so, I started asking myself questions: What is a superhero? How are they separate from a villainWhat makes them good and not bad? Is it just a matter of perspective? 

Then, I delved into a deeper, more specific brainstorm, that asks the following questions. I use these questions no matter what I’m writing – a short story or a novel.

  1. Who. who exactly am I writing about and why?
  2. Wants. What do they want?
  3. Why do they want that specific thing? What in their background drives this desire? How do they think this specific thing will change their life or bring meaning to their life?
  4. What are they afraid of that’s keeping them from getting the thing they want? Usually, for me, I write stories where the thing that the character wants and the thing that the character is most afraid of, is the same thing. It adds a really fascinating internal dilemma for me that I adore exploring.
  5. Misbelief. This is directly from Lisa Cron’s books. It’s basically the idea that your main character believes something so strongly that it’s keeping him/her from getting the thing that they want. For example, a character may believe that love weakens you, and that’s the thing that keeps them from getting what they want – love – because they’re also afraid of it, since they think it’ll make them weak.
  6. Origin of the Misbelief. This is super important for me to understand, even if it doesn’t make it into the story. It lets me know exactly where this character is coming from – what memory do they continually face throughout the story that they’re going to have to overcome, and how can I parallel that in my story (even if the reader isn’t aware that I’m paralleling anything)? A character never appears on page without a history – and I want to know what that history is and how to use it to drive my stories forward. I’ll sketch out this scene in a few sentences so that I have it as a reference.
  7. “Aha” moment. This is also known as “the end” to some people. It’s when the character finally overcomes their fear/misbelief and understands what is keeping them from what they want. It doesn’t always mean they’ll get what they want, but it means they’re now free from the restraints that were keeping them from it. It often directly touches on the Origin of the Misbelief scene.
  8. What. Now that I know who my character is, what she wants, why she wants it, what she’s afraid of, what false belief she has that is keeping her from the thing she wants, when that false belief originated, and how she overcomes it, I’m ready to start figuring out exactly what story to write.

I know this seems like a lot of work for a short story. But for me, it’s worth it. It stretches my writing brain, and the more I answer these questions, the more I hope they become instinctive for me, so that I don’t have to spend so much time on them in the future.

From here, I start drafting. I draft in OneNote, which is technically a Project Manager’s Tool, but I’ve found it super useful for writing. I can organize all of my drafts by folder! And it automatically backs it up to the cloud! And I can access it anywhere, which means I’m often working on my stories while I’m on the elevator or waiting for the train or in line for coffee. Here are the five official drafts I did for “Penelope’s Test” once I’d done my initial two brainstorms.

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Between “Attempt 3” and “V01” I sent the story off to a trusted friend for feedback. She’s delightfully ruthless in the most polite, wonderful way, so I know that if she comments on something (in this case, my ending was a total mess) it means I definitely need to do something to fix it. She’s mainly a reader, not a writer (though she does write amazingly well!) so she’s always looking at my stories from a reader’s perspective, which I appreciate and need.

This is also when I start playing with titles. Penelope’s Test had about six of them, before I settled. (If you’re wondering why I chose it, let me know, and I can write a whole other post on that!)

Here’s a snapshot of what my story looked like after I went through and changed stuff based on my friend’s edits. She usually doesn’t make edits directly in the word file – just gives me an overall summary, so all of these changes are mine. 🙂  I should also mention that this is actually my second-run through. The first run through was so drastic, I didn’t use track changes.

edits

From there, I read through it for flow, voice, and typos. I also re-did the first and last pages again, deleting about six paragraphs from each of them. I added a new quote and deleted the one I had before.

I try not to fuss with my stories the week before I post them. I need the space away from them – both for sanity and so I don’t delete the whole thing, thinking it’s awful. But I do need all of the drafts and editing phases. It’s how I learn to write. The entire process usually takes 3-6 weeks, not including my week break before I post.

So there it is. Process for Penelope’s Test! 

I hope you like it! ❤

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Two New Stories!

I’ve been neglectful of my blog lately. Really, it’s because I’ve been avoiding the internet, as I’ve yet to figure out how to be a part of the current ongoing conversations without getting anxious and overwhelmed. And I think that’s okay. Not to withdraw completely, of course, but to take a moment and recognize what action you can take within your own limits, so that you can be as helpful as possible without hurting yourself. Because you can’t help anyone if you aren’t taking care of yourself. This article has helped a lot.

I’m slowly figuring it out. I’ve started donating monthly here and here. I’ve attended protests. I’ve shared messages and phone numbers. And I’m learning that sometimes I need to step back, away from the internet, and do something kind or something just for myself – work out, read a book, knit a hat, make a pair of earrings.

In any case, being away means I’ve forgotten to post not one but TWO short stories from the Muses.

  1. “Home” by the ever lovely Meredith. “Home” is a gorgeous short story with the quiet feeling of an epic. I love her characters, especially Brighid, who would be best friends with the main character of my short story, Imogen. Check out “Home” here. 
  2. “The Beginning to the End of the World” by the incredible Nicole. “The Beginning to the End of the World” is a unique story that will have you hooked from beginning to end. I love the structure Nicole uses in this story! Check it out here.

I hope you enjoy the stories as much as I do! It’s so much fun being a part of this group. Without Joyce, Nicole, and Meredith, I don’t know if I’d have had the guts to start writing again. Certainly, I wouldn’t be able to write now, with the chaos of the world. But this group has given me the opportunity to remember the freedom in writing and also the importance of it. Stories help us empathize with others. They help grow our hearts and our kindness and show us ways to connect to people around us.

And I couldn’t ask for a passion better than that.

Happy Monday all. I hope the week is kind to you.

 

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New Muses Story!

The amazingly talented Joyce has struck again! Her new short story is gorgeous. Check it out here!

Here’s the first bit:

There were a lot of things Death once believed to be true, one of which was that the dead should stay dead. It was pointless going against the natural order. Only humans, who thought themselves gods and sought to bring the dead back to life, could be foolish enough to disrupt this course.

But if it helped to ease their pain, was it such a terrible thing to help them? “This job hardens your heart,” Love told her once. “But that’s only if you have one.” She failed to see the irony when Death pointed it out to her.

Now run, yes RUN, to the Muses site to check out the rest! 🙂

Happy Friday!

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Let’s do this 2017: The Calendar System

It’s no secret that I tend to be quite particular about my planners. So, of course, for 2017 I had to design my own.

I’ve put “The Girl on Fire” on the cover, as a reminder to be strong this year.

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Front cover of The Planner! (Artwork: “Girl on Fire” by me. Medium: Prismacolor Colored Pencils.)

 

Here’s a look at the inside. Don’t mind all of my notes and goals. If I don’t write something down, it will invariably and inadvertently get forgotten.

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My calendar system!

If you’ve never seen Victoria Schwab’s calendar method before, check it out here.You assign each thing a colored sticker, and then, when you’ve done that thing, you get a sticker. I adore these stickers from Michael’s. They’re tiny enough to fit in my planner and shiny enough that I’ll stay up late working just to earn one.

It’s definitely one of the best motivating systems I’ve ever used. There’s nothing more satisfying than giving yourself a sparkly star at the end of the day for accomplishing something. (And also, nothing more disappointing than not being able to give yourself one because you lazed on the couch watching Fuller House instead…)

Plus, at the end of the month, you can see precisely how consistently you’ve worked to achieve your goals.

And now, as the calendar shows, I’ve got a short story that needs finalizing for the Muses tomorrow, so I should go do that… 🙂

 

How do you stay motivated to meet your goals?

 

(p.s. If you want to create your own planner, I recommend using Lulu. It’s easy and super affordable.)

Art · blog life · Muses · Uncategorized · Writing

Hope and Moving Forward in 2017

 

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It’s 2017. The year is still relatively fresh and untangled. My new planner is unblemished and full of possibilities and goals. There’s a general feeling in the air of newness, but also How did we get here?

For me, personally, 2016 was both amazingly wonderful and also devastating. I met and got engaged to my fiance this past year. I met three delightful critique partners. I rediscovered the joy in art. I wrote my first short story. But this year also saw the end of friendships, a crushing election, moments of paralyzing anxiety, and the deaths of too many people, including two that struck close to home. For the first time in my life, I understood the true dichotomy of ups and downs.

I expect that 2017 will be much of the same. How do we move forward into a year as uncertain as this one?

I’ve considered that question for weeks now and the thing I keep coming back to, over and over again, is hope. As long as we have something to hope for, we have something to live for. 

So, here’s my list of hopes this year:

  1. Be kinder. There are so many ways to be kind. Open doors for people. Smile at people who look like they might need it. If you have the money, carry pre-paid Dunkin Donut giftcards in your pockets and hand them out to the homeless, especially in the cold months up ahead. Read to a child. Volunteer somewhere. This year, and for the next few years, we’ll need kindness more than ever.
  2. Write the world I want. I’ve always written stories. My hard-drive is littered with abandoned manuscripts. This year, though, I hope to write a story that encapsulates the world I’d like to live in. After all, in order to live in a certain kind of world, we have to create it first, right? 
  3. Learn to love the fear and pain of writing.  2016 was the first year I did not write at least one novel since 2003. Part of that is probably because I let the fear of potential success play with my anxiety – if I wrote a book I liked and queried it, what if it got rejected? What if it didn’t, but a publisher hated it? What if they didn’t, but readers hated it? Part of it was also because I was terrified I’d waste months writing another abandoned thing, so perhaps it was better to not write anything at all. This year, I hope to love that fear and uncertainty and pain, because without it, I can’t have any joy.
  4. Create art. I love creating things. Sometimes I’ll sit on the couch with a crochet hook and a ball of yarn, and I’ll fuss around for an hour and wind up with a tangled mess of yarn. This year, though, I’d like to channel that energy into creating finished art products, because there’s something a bit more satisfying about holding a completed scarf in my hands than a wavy circle of yarn that I put together. I hope to have more completed drawings and paintings as well this year.  
  5. Cherish my relationships. I’m getting married this year, so relationships are more on my mind than ever. But it’s not just my relationship with my almost-husband, but my relationships with family and friends and critique partners that I want to cherish. Life is so precious. The only thing that is guaranteed, as we saw in 2016, is that one day, we’ll also die. So cherish the people you have now, because you never know when you won’t have them.

 
What are your hopes this year?

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New Muses Story!

Guys!

The amazingly talented Meredith posted her story “Lavender” today!! It is so poignant and beautiful and melancholic. It’s the sort of story that just demands a playlist – songs about fires and love, last moments and distant rumbles of thunder.

I can’t say enough good things about it. You have to read it. Now go – run – over to the Muses site, here, and read. You won’t be sorry. I promise.