The past few weeks have been an emotional tsunami. I’m American, so … yeah. The election. I’m also the parent of an immigrant, and the parent of another child with Mexican heritage. The conversations in our house have been hard. I’ve had to explain to a twelve year old that yes, a man who brags about sexual assault can be president, but she cannot because of where she was born. I’ve had to reassure my youngest that no, she can’t be deported because she is American, and if anyone even questioned her right to be here they would find themselves very quickly wishing they hadn’t brought it up.
Before the world imploded, I completed the Pitch Wars contest run by NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR Brenda Drake. (She just made the best seller list, I’m a little excited for her). If you want to skip past my amazing insight into how Pitch Wars and the election are related, you can scroll down to the bold header with my writing lessons from the contest. Of course, that’s like eating dessert without dinner, but who am I to judge?
*peers over glasses and judges you*
Both of these events have led to a lot of personal reflection. Book sales are slumping and stores are closing, because my fellow countrymen only read if it confirms their personal biases. We live in a world of self-created echo chambers, blocking out anything that challenges what we already believe we know.
Because we are already, like, really smart.
I am just as guilty of that as anyone else. My writing mentor, Rebecca, said she loved the voice in my story but the plot seemed to have been written by an ADHD rabbit on a cocaine binge. (Okay, fine, she probably said something nicer, I was nervous so I don’t really remember).
That was the inciting incident that ties this post together. In that moment of soul crushing criticism I had a choice: I could cross my arms and pout–who does this award winning author and plot wizard think she is, saying that my work isn’t perfect? I wrote it, and I’m like, true story, super smart. I have a law degree in my closet, behind the vacuum.
My other option was to take a breath, humble myself, and ask what she thought I could do to make the story better.
That’s where we are as a nation, right now. Our country is not a political football team, with my side winning and your side losing forever, hooray! Abortions for everyone! Or abortions for no one! It’s all about abortions and that’s why we have to disenfranchise people and take over the judiciary and crush you into submission, because whatever side I’m on is the only right side!
Our political process is suppose to be a balance of ideas, a system of compromise, in order to maintain unity, stability, and prosperity. We’ve forgotten about that in our rush to “win”. Y’all, there is only one party in America, and it is money. Don’t believe me? The Bush twins call Bill and Hillary Clinton “Uncle Bill and Aunt Hillary.” Here’s the video.
Congratulations, we’ve all been played.
In that cross-roads moment with Rebecca, I decided to choose humility. I made a decision to ask questions, to listen, and to learn. I compromised on plot points, but never on character. As a result I have a story I am proud of, a brand new writing toolkit, and a friendship with someone I deeply respect.
Doesn’t that sound like a better way to live?
You’ve been very patient, so here are the PITCH WAR WRITING LESSONS (use only as directed; seek your doctor’s advice before starting this and any other writing program; void where prohibited by law):
1. Start by writing your pitch first. I know, it sounds backwards, but trust me. The pitch is the golden snitch. Catch it, and you win the game. You need to know at the very start what your core idea is:
In a world where ____, X must do _____ before _____.
If you can’t do that, then there is a fundamental story flaw you need to fix. It could be setting, character, or stakes. Whatever it is, you’ll see it when you write the pitch. Traci Chee has a fantastic post breaking down the elements of a what makes a great pitch.
2. After you get your pitch working, fill out a beat sheet for your genre. Don’t know your genre? Yeah, go find it. We’ll wait.
Fill out your beat sheet and start your character bios. Adjust both as the plot demands.
3. Draft a synopsis from the beat sheet before you sit down to write a word. This works for revisions, too, but is a lot easier if you start it before you write. I was using beat sheets before Pitch Wars, but not writing out a synopsis. As a result, my work suffered major plot holes that I couldn’t see until I was deeply invested in the work. In the long run it will save you time and a lot of revision.
4. Check the synopsis. Are there any plot holes? Is the action driven by the character motivation you have set? Do your character and emotional arcs line up with the action? Have you hit all the elements of your genre, and in the correct order? Are there any world-building issues you need to address?
5. Read. Read every day. Read current books, classic books, news, journal articles, books inside and outside of your genre. Read everything you can.
6. Challenge yourself to understand other perspectives. Read outside of your comfort zone. Talk to someone who scares you a little. Sit down next to someone of a different race, or religion, or political streak, and listen to them. You will make your writing richer and more complex if you try to understand other perspectives. WRITING COMES FROM EMPATHY, NOT EXPERIENCE. If you can understand another point of view, even one you despise, then you will create a character (or villain) who your reader will believe is real. Doesn’t that sound lovely?
Above all, keep writing. Keep writing when things feel broken, because cracks are how the light gets in.* Be that light.
* Leonard Cohen or Hemingway? Proof that the internet has a place for everyone, there is actually a website called quote investigator that has tackled this.