For Readers & Writers

from Susan Dennard

March 25, 2016

What's in this heart-to-heart?


Recent Goings On:

I can't believe it has been 3 weeks since my last newsletter. SORRY, FRIENDS. I came home from my 3-week tour...and instantly caught the flu.*

But I'm back now! And the world has returned to its normal groove. Well, sort of.

In classic Susan-is-a-clumsy-dodo fashion, I have a "contusion on my quadricep" thanks to a poorly blocked roundhouse kick. My sparring opponent's knee hammered into my thigh at full power. And then I howled with pain like the giant wuss that I truly am.

No joke, I limped into the grocery store last night and the little door-greeter-lady (whom I do not know, by the way) squawked, "What's wrong with you?!" I was both mortified and furiously offended, so I might have flashed her a full-wattage glare in response.

*The one good thing about having the flu was that I didn't feel extreme guilt over binging the Kdrama One More Happy Ending or playing Dragon Age: Trespasser for hours on end. (Which, oh lawd, y'all. The #Solavellan romance was the greatest, most bittersweet ending I have EVER EXPERIENCED. Bioware writers, you win).

For the Mislanders:

Latest Musical Jams!

It has been forever since I shared my musical jams with y'all, so here we go. These are the tracks that I listened to NONSTOP while flying across the country on tour and brainstorming The Witchlands series. 😁

Trevor Morris's compositions for the Dragon Age DLCs are magic. Pure magic. I love how he takes the DAI theme and just takes it up a notch.
Hans Zimmer is...well, he's freaking Hans Zimmer. The King of Epic Movie Scores. Thanks to the release of the Kung Fu Panda 3 soundtrack, I've been going back over all 3 movies' scores. They're awesome.
The Edge of Tomorrow soundtrack by Christophe Beck is intense. And amazing. I've been blasting it when I write my "epic face off with the bad guy" scenes.
And, here are just a few more compositions from various artists that have been blowing up my curent writing playlists. (Some I might've shared before. Sorry if so!)
Happy listening! And happy Friday!

For the Daydreamers:

Never Settle (with your writing)

While on the #TruthRider tour, one of the subjects that Veronica and I kept circling back to was:

If you're not challenging yourself in your writing, then what's the point?

For everyone, this will mean something different. For a beginner, simply showing up at the computer every day to write might be challenge enough.

For an advanced, multi-published author, it might mean deciding to write a completely new (new for you!) POV or tense or genre.

The point is that if you're not challenging yourself, you're settling. Stagnating. And, well...where's the fun in that? Eventually, you'll get bored. Or worse, your readers will get bored.

I mean, no one wants to read a story featuring a heroine strikingly like the last heroine you wrote...Or set in a world also strikingly like your last world...Or following a romantic course strikingly like the last. Or with a similar set of emotional beats in the plot.

Sometimes, we do want that, and then we turn to genres to fill our fix. But even romance writers, for example, who have pretty strict genre conventions to adhere to, will challenge themselves and their stories to keep those conventions fresh and appealing.

A quick story. When I was in high school, I took voice lessons. I was lucky enough to be born with a pretty-ish singing voice, and I loved to perform...So lessons were the obvious direction to take. The problem was I never ever practiced. EVER.

Like, I would practice for maybe ten minutes on the way to a lesson...and maybe on the drive back home. But that was it.

Needless to say, I never improved. I stayed at about the same level of talent, and that was that. My future as an broadway performer never went anywhere.

I don't want my writing to go that way as well. Period. So what do I do? HOW do I improve?

I actively seek criticism, and I constantly set new challenges. Basically, I build the crap out of my myelin. 😉

First, criticism. In addition to having critique partners and an editor, I also read reviews.

To clarify: I don't actively seek out reviews, but I will glance at the ones that cross my path. And I do pay attention to trade reviews. I look for patterns -- complaints that consistently crop up.

For example: I noticed a lot of people complaining about the world-building in Truthwitch. That there's too much of it. (For the record, I also noticed a lot of people praising that aspect, but rather than only listen to the positive voices, I decided to actively focus on the negative so I could improve.)

To figure out what the negative voices meant, I popped in my own audiobook, and then I listened.

And yeah, while I don't entirely agree (since heavy duty world-building was one of my goals in this series), I do think there are ways I could have handled it better. Primarily in the way I revealed information and how much of it I revealed to start. And so, for everything that I write moving forward, this will be something I REALLY CRACK DOWN ON. (Thanks for that, reviewers!!)

Another thing I do is set myself a specific challenge for every new story.

I'll be honest: any time I hear a writer say something like, "Oh yeah, I can hammer that out in a weekend," a little piece of me dies. Because WHY? Why treat your writing like it's just something on your to-do list? Or worse, like it's something so easily done that you can't even bother to give it serious thought or time.

Ugh. My heart hurts just imagining that. Where's the fun? Where's the respect for your readers? Writing should be hard because you're pushing your own prose and toolbox in new directions. Sometimes those directions might FAIL, yes, but you'll be a better writer for it.

Now, I'm sure some of you are wondering what challenges I set for myself in Truthwitch. The answer is TOO MANY (which is likely why I'm struggling with the sequel so much).

One of the hardest challenges, though, was that I wanted there to be no villain. So every character is a villain or a hero, depending on which side of the border they're on. That might not sound like it should be hard, but it is. Holy crow, it is.

I also wanted each book to focus on a different protagonist's emotional arc. So rather than a single protagonist driving the action across the series, there are many throughout. And while Safi's character arc was at its peak in Truthwitch, Merik's is now the driving force in book 2 (titled Windwitch for this reason).

There were more challenges I set, and I'm not kidding, guys: it has ended up being TOO many challenges. Yet, dealing with the consequences of that has pushed my brain and my writing in ways I never could have expected. On the one had, that has ensured that the experience is NEVER dull (I mean, it's an endless stream of problem-solving and heavy thinking). On the other hand, it has put me way past deadline and still struggling.

Meaning, of course, that I've learned another lesson along the way: don't bite off more challenges than I can feasibly chew.

But hey. when I finally finish this book, at least I'll be able to say it was one hell of an adventure along the way.

So how do you improve? How do you challenge yourself?

Well, for beginner or middle-stage writers (not yet agented, or perhaps agented but not yet published), I URGE you to read other books with a critical eye (more on that here). I also cannot emphasize how important it is to have critique partners who push your writing (more on that here).

Another thing to consider are the tropes of the genre in which you're writing. I think our default is to fall back on those tropes, and while that's not always a bad thing, it can limit you.

Let's look at fantasy as an example, since that's what I'm currently writing. Needless to say, it's best to avoid Tolkien conventions -- even small things, like the fact that elves/fairies/etc. have pointed ears. Or the idea of a beautiful race of immortals. These tropes have been used to the point of excess. (This is my biggest complaint with the Dragon Age franchise, and y'all know how much I love my Dragon Age.)

Now, this isn't to say you can't have beautiful immortals or "knife-ears" (a Dragon Age insult!) in your stories. It just means you have to craft them in a way that (to the best of your knowledge) hasn't been used excessively before. And how do you do that? READ WIDELY. Seriously, devour every classic from your intended genre, and then read all the lesser-known, cult-followed classics too.

The bottom line is: never settle.

Don't ever say, "I can just write that on Friday night!" Unless, of course, you immediately follow up with, "So I can spend Saturday through the next Friday ripping it back apart and making it better."

Don't ever write a character almost identical to one you've written before...Unless you're just so dissatisfied with how you handled it the first time around, that now you want to do it better. Or maybe you've decided to take the character's blueprint and cast it as the villain (now THAT is compelling!).

Don't rely on tropes unless you plan to spin them in new, unique ways.

Don't write only in the genre you read -- or on the flip side, don't read only in the genre you write.

Do. Not. Ever. Settle.

Now, I'm off to deal with my own absurd challengers and to stretch my brain just a bit more before the weekend.
Upcoming Events:

LA Times Festival of Books
Panel & Signing!
April 9-10
Los Angelas, CA

Mclean & Eakin
Free Writing Workshop!
April 15 @ 6PM
Petoskey, MI

Link Roundup:

As always, here are some links to wrap up your Friday!

photo by Emily Rae Photography

Copyright © 2016
Susan Dennard
All rights reserved.

110 West 40th St., Suite 2201
New York, NY 10018

I'm a misfit, a daydreamer, a fangirl, an animal-lover, and a (now gluten-free) cookie-eater.