The Pen and the Keyboard

The Pen and the Keyboard

Talking to my fellow writers about our craft is always a learning experience. The many different methods, reasons, and styles reveal just how personal and creative the process of writing is. Some people like spiral notebooks, some people write on legal pads, some people like old-school typewriters, some love their sleek Macbooks. I, for one, only lend out one of my precious pens if I’m given a solemn oath that it will be returned intact.

In this land of varying opinions, however, some things have been subjected to scientific study. That’s the controversial water that I’m going to wade into today.

 

Defending Pen and Paper

You might think that putting a pen or a pencil to paper is the same as tippity-tapping your way over a keyboard, but research suggests that these are two very different activities. Or at least your brain thinks so. This article at the Huffington Post talks about research into how the brain processes handwriting differently than typing. The short version: when you write by hand, more of your brain lights up than when you type. Even children generate more ideas, and college students remember more from lectures.

Anytime I’m writing new material, it goes into a notebook. For me, the process of scribbling my own words on a piece of paper is radically different from sitting in front of a computer and typing. It’s slower, even for a snail-paced typer like me, but that’s the point. The ball of my pen rolling over the smooth surface gives each character, each word, a visceral meaning. The ideas in my head take shape gradually, the amorphous images carved into solid characters, feelings, dialogue, and actions by my hands. Sometimes as I write through a scene, things take a very different shape than I originally imagined. New ideas weave their way into the plot. Ideas that I hadn’t even put to words start to appear, made real by the solidity of my own handwriting.

The scientific evidence suggests that this is because writing by hand actually reaches more parts of your brain than typing does. Ideas come forward that you might not have found any other way. There’s a reason that I often come away from writing a nonfiction piece with a new awareness of how I think about something. By scratching down my words with ink, I’m finding thoughts that I didn’t even know were there.

There’s a romance, too, to sitting down with a blank piece of paper and filling it up. For hundreds of years before the invention of the typewriter, this was how the process worked. The ancient philosophers did this, kings and queens have done this, Jane Austen, and Stephen King, too. There’s a strange magic to putting pen and paper, knowing how many have done it before.

 

Don’t Toss the Keyboard

You might think me a hypocrite when I say this, but I still use a computer to write. I do so love pen and paper, but that doesn’t mean typing has no place in my life or my writing.

In fact, this entire blog post was written on my computer. I don’t think that typing is inferior to handwriting, it just has a different place.

When I want to get an idea out fast, then a keyboard is where I turn. My fingers can fly and my thoughts can, too, arriving on the page unfiltered. The end result is a little rougher, but that can be a good thing. There have been some scenes that I struggled to write using pen and paper. When I switched to typing, when I could see the scene marching up and down the page, when I didn’t have to spend so much time ruminating on the individual words, everything fell into place.

From a more practical perspective, a manuscript is almost impossible to share when it’s hand-written. I had some very patient friends in high school who read my cursive stories, but I’ve learned that as much as I love my own lettering, not everyone appreciates having to sort out my ‘b’s’ from my ‘l’s’. After hand-writing my first draft, I type the second.

I know that this seems like a cumbersome  process, but considering the many, many drafts that most pieces go through before they are finished, it’s a small time investment, with big pay-offs.

The Diverse Writing Process

Research suggests my brain works in different ways when I’m handwriting versus when I’m typing. My own experience (and the experiences of much more renowned writers) aligns with studies. Which has convinced me that the best thing a writer can do is exploit this fact, and write using both methods.

Story time.

Right before my daughter was born, I finally (finally) got serious about finishing the first draft of my first original novel. To speed up the process, I pulled out my laptop and typed away. I was on a deadline, and it just had to get done.

At last, the draft was finished. I hit the print button and stuck the stack of papers in a box.

When my daughter was a few months old and I’d finally caught up on sleep (or given up on sleep entirely) I pulled that draft out. I read it. It was terrible. I realized almost immediately that the majority of what I’d typed was going to have to be cut if the novel was ever going to work. It was a disjointed series of scenes, that while interesting on their own, would never work together. Sentences and paragraphs rambled across the page, taking up space without moving the plot forward, or saying much at all. Worse, every sentence, every character, every location, was flat and dry. I had spit out scenes with very little sense of place, without any depth.

Pen and Keyboard Vertical

So I cut. And every scene that I cut, I rewrote in my notebook. The result was so much more lively and cohesive, because I had to go slowly and put thought into crafting each word.

Then I retyped those scenes. And as I retyped them, I refined them. This kind of process is much easier on a computer screen than on paper. If I don’t like the order of a paragraph, it takes seconds to cut and paste the sentences into a new sequence. Whole scenes can be moved around this way, even whole paragraphs. Highlighting an entire chapter that’s dragging the piece down, hitting the ‘Delete’ button, and watching it vanish, is downright thrilling.

Those scenes that started in a notebook and moved to keyboard were far stronger than the scenes that started out typed. I discovered the method that worked best for me, the way of writing that resulted in the most evocative sentences.

It makes sense, as a writer, to approach a piece from as many different perspectives as possible. I care a lot about how my writing impacts other people, and I want others to be able to read the most cohesive, cleanest story possible.  Drafting in multiple methods is the best, and I have found, most efficient, way of doing this.

Finding Balance

All writers have preferred writing methods, and we all have deeply held opinions about them. But if I’ve learned one thing from talking to my fellow writers, it’s that what works for one of us isn’t going to work for all of us. Often, the only way of discovering what works best for you is to try new things. If you usually plop in front of your laptop during writing time, then pick up a notebook and a pen next time, instead. If pen and paper is all you’ve ever known, then give a keyboard a chance. You might find, like I did, that there’s an important place for both methods in your writing life.

Whatever you do, don’t limit yourself to just one way. And if your notebooks have been getting dusty, pull them out and see what happens. You might be surprised at how much more depth your writing has when it begins that way. And the research backs me up.

What are some strange discoveries that you’ve made on your writing journey? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

And as always, thank you for visiting Bright Ink.

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Anticipation: Things on the Horizon

Anticipation: Things on the Horizon

Happy Friday! I know this is a day most people look forward to, so in that spirit I’m going to talk about some things things that I’m excited about.

Friday is not one of those things. When you’re a stay-at-home-parent, Friday actually doesn’t mean much. I am not going out tonight, you will find me home cooking dinner and bathing children. There will be no sleeping late in the days to come, no reduction in responsibilities. If anything, I’ll probably pile on some extra projects.

My special treat on the weekends is the chance to go on an extra-long walk while The Hubs stays home with Little Dude and Little Miss. There might be a Starbucks run and a trip to the bookstore. This weekend in particular, I’m going to get soil to fill my garden beds, so I guess that is something to be excited about, even if I won’t be sleeping in.

So here they are, some other things I’m looking forward to, and why.

 

Rogue One

The whole world conspired against me getting to the movie theatre to see this. There was an ice-storm, travelling for Christmas, and then a nasty stomach bug, followed by a string of colds that kept me tied up at home for weeks. Before I knew it, Rogue One was out of theatres, and spoilers flooded Pinterest.

So for months now I’ve been just about the only die-hard Star Wars fan who hasn’t seen this film. I’ve been over here losing nerd-creds on a daily basis. I think I might be in the negative now, and that’s pretty bad for someone who would willingly participate in a lightsaber duel to make Mara Jade canon again.

Seriously, Mara Jade is my hero, and I will always be in denial that she’s not flying around the universe, regularly calling Luke Skywalker to tease him about being a farm boy.

I was sold on Rogue One as soon as I saw that clip of AT-ATs stomping down palm trees. Jyn Erso and friends all look like a classic Star Wars crew of improbably heroes. So yes, I’m getting this movie today, and I’m finally going to settle in and watch it. I will probably squeal when I hear that classic TIE fighter scream.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

The TV show, or the book? It turns out, both.

So, I might have mentioned before that I went this really long stretch of time without reading any science fiction. I had Margaret Atwood on my to-read list, but never touched any of her books. I have no good reason for this, I was just very comfortably making my way through every single Terry Pratchett book.

Yesterday, I finally bought A Handmaid’s Tale, and I’ve already started.

Handmaid's Tale and Jonathan Strange
Also in my bookstore haul is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

By the way – it took me forever to find this book in the store, because it was in the fiction section. I know it’s dystopian science-fiction, just from the little bits I’ve gleaned of the plot, but like a lot of really excellent science-fiction it’s not hanging out with the robots and space ships. I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing, which maybe I’ll discuss later.

I’m a couple of chapters in, and I’m already hooked. As I’m sure the entire universe already knows, Margaret Atwood’s writing is amazing. She’s one of those writers who has that way of hinting at things, who can build a feeling of oppression and fear without direct images of violence. I know the kind of world her character is living in from just a few, carefully-crafted images.

Then, the advertisements for the show, coming out April 26 on Hulu, have me intrigued. Elisabeth Moss will be playing Offred, and I love her acting. We will see if I make it very far into the show, because it looks intense, and I’m known to cover my face during fraught scenes in shows and movies. I have skipped more than one episode of Game of Thrones entirely.

 

My Garden

I’ve tried to grow food in the past. One year, I even had a little four-foot square raised bed, with carrots and radishes planted, when all of a sudden we moved and I had to leave it all behind. The next summer, we had just moved into a different house, and I didn’t have time to plant anything in the middle of the kitchen renovation. This summer, though, it is on.

Bright Ink Gardens
Grow, my little plants, grow!

Every day, I go down into the basement to water my seedlings. There are Johnny-Jump-Ups, lettuce, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and flowers sprouting under a long grow light. As soon as I have my soil, I’ll be planting carrots, radishes, beets, peas, and beans. I’m so looking forward to summer sun warming my garden, crunching peas right off the vine with Little Dude and Little Miss, and having home-grown heirloom tomatoes.

As long as the squirrels don’t steal everything I grow. That has happened. But even one tomato from my own garden will be worth it.

 

Wonder Woman

So, I’ve been a geek for a long time. When I was in the first grade, Batman: The Animated Series was by far my favorite show. In fourth grade I picked up all things Star Wars. In Junior High I discovered The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

And everywhere I looked in the things that I loved, I found women and girls in short supply. I had Catwoman, and the aforementioned Mara Jade. And even though they stood toe-to-toe with the men in their universes, they were still mostly love-interests and side-kicks. They certainly weren’t the leads in the books or shows in which they appeared.

To say the very least, I’m grateful that Little Miss is growing up in a world where a woman can be a superhero, and get her own movie, too. I have high hopes for Wonder Woman, even though DC so far hasn’t blown me away with their last few superhero movies. Come on, people, make this one worth my time, please!

Wonder Woman Funko
You can’t get Wonder Woman wrong, because she will get you with that Lasso of Truth.

Other geeky places where females are finally getting a chance to lead: Star Wars, Supergirl now on CW, and the upcoming Captain Marvel. It’s happening in more books than I can name. In fiction, these are good times to be a woman.

Hopefully, the real world catches up eventually.

 

Applesauce Granola

Earlier this week, I was just chilling at the doctor’s office, waiting for Little Miss’s five-year checkup. I picked up a Better Homes & Gardens to flip through, and I just happened to find, between a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey and an article about what to do with leftovers, a photo of some amazing-looking granola.

If you know me, you will know that I have a thing for homemade granola. I make a batch almost weekly.

And this granola looked magical. I scribbled the recipe down into my bullet journal, because I’m not the kind of person who tears pages out of waiting room magazines. That’s just cruel. Especially when you can take a picture with your phone.

I wrote it down, though, because it looks that good.

When I have my next grocery-store run, I’m picking up the ingredients, and I’m making a batch. It might become as coveted as that ginger-peach granola recipe. I have no idea. That’s the exciting thing about new recipes. It could be a dud, or it could be your new favorite.

 

A New Book

I started on a new project this week. It began, as it usually does for me, with the characters. Stephen King says this is wrong, but his advice that writers should start with a compelling idea, and then build the characters in later, is one that I ignore. If I’m not interested in the people I’m following around over the course of the story, then I won’t get very far. My interest will dry up about two chapters in, and then I’m left with this beautiful skeleton that has no flesh.

So, the characters come first. In this case, it was two people with a complicated and interesting relationship. I wrote the first two pages, and then stopped to find the core conflict of the book. I think I landed on a pretty compelling idea – I’ll only know a few months from now when I finish the first draft what it’s really about, though. I do know for sure that I’m excited to spend a few years with the characters I’m following. And the setting leans further into science-fiction than anything I’ve written in a while, so I’m getting to invent about five things a page, which is equal parts fun and terrifying.

I definitely plan things a little bit more than I used to. Once upon a time, I started into a novel with no idea what the end would look like. I spent years wandering in the wilderness of the narrative trying to find the central conflict, the thing that was happening beyond the character relationships. It was a mess. I’m still a pantser, but now I pick a goal before I begin my journey.

It’s good to know where you want to go, even if you don’t know how you’re going to get there.

 

So there you have it, my list of random things I’m excited about, in lieu of Fridays. Do you have any projects you’re working on that are especially compelling? Movies coming up that you can’t wait to see? I’d love to hear more about it – especially if it’s something geeky that’s not on my radar yet!

Or food. I will always get excited about food.

I hope you have a great weekend, and thanks for reading Bright Ink.

 

 

 

A Day in the Life: Writer/Mom

A Day in the Life: Writer/Mom

At 6am the toddler rises. Thank goodness he slept in, because you stayed up late last night, getting to the end of that book, which turned out not to be the end. There’s a second book. So now you still don’t know how it ends, and you need coffee.

People really ought to be more considerate of parents with small children, and write shorter books.

You pull on your blanket with sleeves, that cozy thick cotton knit in a very unflattering pale gray, but it’s lined in fleece, so who cares if it makes you look like you’re suffering from severe anemia? You trip-trap across the hall to one of the tiny dictators with whom you share your life.

He reaches up to you from the crib, grinning like you are the sun itself. He smells vaguely of old urine and stale drool. You think it might be time to wash the sheets, even though that never seems to help.

When you pick him up, he pats your back, then leans out from you so he can point downstairs. His grunt means, “Alright, Milk-Woman, it’s time to go make me some eggs.”

He is shocked when, instead of going directly to food preparation, you change his diaper. He screams, but at least he smells better. Thirty seconds later, he’s in the playroom, sending little cars down a wooden track, click-clack, click-clack, in an endless loop. Meanwhile, you crack some eggs into the non-stick skillet that your sister just told you is probably lined with life-sapping chemicals.

While the coffee brews, you scribble down a few sentences in the notebook you keep on the kitchen counter. You can see the next rise of the plot coming, you’re getting so close, soon that side character is going to confront your main character with some parcel of truth that will radically alter their perspective, and the direction of the story –

Quick, stir the eggs before they burn!

You trade pen for spatula. Nothing blackened, this time. You plop some curds of egg out on a plate, and present them to the toddler. He grins like you are a benevolent fairy, come to bring  him life-sustaining nourishment. You scrub some of last night’s dinner off the table. Then you dash off to fill your coffee cup and scribble down a few more sentences, moving that plot forward by slow and painful degrees.

A moment later, the larger dictator shuffles down the stairs. Little Miss is not a morning person, and does not respond to your inquiries about what she would like for breakfast. Little Dude smashes some of his scrambled eggs into the table.

“Do you want eggs?”

“Mumble mumble.”

“What about eggs-in-a-hole?”

“Mumble mumble?”

“No, I didn’t make oatmeal, today. I made eggs.”

Little Miss bursts into tears. She dissolves into a puddle on the floor. She wails at the unjust absence of oatmeal.

Eventually, she concedes that an egg-in-a-hole will suffice. You juggle the bread, egg, and a towel for wiping up Little Dude’s breakfast. He is in the living room, now, pulling your entire collection of Terry Pratchett novels off the shelf. You use that distraction to scribble down a few more sentences.

Once Little Miss starts eating, she starts talking. About imaginary friends, real friends, what she wants to do today, what she’d rather not do today, how she plans to be a super-hero-princess-pediatrician when she grows up. She asks how you made the egg-in-a-hole, what Daddy does at work, and why she can’t go see Nana and Granddad today. You feel your brain bifurcate into two sections: one keeping up with the conversation about where the rain comes from, and the other churning out the next few sentences of the story.

In just two hours, you are able to get everyone fed and dressed for the day. The clean dishes are out of the dishwasher, the dirty breakfast plates are loaded in. There are five more precious sentences in your notebook. Things are going well.

Next, it’s time for a walk. This is your long-standing strategy to prevent morning meltdowns and unconquerable toy piles. The islands of Terry Pratchett in your living room suggest that you might be a little late with regards to that second goal, but you also know things could get much worse.

After a brief discussion with the preschooler about “why baby gets to ride in the stroller”, you set off on a little jaunt around the neighborhood. You point out birds. Little Dude gasps in wonder. The preschooler points out flowers. Little Dude gasps in wonder at those, too. Little Miss skips, challenges you to races, and sings songs about how blue the sky is, even though a solid cover of clouds hangs over your heads. You might envy her ability to see things that aren’t there, just a little bit.

Little Dude envies the fact that she’s free to walk, and tries to pull his seatbelt off.

Little Miss suddenly yelps. “I have to go potty!”

You are at least a quarter of a mile from the house. You sigh, then let her climb up in the stroller. Little Dude objects to this intrusion of his personal space by kicking her in the back. She retaliates by scootching even further into his personal space.

You trot back home, the stroller listing disconcertingly with every dip in the trail.

Somehow, you make it back. Little Dude cries about returning indoors, but you suggest that a storytime might make his entrapment bearable. He selects his favorite book, Little Blue Truck. You sit down, and after much negotiation and some throwing of elbows, manage to fit two children in your lap. You can’t exactly see the book, but you don’t need to. The words are engraved on your brain, like pictographs on a granite slab.

As usual, you read the first five pages, and then the pace of Little Dude’s page-turning picks up, and you read the first line, and the first line alone, of the last pages in the book. This process is repeated four times, when you finally declare that it’s time for a different book. Little Miss picks this time. Little Dude does not appreciate her tale, with its paper pages and its longer sentences.

This book, he says with his waving hands and kicking feet, has a criminal lack of rhymes.

Little Miss cries that this isn’t fair, she sat through Little Dude’s book. Four times. He can’t keep trying to shut her book!

You decide that everyone is suffering from a dip in blood sugar levels, and it’s time to make some lunch. This pronouncement, and the end of storytime, are not met with relief. Both Dude and Miss object.

You pull out a basket of toy food, and suggest that they make something while you work on the genuine article. You are dumbfounded when this strategy works. You will gladly pay the price of being asked to sample twenty different pieces of plastic fruit while stirring macaroni and cheese. Your offspring, after all, have patiently eaten macaroni and cheese four days straight. You ought to humor their request that you serve as the one and only customer at their imaginary cafe.

Mac & cheese lands on the table. Little Dude sprints to his chair, and Little Miss manages to get to her plate after a long and perilous interpretive dance, in which she risks life and limb by weaving around chairs and toy fire trucks.

You stand at the counter and stare at your notebook while savoring leftovers from dinner last night. What were you writing about, again? You’re pretty sure there aren’t any blue trucks involved. There seem to be a lot of swords on the page. What is wrong with your characters? Don’t they know there are impressionable children around? They should really consider talking out their problems, instead of stabbing each other. You wonder if it’s too late to inject some more cooperation into this story.

Little Dude and Little Miss both have second servings. You make sure they have blueberries, too, so at least some of their need for vitamins is met.

Abruptly, lunch is done and playtime started back up. Little Miss asks you to draw the outline of a cupcake. Little Dude rubs his eyes. You hastily move dishes from the table to the sink, draw something that looks vaguely like a baked good, then carry Little Dude upstairs for his nap.

As you rock him in his dim room, you ask yourself some deep, existential questions. Are you doing both your writing and your children a disservice by juggling their care and your stories? By splitting your concentration between them, are you merely doing both things badly?

Should you be making them bento boxes for lunch, with carrots cut in the shape of flowers and grains pressed into the shape of rabbits?

Or should you put them in front of the TV more so you can spend more time on your writing?

Is that rash on Little Dude’s face ever going to go away?

Is Little Miss going to know her letters in time for kindergarten?

Finally, Little Dude sleeps soundly enough that you can put him down. Little Miss goes outside to play in the back yard. The house is eerily quiet.

You sit in front of your notebook. Sweet, blissful writing time. You write, have some granola, write some more, make some coffee, write some more. You hear the creak of the swing going back and forth outside.

Half a page later, Little Dude cries again. He can’t be up, already! You look at the clock, and realize two hours have passed.

Impossible!

You run upstairs to pull him out of the crib. He has a serious case of post-nap crankiness, and spends the next thirty minutes firmly ensconced in your arms. You read Little Blue Truck a few times. Then Go, Dog. Go! Finally, he assents to having his shoes put on, and you take him outside.

For the next thirty minutes, he and Little Miss fight over whose turn it is on the swing while you weed the strawberry bed and gather leaves to put in the compost bin.

Next, it is on to cooking dinner. You chop, roast, stir, and serve. Little Dude pulls a bag of flour onto the floor and spreads it around like some kind of abstract painting. Little Miss continues her interpretive dance in the kitchen, eventually colliding with the edge of the stairs.

The rest of the evening passes in a quick-fire haze. You eat and chat with an adult human being who just arrived home from the outside world. You clean up dishes, bathe both children, read some more books. You wrestle the toddler into his pajamas. As you carry him off to bed, he waves at his father and sister as if they are the finest people one could ever hope to meet, and he shall look forward to seeing them again on the morrow.

You cannot understand how you are in charge of these tiny and very real human beings.

Once Little Dude slumbers, you do Yoga while your adult counterpart gets Little Miss her snack. You are in the most impossible of positions when she approaches for her good-night hug. You untwist your legs, and she wraps her arms around your neck in that awkward way unique to her, like she is trying to keep most of her body as far away as possible, while still achieving the most important parts of the hug.

Before she goes to bed, she talks about all the people she would like to rescue tomorrow. You agree that she should get lots of rest so that she will be ready for saving kittens from trees and fighting lots of bad guys.

You finish up your yoga, sticking it out to the final “Namaste”. When it’s done, you roll up your mat, stash it in the corner, then run with un-zen-like haste to your notebook. You squeak out some more words, enough to get to the bottom of the page and overflow onto the next.

You close the notebook. It might not be much, but every sentence is a step in the right direction. You celebrate your day, the cooking, the kisses, the fights, the books. All the conversations and songs and truck noises. Every word that you used to fill out the world you’ve built inside your head.

You are a writer and a mom. It means squeezing impossible minutes out of every day. It means constant doubt about how you spend your time. Your time is full to the brim, with moments of chaos and others that trickle by with agonizing slowness. Your skills are rusty, your writing broken up into fragments, when you think it should flow.

You have no idea where you are going to end up, but you are grateful for the journey.

 

 

 

5 Query Mistakes I Made, But You Don’t Have To.

5 Query Mistakes I Made, But You Don’t Have To.

 

Two years ago when I finally “finished” my novel, I did a little dance. Then I immediately launched into a series of embarrassing mistakes that still make me want to bury my head in the sand just thinking about them.

I’m going to share those with you now, with the hope that you might avoid them. So if you have a draft so fresh there’s still steam rising off it, put that cinnamon bun away in a drawer somewhere until it’s had time to congeal. And read this. Trust me, you can wait.

Mistake #1: Believing One Revision Was Enough

My thought process, as I held several dead trees’ worth of paper covered in my words, went like this.

I spent, like, two years on the first draft, right? Then I spent a whole year taking it apart and putting it back together. And then I spent a summer making all the pieces fit together. After that I’d even gone to the trouble of editing for grammatical errors.

If I’d spent so much time on this project, that had to mean that it was ready to go, right? There was no way that I could do anything else to it. It was done. My brain hurt just thinking about peeling back any more layers of the manuscript. The thing was finished, and I was ready.

So, I picked my first agent and sent my first query letter. I knew that a lot of very famous writers had faced a lot of rejections, but I had this deep-down belief that what I’d written was special. I am a good writer. I have mad skills. And I’d worked on it for such a long time.

BrightInk 5 Query Mistakes Learn

That first rejection letter, as much as I’d expected it, came as a soul-crushing blow. It hurt a whole lot more than I ever thought it would.

The next twelve rejection letters just made me feel worse. And I got not a single request for my manuscript. During this time, I’d been reading up on the query process, and I’d started to realize just how far off course I’d drifted. My manuscript was coming in at 120k words, when it needed to be closer to 90k. It contained heaps of passive voice. Adverbs everywhere.

I stopped querying, and I went back to work. I read a couple of books on how to revise a manuscript, I bought some colorful pens and highlighters, and I revised again. I mercilessly slashed pages. I changed showing to telling. I found better verbs, I carved out better dialogue. And I researched my genre, I listened to agents.

Two years later, I’m sending queries again. I just received a rejection letter last week that made me cry, but this time with joy. The agent complimented me on how much work I’d put into my manuscript. Even though they weren’t the right agent, they still appreciated that extra time I’d taken to make it right.

I can’t take back those query letters I sent for a manuscript that wasn’t ready. But I can learn from the mistake, and present my writing in the way it deserves to be presented. Clean, well-crafted, carefully edited.

So, while your manuscript is cooling off, read some books on revising. Then pull out a red pen, gather your courage and your grit, and get back to work. You’ll be very glad you did.

 

Mistake #2: Failing to Learn the Blurb

I’d just finished writing a whole novel, not just once, but twice. Obviously, I was a good writer. I could write anything. That query letter would be no problem.

I did some Google searches and found some examples. Within a few hours, I typed up my letter. I didn’t like it a whole lot, but I figured the agents would get the point. The next day, I sent that mess out into the world, confident that the samples from the novel would speak for themselves.

I needed an overbearing mentor to come slap the back of my head, you guys.

Agents are drowning in query letters. Do not hobble your manuscript by sending out a bad one.

I came back from my string of rejections battered and ready to study. While I worked on my revisions, I looked everywhere for resources on query letters. For some reason, nothing that I read seemed to help. I kept re-writing, getting closer one step at a time, but I didn’t have a moment of sudden understanding.

Then I started reading book blurbs. Those little summaries on the back cover, or on the flaps of dust jackets. And that’s when the light bulb went on.

Those lovely little blurbs are designed to quickly set up the conflict, make potential readers ask questions, and leave them wondering what happens next. When you read a good blurb, it makes you want to sit down and start reading. Right now. That’s exactly what a query letter needs to do.

I read the blurbs of books I loved, and the blurbs of books I loathed, and the blurbs of books  I’d never read before. When I’d absorbed the language, the style, the little rules, I re-wrote my query letter. I read it aloud. I made some changes.

Now, when I read my query letter, even I start to wonder, “What happens next? How does it all turn out? Do they achieve their goal?” It has energy and zip.

If you’re still writing your manuscript, then I recommend you start making yourself a blurb expert now. If you’re ready to query, then hold back a little until you’re familiar with this art form. It is radically different from the skills needed to write that novel.

Then, make your query letter something that you’re proud to send to agents.

 

Mistake #3: Not Understanding My Genre

Oh gosh, you guys. This one is tough for me to confess.

All that time I spent writing my science fiction novel, I didn’t read any new science fiction. I read Jane Austen. I read some hilarious fantasy by Terry Pratchett. I read JK Rowling. I read Stephen King. I read a ton of blogs and books about parenting. I read about knitting, gardening, and sewing. I read Hunger Games, and (oh, the shame) I even read Twilight.

But every time I walked into the Science Fiction section at the bookstore, I listlessly picked up a couple of books, put them back, and walked away. I’m blushing right now just thinking about it. What in the name of the space-time continuum made me think I could write and query a science fiction novel without reading in the genre?

“All this stuff is just the same old thing I’ve read before,” I thought.

“What I’m working on is so different,” I thought.

Nope, nope.

Years later I started investigating the new books, only to find that all these new and exciting things were happening in science fiction. I read Ancillary Justice, and was blown away by its handling of AI, collective intelligence, and gender. I couldn’t believe how much I’d  missed.

Catching a few shows on SyFy channel was not enough. I discovered just how much I needed to read in my genre, not just to learn what was going on, but for my own enjoyment.

So, avoid that horrifying moment when you read something that’s almost exactly like the novel you just spent years spilling blood, sweat, and tears on. Read, read, read. Stephen King would back me up on this one. As would every other successful author out there.

 

Mistake #4: Failing to Research Agents

I get half-credit for this one, at least. I did not address my query letters “Dear Sir/Madam”, or “To Whom it May Concern”. I did check to make sure the agents I queried represented my genre. I did look at what the agents required as part of the query. These are all good steps and things you should definitely do.

In the past two years I’ve spent working on my manuscript, however, I’ve learned that there’s a whole lot more I could have done.

I’ve followed literary agents on social media platforms. I’ve listened to them speak at conferences via Manuscript Academy and on YouTube. Listening to them has radically altered the way I view their work, for the better.

The literary agents I queried were hard-working people, passionate about books, seeking novels that they loved enough to represent. They didn’t send rejection letters because I am a terrible writer, or because they just “didn’t get it”, or because they feast on the crushed dreams of weeping authors. They sent rejection letters because many of them received hundreds, hundreds, of other queries just that week, and as much as they would like to see authors get published, they could only do so much.

Agents are not all-powerful dragons that an author must wrestle into submission before riding it to that gleaming golden castle in the land called Published Author. Agents are more like gentle unicorns, to be coaxed and encouraged, treated with respect, more partner than enemy.

Now I follow agents on social media. I don’t just look at the list of genres they represent on their agencies’ web-pages, I search for articles they might have written about the genre, interviews they’ve done, and books they’ve fought to get on shelves. I read what they have to say about the industry until I come to view them as whole and complete human-beings, who believe in the power of words as much as I do.

A caveat: don’t be creepy. Or a suck-up. Just be nice.

When I send queries now, I remember that I’m writing a letter to a person. Someone who has sacrificed her time and energy sifting through hundreds of queries, passionately promoting clients, and reading every hour of the day for the love of books. Maybe, just maybe, my book.

 

Mistake #5: Believing This Book is IT

When I started my queries, I believed that my whole self-worth hinged on getting that book published. That the last two years of my life were wasted unless it found an agent and ended up on the shelves.

Bright Ink 5 Query Mistakes Journey

It turns out that the world kept spinning. I didn’t get an agent, but there are still things I’ve done that I can think of with pride.

One of my regrets, however, is how much of a wreck I was during that query process. I was anxious and moody. I went into an emotional tail-spin every time I got another rejection. I couldn’t see the mistakes I was making through the desperation that I felt.

“If I don’t get this book published now, I’ll never be a writer.”

“I’ve wasted so much time working on this!”

Guess what? If you’ve written a book, you’re a writer. And guess what else? If you enjoy writing and you want to get better at it, no amount of time you spend working on it is wasted.

I probably would have thrown my pen at anyone who suggested this to me at the time, but it’s not the end of the world if this book doesn’t get an agent, or isn’t published. It is possible – and past-self, you should pay attention to this – that in order to crack into the industry, you will have to write another, entirely different book.

Don’t panic. Take a deep breath. This is not as awful as it sounds. This is, in fact, a brilliant opportunity.

All that stuff you’ve learned writing the first book is going to make your second one so much stronger. So, while you’re sending out queries for that first book, go work on the first draft of second book. Fall in love with some new characters and a new story. It will make the time go faster, it will make your writing stronger, and it will give you more options if that first book doesn’t find a home.

Above all, remember that the book you’re querying is not the end of your journey. It is just one part of a wild and surprising trip.

 

Knowledge Is Power

I have some really valid excuses for why it took me so long to write and revise my books. I have lived in five different states in the last five years, and had two children. I should probably consider it a miracle I finished a novel of any kind, let alone made five rounds of revisions.

There is no excuse, however, for sending an unfinished manuscript to a literary agent. Or a shoddy query letter. There’s no excuse for failing to read, research, revise, and edit.

“But I don’t have time for all that!” cries me-from-the past.

You wouldn’t put some half-raw chicken in front of guests just because it had been in the oven a long time, right? I didn’t think so. Then don’t send agents something that isn’t fully baked. They deserve better. Your manuscript deserves better. And yes, getting it right means more time. But it’s better to spend some time getting it right than to waste a ton of time getting rejection letters because of problems you had the power to fix.

There are things in publishing you can’t control. You can’t make agents like your concept, you can’t conjure up a market for your book out of nothing, you can’t predict the trends. But you absolutely can give your manuscript a fighting chance. You can revise again. You can find time to read. You can give the industry your very best.

Don’t be discouraged by how long it takes. If writing is what you’re passionate about, then it will be worth it. Look at how far you’ve come, what you’ve learned so far, how much work you’ve done. If you made it through all that and you are still telling stories, then you owe it to yourself to represent that manuscript well.

I hope this list is helpful! Also, I’m sure that I’m making more advanced mistakes in my queries even as I write this. If you have any missteps that you’d like to share, let me know!

And finally, here are some resources that I’ve found helpful in this learning process.

The Secret to Writing a Successful Query Letter by literary agent Andrea Somberg.

A great database of literary agents, with information about what kinds of manuscripts they’re looking for, Manuscript Wish List. I could read tweets about what agents want to read all day long.

On Writing: A Memoir of Craft by Stephen King is a great resource for any writer at any phase of the process.

Trying to kick that manuscript into shape? I found Self-Editing for Fiction Writers very helpful. I also finally added Elements of Style to my shelf.

Above all, don’t give up. Keep learning. Keep writing what you love.

 

 

 

 

 

Behind the Scenes: The Making of a Banner Photo

Behind the Scenes: The Making of a Banner Photo

Because I think this kind of thing is fascinating, I’m going to share with you how I put together this new Banner Photo for my Craft Talk posts.

Moana Craft Talk 2

I like it. It’s personalized, nobody has this photo but me, and it’s pretty much what my writing space normally looks like, except a bit cleaner and better lit. So, here’s how I did it.

First of all, I decided that I needed a background photo specifically for this series of posts. Something that just shouted, “Let’s go write!” The light outside looked pretty good, so I went around grabbing the things that I needed. First up, my trusty notebooks.

BehindtheScenes notebooks

Then, my gorgeous green cast iron teapot that my husband bought for me a couple of Christmases ago. When I saw it, I cried. I love green, and it has birds on it, and cherry blossoms, and it keeps my tea warm. My hubs is the best.

BehindtheScenes teapot

Then, because at this point I figured we had a green theme going, I grabbed my maidenhair fern, which has graciously stayed alive in spite of my infrequent waterings. Good fern.

BehindtheScenes fern

Of course, I don’t want to exclude anyone who uses a keyboard for writing instead of a pen, so I had to grab my laptop. Honestly – I write both ways. I’m always turning to my keyboard when I need to get something done a bit sooner than a hundred years from now.

BehindtheScenes laptop

And for good measure, one of my sister-in-law’s pottery pieces that I use as a penholder. A precious vessel for precious tools.

BehindtheScenes pen cup

I piled all that up on my dining room table, which is right next to a north-facing window. Because it faces north, I never get direct sunlight, which makes things too contrasty, and highlights get blown out, and just general difficulties. Light is good, but not too much. Also, the surface of the table itself is nice for the kind of top-down photo I wanted.

When I looked down at all these fun props, I realized that I was getting too many shadows. I ran upstairs for my reflector, but wasn’t fast enough.

BehindtheScenes reflector

The toddler found the things. Pens on the floor. I got there before anything breakable went down, thankfully.

I had also realized that, if I was going to have a teapot, I needed a cup of tea. Otherwise, the teapot was just going to look ridiculous. Like I’d just put it there without any consideration for what it was. Like it was just decoration. We couldn’t have that.

I gathered up the props, moved them to the kitchen counter, and then made two different kinds of tea. I like having options.

BehindtheScenes tea

By the time the tea finished brewing and I’d picked a cup that looked the most like tea, the toddler had moved on to something more interesting. I got the props back on the table, propped up the reflector dish like so –

BehindtheScenes setup

-and arranged.

I took a few photos, peeped at the back of my camera, moved some stuff around, and took a few more. I repeated this process several times, until I felt satisfied that I had, at the very least, taken lots of photographs of my notebooks and things spread across the table. Well done. Cheerio, chap.

At this point, I took a little break to drink the tea and make my starving children some Mac and Cheese for lunch. They are always starving. Also, I think they might both turn into bowls of Mac and Cheese one day. I multi-tasked really well at this point, because while I was making lunch, the photos were uploading to my computer. Because I’m organized like that.

Lunch done, I checked out the photos. I thought they were pretty. Some looked better than others. I picked three and sent them to my sister. She unhelpfully eliminated the one I already knew I didn’t like. I went with the top-down photo because it was what I was going for in the first place. Plus, I liked the way the fern peaked in between the computer and my notebooks. It was kind of cute.

Then I hopped from Lightroom to Photoshop, where I started messing around with the tools until I was able to get that shaded band around the outside of the photo like a frame. I added words, a shaded box behind them, and then I sat back and was pleased with my work.

Moana Craft Talk 2

By the time I decide to do another Craft Talk post, I will have probably decided that this graphic is substandard and I need to take a new one. But that’s okay, because honestly, I like doing it. I like looking at my blog, seeing a need, and then making something that fills that need from scratch, learning new skills along the way.

PS: If you haven’t yet, go check out my discussion of the skills a writer can learn from the movie Moana, Part 1 and Part 2. Let me know if you find this series helpful, or if there’s anything you’d like to see in it.

 

 

Craft Talk: Moana, Part 2

Craft Talk: Moana, Part 2

In part one of the discussion about what writers can learn from the movie Moana, I talked about how the film fits into the larger Disney princess movie canon. I also reviewed some of Moana’s greatest strengths. If you missed part one, you can find it here.

Today, I’m going to talk about some of the things I think Moana could do better, and then I’ll wrap up with a practical discussion of how to apply these lessons to our own writing. Let’s get started!

 

Things Moana Could Do Better

Plot Holes

The ocean. In Moana, it’s a character in its own right. It picks up people, it throws the Heart of Te Fiti all over the place, it gives Toddler Moana a super cute hairstyle, and it even chooses who should be the one, special person who takes the Heart back where it belongs. The ocean can do all kinds of incredible things.

Oh, except help out when Moana and Maui are attacked by Kakamora out on open water.

Moana even calls out to the ocean for help, and what does it do? Nothing. I’m not buying that the ocean didn’t have the power to, say, stop those cobbled-together Kakamora pirate boats from surrounding Moana and Maui. At the end of the movie, the ocean pulls back old-testament style so that Te Ka can reach Moana and the heart. But in this scene, it is nowhere, at least not in personified, helpful form.

From the perspective of the story, this scene needed to happen in order for our two heros to start building their relationship. Moana needed to see how skillfully Maui piloted her boat. Maui needed to see how determined and capable Moana was. If the ocean had helped, I imagine it could have taken out the Kakamora too easily. For the plot, it makes sense that it holds back. But when it comes to just plain sense, not so much.

Arguably, maybe the ocean didn’t show up for this conflict because it wanted Moana and Maui to work together, to gain some skills, to learn some respect for each other. But if that was the case, then the viewer needed to see it. One quick moment, as the pirate ships close in, when an ocean wave pops up and indicates, “Hey guys, yeah, you’re on your own, here.”

Then, there’s Maui’s inability to use his fishhook to transform. At first I assumed that it was his first loss against Te Ka that knocked him off his game. But then Moana fixes the shape-shifting problem by talking to Maui about the parents who abandoned him, and all the years he spent doing things for humans so they would love him. She tells him that she believes the ocean brought Baby Maui to the gods because it knew he was worthy. And the gods didn’t make him Maui, he did.

Then, *poof* Maui can become a lizard or a hawk at will. But the solution seems totally disconnected from the problem. If Maui’s issue was that he pinned his success on this gift from the gods, rather than himself, then he would have had problems way, way before he even stole the Heart of Te Fiti. But it seems he didn’t, because the fact that his fish-hook doesn’t work takes him by surprise.

I suspect, that if we dig a little deeper here, we’ll find that the loss to Te Ka and the failure to bring the Heart to humans was the moment Maui started thinking that the hook was his source of power. Years deserted on an island, all alone and without the hook, probably sealed this in his mind. Without the power to transform, Maui was stuck, helpless. And I think we might have seen this the first time Moana meets the demigod if he hadn’t been so full of bluster. One or two little cracks in his facade at that moment might have been enough to show that the problem with the hook was coming, and also hinted at the solution.

 

Moana’s Dad

First of all, this movie is progress for Disney when it comes to parents and the role they play. Most Disney parents are killed off in the first ten minutes, if they even show up at all. Even when they’re not dead, they’re usually not around (hello, Rapunzel).

So the fact that Tui and Sina are in Moana’s life as happy, caring parents is sort of a Disney miracle. And as Moana grows up, Tui gently guides her away from the ocean and back to her duties as the future chief of Motonui.

Then Moana suggests that they fish beyond the reef, and that’s the last time her father has any patience with her until she returns home from her quest. Seriously. He yells, picks her up off the boat, plants her back in the sand, chucks down the oar she’s holding, and storms off.

Now, from Tui’s backstory, delivered to Moana by Sina, this behavior makes a certain amount of sense. Tui once tried to leave the island on a boat, which resulted in the death of his best friend. So, he’s definitely afraid for Moana’s life, and that kind of fear can make parents super cranky. But really, other than in the story told by Moana’s mother, we never get to see Tui’s underlying fear. He and Moana never have a conversation about why he doesn’t want her to go out on the water.

I was left with the feeling that Moana’s father was acting this way because it’s what the plot demanded. And a character that might have been really rich and interesting came off as just another Disney dad yelling at his daughter.

 

Dialogue

For the most part, the dialogue in this movie works hard and does a great job moving plot, demonstrating character, or providing a good laugh.

Then, there are moments where it’s not so great.

Like, when Moana goes totally out of character to get out of an awkward situation in which she ate a piece of pork in front of her pet pig. This would have made sense from Anna in Frozen, but not so much from Moana in Moana.

The conversation between Maui and Moana that gets him back to his shape-shifting self also might have done more to explain why he’s having trouble now.

 

Using What You Learn

As fun as it can be to pick out where a story goes astray, or clap with glee over what it does right, neither of these will make your writing better. To achieve that, you have to move on to the next step. You have to think about how the problems can be fixed, and how to achieve those good moments, too.

So, let’s dive into the practicalities of how all we’ve discussed applies to your writing. Keep in mind that you might approach these situations differently, and that’s okay. The important thing is to start thinking about why the movie works, and trying out solutions to the parts that don’t.

Plot

Remember how we talked about Moana’s solid plot trajectory? How the tension rises as the story progresses? How each time the heroes achieve a goal, there’s a setback? This classic arc is good to know and good to practice.

There are a few ways to make this happen in your own writing, depending on your approach. If you’re a plotter, a writer who likes to map out the story before you start writing, then you can plan out the bones of your narrative first. Figure out the beginning, the end, the climax, each success and setback along the way. Then you can fill in the gaps. Or, start by writing your plot, and then check it to ensure it has good rhythm. If not, you can revise it.

If you’re a pantser (a writer who flies by the seat of his/her pants), then you might be surprised that you have a few options here. First of all, as you go, make sure you don’t make things too easy on your characters. If they’re running along smoothly, achieving goals one by one, then throw a little trouble their way. Make sure that achieving something has an unexpected consequence. Not only is the story more interesting, that’s usually how life works, anyway. If you prefer, you can let your story take you wherever it wants to go, and then revise for better rhythm later.

 

Character Arcs

I think that getting the character arcs to flow alongside the story is one of the trickiest tasks a writer faces. Getting that overall plot in place definitely helps. But, the characters must reach their moments of crisis at just the right time in the narrative, and they must do so in a way that feels natural to the character. That’s a lot to ask.

Here’s why it all works so well in Moana. The heroes’ personal struggles are inextricably linked to the plot. Each achievement and setback have meaning to Moana and Maui, making them more than just ups and downs on the narrative.

Accomplishing this means knowing your characters. What do they want, what are their struggles, and how does it relate to the larger story? If you plot ahead of time, these are questions to think about in the planning stages. If you’re a pantser, you might have to take them on as you go. Either way, it’s important to to keep this in mind as you revise.

 

Symbols

Incorporating symbols is tricky. Too many symbols and they just become clutter. The wrong images or objects can feel stilted. But when done right, they add to the story and the characters, so it makes sense to practice using them.

In my own writing, I find that symbols don’t usually emerge until the second or third draft. That’s when something will come marching forward as vitally important to the story, and I’ll discover that it naturally fits in other parts of the narrative. During my next revision, I will try to ever-so-gently sprinkle that symbol throughout.

It is also possible, of course, to plan symbols and where they appear in advance. Then it can be incorporated from the very beginning into characters and plot.

Just be wary. Don’t let a symbol take over the plot or a character. It should enhance these things, not push them.

I’ll also point out the very different ways the conch shell and the bolder spiral symbol were used in Moana. That spiral appears over and over again, a reminder that the goal is getting the Heart back to Te Fiti. It has power in this repetition, because its purpose is to indicate that the narrative is driving forward. The conch shell, however, only appears twice, at the beginning and end of Moana’s quest. Both times, it is a gift. It is this sparing and purposeful use of the shell that gives it so much power.

 

Plot Holes

Plot holes can be tough for a writer to spot. After all, you know why things are happening, and you think you’ve explained it well enough in the story. It seems natural to you why one thing leads to another, or why something works a certain way. But these things might not be so clear to a reader.

That’s why it’s so important to let other people read your work, and be open to critiques. And when a reader starts asking you questions about gaps in the story, or is confused about why something happened, then you could be looking at a plot hole that needs filling.

So, how do you fill a plot hole? Sometimes, it’s really simple. For example, during the Kakamora attack, the ocean could have somehow indicated that it was going to let Moana and Maui deal with the anthropomorphized coconuts on their own. Then, we wouldn’t be left filling in that gap with our own musings. We would know that the ocean had stepped back on this occasion intentionally.

Sometimes, filling a plot hole is just letting the audience in on something you already know. Sometimes, filling a plot hole means restructuring events and even adding whole new characters.

 

Moana’s Dad

There are a lot of different ways of approaching the shift in Tui’s character, so I recommend that you brainstorm some of your own. But, this is what I think is going on here.

Tui is afraid. He knows Moana is going to go out on the ocean someday, no matter how hard he tries to stop her, no matter how hard she tries to stop herself. Then all the crops on the island start to fail, and I think he starts to wonder if maybe Gramma Tala is right. Maybe Te Ka is out there, and that is the reason why the fish are gone and the coconuts are blighted. And no matter how they move the coconut groves, the plants are going to die, and his people are going to suffer. But instead of fear, we see anger.

This anger actually makes the problems the island is facing seem smaller. If we could see at least some of Tui’s fear, then I theorize that we would take the peril the island is in much more seriously. Tui would also appear less like a stereotypical “Disney Dad angry with his daughter”.

What if it is Tui, instead of Sina, who talks to Moana about how his friend drowned on the boat? What if, even once, we saw that maybe he believed larger forces were at work in his island’s trouble? What if, instead of yelling at Moana, he begs her not to go, and that’s what holds her back? Her love for him and her people, rather than his anger.

I think even just one or two of these suggestions would have really changed how we view Tui during this part of the movie. His character would appear more consistent, and we would have more sympathy.

 

Dialogue

Dialogue is probably the trickiest of all things to get right. I think so, anyway. The things people say to each other on screen and in books have to do a lot of work. Conversations have to sound slightly better than real, build character, move the plot, and also be funny. That’s a lot to ask, and probably explains some of the places in Moana where it isn’t quite as strong.

So how do you get dialogue right? Know your characters. Know what they want here, there, everywhere in the story. Know what secrets they’re hiding, from the other characters and from themselves.

Practice. Listen to conversations between the people around you. Then write, write, write.

When you’ve written it, read it out loud. Does it sound like something a real human-being would actually speak with a real human mouth? If not, revise until it does.

Confession: dialogue does not come naturally to me. I have to work on it a lot, more than a lot of other things. If there’s something you need to work on, study and practice can absolutely make it better.

 

Conclusion

Moana might be a movie for the younger demographics, but there is still much to learn from it. This is a film that gets a lot of things right, and the key to that is studying, practice, and revising. The good news is that you can study writing all the time. It’s in movies and TV shows, it’s in the advertisements you see every day, it’s in your favorite books. You just have to take a closer look, and think about it all a little more critically.

Schedule your time. Craft Talk: Moana, Part 2

Practicing and revising, however, are going to take time. So, I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to set aside a little bit of time every day to write. When the sun is shining and you feel great, sit and write. When it’s snowing out and you have a miserable cold, sit and write. Even ten or fifteen minutes is enough, as long as you do it every day. I have often found that once I start working, I don’t want to stop when the time is up. Sometimes, however, I gladly close the notebook, and that’s okay, too.

These slivers of time might not seem valuable. I once thought that if I couldn’t write for hours on end, it wasn’t worth doing. But small stretches of consistent practice are far more important than the occasional writing marathon. Like a lot of things, really great writing is born of consistency. So, schedule your time, carve out your workspace, and practice your craft!

 

That’s the end of my first Craft Talk here on Bright Ink. If there’s a lesson you gleaned from Moana that I didn’t cover here, then I’d love to hear from you! If you found this discussion helpful, then I’d love to hear that, too. Thank you so much for visiting, and I hope you have a lovely day.

I’ll just be over here, writing and singing all the songs from Moana.

 

 

 

Craft Talk: Moana

Craft Talk: Moana

In Craft Talk, I break down the elements of movies, TV shows, and, of course, books, to highlight what is working and what doesn’t, and how they can be applied to our writing. These are not reviews. Rather, they are careful looks at what can be learned from a lot of different mediums.

I decided to start this series because so often we feel like we don’t have time to work on our craft. I’d like to show you, however, that by looking more closely at the media you spend time with every day you can constantly glean lessons that will benefit your own stories.

I’m beginning with the Disney movie Moana, to really drive home the fact that there are things to be learned from even the simplest of stories. Also, this movie is very popular in my house right now. This process really can be integrated into your life, no matter where you get your stories.

One caveat: looking critically at the stories around you can help you learn lessons that apply to your own writing, but this will never make up for the time you spend in front of the keyboard or the page. The things you learn must eventually be applied to your own work. It’s a good way to flex story-telling muscles, and is most effective in tandem with a writing schedule, however light.

 

Moana and Disney Princesses

Moana is not a movie in a vacuum. It exists alongside a universe of Disney princess films. The title character might be the daughter of a chief, destined to become a chief herself, but one character even goes out of his way to make the point that she is a part of this canon.

“I am not a Princess!” Moana says.

Maui says, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”

While Moana carves out her own territory in the Disney princess world (there is no prince to be seen! No love interest in sight!), she’s also definitely defined by this. I think the weakest parts of the movie are those that cleave to the traditions of this formula, like when Moana pulls one of those ditzy “Oh, hey, I hear them calling, so I – gotta go!” moves to get out of an awkward situation. This never happens again, and feels extraordinarily out of character on subsequent viewings.

Other things in Moana probably have greater resonance because this is a princess movie. See the previously mentioned lack of love interest.

The lesson here is, if you’ve created some really strong characters, maybe let them be who they are, even if it means going into unfamiliar territory. You probably have that option way more than Disney does, so go for it.

 

The Plot

If you haven’t seen Moana, and you don’t plan to, then I’ll summarize here. Warning: plot spoilers ahead!

Moana opens with Gramma Tala telling how Te Fiti brought life to the world, until her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui. Immediately, the demon Te Ka rose up, and struck down Maui, after which both demigod and the Heart of Te Fiti vanished. Gramma Tala warns that Te Ka’s darkness will consume the world, but a hero will rise up to return Te Fiti’s heart, saving them all.

Guess what happens next?

Moana (a toddler, at this point) goes down by the ocean waves. She saves an adorable baby sea turtle from some frigatebirds (yes, a toddler saving a baby sea turtle is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in a Disney film) and then the ocean gives Moana the Heart of Te-Fiti. She is the chosen one!

Then her dad scoops her up and carries her back to her responsibilities on the island, because little Moana is also the future leader of Motonui. Moana drops the heart in the water.

Moana grows up, and in spite of her yearning to be on the ocean, she commits herself to her leadership role. Until, one day all the crops on the island start to shrivel and die, and the fish leave the waters around the island. After a disastrous attempt to sail out past the reef, Moana follows her grandmother to a cavern where the boats her people once used to explore the ocean are hidden. Then, Moana’s grandmother gives her the Heart of Te Fiti, and tells her that the ocean chose her as the hero who would convince Maui to return the Heart.

Moana’s father doesn’t think this is such a great idea (in fact he sets off to burn the boats), but Gramma Tala falls ill. She urges Moana to go, find Maui, so that he can return the Heart. Moana takes one of the hidden boats, and sails off.

With help from the ocean, Moana gets to Maui’s island, but it turns out Maui is a self-absorbed jerk. He tries to steal Moana’s boat, and insists that he isn’t interested in anything but getting back the magic fishhook that allows him to shape-shift. With some sass and some help from the ocean, Moana convinces him that if he wants to be a hero again, he has to help her.

There’s some peril with personified coconuts, a demon-crab called Tamatoa, and Maui’s backstory, but they retrieve the hook, and set off to face Te Ka. It turns out that Te Ka is pretty tough, and they aren’t able to get past. Worse, Maui’s magical fishhook is cracked in the process.

Convinced he has no power without the hook, Maui abandons the quest, leaving Moana to confront the question of why the ocean would choose her. She returns the stone to the ocean, telling it to find a different hero. Then, Gramma Tala shows up in spirit form and gives Moana a pep talk so good that she decides to retrieve the Heart and complete the quest alone.

So, Moana takes on Te Ka, and of course Maui returns to help at just the right time. When Moana climbs the island that was once Te Fiti, she finds that most of the land is gone. She realizes that Te Ka and Te Fiti are one and the same, the ocean parts to let the terrifying lava monster approach Moana, and she returns the Heart.

Te Fiti returns to her benevolent form, life is restored to the islands, Maui flies off a happy demigod, and Moana returns home to her island where she teaches her people how to be wayfinders again. Everyone is happy, the end.

 

What Moana Does Well

Plot

One of the places where Moana really shines is in the rhythm of the plot. The inciting incident, the thing that launches the story, happens right away, when Moana receives the Heart of Te Fiti from the ocean. Through Gramma Tala’s brief story, the viewer already knows the significance of the green stone.

Then, each time Moana moves forward to the ultimate confrontation with Te Ka, there’s a setback, and the stakes get a little higher. At first Moana just feels an urge to travel the oceans, which she sacrifices to serve her people. But then the crops start to fail and the fish leave. Still, Moana’s father forbids her to leave. When she sails out on her own, she doesn’t know what she’s doing and her boat capsizes, almost drowning her. Gramma Tala gives her the Heart, and Moana’s father threatens to burn the boats. Moana gets past the reef, but is struck by a storm. She finds Maui, but he’s a self-involved jerk. She gets him on the boat, but they’re attacked by Kakamora. They retrieve Maui’s hook, but he’s unable to transform. They get to Te Ka, but can’t get past to Te Fiti. Finally Moana gets past Te Ka, only to discover Te Fiti is gone.

Just before the final confrontation with Te Ka is the lowest point of the movie, when Moana, full of self-doubt and alone, gives the Heart of Te Fiti back to the ocean and decides to return home. With counsel from Gramma Tala, she remembers all she has learned on her journey so far, and reaches a turning point that leads her to the climax of the story: a young woman with no powers daring to face down a fearsome demon, filled with the knowledge of who her ancestors were, and who she is, now. A knowledge that allows her to see Te Ka is actually Te Fiti, robbed of her heart. The contrast of these two moments, the lowest and the highest, make both much more effective.

Then, pretty quickly, the movie wraps up and everyone is happy again. Because the rises and falls of the story already worked out all the snags and conflicts, this denouement runs smoothly, and makes sense.

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This chart from The Hoffman Agency demonstrates effectively the rising and falling plot that Moana follows. The movie definitely has its own spirit, and it feels fresh, but it follows the same arc as Romeo and Juliet. It’s a classic way of storytelling that really does work.

 

Character Arcs

Emphasizing the strength of this story arc, the characters’ personal journeys rise and fall in tandem. Both Moana and Maui have a personal failing to overcome, and only by reaching their lowest points are they able to see with clarity. Upon seeing the truth about what it is they lack and overcoming it, they’re able to face Te Ka and save the world.

For Moana, her struggle is in answering the question “Who am I?”. Throughout the film, she grapples with two very different desires. She wants to be a good daughter to her parents, and a good leader to her people, but that clashes with her yearning to explore the ocean. She believes that it is impossible that she do both. And even though she believes that getting the Heart to Te Fiti is going to save her people, still she struggles. Is she a wayfinder, or is she a leader? Why did the ocean choose her for this journey, a young woman without any sailing experience? Her doubts keep plaguing her, rising and falling as she succeeds and fails.

At the moment of crisis, when she is alone and has returned Te Fiti’s Heart to the ocean, she confronts how her desire to prove herself as a wayfinder led to the breaking of Maui’s hook. Gramma Tala’s spirit tells her that she can return home, if that’s what she wants. Yet Moana hesitates, and her grandmother tells her (in song form, of course) to listen to the small voice inside her. Even though she’d heard this before, it is only now that the lesson takes hold, and she realizes, “the call isn’t out there, it’s inside me.” She sees herself as the type of leader her ancestors were, both chief and wayfinder.

This knowledge of who she is allows her to see Te Ka as the bereft form of Te Fiti. At the final crisis, she reminds Te Fiti, “this is not who you are/ you know who you are”. Moana returns the Heart, also restoring the goddess’s sense of self.

Maui’s personal struggle is also a quest for self-identity, although in his case, he attaches all of his self-worth to his fish hook, and the shape-shifting powers he gets from it. Until Moana showed up, Maui languished on an island, unable to leave. The moment Moana arrives, his singular goal is to get back that fish hook. To do this, he will abandon Moana on the island, ignore the quest to return the Heart of Te Fiti, and use Moana as bait for the crab monster Tamatoa.

Moana tries to convince him that the hook never made him great, that it was Maui’s own actions that did that. He seems to believe, but when his hook is damaged in the fight with Te Ka, he won’t dare try facing the demon again. He says, “without my hook, I am nothing.” He abandons Moana and the quest to save the precious object that he views as all his self-worth.

Maui’s awakening doesn’t happen on-screen, so we can only assume what happens. But we can guess that as he flies away, he feels guilty for abandoning Moana, and sees that leaving her behind isn’t the act of the hero he desperately wants to be. He returns to stand between Te Ka and Moana so she can get to the island and return the stone. During the fight, his hook is completely shattered, yet still he is willing to face Te Ka.

After the battle, he is able to say, “Hook, no hook, I’m Maui.”

The moment of Te Ka’s transformation has great impact because of the turning point Moana and Maui faced immediately before. Their personal journeys mirrored and intersected the larger quest, making this climax both grand and personal. The viewer has followed the characters through their struggles, and so it is easier to feel the importance of this moment when Te Fiti returns to her former self. When she realizes who she is.

 

Symbols

If you’ve read Harry Potter, you can probably think pretty quickly of objects in the books that were important. The Maurader’s Map, the Invisibilty Cloak, Harry’s broom. In 1984, it’s the eyes of Big Brother, a coral paperweight, Julia’s red sash.

In Moana, some of the important symbols are a spiral, a fishhook, and a manta ray. Each of these elements show up over and over again, building a sense of familiarity, highlighting things that are important in the story.

The spiral shape is a powerful symbol of Moana’s quest. The Heart of Te Fiti is a green stone bearing a spiral, and the same spiral is on Te Fiti’s chest. The locket where Gramma Tala stores the Heart has a spiral shape. The sail on the boat Moana takes onto the ocean bears the same shape. The island where Te Fiti once rested forms a spiral. And it is when Moana sees the spiral on Te Ka’s chest that she realizes where Te Fiti has gone. This symbol is a marker for important points in Moana’s quest, because it is an echo of the quest’s goal. The spiral originated with Te Fiti, and to Te Fiti it must return.

There is another, smaller spiral that beautifully bookends the movie. After toddler Moana saves the baby turtle, the ocean gifts her with a conch shell, which has that swirled shape. At the end of the movie, after Moana has completed her quest, the ocean gifts her with another conch.

The fishhook is a symbol of Maui’s power, but also of his burdens. Maui marks the days on the rocks of the island where he’s marooned in the shape of his lost hook, where it can haunt him as much as it encourages him. Even though he and Moana retrieve the hook from Tamatoa, Maui must separate his own identity and his trials from the power of the hook before he can transform again. He must come to view it as a tool, rather than as essential to his identity.

The manta ray, however, symbolizes Gramma Tala. Moana’s grandmother has one tattooed on her back, and even dances in the water with them. After Gramma Tala dies, she appears as a glowing manta ray, to guide Moana. Like the gentle ray, Gramma Tala does not try to push Moana (except when she urges her to start the quest, already, which she apologizes for later) but guides her to answers.

Moana uses these symbols effectively throughout the movie, telling viewers where to look and how things fit together.

 

This wraps up the discussion of Moana’s strengths. Next time, I’ll look at what I think the movie could do better, and the practicalities of applying these elements to your own writing. Thanks so much for following along, and I hope to see you back for Part 2! If you have any questions or additional thoughts, please let me know in the comments.