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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

10 Things 2018 Taught Me About Writing

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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It’s about that time again: Another year has passed—another opportunity to grow and learn who I am as a writer. In many ways, 2018 was my most challenging year yet. I didn’t meet most of my goals, I had unexpected health issues, and I had to step outside my comfort zone on multiple occasions. However, it was also a vastly rewarding year. Amazing new opportunities fell into my lap, I attended a fabulous writing conference, and I was reminded yet again why I love writing so much.

Writing is a tough journey for all of us. I’ve been writing since I was six, and one thing has never changed: Life can and will get in the way. But how you react to life’s trials determines how successful you are. I strongly encourage any writer, no matter how long you’ve been writing, to reflect on what the past year has brought you. You might be surprised how much you’ve grown!

For me, these were 2018’s life lessons about writing:

  1. Writing takes perseverance. Some days, our muse is cooperative and shows up when we need it to. On others, it hoards those much-needed ideas. Stories don’t always hit us full in the face either; they often come in chunks—snippets, scenes, flashes of characters and conflict. And just as with any good idea, those tidbits need time to simmer, giving them a chance to meld. So this year, rather than waiting for my ideas to lead me where they want, I’m go to poke them, prod them, and show them who’s boss. In fact, I’ve dedicated a set number of weeks per stage on each project before transferring it to the next one. That way my mind is constantly churning out ideas and no one project sits for too long.

  2. Burnout is a real thing. As much as I love writing, there still comes a point where I’ve had enough and getting the words down is like prying teeth loose. Don’t get me wrong; I feel immensely blessed to do what I love every day and have a career in it. But all of us need a break sometimes, even from the things we love most. Our bodies need rest and time to recover, giving new ideas a chance to foster. I’m trying to be more aware of that and have even built in two vacation weeks into my writing schedule for the year as well as two months at the beginning of each year to prepare and plan my goals for the next season. Staying focused but allowing time off as a reward is the type of organization I’ve sorely needed since the beginning of my current project, and so far, having that is paying off.

  3. Being bold can boost your confidence. I’ve often spoken about writing what you don’t know but found it much harder to heed my own advice. After organizing my files on my computer, a task I’d put off for years until recently, I discovered a gem: a scene I’d written ages ago that had a narrative voice unlike anything I’d ever written, but in the best way possible. It was a snippet where I’d let myself go in my thought process, allowing myself to be as bold as I wanted in a character’s shoes, no matter if it fit my normal “style” or not. The result was a phenomenal narrative that stood in stark contrast to the pieces I’ve written up to this point. And you’d better believe it’s a tactic I’ll be using in the future.

  4. The more accountability you have from others, the more you’ll push yourself. A few months ago, I took a leap of faith as a writer. I joined a weekly critique group and gained an incredible accountability partner. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep up with everything, but I’m so glad I made the commitment. Both have had a tremendous impact on my productivity, resulting in more words down on the page and more edits completed even when I’m not writing something new. As it turns out, when you have six people expecting you to get something done, you’re more likely to deliver.

  5. Spreadsheets are glorious. In the past, I’ve given myself deadlines, albeit flimsy ones, and I’ve made promises of word counts, release dates, etc. It’s not like I wasn’t on the right track with those steps, but there’s something about visual maps that really gets you in the right headspace for conquering the world—or at least finishing your book. It’s taken me two full weekends to do so, but I’ve created a detailed plan for the entire year. I’ve factored in time for my own writing projects while still accommodating my pre-existing deadlines I have from clients, and I’ve even thrown a marketing plan in there too. I made schedules, timelines, and even a chart to show my progress. And let me tell you, it’s changed EVERYTHING. I’ve been more productive in the last two weeks than I was in the last six months of 2018. Months! I’m sure spreadsheets and charts don’t hold that same kind of power for everyone, but for me, I needed that visualization, the reminder of where I am and where I want to be. Being able to track my progress is such an effective reward that I’m now hitting my goals every week.

  6. Speaking of goals, setting detailed ones (and using apps to help you reach them, such as Todoist) can be a game changer. As I said, this isn’t the first year I’ve tried making a schedule—or using an app to help me. In past years, my halfhearted attempts have always failed when I get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. (Needless to say, having anxiety really stinks.) But what changed this year was my approach. I didn’t go in expecting the first thing I tried to work. I used a more methodical mindset, trying different spreadsheets and ways to map things, and tossing out things that didn’t help me progress. It took trial and error before I hit on the right combinations, but it’s proven to be a successful endeavor, and I have the numbers to back it up.

  7. I don’t read often enough. After having a miserable 2018 in terms of meeting my reading goals, I picked up a new book called Write Smart, Write Happy that was recommended to me by my editor. It’s motivated me to recommit to both my writing and reading goals, something I know will only help me further in growing in my craft. After all, we can learn a ton from reading others’ work, especially those who write better than us.

  8. My writing muscles are flabby—too flabby. In my latest podcast episode, I talk about how writing is like exercising. Muscles don’t stay strong unless you use them. However, I once again did a terrible job at heeding my own advice, and I found that even writing something as simple as a blog post had become immensely difficult. It was like learning a second language all over again: The info was there, but recalling it was a nightmare. Now I have to rebuild that habit.

  9. Pacing is everything. I didn’t even realize it was a struggle of mine, but as I’ve been editing book three of The Porcelain Souls, my critique group pointed out how my paragraph breaks and the structure of my sentences could be better. And they were absolutely right. Many of the scenes in the current book I’m working on for the series are so intense that they call for shorter, snippier sentences in parts to keep the pace where it should be. So now I know a specific area I need to study more and am adding it to my goal list for the year. I’ve already found a ton of great resources on the topic, including this article on the Helping Writers Become Authors site: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/scene-breaks/

  10. I have a bad habit of making excuses, but even more than that, I’m an expert at psyching myself out. Last year, I became enemy #1 . . . to myself. I set weak goals that couldn’t stand up to the inner procrastinator in me. I’d see these tasks, and rather than turning them into manageable chunks, I’d let them lord over me as monumental obstacles whose proportions were so overblown they were basically caricatures. Piles upon piles of sticky notes laughed at me (okay, maybe not, but they did clutter my desk). And the idea of finishing the editing process for my book so I could finally publish it? Forget it. But the truth of the matter is, once I actually sat down and worked on something—anything—for just ten minutes, the words started flowing, and it was like I’d never quit. We writers are great at making things out to be harder than they have to be, swearing that we’re not good enough at x, y, or z to accomplish something worthwhile. And I get it; confidence can be a struggle for me too. But as the saying goes, sometimes you just have to park your butt in the chair and WRITE.

WDC Series: Villains with Positive Character Arcs

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Ah, villains. Quite possibly my favorite characters of all time. They’re swift talkers, fast thinkers, and they earn the best internet memes. Everyone knows who they are. But what really makes these characters special for me is they tend to be complex, holding a depth that protagonists and other supporting characters sometimes lack. (Don’t throw things at me yet—I did say sometimes.)

Truth be told, stellar characters need complexity no matter whose side they’re on. Authenticity, depth, a clear goal, an irrefutable lie, and obstacles make for exquisite layers that form a powerful, relatable, and realistic character.

What Is a Character Arc and Why Are They Important?

A character arc can best be described as the change in a character from the start of a story to the end of it. If a character gains redeemable traits throughout, their arc is considered positive, or one of growth. If there’s no change (which, when done right, will still result in changes from surrounding characters), the arc is considered flat. When good characters go bad, taking on negative traits, that change is considered a falling arc.

One book I love recommending is K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author's Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development. In it, she goes into depth about each type of arc and how things like goals, lies, truths, and obstacles are set up in a story. For those of you who don’t want to spring for the book, her website does a great job of providing details about arcs as well: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/write-character-arcs/

Another resource I’d like to share is the Writers Helping Writers site, which has a fantastic article about why writing characters with depth is so important and how that translates to a better book for readers: https://writershelpingwriters.net/2019/01/the-key-components-of-a-compelling-character-according-to-psychology/

As you’ll see in the article, the key is making the characters relatable—not necessarily likeable.

How Positive Character Arcs Can Create Compelling Villains

For those of you who are familiar with my fiction books, you know I love writing unlikeable characters. Their stubborn personas draw me like a moth to a flame, and for whatever reason, creating them has become my little niche, so I proudly wear that badge.

It’s challenging finding new ways to reach readers through darker characters though. One approach I use is taking a complex villain and having them change sides. I do the same with my protagonists. For one, it makes them more relatable. For two, just as in real life, good and evil isn’t always clear-cut. Things get a little muddied in the middle, causing character to cross lines they wouldn’t normally cross. Sometimes really good people make bad decisions, because we’re complex creatures and have the freedom to make choices. My favorite characters are ones who tread in the gray space, because you never know where they stand until it’s too late.

I’ve found when characters hit rock bottom and are in a rut, especially mentally, one of two things will happen: They’ll either pull themselves out and change for the better, or they’ll go down the path of self-destruction. In my current work in progress, The Lost Souls, I have two characters who face such a dilemma. One is faced with extreme loss, and it forces her to take action, ultimately changing her for the better. The other has faced life-altering traumas as well, but he spirals out of control into a deeper pit of anger, revenge, and self-destruction.

When it comes to character development, characters can change as much as people can (which now has me humming “Hot N Cold” by Katy Perry), and sometimes those changes result in positive character arcs—think Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol or Hans Solo from Star Wars. Whether you’re dealing with a protagonist or an antagonist, combining complex traits with a transformative arc can yield captivating results, especially when those characters are less than likeable.

Last but not least, I’ll leave you with this stellar tip from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, authors of The Emotion Thesaurus series.

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Eep! The Emotion Thesaurus 2.0

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Hi everyone! I’m so excited to share this with you. I've been helping Angela and Becca at Writers Helping Writers keep a BIG secret: what the next book in their thesaurus series will be.

It might seem strange for an author to not tell their readers about the book they plan to release . . . unless your names are Becca and Angela. They are known for writing books on showing, not telling, and couldn't pass up a chance to do just that by waiting for the cover reveal. And it’s a huge honor to be part that reveal!

So without further ado, I give you...

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The Emotion Thesaurus Second Edition!

You might have heard of The Emotion Thesaurus before, or even have a copy. The original released in 2012 and quickly became the go-to guide on expressing character emotion. The book's lists of body language, thoughts, and visceral sensations for 75 unique emotions made brainstorming character expressions and reactions so much easier.

In this second edition, the authors have added 55 entries, bringing the total to 130 emotions.

That's not all, either. This book is almost double in size with lots of new content. You can find a full write up for it HERE and a list of all the entries (plus some samples!) HERE.

This book is also available for preorder! You can find it right now on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble.

One last thing I wanted to mention...

Angela & Becca are giving away a free webinar recording of one of their popular workshops on Emotion, so head on over to their site if this is an area of struggle for you. It might really help!

WDC Series: Unlikable Characters (That Readers Still Relate To)

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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There’s something extraordinarily compelling about following the life of an antagonist, one that really drives readers to find out what makes villains tick.

But there’s a trick to writing a character like that, especially if you’re using them as your main character. They may be unlikable, but they still have to be relatable. If they’re not, readers won’t give a darn what happens to them, and they’ll stop reading long before any character development takes place. So how can you ensure relatability without sacrificing their position in the story?

Well, sometimes the answer to that is you don’t. To me, some of the most compelling characters are ones who make questionable choices but aren’t altogether bad people. They may be an antagonist, or they may not. In other cases, their intentions may be evil, but humanity gets the best of them, causing them to slip up. Both approaches share something in common, however: they contain a solid foundation for a dynamic character. And of all the things you need to make an unlikable character relatable, it’s the ability to give them dimension and depth.

Here are some tips for achieving that.

1. Focus on the flaws. Just as there are no perfect protagonists, there are no perfect antagonists either. We all have flaws, for better or worse, but we tend to shed such a negative light on them that it’s hard to see how they can be beneficial. For example, a typical villain might have a trait of dishonesty. Pretty straight forward. They’d likely use that trait to manipulate others into getting what they want, ultimately helping them achieve their goals.

But what if that character instead carries a flaw that doesn’t particularly sway them in one direction or the other, good or bad? A flaw like being timid or shy. Embracing such a flaw as they make their choices could lead to unexpected twists. Perhaps they lose the love of their life because they aren’t brazen enough to go after them. Or, if that flaw becomes such a hindrance to their goal that frustration and pain festers, they could use that flaw to get away with monumental crimes—like murder—for years without being caught. Correctly manipulated, their flaw could become an asset that turns them into incredibly dynamic, and relatable, creatures whose choices shape them into the person they become.

2. Consider a positive character arc for antagonists. Redeemable traits are often the go-to for writers trying to find a way to push the reader toward sympathy for the bad guy. But sometimes that’s not enough, and other times, it’s done in such a way that it comes across as cliché or predictable. One way to give your character that extra growth they need to make their good qualities believable is to push them to a place that’s unexpected. In a previous post, I talked about how blurring the line between good and evil is one way to give your antagonist depth and a more realistic quality. Taking that idea one step further and pushing them into a full-on positive character arc, rather than a negative one, might be the extra punch your character needs. Using that type of arc on a villain results in tremendous growth and a complex character. You have to be careful though, because it can be tricky to pull off in a way that’s genuine. The further in one direction a character is on the scale between good and evil, the tougher it can be to reel them back in and coax them to the other side.

3. Let their backstory drive them. A few months ago, I posted about secondary characters and how their complexity brings realism to their roles in relationship to the main character. The same is true for the antagonist of a story. By weaving in a character’s goals, motivation, flaws, and life experiences into the overall plot, a richness in their relationship with others is developed, leading to a very powerful connection with readers. This same idea can be used to create a compelling character arc, even for unlikable protagonists.

4. Bind their successes and failures to the main character. The dance between a protagonist and antagonist is much like a game of chess—every choice can affect strategy and the overall outcome. One wrong move could land either in checkmate, and both rely on others around them to reach their end goals. Sometimes that even means sacrificing those on their own team. Tethering the characters together in a way that limits their abilities will naturally create conflict and a compelling read.

5. Downfalls can be fascinating. Discovering the outcome of good character who makes a series of bad choices can be magnetizing for readers—much like a horrific car accident that you can’t pull yourself away from. Even small decisions can lead to more turmoil, oftentimes at a cost to a character’s own happiness and success. One of the most popular television shows that uses this approach is Breaking Bad, where every episode leaves Walter White in an even worse situation than the previous ones, with more at stake than ever. He continues to take risks that put himself and others in danger, but his character is created in such a way that leaves you so invested in him that you feel compelled to keep watching.

Unlikable characters can be amazing. They can be dynamic, captivating, and sometimes even more intricate than likable ones. But when it comes to creating an unlikable character, do so with purpose. What role do they play in the story being told? How do their actions affect those around them? Do changes occur within others or within themselves because of their involvement? Characters without purpose are nothing more than annoying wall fixtures made to look pretty. Sure, they might add a nice touch of diversity here and there, but they don’t propel the story forward, and they don’t stimulate growth. And when that happens, readers lose interest, and cutting them becomes the only good option.