Goals: Shoot for the Moon, but First, Build a Rocket

The importance of goal-setting dominates a lot of the conversation when it comes to having a productive and meaningful writing life. There’s lots of (good and bad) advice out there about how to set the right goals for you, including SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Timely), goals that challenge you, goals that inspire you, etc. And goal-setting is a hugely important part of writing, or anything else, because it’s hard to know the direction to head in if you don’t know where you want to end up.

But what happens when the goal itself stops you from doing the work? Continue reading

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Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash

Six Ways to Make the Most of Writing Conferences

This year, I had the privilege to attend Thrillerfest, an incredible annual writing conference put on by International Thriller Writers, for the second time. The whole experience was a blast, and I learned a lot, both from the workshops themselves and from the rest of the week. Here are some ways to improve your conference-going.

1. Bring business cards.

I know this, I really do, but I was caught off-guard this year because I wasn’t sure I would be attending until somewhat late in the process. So my box of business cards sat, unused, in my closet in Denver while I was schmoozing in NYC. However, I did end up with a good stack of cards from writers and other professionals I met or reconnected with. Try to make note on the card or in a notebook of what you connected over and, if relevant, what you wanted to follow up with them about. Business cards add up quickly, and you don’t want to be left questioning who was who!

As far as your own business cards go, make sure they look professional and aren’t going to smudge easily, as they’ll likely get thrown in the bottom of conference swag bags. Different people prefer to do different things, but especially if you’ll be pitching, consider putting a very short pitch line for your manuscript on the back of the card. If you’ve got representation, it can be worth talking to your agent about this as far as branding goes. Continue reading

Endings, Pt. 4: Delivering on the Theme

When people think about incorporating theme, it can conjure cringe-worthy images of characters preaching to each other about the author’s intentions and cornily weaving in a “moral” that leaves readers feeling condescended to. One of my favorite comedy duos, BriTANicK, put up a video called “Academy Award Winning Movie Trailer,” in which they parody overused tropes in movies. The last line of the video has the hero and love interest sitting by the fire, and the hero says pensively, “Explicitly stating the moral of the story, and awkwardly working in — ” (beat) ” — the movie title.”

But even when done artfully, theme always sounds like something that’s more important to high-brow literary novels than to us genre types. I’ve found, though, that the fictional endings that stick with me most, that leave me pondering them for hours, days, weeks, are the ones that deliver on the story’s thematic promise. Bookending, character arcs, and plot resolution via a final battle all help create an ending that delivers on the promises you’ve made your readers. When you can include a thematic element to it, which is often accomplished through each of those techniques and more, it will leave an indelible mark on the reading life of anyone who picks up your book. However, the flip side of that is that you can create an ending that incites homicidal rage if it undercuts the theme of the rest of the story. Continue reading

Endings, Pt. 3: The Final Battle

Welcome back to my series on endings! Today, I want to talk about the importance of what I’m calling the final battle, which is really where your protagonist and antagonist finally deal with the major conflict head-on. Your hero fights the dragon, summits the mountain, looks the villain straight in the eye and wins — or, for a certain kind of story, loses.

This can go terribly, horribly wrong. My favorite, or, I guess, least favorite, way that this happens is when it basically doesn’t happen at all. It’s not enough for your character to catalyze the final battle: they have to be there, they have to fight, and we as readers need to experience it with them.

Enter The Hunger Games. While Mockingjay had some great stuff in it, it committed an unforgivable sin to me in this category. The rebellion has Katniss all ready to assassinate President Snow, the creepy, powerful villain who’s been so well set up for us throughout the series. But at the last moment, she realizes that killing him is just her being manipulated, and so she turns and shoots Coin instead.

That part’s all well and good. A nice twist, actually. It’s what happens next that’s the problem. After her stunt, guards converge on her and she blacks out. But Snow, a villain not only to the rebellion but specifically, personally to Katniss, still dies. The government still falls. But Katniss isn’t there to see any of it, and so neither are we, the readers. We get told about it secondhand as Katniss sits in custody.

It’s possible that Suzanne Collins was attempting to make a thematic point, but it felt like lazy writing. Final battles are hard. A showdown between two characters with so much built between them is difficult to get right. But deciding not to have a showdown at all is not the answer to that problem. It leaves readers feeling like the cathartic moment they’ve been waiting for all book (or series) never happens, and that your protagonist does not, in fact, have the agency to carry a story, and maybe never did. That’s not the impression you want to leave your readers with.

In contrast, here are some examples of great final battle showdowns:

  • Star Wars (film series): Obviously, the lightsaber battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader is one for the ages, and for good reason. Our protagonist finally goes up against not only one of the best villains in all moviedom, but his own father, and ultimately wins. It’s everything you could want.
  • The Drowning Game, by LS Hawker (novel): There’s a deeply cathartic fight scene here between the main character Petty, who’s been shut in and underestimated her whole life, and the creepy, horrifying dude who’s the villain. It involves Krav Maga, so you know it’s good.
  • Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (novel): The final battle doesn’t have to be a physical battle. In this book, the final battle is more about the protagonist finally overcoming his inner demons that have haunted him throughout the story. One the one hand, he “loses” what could seem to be the main conflict (he gets arrested) about two-thirds of the way into the book, but at the end, he battles and overcomes his own self-loathing/self-worship.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis (novel series): I can’t talk about final battles without mentioning The Last Battle. I love fantasy, and so I’m a fan of a good, old-fashioned battle between the armies of good and evil, with good coming out victorious. There’s also the allegorical resonance of Lewis’s not-so-subtle Christian influences that come out in full force in the big finale.
  • Star Trek: Voyager (TV series): While I didn’t think the finale to Voyager was everything it could have been (because I was spoiled by TNG), it did culminate in both finally overcoming the main conflict (getting back to Earth) and winning a strategically vital victory over the Borg, a major series villain, through the skills and ingenuity the main characters had built over the course of the show.

My list is weighted on the side of pretty literal final battles, since fantasy and sci-fi are my main fictional loves, but they can also be internal (Crime and Punishment above). The point is that your main character must face the villain or conflict straight-on, in scene, and actively. Your readers will thank you for it.

For more, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, and take a listen to our podcast episode on endings.

Endings That Linger, Pt. 2: Character Arcs

Personally, one thing that I often find most compelling (or most upsetting) about an ending is how it goes about addressing the changes its major (and minor) characters have experienced over the course of the story. This is true in every form of fiction, but especially in longer forms, like novel series or TV series, in which the characters have had a long time to learn and grow.

An example of what not to do can be found in one of the most popularly bemoaned finales of all time: CBS’s How I Met Your Mother.

Similarly to the fact that I only finally watched Star Trek: The Next Generation last summer, it took me until last year to finally watch HIMYM. I had been warned about the series finale, but still I soldiered on. But then I learned. (Obviously, spoilers ahead.)

Arguably, the most compelling character arc in the show is not Ted Mosby, the main character, but Barney Stinson, Ted’s playboy, manchild, wacky best friend played by Neil Patrick Harris. He starts the show as hilarious but completely immature, his entire goal in life to “score” with as many women as possible in ever more bizarre ways. It’s a funny subplot, but does not a sympathetic character make.

But over the course of the nine seasons of the show, Barney undergoes an impressive character arc, finally finding it within himself to really, deeply, committedly care about someone — Robin, played by Cobie Smulders. People had different opinions on their romance, but I loved it, and it felt like everything in Barney’s life was leading up to the moments of falling in love with her, proposing to her, and marrying her.

Until, that is, in order to make use of an ending they’d written over nine years before, the writers divorced Barney and Robin ten minutes into the episode following their marriage with little to no explanation. They had Barney backslide his way into acting exactly the way he had nine years before — not only before falling in love with Robin, but before anything in the show had happened. Then, they tried to redeem him by giving him a daughter and insisting that that love would change his life — but much of the audience, myself included, wasn’t about to let themselves be fooled again.

Character arc is vital. Watching a character develop is what provides so much of the resonance and buy-in that readers and audiences love. Endings that pretend that arc never happened feel like we as readers and audience members spent the last several hundred pages or episodes being tricked — it’s jarring, and it leaves us feeling burned.

When considering your own endings, take note of the characters your readers have spent time with and the ways in which they’ve changed. A really satisfying ending will show your characters living deeply into their new selves and will tie in as many of those character arcs as possible. Here are a few character arc endings you might emulate:

  • 1984 (novel): In many ways, 1984‘s iconic last line is a character arc ending, but not in the way you’d expect. In spite of all of Winston’s strivings, in spite of the individuality he earns over the course of the plot, the real arc for him is losing himself completely to the totalitarian state. Thus, the ultimate, succinct summation of his arc: “He loved Big Brother.”
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV series): I’ll continue the Star Trek love, because TNG does two great things for Captain Picard’s arc. First, it demonstrates that he’s gone from someone who requires control and regulation at all times, and thus can’t handle trickster Q and his breaking of the laws of physics, to someone who has become creative and adventurous enough to solve Q’s puzzle and understand Q’s quest to help humanity. Second, it shows that he has finally acknowledged the importance of his personal, not only professional, relationship with the crew, as he sits down to play his first-ever game of poker with them.
  • The Hunger Games (novel series): It doesn’t always have to be a positive arc. I have my issues with the ending of this series, which I’ll get into in a later post, but it does have a very clear indicator of the arcs of its major characters. Katniss and Peeta are broken, scarred characters after everything they’ve endured, and rightfully so. The ending of the series spends its time showing the two of them working through this brokenness together, in a move that is much more realistic than the way young adult fiction usually portrays survivors of trauma.
  • Gone Girl (novel): This is a good example of the arc that isn’t an arc at all. Gone Girl involves a lot of betrayal, lies, and serious double-crossing between the main two characters. It is the most dysfunctional of all dysfunctional marriages, and they can no longer deny it. But, supposedly because of their unborn child, the two decide to stay married in the end. Everything between them has changed, and yet, nothing has. It’s a haunting ending for the twist-filled thriller.

Sometimes, writers make the mistake of forgetting to get the character arc out of their heads and onto the page — they know how much their characters have grown, so they think their readers do, too. Let your characters prove it in your ending. This will also ensure that your characters have an active role in the ending and that it doesn’t just happen to them.

What are your favorite, and least favorite, character endings? How do you handle endings for your own characters?

This is the second in a series on writing good endings. Check out the first one here, and keep an eye out for more installments!

 

Endings That Linger, Pt. 1: Bookending

After drawing it out forever because I didn’t want it to end, I finally watched the series finale of The Next Generation this past fall. I was a little apprehensive because I didn’t really like a lot of the writing of Season 7 — many of the episodes felt like they were trying to hard to drop revelation after revelation on the audience, totally changing the fabric of the show. But I needn’t have worried.

The series finale of TNG, for those of you who, like me, live under a rock, is a 90-minute-long episode called “All Good Things,” in which Captain Picard jumps through time to solve a puzzle that could destroy humanity. Unsurprisingly, the plot is caused by Q, but it turns out that, in the end, Q was actually trying to help Picard solve it (and Picard finally figures out that Q is on his side).

I sat down to study and instead found myself totally absorbed by contemplating this finale, which is what you want with any excellent ending to a beloved series. It got me thinking about why I loved it so much, and how I could extrapolate that out to endings that resonate with me in general and how to create them. And then I got started writing a blog post on endings and realized there was way too much I wanted to say for a single post, so here’s part one: how to use bookending for a resonant and satisfying ending. Continue reading

Imposter Syndrome: An Orientation Recap

I can’t quite believe that it’s been almost exactly a month since I started at Harvard. The time has flown, at least in part because I haven’t had a whole lot of time to catch my breath (in a good way, mostly). But I wanted to write a post about the orientation experience to give a window into what starting at HLS is like — I think it did a really good job of setting us up to create a solid environment for ourselves and for each other.

One of the first impressions I got upon coming to campus is that Harvard Law School is HUGE. I knew that conceptually, but the law school population itself is almost as big as my (large) high school — about 1800 students. In order to make it easier to get to know people and avoid getting lost in the shuffle, HLS divides the 1L (first-year) class into seven sections of about 80 people, each of which has a professor as a section leader. It sounds like a lot, but orientation is basically four days of intensive section bonding, so we all got to know each other really fast. At this point, I recognize everybody in my section and probably know about 90% of the names. Continue reading

Creation over Consumption: A Challenge

Our lives are an ever-changing balance between creation and consumption. Mindful and intentional consumption is important and essential–consuming food, resources, and ideas, when done with intention, contributes meaningfully to our lives and helps us contribute meaningfully to the lives of others.

Unfortunately, though, our culture is largely one of mindless consumption. When we’re bored (or just not overstimulated), we scroll through Facebook, flip on the TV, or surf Buzzfeed. We play mobile games while we’re waiting in line. We listen to the news in the morning and the radio in the car, and spend the rest of our day with several tabs of email open and social media sending us notifications every five minutes.

On the other hand, how much time do we spend every day creating value? How much time do we spend on creative hobbies or passion projects or actively contributing to our health? If you’re anything like me, that amount is much, much lower. Some days, it might be non-existent. Continue reading

Prioritizing like Warren Buffett

In a post on Live Your Legend, Scott Dinsmore talks about one tip on prioritization that Warren Buffett gave his pilot. The system goes like this:

  1. List the top 25 goals you want to achieve, either in the next few years or in your lifetime.
  2. From that list of 25 goals, pick your top five most important. Put those on their own list of current goals.
  3. Put the other 20 goals on another list.
  4. Avoid those 20 goals at all costs until you achieve the first five.

Sounds a little terrifying, doesn’t it? Committing to five goals so much that you’re willing to sacrifice all of the others to achieve them? But, according to Warren Buffett, that’s how you become successful: focus on your highest-priority goals to the exclusion of all else. There are a lot of good articles out there about why taking advice from those in extraordinary circumstances can be less than helpful, but I think this one might be the exception to the rule. Continue reading

Where Does Your Time Go?

You have 168 hours every week. Is hard to believe? It doesn’t seem like it can possibly be that much time. Even if you work 40 hours a week, sleep 8 hours a night, and spend 12 hours commuting, you still have 60 other hours to work with. So, what are you using your time for?

Self-Awareness

No matter what your answer to that question is, you’re very likely wrong. People are prone to drastically overestimating how much time they spend actually working and underestimating many of their other activities. Laura Vanderkam, time management guru, admits to complaining endlessly about her 60-hour work week until she discovered that in actuality, she was working much closer to 40. If you’re hard on yourself about not spending enough time on your family or yourself, this could be you. Continue reading