What made you start writing in a way that made you love it?
That’s the big question, the question we have to answer over and over for every project.
I remember writing draft after draft of Tithe, not loving what I was writing and not knowing how to write something I would love. This was also a period when I was incredibly critical of everything I read. There were very few books I could read without ripping apart — and then there were a few I felt were so perfect that they taught me nothing. They seemed completely seamless, with no way in and no way to analyze how to replicate what I liked.
Adding to that, I had some odd ideas about writing. I knew I was supposed to show and not tell, so I never told anyone anything, even if that made it super confusing for the reader. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be derivative or cliched, so every time something happened, I tried to make the characters do the opposite of what was expected, even if that was less interesting.
Those early drafts were awful and they were awful because I was writing to please my (intimidated) writer self. I wasn’t writing for the part of me that mattered — my reader self.
Asking myself what I liked — and answering honestly — was the first step in getting to writing stuff I loved. We worry a lot about the market when we’re starting out (and maybe even when we’re no longer starting out), but we have to trust that if we love a thing, there will be other readers who love it too. Maybe not the most possible readers, but our readers.
As for plotting — it helps to know these things:
(a) what does the protagonist want? (b) what’s the obstacle? (b) what’s at stake?* (c) what are the agendas of the other characters in the book? (d) what is the thing, which, once it happens, means the book is over? (e) what are some fun things that you want to happen along the way? (f) what’s the ticking clock and when does it kick in? (g) how does the protagonist change by the end? and (h) what’s the protagonist’s secret?
It’s okay if you don’t know all those things. But, like I said, they help.
Then, I would say, try to give yourself touch points in the manuscript. Not everyone works to an outline, but most writers exist on a spectrum between plotters and pantsers.
*People talk a lot about making sure the stakes are high, but let me say instead that the stakes should be highly personal. Yes, it makes sense to want to save the world — that’s where you keep your stuff, right? — but losing a job, disappointing the people you love, losing a loved one, etc. are usually more intense stakes.
I thought the plotting tips above were particularly useful, but I also really like the explicit difference between “high stakes” and “highly personal stakes,” which I find is something a lot of newbie writers get wrong. The world doesn’t *actually* need to be ending, but your characters should *feel* like it is.