Six Things College App Essays Taught Me About Writing

I just finished all of my college apps!!! *screams with joy for hours*


And while it was a horrifyingly stressful and (sometimes) tedious process, it did teach me some things about writing and myself as a writer.

1. How to write something that doesn’t rely on dialogue. Or sarcasm.

In my fiction writing, I rely on dialogue and sarcasm. College app essays weren’t really the place for that style writing, so it was an adjustment. Trying to find a tone that conveyed my personality without making me sound like a bitch was something that I’m proud I accomplished.

2. Just how many “voices” I have, outside the ones I already knew about.

This goes with the one before, but as I wrote more and more essays, I started to develop new writing voices. I still prefer my fiction/journalism ones, but I like that I discovered others.

3. How to be done with something. And actually be done.

I have been writing fiction for years, but I have never really finished something. I have reached the end of pieces, and edited pieces, but I have never really felt done. With college app essays, I had to write, edit, and turn it in. This was incredibly stressful at the beginning, but it also feels awesome to be actually done.

4. Kill Your Darlings is actually really good advice.

I have heard the classic writing advice “Kill Your Darlings” for a while, but college app essays were the first time I really had to use it. And damn, it works. I can’t tell you how many essays clicked into place when I got rid of a favorite sentence, metaphor, or idea.

5. How to write, even when I don’t want to.

My WIP started to teach me this over summer, but it was writing essays for college apps that finally drove home this lesson. Although I still occasionally give in to writer’s block, I am now able to get myself to sit down and write, even if I don’t feel “inspired.”

6. Word counts are the worst, but only sometimes.

This was my first real encounter with word counts, and it was rough. Of the hours I spent working on these essays, only half the time was writing. The other half was spent editing them down to the right word count.

But I also started to appreciate word counts for the direction they gave me. I knew how far to go with an essay based on the word count. Without them, I don’t know if I would have edited my essays as thoroughly. So I guess word counts aren’t the worst.

What do you think? Was this post interesting for you? Have you applied/are you applying to colleges, and if so, what was it like for you?

Writing At Night, When the Juices Flow (Second Draft Journal #4)

I seem to have a problem…

Nowadays, I only feel comfortable writing at night.

I noticed this habit forming during summer, but didn’t really do anything about it. Now that school has started and the hours available to be to write are significantly limited by unavoidable factors, my own consciousness cutting down on those hours based on some irrational desire to write when it’s dark out is becoming detrimental. And annoying, because I often have time during the afternoons (on light homework days or weekends) when I could be writing, but something holds me back.

Part of the reason is that the afternoon is more social for me. I’m more likely to be spending time with my family in the afternoon, rehashing what happened at school, watching TV, playing cards, or just wasting time together. I cherish the time I spend with my family (even if we’re just enjoying a TV show together). Since writing is a solitary activity that requires a lot of focus (verses some of my homework, which I can have conversations while doing), I won’t pick up my WIP if the rest of my family is socializing.

There is also the unavoidable fact that homework and studying take time. I try to get it out of the way when I get home from school (though I give myself around an hour of relaxation and eating time in between), so that I have the nights to relax or to get ahead, but I don’t always succeed. And sometimes, homework just fills up the entire night, leaving me no time for writing. (I’m a light-weight when it comes to staying up late, and I have to be in bed by 10:30/11 or I’m a zombie the next morning.)

But I think there is something else going on, and I’m wondering if anyone else has experienced this. During the day, I tend to feel self-conscious about my writing, as if someone is looking over my shoulder (even if they really aren’t). At night, especially when the rest of my family is sleeping, that self-consciousness falls away and my writing gets freer.

I also like the way that tired-ness affects my writing; sometimes it helps me “loosen up.” I’m not saying that full-on exhaustion helps me write (I already admitted how horrible I am with sleep-deprivation), but when I’m slightly tired, I worry less about every word I put down on the page and focus more on getting into the rhythm of the story. While this leaves me with some inelegant sentences, I ultimately value making progress in my story over agonizing over writing perfect sentences the first time around.

Getting to the end of the day also clicks my brain out of “school mode” and into a mindset where I feel closer to the story that I’m writing (oh my God that sounds so cheesy). I’m no longer worrying about school–I know all of my homework is done and that I’m ready for the next day–and I can finally relax into thinking about my personal projects. Additionally, because I make a habit of thinking about my WIP when I fall asleep, I think this has over time built up a Pavlov’s dog-type reaction to being tired and wanting to write.

Have any of you dealt with this? Does writing ever make you feel self-conscious? When do you feel comfortable writing?

Do you have a routine that you stick to, or do you just try to fit writing into whatever pockets of time you find (like me)? Do you have any advice for breaking this habit or forming a better one?

P.S. I wrote this blog post at night. It felt apropos. 

4 Ways to Stay Motivated During a Hectic Life (Second Draft Journal #3)

Second Draft Journal is a series of posts in which I randomly discuss things that occur to me during my process of writing my second draft of my WIP. Today I’m tackling how I make sure I stay motivated.

Staying motivated. It’s a broad topic. Everyone has their own tips. Here are some ways that I’m kept myself feeling good about writing and itching to sit down and write, even if my hectic school schedule doesn’t allow me the time.

SDJ staying motivated

1. “High Scores”

So I talked a while back about the spreadsheet I keep in which I track how many words I write per day. The spreadsheet itself is a useful motivation tool–it gives me a kick in the pants when I haven’t written in a while, and it challenges me to sit back down and write more when I realize that I only added 900-ish words in a day.

Recently, I took it a step further and decided to keep track of my “high score”–the most words I’ve written in a day, to date. Right now my high score is 4,071 words. I know that’s pretty low in the grand scheme of things, but if I write that many words (or get close) I’m proud of myself.

What I specifically like about the high score motivation tactic is that it is a pleasing balance of motivating without being a lot of pressure. I know that not every day that I sit down to write will be a high score-setting day, but when I can tell that I’m on a role and the words are flowing well, the high score pushes me to stay in the chair for a little while longer and hit a new “best.”

2. Monthly Word Count Goals

I’ve also set myself a goal of adding at least 10,000 words to my WIP a month. For August, I’ve already achieved this (13,000, like what?!), but I know I’ll still keep writing. I like that the goal is low enough that if I have a rough month, I can still accomplish it, but that I still want to keep writing after I achieve it. The goal of getting higher and higher above that baseline monthly target will keep me motivated.

3. Reading Just Enough Writing Advice to Keep My Head in the Game

I wrote a post a little while ago about the debilitating effect that reading other people’s writing advice can have on my self-confidence. While this can still trip me up, I make sure that I expose myself to writing advice fairly regularly. Whether it is a random pin that comes up in my Pinterest feed or a Chuck Wendig post, I make sure to check out writing advice blog posts when they cross my path. I tend not to spend a lot of time reading them–just glancing at the main headings and skimming the paragraphs. This way, I get a dose of writing advice that keeps me thinking about writing and that points me in the right direction, but I don’t get bogged down in specifics or self-doubt. Other times, when I have more downtime, I’ll go back and really focus on the writing advice that I found, sometimes taking notes or bookmarking especially great pieces.

Reading other people’s writing advice gives me confidence (if I’m already doing what was suggested), makes me think (in a good way), or helps me find my way through a rough patch (like a scene or a relationship that I can’t quite make work). Making sure I read posts like that regularly keeps my head in the writing game.

4. Fall Asleep Thinking About My Story

I find it is much easier to sit down and write a scene that I have already run through in my head a few times. I usually do this while I’m falling asleep, playing out different ways a scene could happen, playing with character reactions and personalities. It gives me something to think about, and distracts me from anything that is stressing me out–my WIP is kind of a happy place for me. Making sure that I think about what is coming up next in my story (or just a part of the plot that I need to develop further) when I’m falling asleep also connects my WIP to my daily life, even if I didn’t write that day. Often, if a writer goes a long time without writing, it is hard to come back to the story; I’ve found that keeping the story close by when I’m not writing makes it easier to come back. 

How do you stay motivated? Have you tried any of these methods?

Combating Chauvinism With Writing

I saw this on Pinterest:

how to write a male
I tried to follow the link embedded in the pin but it gave me an error page. The site it’s from is

And it struck me as really, really sexist.

I thought #1 was interesting, a little stereotypical but also something you might keep in mind if you wanted to strikingly juxtapose a male and female POV.

After that point, it basically spirals out of control.

Don’t get me wrong: I like writing advice, and I know that not all of the advice out there will be stuff I agree with. But this list goes beyond advice to paint a picture of the male character that is stereotypical, insulting, small-minded, and out of place in the modern environment.

The first time I saw the Pin, I read through it, had a small “wow, way to be sexist” moment, and moved on. But then I came back to my Pinterest feed and it was still there. And I had to think about it again. And being a speech-and-debater who hasn’t been to a competition in a while and girl who has spent way too much time talking about feminism with her journalism class–I couldn’t let it go.

So here’s what is wrong with this check list, and why I can’t just let it disappear into the recesses of my Pinterest feed.

Writing has the power to change society–to change it’s stigmas and challenge it’s chauvinism. The stories we read can humanize people we’ve only ever judged, can make us care about people we want to hate. Novels can be and should be a mechanism for social change, especially in this day and age, where we stand on the precipice of a massive societal movement towards tolerance and understanding.

The mentality behind this checklist is a roadblock to such progress. It tells writers that they do not have to strive to look around them and take the human elements of the real world, boil them down, and recast them into stories that make their readers look around and see the human world (thus beginning a cycle that could honestly change one’s perception). Instead, this checklist proposes that men can be boiled down into seven–seven, not even a round ten–sentence-long descriptions. It removes the drive to search for the right word or scene to convey a character and replaces it with a simple To Do List.

I’m not saying that there aren’t some male characters to whom this checklist applies. The reason this checklist exists in the first place is that it is rooted in reality. However, the issue is that it isn’t titled “How to Write a Stereotypically Alpha-Male Character.” It doesn’t present itself as a resource for writers who want help with writing a certain personality type. It just presents the checklist as if every male character one could ever want to write should have the same characteristics.

First of all, imagine how boring the world would be if that were true. And second of all, imagine how divorced from reality writing would become–it would lose all power to change society, except for the power it had to perpetuate it’s cookie-cutter ideal of masculinity.

I hope that no one saw this check list and took it to heart. I hope that no one saw this checklist and from that point forward, never challenged themselves to write a male character that broke the mold set forth. But I’ve seen the hate-filled posts on social media and the protests on the streets, and I find it hard to believe that there is no one out there who didn’t see this graphic and add it to their writing mindset.

And maybe you’re thinking, “This is just one graphic. I’ve never seen it before. Why all the hullaballu?”

You can dismiss the graphic, sure. It is a far cry from going viral. It’s just something I stumbled upon.

But you cannot dismiss this conversation. You cannot turn your back on the importance of combating chauvinism with writing. And you cannot deny that there are people out there in the world who do not see this checklist as sexist in the extreme–who see it as a list of goals to accomplish, a list of parameters to meet in order to “be a man.”

Writers–you have the chance to change the way people think. Don’t make the mistake of only reinforcing social stigmas and prejudices. 

Break the mold.

I know it’s easier said than done. In my WIP, I constantly struggle with writing innovative characters that don’t rely on stereotypes. Do I always succeed? Probably not.

But maybe it’s a good thing that I saw this graphic on Pinterest. Because from now on, I’ll have a constant reminder of the importance of pushing past stereotypes to find the true essence of the characters I’m trying to create.

On Why I Might Ignore Your Writing Advice

click for picture credit


I love writing. And I love learning about writing. I love reading blog posts and quotes on Pinterest about writing. There is so much advice out there: how to write interesting characters, how to come up with a plot, how to create the ultimate antagonist…

It can be super helpful.

And it can also be overwhelming.

To explain, let me backtrack a little. I’m currently working on the second draft of my WIP, Devil May Care. It’s a YA sort-of-paranormal, kind-of-romance sort of thing. See? I’m so good at describing it.

The first draft was entirely free-form, written without an outline or the vaguest idea of what was going to happen next. And while I loved the experience, when I sat down to write draft two, I knew that I needed to have some sort of roadmap.

For the first 60-ish pages, I wasn’t overly concerned with definite plot structure. I knew what scenes from draft #1 I wanted to use, what new elements I needed to pull in, and that was enough. I wasn’t flying by the seat of my pants, but my plane was built of fairly shitty cardboard. It was enough to get me going, though, so I ran with it.

And then the exposition had been expositioned (wow, so not a word) and I knew I was starting to get into the meat of the story, which was great, because meat is good, but it also sucked, because my roadmap had ended. One minute, I’m following my self-made GPS’s commands, the next, I’m stranded in the middle of no where with only a bottle of water, a bag of stale Cheetos, and the knowledge that I really need to decide on a concrete plot for this monstrosity.

So I turned to the internet. A quick Google search later, I’m reading all about plot structure, how to create a plot, the parts of a plot–

And none of it is helping. In fact, an hour of skimming writing advice blogs and Pinterest infographics has convinced me that I have absolutely no hope of ever turning Devil May Care into a workable novel.

It sucked. A lot.

See, I’ve always had this idea that if I have a good premise and characters I like and a vague idea of what I want my book to say, there will also be a plot. If I think about the elements of the book I have to work with, I will eventually discover a plot. Like my WIP is a math problem and I just need to find the right formula and solve for “plot.” Like I can dump everything I created in draft one into a sifter and if I shake it enough, a nugget of plot gold will surface.

But everyone on the internet has different ideas, and they ask a lot of questions: What does your character want? What is your conflict? What is in the way of what she wants? What is The Lie Your Protagonist Believes? What is your point A and how do you get to point B? Who is your antagonist?

They’re good questions, and I know they shouldn’t be hard to answer, but they tripped me up. Not because I couldn’t think of an answer, but because I could think of too many answers. Or the answer I thought of didn’t feel “plotty” enough.

I couldn’t get my idea of the novel to fit into their molds, and it left me feeling like I’d gotten the answer wrong on a test.

Devil May Care has romance in it, but I’ve never felt like it was the central plot. On it’s most basic level, DMC is just a girl (who is a lot like me) trying to figure out who the hell she is in a society that is screaming at her to sit down, shut up, and be the person they have told her she already is. I don’t feel comfortable calling it a coming of age novel, or a bildungsroman. It’s more than that, but I’m not exactly sure how.

All I know is that the internet (well, the advice I was reading) was forcing me into a box that felt way too small for the book I wanted to write. I ended up feeling like I was doing something wrong because I didn’t have a “good” answer to their questions. I stopped writing for a weekend, overcome with doubts and anger.

But part of me realized that my idea of “good” answers were just the answers that other people would give, the answers that other books would respond with. But I don’t want to write a book that already exists, I want to write my novel.

All of this was about a week ago. Since then, I’ve actually sat down, focused on my book, and formed a plot that I like. It doesn’t exactly match the formulas the internet wanted me to use, and I’m sure I’ll change it as I go along, but I’ve got my roadmap back. And I like where it’s leading me.

I still read writing advice online. I follow a few writing advice blogs and some Pinterest boards. Most of the time, they help me focus on what I need to accomplish with my writing.

But I’ve learned that sometimes it’s okay to ignore their advice. Sometimes, that is the best thing you can do.

Have any of you experienced this? Do you read writing advice? How do you deal with it when someone tells you you’re doing something “wrong”?


Thoughts on Prologues

I came upon this post while going through my WordPress reader this morning. It’s Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of Writing.

I liked the post; I think it nicely combined some of the most basic and (let’s be honest) cliche writing advice out there. I’m not saying it’s bad advice–it’s good advice. It’s just that a lot of other authors have basically the same list under their own names.

Whatever. Point is, Rule #2 reads “Avoid prologues.”

One of the least original suggestions, but also one of the most ignored suggestions in today’s published works.

It got me thinking about prologues. So I’ll just be here, rambling about them for a while.


I used to love prologues. It horrified me when I found out that one of my friends just skipped prologues. What? How can you do that? They’re part of the story!

Nowadays, prologues are pretty damn annoying. Which leads me to believe that either I’ve gotten more impatient over the years, or middle grade authors just write better prologues than young adult authors. It might just be that MG authors write less prologues.

I think prologues are a good idea. They can add mystery. They’re easy exposition. They can add that dramatic irony that we all love–when the readers know something the characters don’t.

But prologues are also boring a lot of the time. I’ve read the back of the book; I know what I want to–and should be–reading about. The prologue is not that story. Ergo, I’m impatient, rushing through a scene I don’t really understand to get to the story I want to be reading.

Prologues tend to be third person, even if the story is actually in first person, and removed from the story, usually taking place in a different time or location. They often use names that haven’t been introduced–usually in the name of that mysterious drama the prologue is there for. All of this adds up to prologues being boring and confusing. Neither of those are things authors want said about their book.

I often wonder: If this scene didn’t start with the word “prologue” written at the top of it, would it piss me off this much? Would I be as twitchy, frustrated by the attempt at drama, if I thought it was chapter one? I’ll probably never know, because people seem pretty attached to the world prologue. (Actually, Harry Potter sort of does this. The first chapters are sort of annoying with all their exposition…interesting.)

table of contents prologue bigger


My advice to anyone listening: If you can, avoid prologues. Put it in later, or just delete it. If you can’t, make it short. The prologue in Kristen Cashore’s Fire is great and really works with the story, but it is almost twenty pages long–waaaaay to much. When I reread the book, I always skip it.

I still don’t agree with my friend who skips prologues. Authors include them for a reason, usually to spread information. You need that information to enjoy the book.

So I’ll read your prologue. It will probably put me in a bad mood, but if chapter one is good enough, I’ll forgive you.

Character Building #1–What to Look for When People Watching

Sorry I haven’t really posted in this week. I’ve been weirdly busy. I’m still working on the third and final Mistborn novel by Brandon Sanderson. I’m loving it, and a review for the series will be coming shortly.

But hey! I’m here. Posting and everything.

Let’s talk about characters.

I love characters. They are the number one thing that draws me into a book. A bad plot can be forgiven with good characters. A great plot can sink with flat, fake, boring characters. I know authors who do it well, and authors who kinda suck at it. I’ve read waaaaaaaaaay to many blog posts about other people’s advice for building characters.

But as I’m editing my own novel, realizing that I need to overhaul basically the entire plot, I’m turning to the characters I’ve written, trying to make them better, deeper, realer–anything. Since I like reading character driven books over more plot based books, it makes sense that I would write a novel heavily invested in the characters I’m creating.

I have lots of other bloggers’ advice clattering around in my mind, which is sort of psyching me out, making me second-guess the characters I’ve built and the ones I’m still refining. I’ve read a lot of good characters, but I’m having trouble pinpointing what about them was good, or different–basically, what strategies I should steal.

I’m going to have a series of blog posts about how I approach characterization, my thoughts about other people’s advice, and what I see in published works. I’m trying to get my own thoughts in order, and I hope it will help other people in my own situation.

Here’s my first one:

What To Look For When People Watching

Reading helps. Reading blog posts about building characters helps.

But, for me, the best way to translate that vague half-formed character idea into a real, interesting, complex person on the page is to people watch.

I go to high school, and my novel is set in high school, so just keeping my ears open during the lag times in class is probably my most beneficial strategy. I get exposed to airheads and athletes and hard-core AP-ers (is that a term?) for free all the time. I have to go to school anyway. When it gets boring, I’ll think about my characters.

(Though technically, right now, I’m out of school, and it’s actually getting inconvenient. I’m trying to plot characters the likes of which I haven’t spent time with in close to two months. It is frustrating, to say the least.)

I people watch anywhere, especially if I’m bored. Restaurants, clothing stores, side walks, the people driving in the car next to me in traffic (don’t worry, I don’t have my licence yet, so I’m not behind the wheel).

I don’t advise watching people to exactly copy their character. You can’t just inject a person you like or find interesting into your plot–it won’t feel right to the reader. Also, your characters should be completely understood by you (or as much as possible); trying to copy another person without literally being that person means that you sacrifice your own story-telling instincts to the reality you’re trying to capture into the pages of your novel.

So what do I look for?

Details. Things that stand out to me about them. The thing that makes this person different from that person.

In other words, quirks.

If I’m talking to my friends, I’m noting their mannerisms, speech patterns, insecurities, annoying and/or charming habits. Anything that I could add to a character to make them feel realer, without me having to do any hard work in the manuscript.

Examples (notes I’ve taken recently):

  • a person’s voice that goes up when they lie
  • hypochondria
  • a distinctive bracelet/anklet/necklace/ring
  • a person who just sucks at unlocking doors (I’m looking at you, sis)
  • a color scheme of clothing they always wear
  • a way of sitting (on the arm of a sofa, backwards on a chair, etc.)
  • tapping out rhythms to songs on their leg (or, more specifically, walking through the motions of, for example, playing the song on the piano on their leg)
  • a certain ringtone on their cell phone
  • the design on a T-shirt (if it is geeky or retro or exceptionally trendy)
  • the vernacular people use in texts/status updates/Snapchats/etc.

What you want is a small detail that instantly gives the reader a wider or deeper understanding of the character.

You have to balance your use of the detail. You can’t mention it once and never again–it’s not doing anything for you. You can’t mention it every time the character appears in the story–then the character is reduced to only that detail. You have to string it through the story, subtly enough that the reader doesn’t even notice it, but that it makes their picture of the character clearer.

Some of these details should be used to extenuate the basic values of the character you’ve painted. Your shallow girl student doesn’t just text in class, but really blatantly. The librarian has to play with the pages of a book as they read. Your agile, ninja character doesn’t sit in a chair, but perches on it.

Other details should be surprising, drawing you into the character. Your BAMF Buffy-esque character has a habit of falling off/out of chairs. The gossip queen has a horrible memory for faces. Your computer hacker still hunts and pecks.

But the details can’t be too out of sync with the character you’ve created. It has to be interesting, but the reader still has to buy it. You want your reader to say, Oh, that’s funny…but wait, that actually makes sense. Not, what is this author doing?

We do this all the time in real life. As you meet a person, you learn more of their habits and quirks, and they slowly fill in your picture of them. Even if they at first seem weird, once you know the person well enough, you realize it’s actually just an extension of another part of their personality.

This isn’t advice to build a character from scratch. I use this technique to flesh out characters I’ve already started writing. The quirk isn’t their entire character, it’s just that twitch that your main character always notices.

Writing: Background Info (Quite Literally)

Every writer writes in a different way, especially when it comes to their surroundings while they write. Some authors insist on writing in the same place and time every day, others prefer to people watch as they write, while others just need a place to sit.

I’m the last type. I don’t have the luxury of being in the same house consistently enough to have a Writing Spot. And with school, homework, and friend and family obligations, I can’t keep to a consistent writing schedule. I’m happy to fit in a few paragraphs on weekdays after homework, and I do most of my long writing sessions on the weekends. And writing in public is really not my thing, so people watching is out–it distracts me. Give me a place to sit and my laptop–I’m good.

Some authors have to write in complete silence, others to the bustle of the masses, others to music. A lot of writers prefer music without lyrics; I even found a guy who listens to movie scores to get the right environment.

I listen to music, and I like lyrics. I usually listen to sadder, mellower songs when I write, no matter what type of scene I’m writing. I listen to music extremely quietly (much to the annoyance of the people around me, who are trying to listen) and I can’t put in earbuds (it’s too distracting).

Some of my favorite artists to write to are Taylor Swift, OneRepublic (especially their new album, Native), Gavin Degraw, A Fine Frenzy, and Christina Perri.

Here’s a preview of one of my current writing playlists (always on shuffle):

Counting Stars by OneRepublic

Preacher by OneRepublic

The Lonely by Christina Perri

Tragedy by Christina Perri

Bluebird by Christina Perri

Ashes and Wine by A Fine Frenzy

Almost Lover by A Fine Frenzy

Sad by Maroon 5

Crazy by Gnarls Barkley

If I Die Young by The Band Perry

Just a Dream by Carrie Underwood

Not Over You by Gavin Degraw

Soldier by Gavin Degraw

Skyfall by Adele

White Houses Vanessa Carlton

Dog Days Are Over by Florence and the Machine

All of Me by John Legend

Magic by Coldplay

This is What Makes Us Girls by Lana Del Ray

Hurricane by MS MR

If This Was a Movie by Taylor Swift

Red by Taylor Swift

Treacherous by Taylor Swift

Today Was a Fairytale by Taylor Swift

Long Live by Taylor Swift

(note: pretty much every Taylor Swift song could be on this playlist…I just didn’t want to bore you…the list is already REALLY long)

While it may appear that I only listen to depressing music–that’s only when I’m writing. I listen to lots of energetic, uplifting music when I’m doing homework and wasting time on the internet (usually through Pandora). But most of that music is “too loud” and makes me not be able to focus on my thoughts. The songs listed above are quiet enough–and I know them well enough–that I can tune out the lyrics and just absorb the emotion of the songs, which then translates into whatever scene I’m writing.