Hey writers! Got a tricky scene that isn’t working out, and you can’t figure out why? Confounded by your characters’ inexplicable desire to do the opposite of what you want them to do? At a complete blank at what your protagonists are destined to do next? You might have a pivot point!
I’m using my last post of 2019 (written in 2019 but obdurately posted in 2020) to talk about this little writing nugget, partially because I haven’t done a post for writers since the summer, and also because I’m hoping this slide into 2020 will be a pivot point for me. 2019 was rough, for a variety of reasons from sheer business with my summer job to a series of mental/emotional cataclysms, but 2020 already feels more stable. My next book, Sunshield, releases in May, and I have several long-awaited goals coming to fruition in this next year. So it seemed topical to discuss these little oddities I think of as plot “pivot points.” Below I’ll talk about what these tricky scenes are, why they can send a manuscript spiraling out of control, and a few ways I approach them.
See it all after the jump!
Writers are busy, distracted beasts.
There’s never been a time in my writing career that I’ve had less than three manuscripts going at once. That’s not to say I’m writing them all at the same time—they’re always at different stages, from concept to drafting to editing to publication (for a peek at some of my strategies at each of these different stages, check out My Strategic Author Shoebox). This was true in the very early stages of Woodwalker, back in 2015 when it was just a baby manuscript looking for an agent. That year, I was a park ranger in Yellowstone querying my first book, drafting my second, and plotting my third, when a brand new character popped into my life. Over the past four years, that character has sprouted a whole world and duology around her, with book one, Sunshield, debuting on May 26, 2020.
The Outlaw Road duology has three narrators, but at the heart of the story is a single character, and it’s her alias that gives book one its title. Head below the jump to read about her origins and the story that grew around her, along with her visual development!
If you've been following along on social media this month, you've seen my daily Inktober pieces focused on climate change. It's been tough spending every day researching new ways we are poisoning our planet, which is why I wanted to use all that time and effort for something good. I hope we can all commit to making small changes in our lives while working toward large-scale changes in our communities and countries. Pick just one small action you plan to take to combat climate change, share it with me, and be entered to win a selection of this month's Inktober pieces. See all the details--plus suggestions for helpful changes--below!
While I can often come up with content for my “For Writers” and “For Artists” blog posts, I sometimes have trouble figuring out what readers are interested in. Do you want character sketches? Deleted passages? JK Rowling-style exposés on secret and possibly irrelevant backstory?
This month, instead of guessing, I decided to let you all tell me what you’re looking for. I finished out September with an Instagram Ask Me Anything, which I promised to answer in this month’s blog post. See your questions and their answers below!
It should go without saying, but there are MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS for the entire trilogy below--continue at your own risk!
Thanks to a summer of posting ranger photos and hashtags, I’ve had quite a few people get in touch to ask about becoming a park ranger. Since I’ve already scrambled this summer’s blog post topics anyway, I decided to take a detour from my usual posts and reflect a little on this season and the many routes to get into the coveted flat hat.
All statements and opinions are my own and are not endorsed or maintained by the National Park Service. All photos are my own.
Read it all after the jump!
There’s a lot of advice out there for writers at every step of the game, from concept to drafting to publishing. Different things work for different people—I know authors who edit heavily as they draft, not moving on until a scene is close to perfect, while others take whole chapters that are giving them problems and—get this—delete them. Not move them to another document—DELETE like a freaking CYBERMAN.
Everybody goes about this nutty process of book-writing in a different way, which is why I tend to stay away from offering hard and fast rules for writers. But! Having several different manuscripts in all stages of the game right now (one in concept, two in drafting, and one in revision), I’m using July’s blog post to break down the main strategies I use at each step of the process. It’s not really a toolbox so much as a shoebox—just a few useful knickknacks for navigating each stage of a novel’s journey.
Take a look below the jump!
En plein air is just a fancy French way of saying painting outside. I never really considered myself capable of plein air painting until my first season as a ranger in Yellowstone in 2015. While in the park, I had the opportunity to learn from Suzie Garner, a fantastic watercolorist and plein air painter. She opened the door to landscape painting for me and gave me so much confidence! Now watercolors are some of my favorite ways to document my trips and ranger seasons.
Now that I’m back in Yellowstone, I’ll be doing a lot more plein air work this summer, so I thought I’d break down my materials and process for anyone who might be interested. I spent the morning painting the Teton range, so check out the progression below the jump!
It’s not going to be a long blog post this month, because I have precisely five days before I need to be in a car with my husband and all my worldly possessions and heading cross-country to Yellowstone. But being in the thick of several manuscripts at all different stages—one in plotting, one in drafting, and one in editing—I wanted to share some great tips I’ve gathered over the years on jump-starting protagonists. Think of them as icebreakers for authors, only less horrible than real social icebreakers because your characters can't judge you.
So many of my protagonists start out as little more than a suggestion—a role to fill (Mae), a foil to another character (Rou), a catalyst (Celeno). Often, it’s not until I reach the end of the first draft that I understand exactly who that character is and how to achieve their full potential. Sometimes that makes drafting hard, especially when I need a character to make a big decision—by the time I was writing Creatures of Light, I knew, for example, how Mona would react in any given situation. But as I was drafting book 1 of The Outlaw Road, with new characters, I had to do a lot more puzzling. What choices would this character make? How do they handle their problems? How do they react when they fail?
There are lots of great character-building exercises and activities available online and in writers' workshops to help you get to know your protagonist, but I have a few go-to aids that I use when I realize I need to know more about them. Check them out below the jump!
Woodwalker was born on a hike.
The trail itself was really nothing special—just a short, easy walk from the Stumphouse Tunnel parking area, away from the locally famous half-finished railroad tunnel. In a past life, we’d have gravitated toward something longer and more remote. But I had just had my second baby two months previously, and having finally healed and gotten some stamina back, it was our first hike as a family of four, and the first time I’d gotten beyond our backyard in months.
I grew up in the Appalachian foothills, so the landscape was nothing new, but after the confines of a winter pregnancy and new motherhood, being in the woods again was almost overwhelming. My brain fired up, and the little germ of an idea that had begun in a Lord of the Rings fanfiction started sprouting into something completely new. And even though Mae had her roots in Middle Earth, on that hike through a classic southern mixed-hardwood forest, there was no question in my mind what kind of environment she came from.
The places in my books are always heavily drawn from real landscapes I’ve worked in or traveled through. Mae’s country of the Silverwood Mountains draws its environment directly from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding national forests, where I’ve been a park ranger for three seasons. Alcoro draws from my time in the desert southwest, and Cyprien from the old-growth swamps in my home state. But several locations throughout the trilogy get even more specific than just an American region—in some cases, I can even list hiking trails or mountain peaks that have directly inspired the journeys of my protagonists. Explore some of these below—maybe one of the campsites or castles in Creatures of Light isn’t that far from you!
All photos belong to me unless otherwise noted. Header photo was taken near Newfound Gap, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Header fonts are Valeria Bold Grunge and Amarillo from dafont.com.
See them all after the jump!
I’ll start by saying that I tried really, really hard to have a progress video, or at least an illustrated tutorial for February’s “for artists” blog post, but as you may have seen on social media, the universe was against me this month. I’d set up a screencap video for the piece of Remus Lupin below, but it failed thirteen minutes in. So I tried to capture a different illustration on my phone, but I kept running out of memory, and then half the clips were eaten by Internet goblins when I tried to transfer them to the cloud. So I set about doing a simple face and shading tutorial, when I realized that with the frustration of everything else, I apparently no longer could draw a face, at which point I nearly gave up on February entirely.
So finally, as I came down the wire, I decided to give you something that didn’t require me to draw anything new at all, and that’s to share my method of setting long-term goals to progress my art. I started doing this several years ago—setting specific objectives, usually at the beginning of the calendar year, of what skills and concepts I wanted to practice next.
Most of these goals were easy to come by—they were often concepts I was struggling with or felt like my pieces were lacking. But sometimes our weak points aren’t easy to pinpoint—these are great reasons to have artist friends or crit groups that will give you honest, supportive feedback. I’ll share a few of these resources at the end of the post.
So! It seems I’ve saved February’s art blog at the eleventh hour, despite the best efforts of a vengeful universe/crippling professional anxiety. Here are the stylistic roads I’ve journeyed on the past five years, the resources that helped me slowly progress, and where I hope to head this year. Includes Ye Olde Arte and some pieces I’d really rather bury but am posting for your amusement. See it all below the jump!
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator