Cara Langston


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Learning to take a break without guilt

For the past 5 years, I’ve been writing. Not every day and sometimes not even every week, but since then I’ve always had imaginary characters and a plot line stewing in my brain. I’d go through periods of writers’ block, but they’d only last a few weeks before I forced myself to get back into the groove. And it worked. During that time I rewrote, edited, and published Battle Hymns, and building on that momentum, I outlined and drafted my second novel. Then life threw me a curve ball. Although it was technically a planned curve ball, I didn’t know how much it would impact everything in my life.

We’re having a baby, due in May. Yes, we’re thrilled. Yes, we’ve started on the nursery. Yes, we know the sex (it’s a boy). No, we haven’t picked out a name and even if we did, we’re not telling you because someone is bound to have had a bad experience with someone with the same name and we don’t want to hear it.

I had such high standards going into pregnancy. There was no reason to change my routine yet. For example: I’d continue to eat well and go to the gym because being pregnant isn’t an excuse to sit on the couch and eat carbs all the time. Ha! The next month, I spent every day after work laying on the couch, watching Netflix, and eating crackers and granola bars because carbs were the only thing that would ease my nausea. I didn’t have the energy to do anything else. I certainly wasn’t writing. I counted down the days until the second trimester would arrive because surely then I could get back into my routine . . .

I’m now in the second half of my second trimester and I feel much better. But how do I spend my free time? Researching daycare and pediatricians. Reading parenting books. Shopping for and decorating the nursery. Reorganizing every pantry and closet in the house. Sitting on the couch and watching Netflix because my back hurts all the time. I spent one afternoon last month editing a chapter of my novel and I thought, “Yes! I’m getting back into it!” The next day I returned my focus to baby-related tasks and haven’t opened my manuscript since.

I suppose I’m writing this post in an attempt to shake off the gnawing guilt that I need to be working on my novel. I’ve read too many posts about how “successful” writers wake up a 4 A.M. to write before going to work, how they don’t go a day without writing, and how they balance all of that with a day job and a family. They’ve stuck with me and make me feel lazy for choosing Pinterest and 202 episodes of “The X-Files” over a novel that I love and want to see traditionally published.

Then again, why not take a break right now?

  1. I’m still in my 20s. There should be plenty of time in the future to achieve my lofty dreams of literary success.
  2. I don’t have an agent or a publishing deal. No one but my mother is asking when the next book will be finished.
  3. I assume newborns, postpartum recovery, and writing also don’t mesh well together, so a break was inevitable. I might as well extend it by nine months.

I’m sure there’s at least one pregnant writer out there who’s plowing through her novel, staying active, eating her vegetables, and dominating her day job all at the same time. But that’s not me. I should learn to accept that.

 


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Body language & facial expression list

bodylanguagefacialexpressionlist

If you’ve read any writing tips, you’ve no doubt heard the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra. Why tell the reader your character is angry when you can show her hands balled up in fists and her eyebrows snapped together? It’s more descriptive and is more likely to draw the reader further into your narrative. Now, I personally think there are plenty of situations where you should do some telling, but that’s for another day and another blog post.

I struggle with writing body language. On the one hand, you’re told to keep descriptions succinct so that the reader stays immersed in the story–no purple prose, etc. On the other hand, if I kept it succinct all the time, you’d find “She smiled” and “He frowned” 2,000+ times in my manuscript. It’s definitely a balancing act. Plus, when I’m worried about describing body language, I’m not creative and thus can’t describe body language. It’s a vicious cycle.

So over the years, I’ve saved lists of body language and facial expressions in my Evernote app. Some are from novels I’ve read, some are from lists from other bloggers, some are of my own creation. This summer, I finally compiled them all into an Excel spreadsheet so I can do some filtering on body parts or positive/negative emotions. And because writers should help and support each other, I figured I’d share my work with anyone else who struggles with this.

Screenshot

Click to download XLSX file

There are 580 verbs/adjectives/descriptions, organized by:

  • Type: Breathing, Eyes, Face, Feet, Forehead, Hair, Hands, Head, Internal, Mouth, Movement, Neck/Throat, Movement, Posture, or Sound
  • Emotion: Positive, Negative, or Neutral or Both

Naturally, there’s some overlap–if you’re holding your head in your hands, does it fall into the Hands or Head category? And as far as emotion type, there are many that fall into the ‘Neutral or Both’ category; for example, a rising pulse can signal either fear (negative) or desire (positive).

It’s by no means complete. I’m sure I’ll be adding to this throughout my writing career, but hopefully it’s a good start for anyone looking for help in this area.


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How to draft a scene in 5 easy steps

 

HowtoDraftaScene

Lack of inspiration. Every writer struggles with it. If you’re like me and trying to write an 80,000+ word novel, you’ve probably struggled with it more than once.

Let’s face it–some scenes are simply easier to write than others. The ones with dramatic shouting matches are my favorite. I can sit down at my laptop and, without distractions, crank that baby out in a few hours. But out of hundreds of scenes in my book, only three involve shouting.

The most difficult part of creating a first draft is getting words on paper. Once the words are there, you can edit them to your heart’s content. But what happens when the cursor is blinking on a new page? When you have no idea how to begin?

I like to take a step-by-step approach, creating a base and then building onto it, as I’ll illustrate below.

Step 1: Add dialogue

I’ve found this to be the easiest way to put words on the page. We engage in dialogue every day. Dialogue is casual. You can write in incomplete sentences and use simple words. Don’t worry about tags yet. Just write the dialogue.

Here’s a very short scene I created with only dialogue:

“I thought you wouldn’t make it.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
“Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Step 2: Identify the characters

Your reader needs to know who is speaking. This can be done through dialogue tags or adjacent character actions. As a reader myself, I’ve found the best scenes employ both types, but sparingly.

“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight.
Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
“Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Step 3: Describe physical actions

The next layer involves physical descriptions, beyond what you might have added in Step 2 to identify the characters. This is when I pretend my scene is being played out on film. I can see that Character A reaches out her hand. I can see that Character B frowns in displeasure. This is where the scene starts to come to life.

He tossed his laptop bag into the corner of the booth, no concern for the equipment inside.
“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight. She put down her book and managed a smile.
Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
He reached for her hand. “Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Step 4: Depict the setting

Now that we’ve focused on our characters, let’s step back and figure out where we are. Assuming this is a new setting, we need to add some description of the environment. This where you can start using the five senses. If our characters are in a diner, do they smell bacon? Did they see the waitress spill the coffee on her apron in the corner? Can they hear the cash register dinging? Maybe the booth is a little bit sticky from syrup, and the coffee is bitter.

 A baby shrieked from across the diner, and Alexa flipped the page of the novel she was failing to read.
He tossed his laptop bag into the corner of the booth, no concern for the equipment inside.
“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight. She put down her book and managed a smile.
Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
He reached for her hand. “Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

*I admit to being a little lazy with the setting in this example . . .

Step 5: Narrate any internal emotions

I find this part to be the most difficult, so I often leave it for last. If you’re writing in first person or deep third person POV, your main character likely has thoughts or feelings they might want to convey to the reader. This is a great way of incorporating background info, past histories, etc.

 A baby shrieked from across the diner, and Alexa flipped the page of the novel she was failing to read. What kind of mother brought an infant into a diner at eleven o’clock at night? If it was her child, it’d be sleeping peacefully inside its crib, the one made from polished acacia, the one that cost two grand, the one that sat in the empty room upstairs.

 Jason arrived. He tossed his laptop bag into the corner of the booth, no concern for the equipment inside. Typical.

“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight. She put down her book and managed a smile.

Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Don’t sound so excited.”

He reached for her hand. His palms were warm and rough, a reminder of the days he used to spend in the field. “Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Now, I wouldn’t call that great writing by any means, but at least it’s a starting point. The scene began with four lines of generic dialogue and has grown to become an introduction into a childless married couple who, for some reason, are meeting at a diner late at night.

From here it can be culled or fleshed out.

From here–hopefully–your writing muse will find you again.

At least . . . this is what I do.


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Evernote for Writers

evernoteforwriters

Today I’m going to talk about my love affair with Evernote, the note-taking application. Outside of Safari/Chrome, Microsoft Office, and Dropbox, it’s one of my most frequently used programs. I have notes for personal use, such as my vintage china pattern names, my Macbook serial number, adjusted recipes, and genealogy notes. But for the most part, I use Evernote as a complement to my writing.

Here’s why I think Evernote is a great tool for writers:

1.  Brainstorming notes, research, and to-do lists are in one place

In Evernote, you create notebooks which hold notes. I have a notebook for each novel I’m working on, as well as an overall “Publishing” notebook. My novel-related notebooks include notes for:

  • Brainstorms and outlines–this is where I talk myself through difficult chapters and outline any upcoming scenes
  • Research–notes on each research topic, links, any creative liberties I’ve made to historical fact, etc.
  • Character profiles–background, dates, relationships, inspiration photos
  • To-do lists–mainly, things to change in the next draft
  • Outtakes–where large swaths of deleted paragraphs reside

Evernote-Novel

On the publishing end of the spectrum, I track blog posts, facial/body expression lists, writing expenses, editing lists, my author biography, weird grammar rules I never remember, and any interviews I’ve done.

Evernote-Publishing

And all of it is in one place, backed up by the cloud!

2.  Access across various devices

I have Evernote installed on my iPhone, my work laptop, my Macbook, and my iPad.

You know that moment when you’re just about to fall asleep and suddenly a plot point pops into your head and there’s no way you’ll remember it tomorrow if you don’t write it down? We’ve all been there. If you have Evernote installed on your phone, you only need to open the app, type your a-ha! moment, and snooze peacefully. The next day, it’ll be accessible anywhere, whether you’re writing during your lunch break at work or all Saturday at home.

Note: Also useful for brilliant realizations while drinking with friends.

3.  No need for pen and paper

I know many writers prefer pen and paper, and if that’s you, you can keep on doing what you’re doing. But there are some of us in the world who aren’t great writers (in the physical sense of the word). I have decent handwriting, but scrawling words on paper hurts my hand after a while. Plus, as a millennial, I’ve been typing since I was in middle school. I’m excellent at typing, not as much at writing, so Evernote works better for me than a real notebook.

Additionally, I like the freedom an electronic notebook gives me. Do I want to switch the order of my chapters? I only need to cut and paste my outline into a new position and voila–it’s in order. Do I want to change a character name halfway through the first draft? Replace it in the notes instead of scratching it out on paper. Easy peasy.

 

Evernote is a freemium product, so the basic functionality costs nothing. I pay $24.95 a year for the Plus version, mainly so I have offline access–perfect for brainstorming on airplanes!

Now that I’ve gushed about Evernote (for free, since this is definitely not a sponsored post), I will say there could be some improvements. I wish they had advanced formatting options, like table shading and different highlight colors. To be fair, I’m one of those Microsoft Office geeks who uses Excel spreadsheets, formulas, and conditional formatting on a daily basis. Evernote doesn’t quite get there, and perhaps that’s for the best. But for it’s primary note-taking purpose, it’s a very useful tool I don’t know how I could live without.

So tell me: Am I missing any other amazing writing applications?

I’ve heard a lot about Scrivener, but haven’t tried it because I sometimes write at work, and MS Word is best in that environment, where I can make it look like I’m doing something work-related.🙂


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The Forgotten Women of the 1920s

My WIP is a piece of historical fiction set in 1925 Chicago. “Great!” you may be thinking. “I love flappers and gangsters! When it’s published, I’ll definitely read it and give you a 5-star review!” Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but although flappers and gangsters do make appearances, my main character is neither. She is married. She would not be a flapper. And I’m tired of researching 1920s women and having to wade through the immense love of flapper culture to find what I want.

Nearly 100 years later, I hardly need to explain what a flapper is. We love them! There are fringed Halloween costumes, Gatsby parties and weddings (can I please be invited to one?), tutorials for flapper finger curls on Pinterest, and more. If you know a bit about the early 20th century, it’s easy to understand why we hold such a fascination. Flappers were some of the first precursors to modern 21st century women–those who seized their independence from gender norms, who eschewed the strict conventionality of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

But flappers were a significant minority during this time period, limited mainly to young women in urban cities. Women who were older, married, poorer, and/or religious (thus the average American woman) were living a little more conservatively in the 1920s. Many followed the standard marriage/child rearing convention. Many were working, learning, and lobbying for social justice. This post is a tribute to those women who weren’t considered flappers.

 

Pallas Athene Literary Society, 1927

Pallas Athene Literary Society, 1927

Armor & Co., 1926

Armor & Co., 1926

Office, 1923

Office scene, 1923

Massachusetts police women, 1927

Meeting of Massachusetts police women, 1927

League of Women Voters, 1926

League of Women Voters, 1926

MSU Rifle Team, 1923

MSU Rifle Team, 1923

National Woman's Party, 1926

National Woman’s Party, 1926

Southern Railway Ladies' Car, 1926

Southern Railway Ladies’ Car, 1926

 

End note: I do not hold any judgement against flappers, and I’m sure many of them were also working and learning and lobbying, et cetera.


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Why I’m writing under a pen name

PenNames

The above photo is a modification of this work

If you read Freakonomics back in the day (because 2005 was ten years ago and at the threshold for being considered “back in the day”), you’ll remember there was a chapter on nominative determinism–that is (quoting Wikipedia), “the theory that a person’s name can have a significant role in determining key aspects of job, profession, or even character.” The study focused mainly on racial and socioeconomic factors, but at an aggregate level, it succeeded in highlighting the importance of a person’s name. People judge us based on what we are called–employers, colleagues, readers.

Our legal names are generally chosen by our parents. Mine was a last-minute choice after I was born, because the doctors assured my parents that they were going to have a baby boy. I guess they could’ve jumped onto the androgynous name train and called me Craig (I’m personally glad they didn’t).

But whereas my parents had the responsibility of choosing my legal name, I had the sole responsibility of choosing my pen name. Cara Langston is not my real name. It’s a pen name I chose to use for my writing endeavors.

Why did I choose to use a pen name? And out of all the names in the universe, how did I pick this one? Everyone has their own reasons, but I’ll share mine.

Part I:  Do you need a pen name?

Short answer: Of course you don’t need one. You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do.

However, here are the reasons I chose to use a pen name:

1. I have a successful career outside of my writing — I pay the bills working as a senior strategy analyst at a large healthcare organization. I doubt I’ll be able to quit that career for a writing career anytime soon, so in the interim, I’d rather not have my name associated with my writing while I’m still climbing the corporate ladder. For example, I don’t want potential employers to be concerned that I may be writing on company time (of which I’m . . . ahem . . . guilty).

2. Everyone misspells my name — Both first and last names. Coworkers, friends, family members. Maybe (hopefully!) it’s their spell check, but every time someone spells my name incorrectly, I think, “Seriously? The correct spelling was in my email address just above this greeting.” And if by chance I’m one day successful enough that someone is actively looking for my books, I’d rather they be able to spell it correctly in Google or Amazon searches. On the flip side, there are plenty of successful authors with crazy last names–Chuck Palahniuk, anyone? So it could be a differentiating factor.

3. It’s a cushion for failure — I almost didn’t include this, but it’s the ugly truth. There’s some relief in knowing that if I’m really bad at writing or have some kind of terrible experience, I can shed the name and put it all behind me. That’s a really pessimistic view, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

Part II: How do you pick a pen name?

Now once you’ve decided that a pen name is for you, you can go through the process of picking your name. There’s so much riding on this decision! Your pen name will be emblazoned on the cover of that bestseller you’ll eventually write, so choose wisely.🙂

If you do a quick Google search on this process, you’ll find plenty of articles about strategic positioning on bookshelves, the use of acronyms if you’re a woman trying to cater toward a male audience (*rolls eyes that it needs to be a consideration at all*), and fashioning a name to match your genre.

I disregarded those opinions. Instead, I based my name choice on the following:

1. Availability of website & social media handles — It’s so much easier if http://www.yourchosenpenname.com or @yourchosenpenname is available. Unless you absolutely have your heart set on a specific name, you may want to do a search to see if anyone else already owns the website address and Twitter handle. Checking to see if your pen name is already claimed by a semi-famous author or other celebrity falls into this category as well.

2. Ability to write the name — Think of those future book signings! Unless your real name is Elizabeth Jingleheimer Schmidt and you’re already used to writing it, it might be long name to jot down over and over again. I chose “Cara” because I can get away with a “C” and a short squiggle. Yes, I’m lazy.

3. Association to your real name / heritage — The initials I was born with are CL, so I came up with a name that had those same initials. My maiden name is Italian, so I chose a slightly Italian first name. I picked my last name from the “L” last names on my Ancestry.com family tree. “Langston” was my third choice, as the first two were already widely used by two authors.

So there it is. Why I chose to write under a pen name and how I chose the one I have. Mom, I hope this answers all the questions you’ve been asked by friends and family. Thanks for fielding those questions for me!


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Why I don’t read my reviews

A few years ago, I found an amazing Twitter account called Don’t Read Comments (@AvoidComments). It was a great reminder of what reading the comments section of blogs, news articles, etc. can do to your psyche. Surely we’ve all been there: A certain politician says something controversial. A certain celebrity makes anti-vaccination claims. A certain bill goes to the House floor. You read the article and suddenly find yourself scrolling down to the comments section. What are other people thinking? Is my stance in the majority or the minority? This almost always ends badly, especially for more controversial issues. I get angry by what I feel to be an ignorant comment, and the outrage fuels me to keep reading other people’s opinions until my once good mood has been obliterated.

I feel the same way about reading reviews of my writing.

Right before I published Battle Hymns last year, I was so excited! My novel that took over five years to complete was finally going to debut. Then I sent it to reviewers for my blog tour, and that excitement transformed into anxiety (I’m an anxious person already, so Spring 2014 was an interesting time for me). What if it was terrible? What if no one else ever wanted to read it? I forced myself to read the reviews from professional reviewers, and by and large, they were positive, 3-4 stars. It eased some of my concerns over whether or not I was an awful writer.

Since then, though, I’ve read my reviews only a couple of times. I haven’t checked Goodreads in 7+ months. If I have to go into my Author Dashboard for whatever reason, I literally cover the rating with the palm of my hand. My mother asked me to buy a couple of my books on Amazon and sign them for her friends, and I almost refused because I didn’t want to see what my Amazon reviews looked like (I did it in the end, and it hasn’t changed–a few 4-star reviews, which I’m more than happy with right now). I also will not Google myself.

Advantages to reading your reviews:

  • If any criticism is constructive, you can obviously try to fix whatever didn’t work
  • If you prepare yourself, you can note your physical symptoms upon first viewing bad reviews and use them in your writing. My palms grow sweaty. My stomach plunges. My head begins to spin a bit. So I definitely know how to write anxiety into my fictional characters

Disadvantages to reading your reviews:

  • Your self-confidence can plummet, which makes writing difficult when you doubt yourself
  • You’ll never be able to change what people think
  • Not everyone will like what you write; tastes will always differ
  • If you ever become a popular writer, you won’t be able to read all your reviews anyway; why start now?

To me, the disadvantages win out over the advantages, especially when I’m writing something new. It’s more important right now that I get through the second draft of my WIP without self-doubt than it is to know what strangers think of my first novel. And when I do finally check those reviews, I’ll be halfway through a bottle of wine🙂

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