by Annette McCleave on June 1st, 2010
The hardest part of writing for me really isn’t a craft topic. Well, not the way we generally think of craft, anyway. My biggest struggle as I work through a book isn’t plot or character arc or even choosing the right verbs. It’s deal with a fear of failure. Like many writers, I can visualize my book and my characters with amazing detail. The problem is getting those details onto the page with even half of the vividness I see in my head.
Writing would be easy if I had a pensive. Any Harry Potter fans out there? A pensive is a dish that can hold thoughts–you pull thoughts out of your head and put them in a pensive, where they can be shared with others. The thoughts are pure and vivid and almost livable. That’s what I aspire to do with my stories, but without a pensive, capturing them is a real challenge.
There are days when I look at the words I’ve clumsily cobbled together to shape my story and sigh in disgust. How can words do justice to what I see in my head? I’ll never get it right. Why even bother trying?
The hard part, for me at least, is staying at the computer and continuing to put black marks on paper even when I feel unhappy with the result. Sometimes it’s the dialog that’s not working, sometimes it’s the mood or the setting, and sometimes it’s the character balking at my orders. Whatever the current concern, I find the best way is to write through it. Keep going. I can tighten the prose, I can change the plot points, I can tweak the dialog. But I can’t fix a blank page.
The self-doubt I experience at moments when it’s not working well is tough to ignore. A little voice in my head slyly suggests I’m a fake. I’m not a real writer–real writers can mold moving tales from these inert words and letters. They can create visual masterpieces from blocks of text. Me? Not so much.
How do I get around that insidious voice?
1. By telling myself I’m not a writer, I’m a rewriter.
“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” ~James Michener
2. By telling myself I’m not alone in feeling this way.
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” ~Joseph Heller
3. By reminding myself that edits are a vital part of the process.
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~Arthur Polotnik
Then I pull the chair a little closer to the desk, put my fingers on the keys, and type.
I have a huge array of inspirational quotes that I read from time to time. Does anyone have a favorite quote they’d like to share–one that revs them up and sends them back in to the fight?
by Annette McCleave on May 25th, 2010
I once wrote a first draft in six weeks. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to duplicate the effort. In fact the manuscript I wrote immediately after that one took me six months to finish. But the notion of writing a book in six weeks has continued to intrigue me—writing fast is a great skill to have—and I’ve tried a variety of methods to speed up my writing. So far, to no avail.
But there is something that keeps me steaming along at a good clip—preparation.
I’m a plotter, which means I prefer to have a map of where I’m headed before I start writing. As you might imagine, one of the items I prepare beforehand is the plot map. But I also do several other things to prepare:
1. Interview the characters. My character sheet describing height, weight, and family background only tells me so much. Asking pointed questions about why the character did XYZ in his past gives me a lot more to go on.
2. Explore the world. Some time ago, I discovered a wonderful set of world-building questions developed by Patricia Wrede, and from that I created a smaller set that works for my purposes. Answering the questions helps me add depth to my world.
3. Plan the number of pages needed each week to meet the deadline—factoring in holidays, sick days, emergencies, etc.
4. Research. I research the elements of the story that I need to know up front. A career choice for a main character, the types of weapons that character might use, the locale for specific scenes, etc.
5. Think. I spend a lot of prep time on this one. Is the conflict big enough? Is this the right place to start the book? Would that character really act that way? And a thousand more questions, some of which the answer is NO. I never cover off all the questions, and that’s really not my intent—it’s to roughly shape the story so I don’t get stuck on a big problem halfway through.
If I’ve done my homework, the writing goes along at a brisk pace—until I hit the first stumbling block. And there’s always a stumbling block. But the more advance work I do, the easier it is to recover and get back into the writing.
I’m still looking for ways to speed things up, though. If anyone has found the magic elixir to writing fast, please let me know.
by Annette McCleave on May 18th, 2010
Writing is creatively draining.
I don’t mean that in a bad way—just as an honest assessment of the flow of creativity within me. While I love to write and can’t imagine ever not writing, I need to step away from the computer and renew myself on a daily basis. I fear that if I continually empty the well and never pour anything back in, one day I’ll wake up to find I’m burned out.
Renewal comes in a variety of forms. To charge my creative battery, I can read, watch TV, go for a walk, or simply sit and think. It has to be an activity I find inspiring. Books by authors I love are an easy choice. But so are books on improving my craft or research books. Movies and well-written TV series work, too, because I can’t help but analyze why certain plot elements work for me and others don’t and applaud when the writers surprise me. Exercise of any kind gets the blood pumping and increased blood flow to the brain is always helpful.
But interacting with the world in a calm, leisurely way works best for me. Watching the ducks in the park, savoring cream cheese and lox at the bagel shop, discussing the weather with my neighbors, enjoying brunch with family members, or sucking in a deep breath of cool, spring air–all of them can rejuvenate me and send me back to the key board with fresh enthusiasm and new ideas.
The important part is refilling the well.
Getting back to craft books for a second, the book on my shelf with the most worn pages is Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. There’s yellow highlighter on almost every page. Who wants to share their can’t-live-without-it writing skills book?
by Annette McCleave on May 11th, 2010
The winner of last week’s signed copy of Bound by Darkness is Zita! Congratulations! Email me your address, Zita, and I’ll get the book out to you ASAP.
What’s the post-publishing secret I wish someone had told me? Train your muse.
In all fairness, I think an author or two might have tried to share this secret with me before I was published, but I wasn’t really listening. I thought I had it all under control.
I’ve never had a problem with deadlines. I thrive on them. I love the sound of the bell clanging in the mist, warning me that there are lethal shoals ahead. Knowing the deadline is out there helps me focus and keeps me on track. In my day job, I was always able to juggle multiple tasks and ruthlessly prioritize to get the job done.
But when it came to writing a book on a real deadline, things didn’t go quite so smoothly. I had a bad habit that I didn’t realize I possessed.
For years, my writing took a back seat. Yes, I carved time out of my busy schedule to write—I had to, or I would never have finished a book—but whenever real life crept up, my writing time was the first thing to suffer. This happened because up to the moment I sold my first book, fiction writing was not a money-making venture for me. Other things in my life had a direct positive or negative impact on my cash flow, and thus, they got priority.
After I signed a book contract, my priorities changed, and I was ready for it. I was enthusiastic and keen and eager to make my mark as a published author. Unfortunately, my muse was not so ready. As proud as I was about scheduling dedicated writing time, delivering a manuscript under real deadline (not self-imposed) proved much more difficult than I thought.
Here’s why: Published authors need to multitask. At the same time that they are writing the new book, they are drafting a proposal for the next book and marketing the first book. They are updating their websites, writing guest blogs, arranging advertising, planning and ordering marketing materials, and visiting the post office … a lot. In short, writers are small business owners.
I realize now that my muse was lazy. It thought it could saunter in at those pre-arranged times and slowly stretch out its muscles for an hour before diving into the real work. It thought it could break for coffee several times a day. It thought we were self-employed and could take a day off whenever it wanted. It thought watching a movie was an excellent way to regenerate the creative flow.
Yikes. Talk about watching the days rush past.
But I can’t blame my muse. I should have prepared it better for that moment when we did have a contract. We like to think writing is cerebral and sort of uncontainable, but the truth is, any pro tennis player uses her head as much as her heart. Like any other pro, writers need to be able to call up their master game.
So here’s my advice: Train your muse now. Cultivate instant focus. Produce words on demand. Learn to switch from one creative task to another with ease. If I had, the first year would have been a great deal less stressful.
by Annette McCleave on May 4th, 2010
Although I try not to analyze my writing too intensely as I write my first draft, there are a couple of things that I remain conscious of throughout the first draft. I don’t expect to get it all right on the first pass, but staying aware of these items helps me pull the story together:
1. Is there conflict on every page?
It can be small conflict or large, but without tension, I worry that the scene will be a yawner. Besides I’m fond of torturing my characters.
2. Is the protagonist active in pursuit of his or her goal?
One of the first critiques I ever got was from the fabulous Jo Beverley. I won the critique in a contest. I’ll never forget one of the comments she made about my manuscript: “Neither [the hero] nor [the heroine] do anything to bring about the triumph. They are pawns.” Naturally, I’m now eager to ensure my characters are not feathers on the wind–that they take an active role in determining their destiny.
3. Does this scene drive the plot forward?
Those detours I sometimes take on my journey to the end of the story? Scenic? You bet. But not always productive. In one book, my editor said to me, “Could you make this scene shorter?” Being the professional that I am, I whipped out my magic slicer-dicer and removed1000 words from the scene. The alarms bells didn’t ring until I got her follow-up comment, “Could you make it a bit shorter?” Uh-oh. I loved that scene, but when I took a good hard look at it, I realized it didn’t drive the plot anywhere. It was a scenery snapshot. So, I took the whole scene out.
4. Did I end the scene/chapter with dramatic intent?
In my first draft of my first romance manuscript, I ended the first chapter with the hero going to sleep. Then I joined the RWA and went to a chapter meeting where one of our seasoned authors, Laura Byrne, said (paraphrasing), Never end a scene with a character going to sleep unless your intent is to put the reader to sleep. Ever since then, I strive to end each scene with a sense of anticipation.
5. Where’s the romance?
I love writing action scenes—battling evil, blowing things up, dealing justice to the bad guys. But I write romance because I love the romantic play between my two lead characters. To blend my interests effectively, I know I can’t lose sight of the romance. This doesn’t mean injecting romantic interludes in inappropriate spots; it means always being aware of what impact events will have on the romance. And circling back to point 1, it means making the relationship as conflict ridden as possible.
My first drafts are first drafts. I don’t remember to do all the above as I write—and sometimes I’m simply too close to the story to see the issues. But keeping these points in mind helped me final twice in the Golden Heart and sell a series to a publisher.
Speaking of selling, today is the official release day of Bound by Darkness, the second book in the Soul Gatherer series. To celebrate, a signed copy of Bound will go to one of this week’s commenters. I’ll draw the name using random.org at the end of the week. Good luck!
by Annette McCleave on April 27th, 2010
When it comes to getting my words on the page, I’m much more of a carrot person than a stick person. I track my progress on a daily basis, but very loosey-goosey. No percentages, no red numbers. I draw up a writing plan with numbers and dates and targets, but I keep it very simple.
I track pages completed rather than words written, and I focus on the week’s results rather than the day’s. That’s because I’m basically a wimp. I can’t handle feeling like a failure. Instead, I set up a system to reward myself. If I make my weekly goal, the prize is a venti caramel macchiato. The best part? If I fall behind on any given day (which happens a lot), I have all week to catch up and make my goal.
Yes, there are weeks when I don’t get my treat. Life occasionally coughs up a hairball, or I just have a bad week. But there’s always next week’s coffee on the table…
I coddle my ego this way because my story-telling process is very discovery-oriented. I learn so much about my characters and my plot as I go along that it’s quite common for me to take a day in the middle of the week to re-think things. If I just throw myself at the story and pour words onto the page to make my goal, I end up with a lot of words that need to be scrapped. I need to pause every now and again and take some compass readings.
I think it’s important to have goals and aim for them. What kind of system you use to track your progress will vary, but holding yourself accountable–one way or another–is the key to finishing the book.
Obviously, I’m a coffee freak and a caramel macchiato is enough to motivate me. What sort of reward works for you?
by Annette McCleave on April 20th, 2010
My process changes with every book I write. I’d love to announce I have found the best way to get a story onto paper, but sadly, it would be a lie. Novel writing is a great adventure. For now, my process looks something like this:
Flesh out my lead characters
My story ideas often come to me in the form of a character who pops into my mind and demands to tell his or her story. This person is fully formed, but I don’t know him or her very well, so I start by trying to understand what s/he wants, why she wants it, and what’s stopping her from getting it. In my stories, there’s typically two people standing between my hero and his goal–the villain and the heroine. I spend time fleshing them out, too, including what their goals are and why they want them.
Next, I look for the major events that can or will trigger my character to become the person he needs to be in order to succeed. I identify his plan for winning, and the villain’s plan for winning. I explore how my heroine’s individual goal interferes and causes problems for my lead. I give some thought to the worst things that could happen. I’m a big believer in “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Torture is an excellent tool for character-building, I’ve found. Then I toss all that stuff into the pot and mix well.
Now that I have a rough idea what’s going to happen, I can have some fun. Oh, the hours that are lost here. I love researching, and can easily lose myself in the details—many of which are never used in the book. I don’t curtail this activity too much, though, unless I’m way off-base. Immersing myself in the details helps me slide into my characters’ world.
Write the first three to four chapters
Yes, this is pre-writing. At least, it is for me. No matter how much thought I put in before I start writing, I never truly get to know my characters—or truly understand their motivations—until I walk a mile in their shoes. I need to see them react to those nasty events I envisioned and interact with other characters. I need to test them.
After I’ve written those first few chapters, I need to sit back and recalibrate. Do I really know what the hero wants? Do I really know what the heroine is willing to sacrifice to get what she wants? The answer is often NO. So, I head back to the drawing board. I don’t try to figure out everything–I like the mystery if discovering new things as I go along. My plan is simply to spot the big whoppers–the issues that could turn my story completely on it’s ear and result in endless wasted pages.
The best part of this process is peeling away the layers of the character that first showed up in my head. Discovering the complexities of that person, what makes them tick. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I people-watch in real life, too. That couple at the next table? Are they on a first date or celebrating a fortieth anniversary? Sharing the events of an average day? Or sharing a burden that’s been dragging down their shoulders all day?
Anyone else out there a people-watcher who makes up stories about complete strangers?
by Annette McCleave on April 13th, 2010
Ideas for new stories pop into my head all the time.
Sometimes they come to me while driving in the car. Totally inconvenient, as note-taking isn’t conducive to accident-free travel. Sometimes they occur to me as I’m waiting for an appointment. For these occasions, I carry a notebook and pen in my purse, and I hurriedly jot down the basics of my thought. Unless it’s a doctor’s appointment; then I don’t bother to hurry, because I usually get a solid hour to write.
Sometimes the idea comes to me while I’m in the middle of writing a particularly grueling scene in my current WIP. This is just another variation of “I really need to watch a re-run of LOST right now” and “now would be an excellent time to make cabbage rolls”. I know it’s a bad move to give into the urge to play with the idea. But dang. Sometimes the idea has merit. So, I tell myself I have a half hour—no more—to create a file on the idea. Then back to work on the WIP.
What happens to these bits of brilliance, you might wonder? Well, they all end up in the same place. In a file on my computer labeled Ideas and Thoughts. These are separate from the six manuscripts I’ve completed and never sold. Those have their own files.
Right now, there are forty-three ideas in my Ideas file. Not every idea has staying power. From time to time I re-read them. Some get the immediate heave-ho. What was I thinking? Was I on drugs? That’s the stupidest story idea ever. Some are good, but I feel no urge to enlarge on the notes I have. Then there are a few that still get me as excited as the day I jotted down the notes. Magical ideas that have a life of their own. I have three of those. Every time I go into my Idea file, I’m drawn to them and I work a little bit more on them. In one case I have the first page written, in another the first chapter,and in the third, the first three chapters. I’m fairly certain that these three stories will one day be complete—because I can’t leave the darned things alone. Or they won’t leave me alone.
Some of my ideas are inspired by real world events—the very first manuscript I wrote was a mystery based on a true story about a man and his son who went on a fishing trip and only the son returned. One of my ideas was spurred to life by a picture. But most of my ideas simply pop into my head, often in the form of a character. And I lovingly capture them.
This is the fun part of being a writer—the idea generation. There’s no sweat involved, no agony. The hard work comes next. Writing the story.
Question of the day to aspiring writers: Do you carry a notebook in your purse/pocket, or have you moved beyond the pen and paper to taking notes on your smart phone?
by Annette McCleave on April 6th, 2010
Spring is a great time to re-evaluate. As the buds sprout into leaves on the trees and the birds chirp as they build nests, I almost always get a wonderful sense of impending … something. Call it promise, call it potential, call it what you will, but the days ahead are brimming with it. And I love that feeling.
I get inspired to eat better, exercise more, and generally savor life. Maybe it’s as easy to explain as the additional light in every day, but whatever the reason, spring creates the inspiration to renew myself. You know–turn the sod, sharpen the saw, water the garden. Mentally, of course.
How? I look for ways to improve my writing craft. Obviously, there’s plenty of ways to do that, but here are a few I’m actively doing:
1) Online workshops. I signed up for one because I’ll never know everything here is to know about the craft of writing, no matter how long I’ve been doing it.
2) Reading. I’m doing lots, in several different genres. Reading other people’s prose reminds me of the art, not the struggle. Words can be so beautiful … when they’re not my own. Well, some of mine are beautiful, too, but it’s much harder to appreciate my own work than it is to appreciate someone else’s.
3) Idea hatching. I’m thinking ahead to my next book, and I’ve got some very definite ideas about it. But before I commit myself, I like to brainstorm. Sometimes, it’s whatever comes into my head. Wild and crazy stuff. Sometimes, it’s expanding on an idea that occurred to me while I was wrapped up in my previous manuscript. Fodder for a next series, perhaps.
So many of us have challenges and issues and crises to deal with. It’s hard to hit the refresh button on ourselves, because we’re so engaged in supporting others. Do you take time out of your busy life to renew yourself, even if it’s only once a year? What sort of thing do you do?
by Annette McCleave on March 30th, 2010
I’m pleased to announce that the title of my third book will be . . .Saran-Wrapped in Darkness.
And I can go one better—I can already share the cover. Squee! This is one of the best covers ever, if you ask me. Smokin’ hot, and yet subtle and artistic. The model (who I never got to meet, sigh) has abs of steel. Not an ounce of spare flesh on the guy. I heard the cover shoot had to be done on a closed set. When you think about the title, I guess that makes sense, but I sure wish I could have been there. Sadly, authors don’t get out much. We stay at home and write.
But, I digress.
Without further ado, here’s the cover:
I don’t know about you, but this really works for me. The dark color is consistent with the dark undertones of the book. Black is totally apocalyptic, and although I’m reluctant to give spoilers this far ahead of the release, I will say that’s appropriate.
Okay, yeah. You really have to squint to even see a suggestion of the Saran-Wrapped hero, whose name is Ridge Alloway, btw. But don’t worry, I saw the pre-edit of the model shot, and believe me, he’s ALL there. My editor says they intend to do some strategic embossing, so the final cover will be to die for. Frankly, I’m happy enough with the un-embossed version. It’s in keeping with an urban fantasy novel to focus more on the setting and less on the hero. And this story takes place entirely in an abyss, so the cover stays true to what the reader will find inside. Besides, all that black really makes my name stand out. Grin.
I can’t wait for this book to hit the shelves. What about you?