Pulling It All Together
by Annette McCleave on May 4th, 2010
Annette McCleave

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. :grin:

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!

Getting it down
by Sharon Ashwood on April 28th, 2010

Words on paper. It’s harder to get them there than you think. Slow and steady might win the race, but sometimes that consistent slog is difficult to maintain. Make no mistake – in the middle of any book, the worst TV shows start looking mighty fine.

I’m not a fast writer. I clock about 500 words in an hour. On a work day, there are about 2.5 usable writing hours in a day if I ignore meals, fitness, social niceties, and personal hygiene. It’s a bad idea to have too many such days in one week, or people start to avoid me.

On the other hand, there are those occasions when I burn up the screen, writing a hot streak that won’t quit. My largest day’s page count ever was 30 pages. Unfortunately, that level of output breaks my brain and I can’t write for days afterward. Counting on a blitz when I get behind is chancy.

An example of my accelerated writing style—I’m nearing a deadline—was this past weekend. I took Thurs/Friday so I had four days full to work with.

• Thursday I worked from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. with three breaks of about an hour. Product: approx. 4,000 words. Pretty good, considering I was also doing some editing.
• Friday – got a late start (around 11:00). Product: about 2,500 words. Not so great.
• Saturday – Call me writer girl. 6,000 words. Time out for one grocery run.
• Sunday – 2,000 words at best. Too many obligations nibbling away at time.
• Monday night – 2,000 words written after dinner from 7:15 to 11:30. I don’t usually work this long on a week night, but the muse was happy so I just stayed with it.

Five days, approximately 16,500 words. There are writers who could have blazed through half a book in that time. I’m not one of them.

I think that’s one of the big lessons in becoming a writer—finding your working style and how fast you can comfortably produce in a day. You do what you do. There’s no good or bad. Some authors push to write as many books as possible in a year, but too much haste produces brain sprain and burnout, not to mention crappy books. Respect your process.

My happiest writing time is the after-dinner session. I have my laptop on the couch, feet up, CD player on shuffle, and the Demon Lord of Kitty Badness flopped over my feet. My brain works best in the evening for new material, and I can motor on like this for hours. If I’m editing, it’s the kitchen table with the coffee pot and I’m best during the daytime. I’ve risen from bed at 3:00 a.m. to put in a few hundred words and then gone back to sleep, but I’ve never been a crack-of-dawn person. If I’m up at five, I’m wrecked for the rest of the day.

Why would new material be a night thing for me and editing a day thing? Different halves of the brain? Probably there’s a psych paper in there someplace.

Hairballs and Spreadsheets
by Annette McCleave on April 27th, 2010
Annette McCleave

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…

Minou

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?

The tricky part
by Jessa Slade on April 26th, 2010
Jessa Slade

Currently working on: Packing for the Romantic Times convention
Mood: Frantic

For me, coming up with new ideas is easy and fun.  There’s no stress or strain since they coalesce out of the ether with no particular effort on my part.  They tend to be quick to capture — only a page or two and their essence is on paper.

Prewriting is also fun, if not quite so easy.  A dozen to 20 pages of notes and the fill-in-the-blank charts that I like take about a week to compile.  Having the bones of a real story is quite satisfying, and when I see it all charted out, it looks all tidy and pretty, like a clean, dry, assembled skeleton.

And then the wet work begins.

Putting flesh on the skeleton, then plumbing the vascular system so blood flows through its veins, and finally zapping the monster with the lighting bolt of creativity gets messy.  Very messy.  There’ s a reason mad scientists wear full-length aprons and goggles.

Getting down the 100,000 or so words of a novel can be daunting, even if you’re crazy.  I like to keep track of my progress so that I can have a good, solid grasp on just how daunted I should be.  Here’s a screenshot of the Excel spreadsheet I use to keep an accounting of my daily word counts.  It shows the end 2/3 of writing FORGED OF SHADOWS, my June release.

spreadsheet

I track my daily word goal, my actual word count, and then I use Excel’s mathematical formulas to make the numbers dance so I can see my percentages and the number of sessions I have left until The End.  I also keep notes at the end to encourage (or castigate — mostly castigate) myself as necessary.  As you can see from the mass of red in the middle, I spend a lot of time being behind.  Frustrating!  But in the end, I finished my first draft three days early.  Yay!

I recently decided the 85,000-word first drafts I aim for are too scary (plus I usually end up going over and then writing too long in my final drafts) so I’m breaking my next goal setting into 3 months of 25,000 each.  That will give me a 75,000-word first draft.  And you should see how fast the “percent done” column fills up when there’s only 25 writing session per spreadsheet.  Inspiring!

If you’re a writer, here’s a link to a shared version of the new spreadsheet I’m using.  If you have a question about how to work the document, ask in comments and I’ll try to help.  I converted the Excel spreadsheet to a Google Docs format, which seems similar…  I hope all the formulas work. 

More importantly, I hope your formula –whatever it is — works for you.  Whether you’re a writer or have some other creative or work project, how do you keep yourself moving forward on long projects?  Do you have a favorite reward for yourself?  I usually eat cake :grin:

Woolgathering…
by KimLenox on April 23rd, 2010
KimLenox

Before I write a book, I do a lot of gathering. I give myself a license to daydream. I listen to music. I scribble very random ideas into pretty notebooks and onto my favorite half-sized, lined note cards.

Because I write historicals, I do a lot of research. I know I’ll only use about 2% of it, but somehow all that knowledge about a given time and place makes me feel like I’m not bumping around in the dark. I let myself follow whatever tangent, and print out anything I find that’s interesting. I hole punch everything and put it into a binder. I pin pictures and inspirational art onto my bulletin board.

Once that’s done, I do a lot of writing. Usually a lot of terrible, very bad, indistinct, no good, stinky writing.

Somewhere along the way, my story emerges, and then its suddenly there, very clear in my mind. Like a movie. It’s always really startling to see how so much of my “random” research becomes the resolution to a missing puzzle piece (like Jessa was talking about, see below!). As if that important detail was just meant to be included all along.

Do you brainstorm any types of projects? Whether it’s a quilt, or a recipe? And if so, does your end result usually come out like you intended or do things tend to take a surprising direction?

Karen Kelley Guest Blogs
by Sharon Ashwood on April 22nd, 2010

The first Karen Kelley book I read was Double Dating With the Dead, an utterly charming story. I can personally avow her winning streak carries on! We’re delighted to have Karen at S&S to celebrate the April 1 release of her latest, THE JAGUAR PRINCE. Comment on Karen’s post below, and you could win a copy!

Something wild this way comes…

Zoo worker Callie Jordan knows something primal when she sees it: take, for instance, the naked man sitting at the foot of her bed. He’s the same (naked) guy she saw after hours at the zoo. But now he’s in her apartment, and just happens to have turned into a black-as-night jaguar. The average person would be in a blind panic; Callie certainly intends to be—once she finishes processing what this incredibly hot lunatic is telling her…

My creative side has learned to make compromises with my analytical side. First, I have an idea and a scene unfolds in my mind. I write the first few chapters and get to know my characters. Then I start plotting.

Being a pantser was fun, but boy did I have to do a lot of backtracking! I discovered having most of the plot down makes the writing go faster. There are fewer times when I say “oops”. It works for me.

After the first few chapters, the next thing I do is write the synopsis. That way I’m only highlighting the main story but, still, it’s usually around 12-20 pages long, so fairly detailed. I play the “what if” game a lot. Having someone to bounce ideas off of really helps, too.

When I begin writing, I keep a notepad nearby so I can jot things like the color of a car or a new secondary character that I might introduce just in case I need him later on. That has saved me a lot of time.

AND, I thought I was the only one who used butcher paper so I can map out my story and see it as a whole, but I see Sharon does the same thing. It works really great when you do a series, especially if you have two going on at once. It’s probably one of the cheapest things you can buy. I stick it on the wall with painters tape. I’ve also worked with a computer generated chart and used it like a storyboard.

What do you do to stay on track? Or do you get to a point where you want to throw your laptop/computer/pencil at the wall. Have you ever gotten mad and poked the spacebar over and over and over—okay, I’m guilty of that one LOL I’d love to hear from y’all.

You mean I was supposed to plan?
by Sharon Ashwood on April 21st, 2010

I’ve never been one for prewriting per se. I mean, I have an idea, and some characters, and I’ll crank out an outline of sorts. I sort of throw them in the blender and see what happens. After about six chapters, I’ll look at the results and see if it resembles what I had in mind. Often at that point I’ll go back to the beginning and do a rewrite to bring the vision and the actual closer together.

Research? I usually do a fair amount, and half the time end up not needing it. I’m a bad one for running off on tangents. However, if you need to know anything about hot air balloons in the eighteenth century, I have file folders full of information.

montgolfier_balloon

And, for the record, I plot. I do it on butcher paper pinned to the wall, so I can stand back and see it all at once. I don’t force myself to stick to the road map, but I like to have one.

The best part of my pre-writing is spent looking for the right mood for the story. Images, smells, sounds, the weather, and a billion other things converge into the right atmosphere. Some people collect pictures and collage. That’s not my thing, although a single picture can stir something up in my mind. It’s more music that works for me. I’m prone to finding an album and playing it 6,000 times while writing a book.( I’m sure my neighbours bless the advent of the iPod.) For Unchained, I found a particular red wine that worked well to get me in the storytelling mood—appropriately named Bête Noir. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those folks who can drink and write at the same time and it had to become a post-writing treat.

Where I go into preparation mode is before my daily writing sessions. I try and make notes in advance. If I don’t plan out a chapter, I end up rewriting it several times to get it functioning properly. What purpose does it serve? Where is the conflict? Scene goals? A tiny bit of thought ahead of time will make my 2.5 hours a day count.

I also believe in pre-session ritual to focus myself on the task. It doesn’t have to be particularly elaborate, just enough so that I know it’s time to settle down and work. For me it’s doing dishes. When the kitchen is cleaned up, I can use the kitchen table. Simple, useful, and it keeps me from succumbing to the temptation of the TV. I honestly think that’s the key to finishing a book—just put the bum in the chair and get to work.

Before the Before
by Annette McCleave on April 20th, 2010
Annette McCleave

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.

Outline
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.

Research
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.

Rethink
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?

The work before the words
by Jessa Slade on April 19th, 2010
Jessa Slade

Currently working on: Navel gazing
Mood: Linty

I recently started messing around with a side project.  It came from my idea file where it had been sitting for about a year.  Despite its time in purgatory, the idea was still shiny and interesting, so I decided to take it out and play with it for a bit.

Some ideas are like those fancy dolls that look gorgeous but you really shouldn’t take them out of the plastic because then their perfect corkscrew ringlet hair gets all messed up and they aren’t worth anything anymore.  Other ideas are like Legos, and look simple and kind of boring but can stand up to any sort of abuse and become anything you want when you start adding to them. 

This new idea I’m playing with was like a bag of brightly colored and intriguing puzzle pieces.  Tragically, the box top with the picture of what the puzzle would show was missing, which made me suspicious.  Was this idea all there?  What if pieces were missing?  What if they aren’t even all pieces from the same puzzle?  Would I be wasting my time?

Not much you can do in a situation like that except start working on it and see where the pieces take you.

puzzle21

My prewriting is a ritual the same way my puzzle working has specific steps:

Step 1: Clear a big, flat, clean work surface.
Clearing the decks is important for my writing process.  While I don’t require certain kinds of pens or paper to write, I like to set up my writing files, my word count spreadsheet, some inspirational art, whatever notes I had in the idea folder, etc. before I start.  That virtual workspace is as important to my story as a physical space is to a puzzle which gets hard to move around as the pieces spread.

Step 2: Turn all the colored sides face up.
With a puzzle, knowing what I have to work with — ooh, a lot of yellow; I bet that all goes together — is important.  Same thing with a story idea.  Who are the characters?  What are they trying to accomplish?  What terrible odds are they facing?  Just like in that anonymous bag of puzzle pieces, I might not actually have all the pieces of the story right away, but at least I know what I DO have.

Step 3: Find the straight edge pieces.
Some of those smarty-pants new puzzles don’t have traditional straight edges anymore.  But most stories do.  Usually there’s – for example – a beginning, a middle and an end.  Once I know those pieces, I can link them together, which shows me a framework of what I’m missing.

Step 4: Look for big color blocks and readily identifiable details.
In a puzzle, big color and little details seem to jump out to my eye.  My prewriting tends to be like that too.  I can imagine and make note of big action pieces or little snippets of dialogue even if I’m not quite sure where they will go.

Step 5: Start connecting the pieces.
Even before I type “Chapter 1,” I like to see how all those chunks are fitting together.  Already I can see where I’m missing pieces.  The writing hasn’t even seriously begun and already there are so many questions: Will I find the missing pieces somewhere in the idea pile, or will I have to make a new piece?  Is this a picture anybody — me included — will want to look at?  Hey, what is the dog chewing on?

Some writers prefer not to work out the puzzle before they start writing because then they lose the excitement that keeps them fitting the 400 pages of pieces together.  But for me, all that playing is part of the fun.

How do you like to play?  Do you break your crayons first?  Or do you like to color in the lines?

The story herd
by Sharon Ashwood on April 14th, 2010

There are two models of creators: those who get great mileage, and those who seem to have eternal fuel cells. Beethoven wasn’t a big tune writer. When he got a good tidbit, he’d use it a lot, either in the same composition or recycled elsewhere. No waste there, and he was so clever about how he repackaged, no one minded. Others—Mozart and Dvorak come to mind—seem to be bottomless wells for tunes.

Authors are much the same way. Some seem endlessly inventive. Others work with a few themes, but keep coming up with new ways of looking at them.

zebra_herd

For me, getting ideas is not a problem. I have herds of them. They don’t come from any place in particular—no catalogue, warehouse, wellspring, or oracle. Just stampedes of unruly thoughts, most of which are entirely useless, repetitive, or weird. Alas, shall we ever see my tale of the gypsy phrenologist and the missish Victorian bookkeeper who discover a frozen corpse buried at the crossroads?

The trick is figuring out which ideas are keepers. I tend to store them away, checking periodically to see which still interest me. Notably, they seem to form loose subject groups. I am apparently obsessed with a) social injustice and b) problem parental figures. You show me a guy with an absent father and a revolutionary streak, and I’ll show you a protagonist.

IMO, a viable idea must have the seeds of character growth. In my favorite books, a hero or heroine’s viewpoint radically changes over the course of the story. Plus, I need emotion and reversal. Emotion, because the reader, author and character all have to feel deeply about whatever problem the protagonist faces. Reversal, because the only way the character can solve the unsolvable dilemma is by changing his/her own vision. They have to learn, sacrifice, and earn their HEA. If this isn’t present in a story idea, I tend to pass it by.

Can you think of a story where the solution came from outside the character, and was it a satisfying ending?