Archive for the 'Inspiration' Category

Rolling the Ball
by Annette McCleave on June 29th, 2010

My next official writing project is still in the air, so I’ll leave those details alone for the moment. Let’s talk about ideas and how to flesh them out instead.

I get new ideas for stories all the time. Some of them are way out in left field, some are in a genre I don’t currently write, and some fall apart as soon as I start exploring them. The ideas that survive long enough to develop legs and crawl out of the primordial ooze of creativity are the ones I write down. But even those ideas are bare bones.

So, how do I determine if an idea is worth 400 pages of prose? Everyone has their own method for answering that question, but for me, it comes down to conflict. If the conflict isn’t big enough, the idea dies.

I hammer at the conflict by using a template I call Rolling the Ball. I got the idea for the template from an author who did a workshop for my local RWA chapter, but I can’t credit her, because I don’t remember who it was. :sad: My sincere apologies to that author. Anyway, she basically said that a story was built on a series of actions and reactions which could be described as one character rolling the ball to another, then that second character catching the ball and rolling it back. Or, to put it an other way, our characters make judgments, decisions and actions which in turn forces other characters to make judgments, decisions and actions.

Joe gets a call from his mother saying his sister has been murdered. Joe believes the murderer is most likely his sister’s creepy, drug-dealing boyfriend, and he hops a plane to Witchita to confront the boyfriend. (He rolls the ball.)

The boyfriend swears he loved the sister, even though she’d taken a restraining order out on him, and points the finger at Joe’s stepfather who recently lost his job for having pornography on his computer. (The boyfriend rolls the ball back.)

Once I have a skeleton of an idea, I roll the ball back and forth between my characters, starting with the inciting incident, or the event that tosses my main character’s life into disarray. If I can’t come up with more than a page of escalating conflict between my two main characters, I know the idea is weak. From there, I can explore ways to strengthen the conflict or drop the idea and move onto something fresh.

How do other writers decide whether to pursue an idea? Anyone?

Speed angel
by Jessa Slade on May 24th, 2010

Currently working on: Book 3 edits
Mood: Persnickety (Am I even spelling that right? I thought I was in editing mode?!)

When I’m writing, I’m a speed angel.  Which, sadly, is the opposite of a speed demon.  Yes, I write demons, but I write them slooooow.

Over the years, I have gotten somewhat faster.  Well, actually, lots faster.  It took me about, oh, five years to finish my first manuscript.  In my defense, the story was really long and traversed several major landmasses and various time periods. (No, it wasn’t a time travel; it was just very, very confused.)  Plus, I spent a lot of time describing the hero’s lovely eyes.

Here are a few tricks I learned that helped me write faster during the seven manuscripts that followed:

  • No one cares how polished your first draft is, so feel free to write crap.  You do have to polish later, but that’s later.
  • If you keep writing past it, crap is often less crappy after it ferments awhile.
  • Know what you are writing; you’ll get there quicker.  Disclaimer: Pantsers (writers who say they like to be surprised by their writing as it happens) say they get bored if they know where they are going.  I say, I challenge you pantsers to a duel.  But I don’t have to worry about you ever showing up at the duel site because if I tell you where it is beforehand, you’ll go somewhere else.

The single most important trick I learned to writing faster was — and I realize this sounds stupidly obvious — holding myself accountable.  Deadlines — whether externally or internally imposed — are like the salt in a recipe: Too much can make your blood pressure spike, but a pinch/dash/sprinkle gives the flavors a zing they’d otherwise be missing.

Knowing when I have to get something done, I can track my progress.  I track in an Excel spreadsheet of daily word counts.  “Over/Under” is the number of words I’ve written above or below my daily goal.  As you can see by the red, I spend a lot of days behind because — as I mentioned — I’m a speed angel.  But I aspire to speed demon-hood.


Sure, I’m not there yet.  But I’ve shaved five years per books down to about five months.  A definite improvement.  Although you might have noticed the last comment in my spreadsheet: Sometimes I still don’t know where I’m going.

shortsIn Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare, which character did you relate to?  And do you think the tortoise would’ve been faster if he’d been wearing shorts instead of a shell?

No OFF button
by Jessa Slade on May 17th, 2010

Currently working on: Argh, look behind you!.. What? Oh sorry, never mind.  My mistake… What was the question again?
Mood: Focused as a laser beam

No, I’m kidding, I have been working.  Hard.  I’ve been composing guest blog posts in preparation for my blog tour to support the release of FORGED OF SHADOWS next month.  (Which will be here before I know it.  That’s what’s behind us–the relentlessly creeping Time Monster!)  One of the interview questions I had to answer was: What do you do when you’re not writing?

I thought about it for awhile.  And couldn’t come up with anything. 

If I’m not writing, I SHOULD be writing.  After all, I have the life many writers long for–a published book and another on the way.  To not write seems disrespectful.  Guilt makes not writing not fun.

So to circumvent the Guilt Monster (second cousin to the Time Monster) I often try to find a way to make my non-writing activities support my writing activites.  Dog walks are brainstorming sessions.  Reading is research.  Twitter ( is networking.  Buckets o’ cookie dough are much-needed energy.  Naps are…well, cookie dough only takes you so far, doesn’t it?

Even my other creative pursuits have taken a back seat to writing.  The little sketching I’ve done in the last few years has been of the horde-tenebrae monsters in my books or settings when I can’t quite picture the staging.  I haven’t picked up a paintbrush at all.  Only my beading has resisted the all-encompassing suck of The Book, mostly because I’ve been making Possession in Pearl earrings–from demented, weirdly shaped pearl sticks–to use as blog tour giveaways.


I’m always glad when I blow off my guilt and sneak in an utterly non-writing project because it was a personal beading breakthrough that I think really opened some doors in my mind when it came to my writing.

See, I’m a perfectionist.  Nasty habit, that.  Striving for excellence is a worthy goal, but perfectionism will drive you mad.  For a long time, I would string beads to make a necklace…and then unstring them because they weren’t quite right.  I was constantly on the lookout for the “perfect” bead to complete a given project.  I amassed more and more beads, but it was impossible to be sure I had the “perfect” bead because–as many beads as I had–I didn’t have them all.  What if the “perfect” bead was still out there?  Time to come unstrung again.

Then one day…  I’d like to say I stopped being stupid.  But really what happened was a poverty-induced Christmas panic.  I had decided to use up some of the ridiculous amount of beads making jewelry for my female relatives.  And now I had a deadline.

Suddenly, “perfect” was less pressing than “wrapped, packed and shipped.”  I learned to come to peace with the pieces I had.  And they were perfectly lovely.  At least according to my mother, grandmother, sister, and aunt, who I’m sure were utterly objective.

Now when I’m writing, when I feel the urge to look for the perfect word, to wait until I have perfectly visualized every element of the story, to rail at myself for being less than perfect, I think of my beads.  To be lovely, to come to life, they have to be strung and hung around someone’s neck or dangling from someone’s ears.  And I’m the only one who can make that happen. 

I think most people have beads rolling around the drawers of their life that should be out for the world to admire.  Maybe not perfect, but shiny or sparkly or intriguing or whatever is good enough.  How do you support the creativity in your life?

Leave a comment and you’ll be entered for a chance to win a pair of Possession in Pearl earrings similar to the ones pictured above.  I’m making another pair as soon as I finish this post.  Hey, I can’t write ALL the time.

The Sekrit Handshake
by Jessa Slade on May 10th, 2010

Currently working on: Still unpacking from the RT Booklovers’ Convention
Mood: Awash

Last Monday, when I was supposed to be blogging here, I was flying back from Columbus Ohio after the RT Booklovers’  Convention, where more than a thousand women — and a few men — gathered together for a solid week of book lovin,’ Mr. Romance-ogling (I did mention there were a few men), drinking, and more book lovin.’

Highlights of my trip:

  • Whiskey shots with Joe Konrath, author of WHISKEY SOUR (see, those shots were networking)
  • Scoring Jeri Smith-Ready’s newest, SHADE, a paranormal YA, before she sold out at the book fair — mine, all mine!
  • Four nights of dancing in person with online friends

Lowlights of my trip:

  • The DJ who, when I asked if he had any Bollywood dance music, responded that, well, he had Molly Hatchet — er, not quite
  • Forgetting my tiara for the prom-themed dance party
  • The flight home from Ohio to Oregon via New York — don’t ask

Back to the highlights though.  I got to mingle with all sorts of people, from voracious readers to aspiring writers to famous authors.  (Is that Charlaine Harris?!  OMG OMG!  I adore name dropping!)  What an amazing, fun, savvy, dedicated group it was.  For a newer author like myself, it was a wonderful opportunity to talk with a wide swath of book people and contemplate, “Geez, who let me in here?”

Turns out, there wasn’t a sekrit handshake required at the door.

Oh, I knew there wasn’t really a sekrit handshake, but when I was racking up rejections in the early years of my writing (uh, and in the later years too) I desperately hoped there was a large, Raybanned, cross-armed bouncer guarding a NYC office building with “Publishing” somewhere on the letterhead who could be bought off with the right open sesame.  In many ways, it seemed easier to imagine a trick than to think of all the hard work.

After all, ”work hard” just isn’t an inspiring call to adventure. 

But one theme I heard repeated at RT time and again was the value of perseverance, the stubborn dedication that goes with hard work.  I talked to a multi-published author whose number of rejections quadrupled mine.  I met writers in all stages, from “I have this idea” to just receiving a request for a complete manuscript from an editor attending the convention.  I had dinner with a reader who drove ten hours after work through the night to make the convention, blowing a tire in the process.  “I need chocolate,” was her only complaint.  They all wanted the same thing: books.  Lots of books.

Can you be clear eyed and starry eyed at the same time?  I think so.  I saw that at RT, and it reminded me, the door was always open.  I just had to get there.

The RT Booklovers’ Convention is in Los Angeles next year.  Maybe I’ll see some of you!

Pulling It All Together
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. :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 at the end of the week. Good luck!

Spring, Sprang, Sprung
by Annette McCleave on March 16th, 2010

I have to say, the best part of spring is the increased daylight hours. The energy flows, the smiles bloom, and walking the dog is so much more enjoyable during the day.

Spring is my favorite season. I love watching the snow melt away and the grass turn green. I wait impatiently for the trees to sprout pale green leaves that darken over the weeks leading into summer. And apple blossoms. LOVE those frothy white and pink explosions. The only part of spring I don’t like is the bugs. By early May, the gnats and mosquitoes are usually out in full force. This year, because it’s warmer than usual where I am, they’ll likely come sooner. The price you pay for warmth, I guess.

This year, spring will also bring a visit from my sister, who lives on the west coast. With any luck, the weather will be nice and we can sit out at one of the many outdoor cafes in the city. Coffee and sunshine are an unbeatable mix.

May will also bring the release of the second novel in the Soul Gatherer series, Bound by Darkness. Here’s a short excerpt:

Checking for occupants before he unlocked each door, Brian searched the rooms one by one. An art gallery, a home theater, a library. The gym, filled with metal weights and equipment, took him the longest. When he reached the last door on the left side of the hallway, he stopped.


One, two . . . he sniffed a little deeper . . . three.

The breathing noises sounded slow and even, but there was no way to know whether the folks inside were awake or asleep, not without cracking open the door. The odds favored them being awake: These weren’t bedrooms. But the gain outweighed the risk—according to the floor plans, this was Duverger’s office.

Praying the group inside was seated, Brian zapped the room with a sleep spell. Then he opened the door and slipped inside.

The boot heel that connected with his jaw came out of nowhere. Had he been a regular guy, the powerful, well-aimed blow would have knocked him out cold, guaranteed. Even so, the unexpected attack rocked him off balance, and he was headed for a face-plant in the colorful Moroccan carpet when his attacker kindly snagged his arm and eased his fall.

With a small hand, he noted. A kid, maybe.

There was no time to be offended. He grabbed an ankle and yanked his attacker to the ground. A little twist of his hand and the body fell atop a nearby leather armchair with a soft grunt. No attention-calling crash or bang, he noted with pride. Bounding to his feet, his hand still latched on to a slim ankle, he glanced around the room, verifying the slumbering state of two guards on the sofa before turning to his captive.

His breath snagged.

Not a kid, a woman.

To be more precise, an elegant woman with killer brown eyes and masses of gleaming dark hair pulled into a tight knot. Her black military-type outfit was boring, but the body inside was anything but. An endless cascade of long limbs and lush curves, it triggered the floodgates on his hormones and he got swept away like a drowning man. About a mile downstream, he realized his fingers were digging into the soft skin above her boot and he loosened his grip.

by Jessa Slade on March 15th, 2010

Currently working on: Done!
Mood: Done!

Did I mention I’m done with Book 3?  It was due today (hence my late posting) and it’s off my brilliantly insightful and lovely editor and agent.  Glory be!

“The End” are the most satisfying two words in novel writing, I think.  Followed closely by “The Call” and “The check is on its way” (which I know is more than two words, but is awesome nonetheless).

I had a rare opportunity with this book that might possibly change the way I write.  A writing friend invited me and another writer to share a condo on Mt. Hood for a weekend of intensive word production since we were all on deadline.

I’ve done brainstorming retreats with writer friends for years.  A bunch of us get together, rent a room on the beach (we swear the negative ions from the sea water waves keep us sane), and plot books.  It’s fabulous fun and borderline brain damage by the end of the weekend.  I’ve also attended many writers’ conferences which are wonderful chances to network and learn.

But I’ve never gone away to just write before.  Here’s where we were:


(Collins Lake Resort, Government Camp)

And ooh I liked it!

Yeah, perhaps it was stupid to wonder whether I’d like it.  But I was worried about not being surrounded with my stuff — my favorite craft books, my refrigerator full of snacks, my dog, my XY with his endless capacity for staring at me blankly while I rant about faulty worldbuilding, recalcitrant characters and dead-end plot points.  Turns out, the looming mountain (not pictured) in the background was perfect for the looming deadline.

Not that I had the chance to really appreciate Mt. Hood in all its slumbering-volcano beauty.  Because I spent three days looking at this:


(Book 3, Chapter 1)

Which, considering the deadline, had a sort of threatening-volcano fascination of its own.

Turns out, all I really needed for a pure writing getaway were these:

  • My computer with WIP (work in progress)
  • My 19″ monitor (the smaller keyboard of my netbook was fine, but the 10″ monitor wasn’t as nice for revising; it would’ve been okay for hot drafting)
  • Lots of water (peeing is an excuse to get up and stretch, thus staving off leg blood clots)
  • Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, it was water plus some wine and coffee
  • Snackage — And now a word from our sponsors… Book 3 is brought to you by: Whoppers ™ Robins Eggs candies, York Peppermint Patties™, and Froot Loops™ (Sorry, I’m a brand-name snacker)
  • Comfy pajamas and thick socks

Real food is unnecessary.  Real clothes are unnecessary.  Heck, a shower kit is unnecessary because we’re writing.  (Plus, I count the hot tub as ritual purification.)

Three writers.  Three computers.  Three stories.  One amazing weekend that has refreshed me for the next looming deadline (Book 4 proposal, due in April — zoiks!).

Much thanks to Kristina McMorris (LETTERS FROM HOME) and Elisabeth Naughton (the STOLEN trilogy and the “Eternal Guardians” series) for the long stretches of eerie silence interspersed with book talk, a.k.a. writer heaven.

Do you have a favorite getaway place?  Do you have a way to recreate that closer to home for every-day moments?

Sigh Worthy
by Annette McCleave on March 9th, 2010

I’m cheating a bit. The topic this week is romantic ads, but the video I’ve embedded here isn’t an ad, it’s a short film. It’s 9 minutes long, but well worth the investment of your time. At least, I think so. But then again, I’m a sap.

To me this is one of the wonders of YouTube–talented people post incredible stuff like this for free. I hope the film makers go on to huge commercial success.

And there’s another lovely, romantic short film on YouTube Called Signs. It’s 12 minutes long, but full of magic. If you haven’t already seen it, I recommend it.

Tell me what you think!

Romance Firsts
by Annette McCleave on February 23rd, 2010

I’m sad to say I can’t recall the very first romance I read. I do know it was a Harlequin romance—my mother was a monthly subscriber to the Presents line. I can remember reading dozens of books by Violet Winspear, Penny Jordan, Anne Mather, and Charlotte Lamb. I devoured a ton of delicious stories about wealthy alpha heroes, princes, and sheiks.

The first book I actually remember reading was Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers. Probably not the best book to form the foundation of my love affair with romance novels, but definitely a memorable one.

The book that truly hooked me and made me a lifelong reader of romance was Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Wolf and the Dove. I loved it then, and I love it now. The bastard son of nobleman trying to make good, the feisty heroine standing up for her people, even the hint of something paranormal in the appearance of the wolf. Loved it all. My original copy has long since fallen apart, but I still have a copy on my keeper shelf, and every ten years or so, I read it again. No surprise that my first forays into writing were medieval romances. I heart stories of knights and maidens and castles.

I’ve been a fan of Teresa Medeiros for years—she was my first glom. I read Touch of Enchantment and promptly ran out and bought every book of hers I could find. My next crush was on Karen Marie Moning. Her time travel romances with heroines falling into the lap of handsome highland heroes sent my imagination soaring.

I’m still discovering new authors—some have been around for ages and I’m just cluing in. Some are new debuts. There’s a treasure trove of great authors out there, thank goodness. I’ll never run out of excellent stories to read.

Alice wonders why
by Jessa Slade on February 1st, 2010

Currently working on: Judging RITA books, the Romance Writers of America award of excellence in romance fiction
Mood: Awed by some great talent

There’s a lot going on in a writer’s head, I swear, even though a lot of time it looks like I’m staring off into space.  While I’m staring, I’m plotting, testing out lines of dialogue, thinking about whom to kill.

And more often than I’d wish, I’m just afraid to start.

See, while the stories in my head are endlessly entertaining to me (hence the long periods of blank-eyed staring) getting what’s in my head onto the page can be a maddening proposition.  In fact, I often feel like my writing sessions are a bit like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, where too many conflicting (and crazy) voices have been invited to the table.


The White Rabbit of Overwhelm
He’s the one always chanting “I’m late, I’m late” in my head (because, really, aren’t we always late for something?) which doesn’t much get things off to a convivial start.  Trust me, if you go chasing rabbits, you know you’re going to fall.

The Mad Hatter Muse
Yes, even when not played by Johnny “I’m too sexy to <fill in the blank>” Depp, everybody swoons for the Muse, so he must be invited to the party even though he’s — you know — psychotic, encouraging everyone to run amok and constantly asking silly questions like “How is a raven like a writing desk?” when everybody knows we needn’t answer that question until Chapter 23.

The March Hare Moment
He’s best friends with the Mad Muse… and equally crackers.  He comes around holding out inspiration like a big cup of tea… Only to jerk it away at the last moment.  Emphasis on jerk.  At best, I’ll be left with a little spill of inspiration that I try to mop up and ring out over my pages.

The Queen of (Broken) Hearts Internal Editor
Everybody has to tip toe around her for fear of coming under her gimlet eye.  She’s always deflating the mood with her muttered “Off with her adverbs!”  Heads and hearts are constantly at risk around her, and yet she has a chair of her own because somebody has to be in charge of cutting words and killing our darlings.

The dormouse
He’s already asleep, curled up at the keyboard with his head on ZZZZZZZZ, even though we still have a thousand words to go.

And there, at the far end of the table — she’s lucky she even got a seat — is poor Alice, who just wants a story that makes sense.

Well, forget it, Alice.

It’s impossible to get all those voices to speak one at a time, much less use their napkins instead of their sleeves.  So I’ll take what they spew out and try to capture it for you in all its mad glory.

Maybe a raven is like a writing desk because, with the wind under their wings, they can both take flight.

Anybody else looking forward to Tim Burton’s vision of Alice In Wonderland?  He’s one of my heroes, because if he doesn’t get everything that’s on his head down on paper, I can’t even imagine what else is in there!