Archive for the 'Unwritten' Category

Before the Before
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?

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

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.


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?

To explore strange new worlds
by Jessa Slade on March 1st, 2010

Currently working on: Al.Most.Done with revisions
Mood: Last stretch of K2 with the promise of a long toboggan ride down — whee! (probably into a bottomless cravasse, but…)

Our topic this week is “If I wrote in another subgenre…” which didn’t take that much imagining for me because I’ve already done it.  And the timing of the topic couldn’t be better since I just cleaned out a cabinet and unearthed (and yes, by unearthed I mean removed enough dust to qualify as earth) these:


These are a bunch (not all, mind you) of my old stories.  In this stack or out of view on the floor are the following:

  • A historical of no particular time period (who knew you had to choose ONE time period or at least provide a time machine) with exceedingly murky point of view changes
  • Two rom-coms, one with a herd of dachshunds
  • Two Regencies, one with requisite duke (I feel a sudden urge to write THE DUKE OF DACHSHUNDS for some reason)
  • A medieval with paranormal elements
  • A futuristic romantic suspense with old skool Indiana Jones overtones
  • A high fantasy heroic quest road trip revised as a contemporary paranormal romance
  • Various and assorted pieces and parts of other Regencies, contemps and Harlequin categories


Writing coaches will tell you to pick a subgenre and stick with it, at least until you’ve made a place for yourself as a certain kind of writer offering a certain kind of experience.  And, they say, for heaven’s sake, DON’T query an agent or editor with all of the above.  (Uh, oops…)

I’m sure the writing coaches are right.  They also tell you that you should probably write what you read.  And that was my problem — I read all sorts of romance.  So I wrote all sorts of romance before I found out that might be considered a waste of time.  Not to mention a waste of paper.

But I don’t regret those wide-ranging stories.  All that casting around (maybe I should say, casting up my writing accounts — you Regency readers will know what I mean) was me trying to unearth “my voice” and what kinds of stories I wanted to tell.

Even though the subgenres displayed a touch of multiple personality disorder, the stories inside contained many of the same elements:

  • A heroine marching to her own piper
  • A hero with troubles he’d rather not share
  • A few (or more) shadows with contrasting light moments
  • Enough adventure or intrigue to keep me interested

And even if I write a cookbook, I can pretty much guess how it will end.  Happily.

Those earlier projects mark my evolution as a writer.  I almost hate to recycle the primeval papertrail they left.  But they are footsteps I’ve left behind me, not a path I need to retrace.

I have some old jewelry I made, from when I first started stringing beads, that I need to take apart too.  I’ve improved my craft and my vision and they aren’t my best effort anymore.  The components — crystal, pearl, sterling, glass – are still good, though, and I have a scavenger’s eye for salvage :)  I look forward to snipping off the ends and tumbling all the smooth and sparkly bits across my desk to see what I can keep.

Do you have old projects you keep around?  How do you know when you’re through with them?  Does seeing them weigh you down, or do they inspire you when you see how far you’ve come?


Summer lovin’
by Jessa Slade on August 17th, 2009

Currently working on: A mental breakdown
Mood: Ecstatic

I didn’t get as much writing done last night as I wanted to.  I blame summer.  Actually, I blame the cucumber-basil martinis, but those are definitely a taste of summer.

  1. Pour crushed ice into a martini glass.  Set aside to chill.
  2. Mix a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of hot water into a syrup.
  3. Chop a chunk of cucumber (about 3 inches, peeled and seed-free) into small cubes
  4. In a shaker, crush the cucumber together with 2-3 torn basil leaves along with the syrup.
  5. Add vodka, a tablespoon of fresh lime juice, and ice.
  6. Shake well.
  7. Empty the ice from the chilled martini glass. Garnish with a rim of sugar and a cucumber slice.
  8. Strain the cuke-basil mixture into your glass.  Eat the cucumber slice and count it as a serving of vegetables.
  9. Relax and savor summer.

martiniBecause it’s almost gone!!!  A few days ago, I overheard the phrase “late summer” referring to where we are in the calendar.

Late summer?!  But I don’t even have a tan yet.  Well, okay, I don’t tan, but I haven’t converted my full year’s supply of Vitamin D from sunlight.  Late summer?  Noooooo!

Long days, warm nights, gardening, hiking, camping, lazing…  All play havoc with my writing schedule.  If August is late summer in the Pacific Northwest, then July is the only summer we have.  Winter is November through May.  June we just ignore because it’s too embarrassing.  (I won’t go into September/October; those are a well-kept secret ’round here.)

Knowing the pleasures of summer are so fleeting makes indulging in them seem almost… necessary.  I eat too many blueberries.  I walk barefoot until my feet are permanently filthy.  I stay up too late and get up too early because the sun is out there and it’s calling my name.  Those are good memories to conjure against a dark and stormy Oregon afternoon.

Although I have to admit, I’m sort of looking forward to autumn this year.  Not only does my first book come out, but I’ll be working on Books 3 and 4 of the Marked Souls which sold last week to NAL Signet Eclipse!  Hence the breakdown mentioned in the status update above.  And now I think about it, that might also explain the martinis ;)

What’s your definitive taste of summer?  It doesn’t have to be an actual taste.  Smells and sounds are good too.  In fact, anything sensual will do just fine.

Lying around
by Annette McCleave on February 24th, 2009

I once planned to write a book about a woman who could tell when people were lying. Of course, that, in and of itself, is not a paranormal story; if you happen to catch the new Fox series, LIE TO ME, you’ll know that a few unique human beings already possess that skill.

The heroine of my story lived in a world where everyone was born with obvious gifts. These gifts fell into certain categories: natural, technological, artistic, etc. Within the categories, the depth of the gift varied–some had the ability to shift fully into animals, others simply had a supremely enhanced sense of smell. My heroine’s gift was called Lie Divining and only one percent of the population was blessed with that gift.

But my heroine also possessed a second gift, called Truth Seeing, which was extremely rare and very highly prized. With a handshake and a couple of quick questions, a truth seer could ‘feel’ a person’s inner thoughts and motivations. It’s the kind of gift some leaders might kill to control, and that was the crux of my story.

I wrote fifty pages or so, then put the manuscript aside. I don’t remember why. My research notes and that rough start are still lying around somewhere, so I could have another go at it some day, but I doubt it. Some stories come alive for me, and some don’t. This one didn’t.


Fox clearly found the lie divining concept fascinating enough to create a series based on it, and I must say I’m really enjoying LIE TO ME so far. Anyone else liking it?

p.s. If you visit the Fox site, they have some neat info about the scientist who inspired the show and the curious places where lying shows up in real life.

Da Vinci’s Notebook of Failures
by Jessa Slade on February 23rd, 2009

Currently working on: The End of the World…
I mean, book
Mood: Apocalyptic

Most writers — if forced — will mention, in hushed tones, the existence of The Manuscript That Must Never See The Light of Day under their beds. Sometimes ideas don’t pan out. Sometimes imagination can’t overcome cold, hard reality. Sometimes the Muse was just smoking crack.

Happens to the all of us. Even Da Vinci, though his publicist fought tooth and nail to prevent the distribution of the following pages for fear of torpedoing the sequel to the best-selling The Da Vinci Code — The Da Vinci Diet.

Da Vinci’s Notebook of Failures was discovered in the back of his closet, which — after under the bed — is the third favorite hiding place for failed creative works. The most popular locale for spectacular failures continues to be YouTube.

Plate 17

Eating on the run has been an issue for the ages, but Da Vinci’s “downhill hibachi” never caught on. Perhaps because it caught fire with disturbing frequency. Though never deciphered, the text in the upper left hand corner is believed to finally resolve the identity of the Mona Lisa.

Plate 32

Prior to the downhill hibachi debacle, Da Vinci had toyed with the “chicken coop hat” . Beta testers weren’t too psyched with the inevitable deposits, although Da Vinci attempted to repurpose the streaking as “racing stripes.” The concept was eventually abandoned when adding fire to the hat in an attempt to hard-boil the chicken’s eggs proved disastrous. Rumor has it, the design had military applications, which seems unlikely at best.

Plate 119

Although he later decried the invention and attempted to destory all extant prototypes, a ancient secret cadre of assassin/nun/snackfood makers apparently escaped with the plans. Recreations of Da Vinci’s “gravity beer bong” now resurge cyclically around the completion of final exams at institutions of higher learning. Proof that even bad ideas can have their time to shine.

So what’s your best bad idea? Or maybe you had a “friend” with a bad idea you’d like to ridicule… er, revise here. And remember, there is no bad idea that lighter fluid, a match and a video camera can’t make even worse.