Archive for the 'Writing craft' Category

Fast, Faster, Fastest
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.

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?

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!

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

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.


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:

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?

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. :grin:

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?

Getting & vetting ideas
by Jessa Slade on April 12th, 2010

Currently working on: Brand-new project
Mood: Fightin’ words

Most writers who tell other people that they write will eventually hear some version of the following conversation:

Non-writer: Wow, you write?  I’ve always wanted to write something.  Maybe a poem.  Or a screenplay that will make more than Avatar.  Probably not a novel, because only crazy people do novels.  But I have this great idea…
Writer: Look at the time, will ya?  I have to–
Non-writer: Hey, how about I tell you the idea, you write it down, and we’ll split the profits 50-50?
Writer: My world will not be complete without your idea. Seriously, tell me now before I expire from curiosity. But hold on just a second while I get a pen. Maybe a very expensive Waterman pen to adequately capture the brilliance of your idea.  You wait right here…

I personally have only endured this conversation three times (and to be honest, I wasn’t sarcastic to the non-writer at all) but I expect to have it many times more.  Because most people think the trick to writing is having the idea.

The truth?  Ideas are like chewing gum.  Ideas are so much like chewing gum that it’s really surprising they aren’t sold at convenience stores:

Ideas, like chewing gum, are cheap and everywhere:
I’m going to pull three books from my shelf.  The three closest to hand are a dictionary, a paranormal romance novel (happens to be Sharon’s SCORCHED!) and… hmm, Aid to Bible Understanding.  I randomly choose three words.  From the dictionary I get devoir, which in addition to looking very cool (like a combination of devoid and devour) means duty or responsibility, a formal act of civility.  From SCORCHED, I find incubus (hey, get your own copy!).  And from the bible book I get the word ointment.  You can see how there’s an inkling of an idea right there, right?

Ideas, like chewing gum, need to be chewed and softened up:
I don’t necessarily talk out my ideas a lot beforehand, but I think them out.  I chew on the idea, I stretch it, I stick it on the bedpost overnight and chew it again the next morning.

A good idea, like chewing gum, sticks to the bottom of your shoe:
I find that a good idea has staying power.  I can’t get to every idea right away, so I have a file where I tuck them away.  By the time I get back to them, some of the ideas have faded.  But some are still in minty fresh condition.  That’s an idea that might actually last through 400 pages.

Ideas, like chewing gum, are only as impressive as the hot air you blow into them:
What the non-writer doesn’t understand about ideas is that the idea itself — no matter how brightly packaged — is only a dry stick of artifical color and fake sugar.  It’s not until the hard work, spit, and huffing and puffing are through that you have something the world can admire.  Right before it blows up in your face and you have to cut the chunks out of your hair and rug, but that’s a different story.

I’m betting (see, here’s another idea) that the kind of gum you liked best as a kid predicts your future personality.  Like, a Rorschach ink blot test in chicle and corn syrup.  Reveal your favorite gum here and we’ll psychoanalyze you.

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?

Mistakes or simply outlandish writing behaviour?
by Sharon Ashwood on February 17th, 2010

One of the reasons I love cats is that they never make mistakes. If they’re prancing along the window ledge, misstep and do a belly flop to the floor, they pretend that they meant to do that, dammit. They pick themselves up, lick a paw, and sashay off to the next adventure. As an approach to life, I’ve met worse.


In writing, one has to decide when a mistake is a mistake. I’m not talking about grammar/spelling/punctuation, because when two or more copyeditors are gathered together, there shall be clashing opinions, none of which coincide with mine. The real blunders come on a much larger scale, such as when the plot goes to pieces. I often have a terrific scene in mind and will commit all sorts of logic errors just to get there. Or, I write the book how I see fit and find afterward that the result appeals to me and no one else. Most often, I commit the error of overcomplicating things. I do like my subsubsubplots. I also like shades of grey. I don’t always care about how conventionally sympathetic a character is. I’ll take “interesting” over “nice” every time.

Hence, I do a lot of rewriting.

Why do these things happen? Pull up a chair, would-be writers, and learn from the error of my ways:
1. Think through a scene (and a book) before committing it to paper.
2. Remember your audience. Who are you writing for?

With regard to #1, an outline can look better in a notebook than it does in action. Once you’re into a story, it can become evident that your brilliant plot twist was the product of that third glass of Shiraz. Unfortunately, backing out of a bad idea and slashing gobs of pages is sometimes necessary. Or, you can take the cat’s approach and act like you meant it. After all, stories are all about the motivation. Convince yourself, convince the characters, and sometimes it all works out.

With regard to #2, know the expectations of your genre. I struggle with this because I dislike the entire concept of slotting books into pigeon holes, and yet that’s the reality of the marketplace. Trying to be innovative can work, but it can also mean rewriting the entire book back inside the genre boundaries to make it marketable.

A lot of this stuff I don’t regard as mistakes per se, but as choices. An author can choose to be commercially accessible or not. He or she can choose to adhere to today’s favoured structure of story writing–or not. That doesn’t make it bad writing. Much literary fiction goes in the opposite direction and is well-respected.

The down side of there being so many “how to” resources for writers is that the concept of right and wrong storytelling techniques has become firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the commercial writing and reading community. The debate over accepting first person point of view is a typical example. It’s not exactly radical stuff, but it’s been a hard sell with many readers. Experimentation is rare. Have we, as writers, followed “the rules” to the point where we’ve trapped ourselves?