Sometimes, when I look back over my life, I think I got more done when I was running around with my head cut off like a chicken managing 3 kids in travel hockey, 2 on the golf team, 1 doing dance competition while working two part-time jobs and volunteering for the local hockey association and the PTA.
I am woman hear me roar!
That seems like a life time ago. Back then, I’d sneak in 500 words between putting kids on the bus 3 different schools, each bus coming about an hour after the other) before doing dishes, morning chores, and heading off to one of my part-time jobs. I’d then sneak in as many words as I could sitting, usually from 4pm – 10pm at the hockey rink. My kids at sandwiches, cheese, yogurt, fruit, and cucumbers that I packed most nights so they didn’t eat chicken fingers and french fries every night (though there were some of those nights). I stayed up late cleaning and doing laundry, then started the cycle all over again. Weekends were just as bad as my family split up because one kid had games in Canada, the other in Boston, and the other in Buffalo. Yeah, see how that works. But I’d sneak in my words sitting at rinks before the game started and sitting in hotel rooms.
Back then I was considered a fast writer.
Not sure I felt like I was, but I was an effective writer.
I still am. Only I get to write a lot more and it’s often uninterrupted writing (unless one of the 3 kids has returned for a visit). Even when our middle boy moved back home for a year, I wasn’t running the rat race. Oh. I’m still busy. Just doing other things.
So, what is my day like now?
It’s different every day. But what has remained the same, is I have a calendar, with deadlines, goals, and appointments. I spend Sunday planning out my week. That includes finding out if the man is going to be home and if he’s going to need to be fed. It includes planning time for my walks, bike rides, grocery store trips, and anything else that might need to be done that week (also based on weather). At the end of every day, I carry over what wasn’t done the day before, and rearrange my schedule as necessary.
When I was busy being a hockey mom, I kept my sanity by having a color coded calendar. Now that I’m in a different phase of my life, I keep busy by having a color coded calendar. Ha!
Honestly, one of the reasons why I think it’s good to do a day in the life…in your life…is to see where you’re not using your time effectively and efficiently. I do laundry while watching my shows. That way I’m folding while I catch up. If I have to go out for an appointment, I get everything else that needs doing outside of the house on that day. When I make my grocery list, I make it in the order in which the items are shelved. I hate it when my grocery store changes the isles up!
It’s not really about multitasking, as it is planning.
Hi. I’m a planner. I like organization, structure, and please don’t change my well laid plans with a snap of your finger. That really stresses me out. Seriously. If my calendar says that I’m going to Costco on Wednesday, and something happens, I’m like, shit. That fucks up my whole day! Not really, but then I have to regroup. And I can, but it takes me a minute or two.
It’s worse when something like my printer isn’t working and I spend all day figuring that out and at the end of the day, I feel like I lost a day. Or when I’m sick. That sucks.
But my point is, as a planner, I can see what I’m actually getting done, and how my day really works. My mind is always playing tricks on me, like telling my body I’m still 25 and can do a cartwheel. Yeah. Not really a good idea.
Understanding self is one of the major keys to success. But if you don’t spend at least a full week writing down everything you do as you do it, you won’t really see where you’re either spinning your wheels, or where if you just things up a little bit, you’d have more energy. After that, I think its important to re-evaluate every so often. To me, this is like looking at a map before you get in a car and taking a long trip.
Or writing some kind of outline, synopsis, and/or character sheet, for your book. You pantsers are cringing right now, but you have your own ways of keeping track of story…and keeping your day on track. That’s what this is all about. Setting goals, and setting yourself up for success.
Every writer gets stuck, no matter how experienced they are, or how many books they have. Every writer has doubts about whether or not they’ve got another book in them. Or is this book really any good. Will this be the end of my career? The more we focus on those negative things, the harder it is to get unstuck. If we start comparing our progress or success to others than we are in self-sabotage mode. We are giving ourself a reason to stay stuck.
So what is a writer to do?
My advice is basically the same. Take a breath. Step away. Go for a walk. Clean the kitchen. Bake cookies. Doesn’t matter if you’re stuck with an idea, a scene, the plot, a character, the entire manuscript, or your career, if you are stuck, it’s time to go back to the basics.
Let’s start with being stuck in book. Much of this is a repeat of my last blog because no matter how many books you have, sometimes we have to step down and look at the simple things. The things we might take for granted.
If you’re a plotter, go look at your spreadsheets. Your narrative structure outline. Your synopsis. Notecards. Whatever you use to keep track of your story and your progress. You might find where you took a wrong turn. If you didn’t follow your normal process, then go back to the step you skipped. If you did everything exactly like you always do, try something different.
If you’re a pantser, print out your manuscript, or send it to your kindle, and read it. Make notes, but don’t change anything. Not yet. You might find that seed that you misplaced that will help you get unstuck.
If those things don’t work, call a writer friend, or a crit partner. Talk it out. And then listen. Whoever is on the other end isn’t married to your idea. They don’t have the same emotional attachment. They can look at it from a different angle.
Have someone read your work. Tell them why you feel stuck. You’re so close to your work that you might not see what is right in front of your face.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a writer is accept that sometimes I just don’t have a good idea. That’s a different kind of a problem and I’ve, more than once, have abandoned a project because it’s just not strong enough. At the same time, I have found that setting it aside, working on something else often gives me just enough space to find the weak spot and fix it.
Now. Let’s talk career.
There is so much in this business we don’t control. Even in self-publishing. We have to focus on what we can do and that’s keep writing and following our passion. We’re going to feel like a fraud. Imposter Syndrome is a real thing. I mean, wow, cool, I get paid to write about people who don’t exist. How weird is that? We’re going to come across people who are going to be snarky and say things like, “well, I’ve never heard of you.” We’re going to have moments where we question, is it all worth it? That’s normal and it happens in other careers, not just in the entertainment business.
So, when I feel these things creeping up on me, I do crazy things like, go to my Amazon page and remind myself of what I have done and how it makes me feel. I’ve done this since I published my very first book. And when my first publisher went bankrupt just days after my book came out, I cried. Then I reminded myself of how far I had come. This is a tough business and I’ve seen many talented writers walk away. There are only 100 spots in the top 100. But if I tell myself, I’m not going to get there, then I won’t.
I always think: The little engine that could…
Go for a walk. Clean the kitchen floor. Scrub the toilet. Paint. Anything that gets your body moving and exercises your brain a different way.
I’m not kidding. Doing something tactile will unclog your brain. It will give you a chance to breath and think while not staring at your computer.
When we’re new writers we start out all excited and we love our work and think it’s the best thing ever written. Then we go to a writer’s group, or RWA meeting, and we learn all sorts of things about writing. We hear terms like GMC (goal, motivation, conflict). Passive versus active voice. Point of View. Word counts for different publishers and their lines. Do’s and don’ts when querying editors and agents.
The more I learned about writing, the harder it got. It’s like the old saying, it gets worse before it gets better. My brain filled with so much information, and often conflicting, that I could barely write. I literally had to take a step back. I had lost what excited me to write in the first place.
I liken it to the kid who loves hockey, until he has to practice every day and it becomes work.
I felt as though I was being bombarded by rules that were tying my hands. I really had to learn to consider the source and understand that their opinion comes from their experiences and who they write for, ie: a big publisher, a small niche publisher, indie, or any other publishing option.
I think the number one thing a writer needs to do is figure out what their goal is. What is it that you want from your writing? One thing I’ve always wanted was to hit a list and last week that happened. I hit the USA Today Bestseller list in a Christmas anthology. Woot Woot! But guess what. I had to do certain things to get there, so I made sure what I was writing was helping me achieve that goal.
As you can tell, I’m a goal oriented person. And that isn’t my only goal. I want to get to a certain point financially. I want to have a paperback shelved in Barnes and Noble. These are some of my goals. So, one thing I’m doing is querying editors and agents again. This means I need to look at some of the rules in involved in this type of publishing and it’s different depending on the line.
But this path might not be what another writer wants, so their decisions will be very different from mine.
And that’s okay.
Here’s thing. It’s important to know the rules and understand them. It’s important to learn about all these different things so we can make informed decisions about our careers. We have to do our research in both the industry and in the process. It’s important to try different writing programs. Different processes. And it will fuck with your writing.
For a short period of time until you really understand yourself and what you REALLY want.
Once you remember what put you in a room, alone, to write a novel about people who don’t exist, things will start to click again. You’ll learn that while spreadsheets works for one, it doesn’t for another. While Scrivener is a great program, it might not be the one for you. Point of View, Narrative structure, GMC, and other things necessary in making a book good, will become second nature. You will know if you want traditional publishing, indie publishing, or be a hybrid author (and remember, every couple of years, assess your goals, because they could change).
And most important, you’ll find your own voice and then can decide what rules to break. Bob Mayer always talks about the three rules of rule breaking:
- Know the Rule
- Have a reason for breaking the Rule
- Accept the consequences for breaking the Rule
If you don’t know the rule, how can you have a good reason for breaking it? I think the why is always important in anything. I was on the phone last night with a writer friend who asked me to read something. I asked her why she did something and her response was: I don’t know.
You have to know. No matter what rule you are breaking, know why and understand there could be a consequence to breaking that rule.
Treat writing rules as guidelines. Parameters that you might step outside when necessary.
You can also treat publishing rules the same way depending on your goals.
So, as a new writer, if you find yourself at the point where you feel stuck, whether it be in your manuscript, or your career, take a step back. Take a walk. Find that one thing that excited you. Find that goal. What is your pot at the end of the rainbow? Then, sit back down, push out all the advice, and write YOUR book.
Every step of the way, whether novice or seasoned author, whether this is a hobby or career, we all have those roadblocks that drag their concrete asses over and plop themselves right in front of our creative highway.
The ones I had in the beginning are far different than the ones I have now.
You might see a bit of you in what’s to come…
You might be sitting in the center of what I’m about to describe…
You’re a new writer. You’ve been an avid reader for years. Essentially, through the process of devouring books, deep in that voracious brain of yours, you already know everything you need to in order to write your own book. No, it won’t be pretty. It will need heavy editing. But the pieces are essentially there in your mind just waiting for you to use them if you wish.
So, one day you sit down at the computer. You start paying attention to your favorites, what they do, what they talk about, events they travel to. You start to piece together the nuts and bolts of an author’s life beyond the final product that hits your kindle on release day. You see they’re going to RWA Nationals, or other small conferences. You see them talking about filling up their creative well.
So you start joining writer groups. You take some online classes. You one click thirty million books about saving cats, hooks, and writer tool kits.
You are pummeled by information about the “right way” to write.
The writer word starts screaming at you, sometime their advice solicited…often their advice unsolicited…
Other writer 1: “You have to outline.”
Other writer 2: “If you pants it you’ll never finish.”
Other writer 3: “First kiss by the 25% mark, sex by the 50% mark, black moment/climax at 75%.”
Other writer 4: “This trope is overdone.”
Other writer 4 (That chatty shit): “That trope is overdone, too.”
Other writer 6: “Write to market.”
Other writer 2 (Yeah, that asshole is back): “Incorporate high concept.”
You: Wait, what? What the hell is high concept?
Other writer 7: “Write what you know.”
Other writer 7 again after you show him/her your idea: “Wait—not that. Write something else you know.”
Other writer 3 again (The one writing formula romance only): “Oh, that’s not allowed.”
Other writer 8: “Don’t make it too gritty.”
Other writer 8 again driving his/her point home: “That’s not safe.”
Other writer 9 who is in the same writing group as other writer 8 and often wants to smack that uppity ass upside her bland head: “Don’t make it too sterile.”
Other writer 10 (This one is likely traditionally published and will offer to read your first 50 pages for you): “Don’t make your conflict a simple misunderstanding solved by a conversation.”
Blah, blah, blah, freaking blah.
See that utter bullshit up there? That’s what a beginner writer’s problem is.
Right. Freaking. There.
You’ve decided to write a book. Your family is patting you on the head and saying, “Oh, hey, that’s great” and rolling their eyes the minute you’re not looking. Classes are introducing aspects of writing you’ve never thought about. You’ve always loved the sausage, you understand it’s not just pork, but this is the first time you’re seeing the recipe to make the sausage. You are seeking information and getting bombarded with a bunch of unsolicited advice. You’ve convinced yourself that what you write has to be perfect before anyone can see it.
And you’re letting a writing world, one with old school veterans and breakout indies tell you there is a certain way to do it that’s the only right way.
I’m here to tell you, that’s utter bullshit.
When I started, conflict was a big deal. Conflict had to be strong. Now that our real life climate has become so divisive, romance is changing and becoming conflict light. As for that conflict that other writers might dismiss as not strong enough since it can be cleared up by a simple conversation…you have to ask yourself why the characters don’t have that conversation. If your characters are closed off, avoid confrontation, or maybe are young enough that they aren’t that forward yet, it’s understandable that the conversation would not unfold. A young adult is going to be less likely to lay it all on the line than an experience adult who has a serious relationship or two in their history.
Rules change all the time. They evolve. Traditional publishing is careful about what they publish. They take less risks. Indies are all risk. They don’t conform. They are the divergents of the writer world.
As a new writer, you’re worrying about being perfect, about following formula while finding your voice…about being accepted. Not just by readers, but by fellow writers. That’s the pressure that sits on the chest of a new writer.
Once you shed those confines, make connections, build confidence, you start to shed those roadblocks.
Which opens up room for roadblocks of a whole different variety…but more about that another day!
Write fearlessly. Right now that story belongs to you. Make it larger than life. Write something that makes you laugh, get mad, and cry. Even better, write something that makes you do all three at once.
Worry about the rest later.
Everyone has a different writing process and this is one place where Casey and I really differ. Really, really, really differ.
I don’t love writing blurbs, but without that as the foundation of my story, I’d be totally lost when I tried to get past the first sentence. I always know when I struggle with the first chapter, it’s because the blurb isn’t right.
Or I didn’t write one. Bad me!
First, I want to address the blurb must be 150 words. This is something I had never heard of being a hard and fast rule. I know there has always been debate on how long they should be, what they should cover, etc etc. I do know that not all blurbs are created equal. Kind of like bios. I have three different bios I used for different things in writing depending on the audience. I think back in the day, the same was true. A writer need something similar to an elevator pitch. A short blurb covering perhaps just the story idea. And the long blurb.
I spent a lot of time back in 2004-2007 before I got my first book deal, writing query letters and approached a query letter as the back cover copy of the book.
That is how I approach my pre-writing blurb.
I believe a blurb must cover the theme and tone of the story, along with the central story question at the very base level. I think it should touch on the goals, motivations, and conflicts of the main character. I also think the more specific detail you give in a blurb, the more you’re either giving too much, or making the blurb flat and for me, if I wait until after I’ve finished the book, I tend to be focused on the details and it then reads something like, than this happened, than this happened and then OMG read to find out what happens in the end.
I’m a plotter who pants her way from point A to point B. I have to know where I’m going. I need a map.
Casey mentioned needing to know her characters first, and she got to know hers in chapter 2. Well, if I don’t know them from the get go, I’m screwed. I wouldn’t be able to write the first paragraph.
I don’t need to know all about them, but I do have to know their core personality. I also need to know where the story is going, otherwise I will get lost. Below are my notes for BURNING BED. I wrote those before I wrote the blurb. Then I wrote the blurb.
And remember, the blurb is subject to change!
So, what did I need to know?
The Story Idea: What if someone murdered your brother to cover up corruption in the local police department?
The Heroine: Tabitha Nelson. Age 28. Driven. She a real estate agent. Parents died 2 years ago in a car accident. Brother killed 2 weeks ago in a house fire. She thinks her brother was murdered because he was on to possible major corruption in the local police department, leading all the way to the District Attorney. She believes that the local fire inspector covered up evidence.
The Heroine’s Goal: Prove her brother was murdered.
Her Motivation: Clear her brother’s name (he was linked to a drug ring AFTER his death).
Her Conflict: Someone is trying to kill her.
The Hero: Garret Pierce. Age 30. Youngest of three kids. A bit shy with the ladies. Was called the Jolly Green Giant his entire life because he’d been so tall and it affected his self-esteem when it came to asking women out. Dry sense of humor. Sarcastic at times. But a really big heart.
The Hero’s Goal: Help keep his neighbor safe.
The Hero’s Motivation: He’s falling in love, but also, as they uncover evidence, he believes her brother was murdered.
The Hero’s Conflict: the man who maybe the mastermind is an old family acquaintance.
Now here is the thing. There is a lot I didn’t know about this story when I started. But as Bob Mayer always says, story can change, Ideas can’t. This why I try to keep the blurb I’m writing to share with the world free of specific details, but gives the reader a little tickle in their brain that says, read me!
Now, here is the blurb I ended up with, BEFORE I started the story based on the above.
Tabitha Nelson knows her brother’s death was no accident, regardless of what the local fire inspector and police department says. Having found her brother’s computer and all his notes regarding a local news story he’d been working on corruption, she makes it her personal mission to find out who killed her brother. Why they killed him. And to make them pay, even if that means pointing the finger to the first responders.
Only the louder she gets, the more strange and dangerous things begin to happen to her. This forces her to turn to her neighbor for help.
For two months, Air Force Fire Protection Specialist, Garret Pierce, has been admiring his sexy neighbor from a distance, trying to get up the nerve to ask her out. Now he tries to ignore her all together. He had nothing to do with fighting the local fire that claimed her brother, or the subsequent inspection of the cause. However, if looks could kill, he would have spontaneous combusted every single time they crossed paths.
So, when she comes banging on his doors at two in the morning, begging him for help because someone tried to set her house on fire, he’s more the skeptical. That is until she steps into her bedroom.
Together, the unravel a trail of corruption and a sinister plot that puts them both in the line of fire.
The real detail I have is the two in the morning. I added that in when I wrote it because it’s a key element in their romance.
For me, the blurb is my foundation. It’s my rock. It keeps me focused and whenever I’m struggling, I go back to this and see where I might have derailed. I’m not married to it and I can tweak it. That said, this is the IDEA for the story. NOT the story.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
A writer’s way of saying, “Does this make me look fat?”
Only, instead of hoping you’ll tell us we’re slammin’ in our bandage dress despite the fact we can’t take a full breath and our shoulders are hunched up to our ears, we want you to lay bare our ugly.
That’s right, if there’s toilet paper stuck to my shoe, my skirt is tucked into my pantyhose, and/or I’ve got a boogie hanging out my nose, otherwise known as having a bat in the cave, I want to know about it.
My crit partner is not there to spare my feelings and blow sunshine up my ass. She’s there to make me better. She’s the brutal personal trainer of the writer world. Think Biggest Loser brutality here! She’s making me live on boiled, lifeless lean protein, arugula, and water. I may never see sugar again. She’s making me workout three, sometimes four hours a day. I’ve got shin splints, blisters, and head-to-toe muscle fatigue.
She’s making me stronger, fiercer, and capable of a long, successful future.
She’s going to pick apart every line, every plot point, every word and drive me to be better. I’m trusting her to make me the best writer me I can be. I’m trusting her to put aside any feelings of competition and focus on my work separate from hers.
Most importantly, I’m trusting her to care about my success as much as I do. If she doesn’t…this doesn’t work.
I’m an odd one. For the most part, I keep my ego completely out of the process. Sure, there’s an occasional ding. Sometimes I sit back, flip off the monitor, and give it some major side eye as I focus on something a little less scathing. But ultimately, I relish the opportunity to get feedback from someone who gets the struggle to find the best words and the best flow to write their best story.
Another writer trying to give at least one more reader all the feels.
When looking for a critique partner, I look for the same. I can’t spend my time worrying she’ll get her panties in a wad because I’m honest.
Egos have no place in this.
I need a partner who is just as driven to elevate their talent and uplift mine as well.
I have six hard and fast rules for critiquing:
- Use Humor – Always. We’re picking out mistakes. Mistakes we’ve all made thousands of times over. We can laugh about it. My job as a crit partner is to take out the sting in the evaluation by making it funny. Humor works to keep your partner from sliding into defensive mode.
- Explain – Don’t just say something is not working. Explain how. Most importantly…give concrete suggestions/examples of how to fix it. Often if Jen’s wording isn’t working for me, I’ll give her at least two examples of how she could change it or strengthen it. If I’m going to find fault with something, I’m going to explain why. Even if those examples don’t work for her, they could very well jog her creativity and give her and idea on how to make it better.
- Give those examples to her entirely – If I take a sentence that’s not working and give her two or three alternative sentences that flow better, I give her the freedom of using those sentences word for word. I know, sounds like a no brainer, right? Well, not in the writing world. People get a little sideways about that at times.
- Make it a “we” thing – Like I said before, we’ve all made the same mistakes. And no matter how we improve over time, we will inevitably slip into those mistakes again. The story will race through our head faster than we can dance our fingers over the keys. We’ll reread it and find out we did a whole lot of telling and not much showing. We’ll duplicate words. We’ll have a favorite verb crop up in every other sentence. It’s the nature of writing. So, often I will point out something and after I do, I’ll say, “I do the same thing when the story is flowing. I imagine your hands couldn’t keep up with you and you just had to purge. I have to go back and clean those bursts of creativity up sometimes, too. No worries.” Remind your crit partner that you’re in it with them every step of the way and that you go through it, too.
- Don’t forget the love (See example above) – Make sure you tell your crit partner what’s working. Always reinforce the good habits and let them know when the words are all coming together, or even better, when they’ve managed to drop a line so good that you just sit back, bob your head, and say, “Yeah, that’s it.” Not just for the ego boost, but so they can refer back to that and let it inspire them in scenes they’re struggling with in the future.
- You’re crit partner is not always right – Yup, I said it. Your crit partner is a whole other human being with emotions, perceptions, habits, and desires completely different from yours. They’re shaped by their unique history and with that comes a perspective that might not always jive with yours. Sometimes that comes out in the critique. Maybe they don’t see your character using a certain word or having a certain attitude. Maybe they don’t see the connection between characters as you’ve intended and tell you that you need to change A, B, and C.
But you love A, B, and C. A, B, and C were moments of brilliance and poignant.
But you done went and screwed up how you delivered them. You didn’t offer them up on a pretty porcelain platter; you served them up on a garbage can lid. A, B, and C may not have to change…the fault may actually be with the way you set up your story to present them. Your crit partner does not know your characters the way you do. They don’t talk in her head. She can only know them in the way you deliver them and if something you really love isn’t working, it might just be that you didn’t drop all the info you needed to about them in previous chapters. In my case, I have a habit of my heroines saying something saucy and Jen comes back and says, “I don’t see her using that word or phrase.”
So I go back. I look at her interactions in dialogue in the previous chapters and make sure I’ve brought out the personality I see for her. Sometimes all it takes is a line or two. Maybe I need to add an interaction. Either way, once I do, I’ve fixed the problem. Jen was right, but I didn’t have to remove A, B, and C.
Now go forth and find your absolute best critique partner. Forge bonds. Build each other up by tearing the words down.
And when all is said done, realize and accept that the minute you engage in a critique partnership, it will change the way you read everything in your future. Even if for pleasure. There’s no avoiding it. You will no longer read as a reader does, and you never will again. While that’s a scary reality to face, you’ll be a much better writer for it!
Signing off for now,