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.
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!
I hate blurbs.
I hate them with the searing heat of a thousand suns.
When I started writing, there was a rigid notion that blurbs should be no longer than 150 words, if you were a rebel and willing to push it, 200, and they had to conform to a three paragraph format. Her, him, them. Or Him, her, them…whichever worked. Quite literally the only real freedom was in whether or not to feature the hero or heroine first.
Then, as I tore my hair out while trying to conform to that style, I noticed an up-rise of fearless indies throwing caution to the wind and flipping their figurative middle fingers to the accepted conventions and going for it.
Suddenly dynamic blurbs of all varieties inundated the book world. We had short blurbs, long blurbs, fragments, first person, third person, one word declarations…wow!
It was literally the one stop candy shop of blurbs. It didn’t matter what your taste was, there was something out there for you from bitter dark chocolate to tart sour patch candies and everything in between.
I tried to break out of the mold. Dammit, I wanted longer blurbs, but everyone in my author groups, my tight circle of friends, those who had traditionally published or were currently traditionally published gasped at the idea. “You can’t do that!” they said.
Well, why the hell not?
I thumbed my nose at anyone who told me I can’t and instead did what I wanted. And it was incredibly freeing.
You know, as long as I could write them AFTER I wrote the story.
And then I was writing so fast I needed to have blurbs ready before the story was finished.
What do you mean I need to have them first? I’m a pantser. I don’t even know how it ends, hell, I’ve written stories where I’ve forgotten to give my hero and heroine last names until the very end. Now you want me to wrap up the basics of their story in a neat little bow?
*Stomps foot—flips the bird*
It’s just not the way my brain works. Oh, I can write the blurb first, but it’s going to be a steaming pile of poo and my story is going to go on so many different tangents that the underlying premise no longer resembles what I’ve been forced to put down on paper.
This goes back to my having the perfect first chapter. Look, logically I know I can go back and edit the first chapter. But it’s my framework. And the thought of building something on a foundation that’s not set, with rotting boards, rusted nails, and leaking windows is enough to set my heart racing while panic floods me from head to toe.
Since I don’t know my story, even condensing a story idea in 250 words is nearly impossible. It’s like trying to plot a whole book in a just a few words when I still don’t know my characters. I get to know them as I write. I start to think about their life situations and put together how based on who they were raised to be and who they choose to be influence the here and now.
I sometimes don’t know a whole lot about my characters until I’m a chapter or two in. I work them out on paper. Here’s an example:
“Well, well, well, now who is that?” Lavinia asked, an appreciative grin forming on her 1980’s red lips.
Blair followed her gaze, and her lungs seized on a gulp. “What’s he doing here?”
Lavinia’s drawn-on eyebrows disappeared under a poof of bleach-blond hair dropping low over her forehead. “You know him?”
He pushed away from the hood of his sleek, black, luxury whatever the heck it was car that might actually be just as mysterious and exotic as the man now walking toward her.
And so far out of her price range, it made her heart pinch.
“I’m not sure anyone really knows Evan,” she murmured as her mouth ran dry at the sight of him.
Black dress pants, probably designer from the sheen and quality cut, hugged his thighs as he strode toward her with one hand in his pocket and the other flexing at his side.
Tension radiated from him, but Lord help her, she didn’t care. She’d known from the first moment they’d met when she’d spilled her cup of spiced tea at her favorite coffee shop that he was something different.
He’d been polite, with those Clark Kent, square-jawed looks and dark-framed glasses designed to make the wearer look scholarly, but in his case, they only made her fingers itch to slip them from his face so she could get lost in the warm, amber depths behind them.
Fire and ice.
Cool and detached on the outside, but those eyes—God, those eyes told a whole different story.
An elusive tale likely no one would get to the bottom of.
This is chapter 2, page 17. Chapter 1 was in his POV and still I didn’t know who he was. Evan had already been in three other novellas as a side character. When the time came to write him, I hadn’t a clue who he really was, or what made him tick. I knew with all of the others even when they were still secondary characters.
The scene above was my “aha” moment. The reason I didn’t know who he was went right to the basis of who he was as a character so his being a mystery, even to me, worked!
So, how on earth am I supposed to write a blurb before I do the above?
Wanna see what happens when I try?
See…a hot mess! It’s okay, you can agree with me. I already know.
I struggle to narrow it all down. I find halfway through writing the actual book that my characters do not look anything like what I’ve outlined in my blurb. And worst of all, as a pantser, I find I’ve boxed myself into conformity and I struggle to let my characters drive the story because I’ve already committed them to a certain reality.
What I have learned, if I figure out how to do a rough outline, I might have a chance…but who are we kidding? I’m probably not going to learn hot to do a rough outline.
Because I’m stubborn.
There is a bit of controversy out there in writer critique land if you should be giving your critique partner your best work or your first draft. The answer to that is not whether one is right or wrong, but what one is looking for in a critique, what one wants to give in a critique, and what one believes will best serve them. I also think, the answer come in where you are in your writing career and the development of your craft (which is always getting better). Casey and I will cover that in another topic soon.
When Casey and I first met. We both came at this critique thing with each other wearing protective gloves. This is because we both had bad past experiences. Those experiences helped us shape the critique process we have now. Neither of us wanted a line edit. We didn’t want proofreading, although we’d say, if you see, feel like fixing it, go for it! We also didn’t want smoke blown up our skirts. We wanted honest and real.
Last week Casey talked about taking care of what you have and not becoming complacent as a critique partner.
Every time I get a critique back from Casey I get excited about finding out all the things she found wrong, or that could be better, or that I missed an opportunity, where I can amp up the tension, make a reader care, whatever. If I ever got a crit back from her that had a comment or two, a few fixed typos, and tells me I did a good job.
She’d be fired.
Of course, the few times (okay, maybe once in the last, I don’t know, two years) I’ve gotten a critique that had very few critical comments. I immediately picked up the phone and said, “WTF? There has to be something wrong with this bad boy.” To which she replied, “It was a real shocker to me too, but other than that one area, I thought, damn girl, you rock.”
Trust me, the next one that came back, I saw so much red I cried tears of JOY! See, I like editing and rewriting. It’s my favorite part of writing. I’m that weirdo that HATES drafts, except first chapters, but I digress. I’ve never thought I’ve gotten anything “right” on the first try. I shine in second and third draft. I layer in second and third draft. Though, because I focus on action and dialogue, I often miss little opportunities, which is why I need Casey to constantly show me where I can amp up the tension and emotion. Without her, I think my books would be a bit flat.
Her post last week talked about taking care of what you have and not becoming complacent. Now let’s look at what Casey does…one thing she has a tendency to do is give me way too much information in a short period of time. I’m overwhelmed. The reader might be overwhelmed. She might have a reason for doing it, but if I don’t keep pointing out when I’m bored, or she’s beating me over the head with something, or I’m lost in the detail and not the story, or I’m starting to skim, not carrying much about what she’s writing, then she might not know where she’s mucking up. Thing is, almost every time I tell her this, she’s like, well this person or this thing is important because of XYZ. Okay, but there is NO NUGGET that makes me care. You have not planted that SEED. Give that to me! And she always finds it usually by doing two things. Tightening where she can, giving the reader only what they need in that moment, and finding that one little bomb that says, you need to know this. But poor Casey is stuck with me giving her comments like this.
Or, I often toss a bunch of questions at her about what I’m reading. I don’t have to have the answers because you have to remember, she might want me as a reader to be thinking all this stuff. Or it just might be, okay, I don’t HAVE to give the reader all this right now and it goes back to what does the READER HAVE TO KNOW RIGHT NOW.
Now, some of you might be thinking, God, Jen, you’re mean. Or geez, Jen, why are you airing CASEY’s dirty underwear out there. And I want to make this clear. The reason why I’m giving you examples of my critique of Casey is to show how I’ve come to know her as a partner and how I help her make her writing better. Basically, calling her on her shit. And her calling me on mine. Not only do you have understand your partner’s voice in draft mode, but you have to understand how you critique. It’s essential that you’re working on their writing, not projecting your own into.
Another thing to consider is to be assertive in what you need. There have been times when I’ve said to Casey that I really need you to look for certain specific things. It’s not because she’s not doing it, but it’s good to restate your needs.
Also, when writing something that is a little out of my comfort zone, I will ask her to focus say emotion or character development.
And here is another thing to consider, sometimes we focus on what WE do in our writing and not what THEY do.
If I’m told often enough that I have a specific bad habit, I will start to notice it in everyone else. It’s part of learning who you are as a writer.
I think Critiquing in DRAFT MODE is an important concept because too often we focus on the mechanics. The Oxford comma. The word WAS. We’re not line editing. We’re not really even being developmental editors. We’re doing a stream of conscious commentary on a writer’s draft. Understand, that the draft may go under many edits after that. I’m just seeing Casey with her pants down.