Thursday, December 27, 2012

Every Other Friday - Casey Wyatt

Casey Wyatt says she has no personal knowledge of the paranormal, but she hopes someday that may change. "If there are ancient Gods, elves or satyrs living nearby, they’re more than welcome to visit. Bring pizza and chocolate please!"

Her paranormal romance and urban fantasy novels have won or placed in numerous RWA contests. Casey’s first novel, Mystic Ink was published January 2012 by Soul Mate Publishing. Her latest release, The Undead Space Initiative was published July 2012 by Pink Petal Books. Both books are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine booksellers. When not writing, Casey enjoys time with her family, loves to read, and enjoys knitting and crocheting.
She lives in a bustling Connecticut town with her husband, two sons and an assortment of pets (none of which are shape-shifters). Visit Casey on the web: or at You can also find Casey on Facebook and Twitter (@CaseyWyatt1).

Cherry Cordial, vampire stripper extraordinaire, spectacularly messes up her life with a single act of kindness. How could she have known when she rescued gorgeous rogue Ian McDevitt that she would be implicated in the vampire queen's murder? Soon, she faces the wrath of the entire vampire community. To escape retribution, she joins a settlement program to colonize Mars. Her choices are grim: hurtle through space to the red planet to face the unknown and possible death, or stay on Earth and face certain annihilation. To make things even more complicated, a certain gorgeous rogue seems to be shadowing her every move...

What drove you to write The Undead Space Initiative?
The funny thing is, I almost didn’t write the book. At first the idea seemed so crazy – vampires on Mars. But the more I thought about it, the cooler the idea sounded. If you think about it logically, who better to colonize Mars? Vampires, zombies and revenants are all dead. They don’t need to breathe, eat food or sleep. Gamma radiation and extreme temperatures won’t impact them like it would us frail humans.

Who did you write it for?
When I write, I’m largely doing it for me and because I want to share my stories with others. With this story, I just had to do it. It was really too much fun to pass up.

What were your biggest obstacles?
My biggest obstacle as always is, my buddy, The Doubt Monster (if you’re curious about him, visit me at my website or the 7 Scribes blog). He dogs me with every story I write. This book, because it was mixing paranormal characters in a sci-fi setting was a bit daunting. My big fear was that no publisher would want it. Turns out I was wrong. So take that Doubt Monster!

What are your productivity tips?
Be open to other ways of writing. I’m a reformed pantser, and I’ve learned the hard way that trying to wing it doesn’t really work for me. I spend a month or two planning, plotting and brainstorming before I start writing. Once I sit down to actually write the book, I can usually finish it in 6-8 weeks. The Undead Space Initiative was completed in about 6 weeks. While I’m actively writing, my daily goal is between 2,000-4,000 words.  If I write anything less, I feel like a slacker!

My biggest tip is to keep writing and realize that there will be times that you’ll believe everything you’re putting on the page is junk. Later when you have the first draft done, that may be true (or not!), but you’ll never get to the end if you don’t keep going. It is really okay to write messy. Remember, that’s what editing is for. It can all be fixed. It’s not like we’re chiseling words into a slab of marble, right?

Another tip, don’t spend years working on the same book. Finish it and move on. I really do believe that the only way to become a better and faster writer is to write lots of stories. Whenever I start obsessing about plot or grammar, I think about this quote by John Rodgers - "You can't think yourself out of a writing block, you have to write yourself out of a thinking block." 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Plotting for Pantsers 4 - Reviving conflict

The essence of a good scene, chapter, or novel is conflict. Vivid descriptions, evoking mood, and introducing a quirky character all have their places, but stories are driven by the clash of opposing forces.

A good plotter plans these out ahead of time. Often, just as a reader experiencing conflict can't wait to see what happens next, a plotter is driven to get that next scene on paper so he or she can experience the already mapped out conflict.

Pantsers may have conflicts emerge from the strong premise or from a collection of traps they built unconsciously into the story. An odd couple of characters may strike sparks every time they come in contact. And, since our lives are naturally filled with conflict, a dedication to truth and authenticity in fiction can cause conflict to bubble up.  All of these -- selecting a good premise, putting starkly different characters together, and writing honestly -- should be part of the pantser's pledge. Every time they sit down to write, these three should be already in progress, motoring away in the background.

Unfortunately, pantsers may be immersed in distractions (those vivid descriptions, moods, and quirky characters, not the temptations of Web surfing) or drawn to the weak conflicts of irritation and complaint. Both of these lead to a malaise that grinds the writing process to a halt. Realizing that you are distracted or bored is the first step. (Often, reading the last few paragraphs or pages confirms the problem. If it is painful, conflict may be lacking.) What do you do next?
  • Cut and cut deeply. Work backward, removing everything that is boring you from the manuscript, and maybe a little more. (Since this will be painful, set it off in a "cuts' file. Chances are that you'll never look at it again, but it feels like less of a loss if it isn't completely killed.)
  • Find a way to get interested again. I generally go back to the ten reasons I must write this story. (Everyone needs to have a ten reasons list.) I might also review my premise (usually expressed in a logline). Sometimes, I just read a passage in the WIP that I already love.
  • Write in a different way. Once I get the feeling back, I go back to composing the manuscript, but I don't pick up exactly where I left off.  I usually jump to a scene further on or put in a scene I skipped (or now realize I need) earlier in the manuscript. Often, I will change the mechanics -- moving from typing to dictating or writing in longhand.
If none of this works, something else may be in play -- confidence. Plotters are annoyingly confident because they have their tasks laid out in detail each time they sit down to write. Even a pantser can and should have a prompt, created the day before, for the day's work, but ambitious works tend to make those prompts melt away. How can a pantser build or restore confidence? I'll write about that in my next entry.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Plotting for Pantsers 3 - Characters to the rescue!

My characters talk to me.  In my sleep, in the shower, and sometimes even when I am typing away. There voices are always distinctive, and certainly insistent. But they are not always helpful.
  • They may fail to tell me truthfully about their backgrounds.
  • They may give me the wrong reasons for what they are doing.
  • They may work hard, often in devious ways, to keep me from putting obstacles in the way or making them suffer.
  • They may abandon me at inopportune times.

When I was a plotter, this didn't concern me too much. I already had lists of things that were going to happen to them, I had profiles that included aspects of their childhoods and their strengths and weaknesses, and I didn't depend upon their input. Since I approached the work with confidence and a clear idea of what I would write next, the writing went forward. And, eventually, the character got back to work.

I can still go back to my old ways and mechanically develop plots and profiles when pantsing fails, but I prefer to takes steps that are more in the spirit of improvising. When I do that, there is little violence done to creativity, and I get the surprises I'm looking for. Here are some methods I use.

Interviews. I have an advantage here in that I have played journalist through most of my career. I know enough to 1) ask open questions that can't be answered with a yes or a no, and 2) to listen to the answers. Most characters are easy interviews. They already know me and are willing to talk. But sometimes I need to get them drunk first. I literally imagine bringing them to a bar, sitting through several beers with them and then springing my questions. This may take more time, but it is worth it. Note: I do not actually drink myself during these sessions.

Traps. Sometimes I purposely put my character into a stressful situation. I write down the scene in vivid detail, including all the senses, and then shove the character into it. Once they enter the nightmare, they squirm and beg and reveal themselves. The trick here is making sure it is extreme and difficult for them. Many of my characters can laugh off situations that would tear me apart. I have to find their Achille's heels.

Changing Point of View. If the character (usually the protagonist) doesn't want to talk, maybe someone else does. I recently broke through on a story by having the villain narrate the scene. He saw himself as the hero and was eager to tell his side of the story. Once I had the whole scene down from his point of view, it was easy to write it from the protagonist's perspective. (Sometimes, this exercise has had a surprising result: it has shown me that I need an additional POV throughout the story.)

At times, I also find that I need to go back an earlier scene and rework it. I hate doing that. It stops forward momentum and it risks the kind of looping that can become pathological and unproductive. When I do go back to a previous scene, I limit myself to taking a closer look at the conflict. (This is something I always need to do in rewrites anyway.) Often, I find that I have dodged something that is painful to the character (and, likely, to me). Fixing that usually gets things moving again.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Every Other Friday - M.H. Mead

Margaret Yang is a writer and parent from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She speaks Chinese, loves to cook, hates waiting in lines, and is saving up for a flying car. Harry R. Campion is a teacher, writer, and parent from Harper Woods, Michigan. He loves libraries, hates rudeness, can deep fry anything, and is saving up for more bookshelves. Together, the authors write under the pen name M.H. Mead. Their novels include The Caline Conspiracy, Fate’s Mirror, and Taking the Highway. To find out more about Margaret and Harry, please visit their website

Tell me about Taking the Highway.
Detroit is thriving, once again on the move. The key to this motion may be the fourths—professional hitchhikers who round out incomplete carpools, allowing the car entrance to the super-fast, computer-controlled highways.

The city needs fourths. Fourths need the work. It's an easy way to earn some extra cash.

Or to end up dead.

Someone is killing fourths. The only one who can stop the killer is jaded homicide detective Andre LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

What drove you to write Taking the Highway? Who did you write it for?
One day, Margaret was driving from her house in Ann Arbor to Harry’s house in Detroit, and she wondered about all the single-passenger cars on the highway with her. What if only four-passenger cars were allowed on the highway? What would people do if one member of their carpool was on vacation, or sick? They’d have to hire people to fill the fourth spot.

She mentioned this to Harry as merely an interesting idea. Harry was intrigued, and started coming up with plot possibilities—like what would happen if these newly-crucial members of society were being brutally murdered. Before we knew it, we were writing the book together.

Who did we write it for? 
At first, we mostly wrote for each other. We are each other’s first readers and harshest critics, after all. Once the book was done and we started looking outward, we realized that all our books appeal to readers of thrillers as much as they appeal to readers of science fiction. Go figure.

What were your biggest obstacles?
Collaborators have special challenges when it comes to writing, and all of them have to do with scheduling. It’s hard enough for one person to carve out time to write, especially when you are working full time and have a family. Even if you can find the time, now the co-author has to find the time, and it has to coordinate with the other person’s schedule. Thank goodness for email, phone, and texts. We couldn’t do this job without modern technology.

What are your productivity tips?
Outlines! We love them. Can’t write a grocery list without them, much less a 400-page novel. Outlines are especially crucial for co-authors. With an outline in place, we write faster, we never get stuck in a corner, and we do fewer revisions.

Is one of you the leader, and one the follower? How do you handle disputes?

We are equal partners, and neither of us has the final say. We don’t stop talking until we find a compromise that pleases us both. This goes for big issues like plot points and small issues like word choice. Our editors say we’re a dream to work with because we never act as if our words are too precious to change. By the time the book reaches our editor, we’ve already made numerous compromises, and we know we will make several more before the books are on the shelves. It’s all in the service of a better story.

Do you have any questions for me?
Yes! Have you interviewed an author duo before? If so, did they pass along any tips or secrets that will help co-authors work better together?

You are the first writing duo, but I have worked in collaboration (books, articles, scripts, speeches) throughout my own career.  I've written a pair of HTWF entries on Collaboration Dos and Don'ts (part 1 and part 2). I think, even if you don't write with a coauthor (and not everyone is suited to), you should find a writing buddy.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Plotting for Pantsers 2 - Build your storytelling muscles

Last time, I introduced some of the benefits of being a pantser and some of the problems with writing by the seat of your pants. The freedom, creativity, surprises, imagination, and real fun that come from just letting the images form in your mind, listening to the voices of the characters, and allowing the words flow are worth all the pain, and need to be protected against overzealous drives for productivity. So my main aim here is to provide options that will not interfere with all that is good about working spontaneously.

If you are a pantser, and any of the tips in my articles don't feel right, avoid them. Sacrifice productivity before you drive away your muse. But don't let fear hold you back. Use good judgment.

The easiest way to build plotting prowess without doing any damage is to work those plotting muscles in an arena away from your work in progress. Most pantsers I know are huge consumers of stories. They read all the time and seemed to know about all the best in television and film. However, even though some can tell you about the highlights of the stories they consume, many are unable to retell the stories. And even fewer are able to immediately isolate key plot points. Plotters, on the other hand, have no problems dissecting stories (often, distressingly, in real time).

It is a simple thing to begin to pay attention to plot points and even the turns that are in scenes. It may take some time to do this automatically, but, with practice, anyone who love story can acquire the skill. Here's a step-by-step approach you may wish to try:
  1. Learn the elements of plot. There are many books on plotting. Since the structure is such an essential part of Hollywood films, I recommend a book like Save the Cat, but there are many choices available. Master these plot elements intellectually, so that you could easily recite them with explanations to others.
  2. Look for examples of plot analyses of popular stories. Again, film may provide the most accessible examples. Many books and websites include breakdowns and beat sheets, and these often explicitly tag the plot elements.
  3. Analyze the stories that you are consuming. Write down the plot elements in full sentences and begin to keep a journal of these. Make sure that you are analyzing traditional stories with the beginning–middle–end structure. Dissect shorter works (movies, short stories) so you can quickly gain experience. If possible, discuss your work with a plotter who is familiar with the material.

Your work in plot analysis may (probably will) decrease your enjoyment of the stories you consume, especially in the short term. It will make it harder to become immersed in the stories, and you'll begin to see the strings the storyteller is pulling. It may even stories you have enjoyed to obvious to appreciate anymore.

This is part of the price you pay for your own art. Mourn and move on. Know that, if you work hard at this, you're build your plotting muscles without damaging your own work. All this knowledge will be active in the background as you compose. And it will be explicitly available when it's time to rewrite your work.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Every Other Friday - Bob Zaslow (Mr. Z)

Bob Zaslow (Mr. Z) has been writing plays for adults since 2006 and is a member of both the AERY and Westchester Collaborative Theatre writers’ groups in Putnam and Westchester Counties, NY. He has also written five plays for children, which are distributed to schools across the country. He has been a three-time finalist in the AERY Festival and his plays have been performed off-off Broadway at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre. He’s also completed a musical dramatic comedy, The Seed of Abraham, performed at the Bleecker St. Theater in the 2011 FringeNYC Festival.

Bob was a Creative Supervisor at Grey Advertising for fifteen years and has written and produced more than 100 commercials, winning a Clio and two Effies . As a film-maker, he won an American Film Festival award for his documentary film, Nadine Valenti, Portrait of a Painter. He is currently an art and music teacher in an elementary school in the Bronx.

Tell me about Rap Notes--Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits (Vol. 1).
It's a strange marriage of 50 Cent, CliffNotes, and William Shakespeare. I’ve written the story of five of my favorite Shakespearean plays (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) but not in prose, in rhyme and rap.

What drove you to write Rap-Notes?
When I was a copywriter at Grey Advertising, I wrote a 60-second radio commercial for Bloomingdale’s Back to School in rap. I not only liked it a lot, but the commercial seemed to drive a lot of business. When I left advertising and became a fifth-grade teacher, I decided to use rhymes to help my students get excited about academic work. It started with social studies. Results--more enthusiasm for learning and higher grades.

Since I found Shakespeare’s language difficult in high school, but began to love his work as I got older, I decided to write a series of raps all about the plays. I thought I could put a rapper on YouTube, and any kid having a tough time with the Bard could view Hip-Hop Hamlet and get the whole story in fifteen minutes, in a humorous, memorable package.

After that, I decided to write a whole series of raps. Why stop at Hamlet? So I wrote The Macbeth Rap followed by Rappin’ Romeo & Juliet, King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

(I’ve already completed Othello and Julius Caesar for Volume 2.)

What were your biggest obstacles?
Other projects. There was (and is) always something I’m working on-- a short play, a musical comedy, a children’s book…and my teaching preparation…that has to get done too. Plus, I’m an email junky.

The thing is, these raps were so much fun to write, I didn’t resist much. For instance, I wrote most of Rappin' Romeo & Juliet over six nights in a motel in Seattle (and on the plane there and back) while my wife and I were visiting our daughter.

Who did you write the book for?
I wrote this book for all the students out there who might be a wee bit intimidated by Shakespeare, as well as their parents and teachers who want them to succeed. My other audiences include people who love Shakespeare and would like to read the stories in a brand new, entertaining way.

What productivity tips do you have?
My biggest tip of all is something I learned as a junior copywriter at Marsteller Advertising in the early 1980s. Namely, when you sit down to write, KNOW that you will come up with good stuff. Never harbor a doubt. I knew if I didn’t produce great copy, the company would soon find someone who could. So today, when I’m writing a play or another rap of Shakespeare’s best, I won’t listen to a negative thought.

I have to draw a line in the sand between that delicate thing called the idea and that loud-mouthed left-brain that says, “So?” That rewriting stage comes well after the creative surge.

In addition, I’m not trying to be a poet, just a “rhymer.” So I don’t take myself too seriously. And I never, ever try to be perfect. I trust in whatever the Muse sends my way. Also, I figure if it makes me laugh, it’s gonna make someone else laugh.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Plotting for Pantsers - Can it be done?

Many true plotters, those hyperorganized, logical, step-by-step storytellers look askance at pantsers. Pantsers (those who write by the seats of their pants) live moment-to-moment, with surprises and dead ends available at every turn. The most confident plotters know their approach is correct because they see their pantser kin struggling with epic rewrites and piles of half-finished manuscripts.

And yet, I think that secretly many plotters envy the freedom, spontaneity, and fun that is part of the pantser's writing life. I know I did. After having completed innumerable short stories and two novels as an almost scientific plotter, I abandoned that approach in 2001. I discovered that 1) it was more fun for me and 2) to quote Tolkien, "Not all who wander are lost."

Of course, I have three big advantages over many pantsers. First, through years of practice, I've got story structure woven into my thinking. No matter how wild my imagination is, plot points pull me back in like gravity. Second, I proceed with confidence. I know from past experience that even crazy random scenes are likely to find a place in the manuscript. (I also know that, since they were written quickly, I can part with paragraphs, pages, and chapters without lamenting the time invested.) Third, I have all my plotting tools clean and sharpened for rewriting.

I've seen pantsers, frustrated with blocks, stalls, and loss of productive time, shift into the world of plotting. Some succeed, even discovering that they are natural plotters, but some sacrifice too much. A few even give up writing.

I've begun to wonder, as I live as a convert among the pantsers, if I can provide the benefits of plotting to pantsers without taking away the advantages. As I said, pantsers:
  • Seem to have more fun.
  • Surprise readers because they surprise themselves.
  • Give themselves permission to mess up, so they find happy accidents.
  • Listen more to the characters.
  • Contrive less.
  • Work more organically.
For me, moving to the life of a pantser was like going from a black and white world to color. I won't go back. So the trick is to build plotting skills without becoming a plotter. I'm hoping, I can help pantsers to:
  • Hear the beat of the plot.
  • Find alternate routes to the ending (scene, chapter, novel).
  • Avoid blocks and stalls.
  • Approach each writing session with confidence.
  • Be more choosy about the stories they commit to.
  • Demand more of their rewrites.
I don't know if this is possible, but I'm going to try in the next few posts. I'll let you tell me if I've had any success.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Finishing the Book – Mental Blocks

Last time, I wrote about organizational problems that get in the way of finishing your writing. Mental blocks can be another major factor. In fact, it is the one I hear the most about from other offers.
Often, they are problems, such as looping and dithering, that can occur any time in the writing process, and I’ve offered tips on dealing with these throughout this blog.  Five challenges, however, seem to be the bane of those just trying to get finished, so I’ll offer suggestions on each.
Exhaustion. It is possible to get burned out on a story, or burned out on writing. The work can be all absorbing, demanding, and lonely. Or you can just become tired of the kind of writing you are doing. There are natural rhythms to scenes and segments, and you can get out of synch. And sometimes, everything becomes too familiar. You just want that voice in your head to shut up.
The first way to avoid exhaustion is to set your expectations correctly. It is much more likely that you will get tired of a work if you believe it should already be done. Books have their own lengths and gestation periods (which, admittedly, can be modified by a publishing deadline). I write out the hours (based on past experience) expect for phases of the project, and then I add 50%.
Exhaustion also tends to afflict pantsers more than plotters because they tend to write in surges. Steady pacing, with a consistent word count, can help you avoid physical and mental exhaustion. Don’t try to sprint in a marathon.
If you already are exhausted, cut down on your daily work count and do something entirely different. I switch to nonfiction, but, from what I see with other writers, music, drawing, and other creative endeavors seem to do that most to heal and revive.
No answers. Many writers feel that they’ve run out of ideas or painted themselves into a corner. It isn’t true. Your imagination has not died. Your muse has not abandoned you. As I simple test, I ask authors to provide ideas for other writers who are stuck, and they always come in a flood.
Seeing that creativity is alive and well is often enough, but, if not, ask different questions about the story. Rephrase. Zoom in (for a finer question). Zoom out (for a broader question). List ideas on paper or say them out loud. Stand up. Walk around when you look for answers.
Despair. This is usually expressed by the question, “Why did I start this stupid story in the first place?” Well, you did. And you are into it. And you are committed. And you are a professional. The finished work may be awful. So what? Finish anyway.
Leftovers. Those who hop around to write the luscious parts should not be surprised when all they are left with are those required transition scenes, the bits where clues must be planted, and blocks of narration.
First, reconsider whether these parts are definitely needed. Often the work succeeds without them. Elmore Leonard says, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Maybe you did that automatically.
If that feels wrong, brainstorm how they might be made more interesting. Can you include emotional content? Surprises? Can you surprise yourself?
If neither of these help, lean on your professionalism. Set a word count goal and grind it out. As one writer delicately put it, sometimes you have to defecate masonry.
Fear of failure. Though often hidden, this may be the most important reason why books don’t get finished. A finished book can be judged. And, if it is first draft, the judgment will be harsh.
But you can’t fail. A finished book, even if it is lousy, is an achievement. It moves you further down the road as an author and an artist. It builds capability. And you never have to show it to anyone. Virtually every author I know has a completed manuscript that never will see the light of day. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not a failure.
There are other problems – literary promiscuity (the urge to take up with a new manuscript), distractions, and jealousy. I’ll go into these at another time since I need to finish this blog.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Every Other Friday - Melanie R. Meadors

Melanie R. Meadors spent her formative years never truly deciding what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now that she is an adult, she continues to defer that choice by living vicariously through the characters in her stories. Her short stories have appeared in several magazines over the years (here's one written under a pseudonym), and have earned placements in a number of contests. In the past year, she has shifted her concentration from speculative fiction to historical romance. Her novel His Roman Heart's Desire has consistently been a finalist in many regional RWA contests. She lives in central Massachusetts with her family, dozens of roses, two guinea pigs, and four neurotic rescue rabbits.

Tell me about His Roman Heart's Desire.
His Roman Heart's Desire is a historical romance set in the time just after Caesar's assassination. Before now I have mostly written science fiction and fantasy short stories, so the new genre and length took some getting used to, but I'm having a lot of fun working on it.

What drove you to write His Roman Heart's Desire
I studied Classics in high school and college, and always found the disparity between the Romans we "see" (the rich patricians) and those Romans who remain invisible (the slaves, freedmen, and plebeians) fascinating. History is written from the point of view of the winners, and I often wonder about the other side. How did the actual majority of the people experience life, versus the rich politicians? I explore this in my book, as well as the concept of neighbors helping each other, people using their resources for the greater good.

Who did you write it for? 
I wrote this book because the story made me feel good. These characters have problems, and by working together, they improve life for many people (and they fall in love, as an added bonus!). I love ancient Rome, and wish there were more romances set in that time period. So I wrote it for myself, but I hope that others will appreciate it, too.

What were your biggest obstacles?  
When I started this book, I really worried about the book being accepted by publishers.  Historicals not set in England, or that don't feature Highlanders or Vikings, etc. are harder to sell to a publisher. I struggled with whether or not I should set it in a different time period/location, so much that I ended up blocking myself. 

Eventually, I decided that the book would not be as good if I sacrificed one of the main things about it that I loved. There are so many options available in publishing now that I feel like writers are more able to follow their dreams rather than forcing their dreams to fit someone else's mold. 

The other big obstacle was just finding the time and energy to write. My son has some special needs (listing them kind of looks like alphabet soup), and so we decided to homeschool him. I'm very glad we made that choice, but the days can be exhausting, leaving me with little energy at night to write!

What are your productivity tips?
Don't fight your life. Sculpt it to be what you want, but don't try to force it, because you'll just become depressed. What really worked for me was making a life plan, a chart with about four concrete goals (in all areas of life--family, finances, work, etc.) for the next five years on it, and then listing some steps toward those goals. 
When I am faced with a decision, I ask myself, will this lead me toward accomplishing one of those goals? If not, I say no. This allows me to focus my energy/time/money on the things that are really important to me. 
I also write up a schedule that has every member of the family on it, so I don't accidentally plan to write during a time my son needs me, and also so other members of the family know what to expect. Then I hang it up so everyone can see it. 
This backfires sometimes, like when I want to slack off and my son says, "Mommy, aren't you supposed to be writing now?" It kind of increases accountability. And I always make sure I schedule in some down time. I literally have a time slot every morning that says, "Veg out," because I need that!  I think everyone does. 
Make your schedule work with your life plan. Make sure you are doing the things that are important to you, that fulfill you.

I love that you post your schedule for all to see. Do you have any questions for me? 
What's your pet peeve excuse people give as to why they can't write?

What advice would you give to someone who sets a goal, but is unable to fulfill that goal? For example, if someone realizes that there is no way in heck they are going to complete NaNoWriMo or another such challenge, what would you say to them?

On the first question, I actually am pretty accepting of excuses if people are trying. An excuse that doesn't seem to be very strong is often a placeholder for something else -- like the terror of sharing fiction or avoidance of an emotionally difficult scene. The only thing similar that gets under my skin is when someone who has never written declares that he or she could easily write a novel. Or, worse, when they disparage someone who has. Finishing a novel is hard work, and i represents unusual if not extraordinary discipline and dedication.

 External goals are great -- commitments to writing partners, deadlines for contests and requested submissions, NaNoWriMo -- they all provide an impetus to get to work and finish a set amount every day. But the truth is that your development as a writer and your faithfulness to the story you're telling are what matter most. If those are being taken care of, the rest is secondary. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Finishing the Book (Article, Chapter, Scene)

It is a lot easier for me to get started than it is for me to get finished. Piles and files of bits and pieces testify to this. Some of the work is experimental or done before I got more methodical, but I still find that, when a work is 80-90 percent done, barriers appear. Some of these are physical (hard disk crashes, corrupt files). Some are environmental -- life events and illness. Some are creative or conceptual, such as painting myself into a corner. Most are in my control and could be considered organizational or psychological.

Yesterday's barrier was definitely an organizational problem. I had set myself the task of rethinking the structure of my current novel. This required inserting scenes and mostly complete scenes that were sitting in an auxiliary file, as well as reordering for effectiveness, tension, and stakes. This was an ambitious goal, but I was working against a timer not a word count goal or even a requirement to complete the to-do list. This usually reduces stress, but not yesterday.

The starting point didn't feel right. I had a list of scenes, in full sentences, ready for shuffling. My intent was to cut-and-past until the flow felt right. With over 30 scenes to reorder, the list looked too big. This was especially true since a few remained to be written. I stopped my timer and paced.

Moving around helps me to think. I have another work that exists as an outline of Post-Its. Was that a good option? I looked over a blank Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. Would filling that in get me going? By the time I was finished pacing, I had decided to put all the scenes onto index card. It was a gut decision that forced me to write out each scene sentence, but it worked. Something about the tactile experience of lining up, shuffling, and reshuffling those cards, made a difference for me. Scenes found new places. A few scenes were cut. Some holes were visible, and I created new cards for those.

I did one more thing. I marked each card to indicate the level of completeness. Scenes to be written got empty circles. Scenes partly written got checks. Completed scenes got Xs.

I'm on my way now, with a quick check (and a few changes) after sleeping on the new structure. I've added reminders on emotions, as well as some ideas on what might happen.  Now I'm methodically going through adding text to incomplete scenes and writing the new scenes, all in sequence. 

Usually, I dodge organizational problems by following my processes (collected in my process diary). Common organizational problems include:
  • Not knowing what your next step is. When the time dedicating to writing comes up, this can freeze you in your tracks. Which project? Which scene? Compose? Fill a hole? Rewrite? Since I always have too many ideas (especially for new projects), this one was the bane of my existence. That's why I always decide what I will write the day before, not minutes before, my next writing session.
  • Not having an approach for the next piece of work. As a writer, I'm always learning. I find new ways to look at my material, and this sometimes demands that I find or develop a new process. For instance, it was years before I had a file of "junk words" I could use to methodically polish my text. (And I am experimenting now with using AutoCrit Editing Wizard to help me with this job.) Right now, the biggest target I have is building a tool box for improving emotional content in my work. I have a few techniques, but I'm trying to develop more.
  • Having too many options for the next step. In a way, this was what got me dithering yesterday. I knew there were other options for working on my structure. If I'd only had one technique, I would have pushed forward with it.
  • Having the wrong approach or doing it out of sequence. My process diary is a graveyard of approaches that did not work well for me and ended up being rejected (or severely modified). Someone else's favorite approach may not work for you. And some approaches do not work for all material or for you whole writing career. And, at times, material that will ultimately be improved with a process, is not ready for it when you think it is. Often this is because another step was not executed correctly, but sometimes it is just a quirk driven by story, character, or circumstances. I often find jumping back to an earlier process or forward to the next process in my journal can be the answer.
  • Having an approach that is not detailed enough or too ambitious. I am a big believer in divide and conquer. In particular, I found that process steps for short stories needed to be looked at more closely and better defined when I began to work on novels. And with more ambitious works, a process step may require more from me than has ever been the case. In those instances, I have had to scale back a day's work so that the step got the attention it needed.
I would have made progress if I had gone with my original plan, but I had time yesterday to reconsider and follow my gut. If I had not had that time, I would have moved forward, but not as productively. Process is a tool, but the writer's instinct is valid. As long as the instinct is not an excuse for procrastination, it can help you work more efficiently.

Psychological barriers are the other main reasons for not finishing a work. I'll discuss them in my next post.

What stops you from finishing a work?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

More Interviews and Guest Posts

The Every Other Friday interviews continue to be the most popular feature on this blog. Since I posted the first five, I've added four more.

The most popular post of all (by far) has been the guest post by Gwen Hernandez.

Write Faster with Scrivener

To which I have been able to add another wonderful (and popular) guest post.

What I Learned from Doing NaNoWriMo (Rochelle Melander)

And, since I last chronicled these posts I've guest posted again myself.

The NaNoWriMo Survival Kit

Adding to my other two guest posts.

How to Write FAST
Drafting a Novel in Fifteen Minutes a Day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Building Opening Sentences - Something appealing/Something appalling

Tell the audience what's going to happen - that was the advice of choreographer Jerome Robbins to Stephen Sondheim about how to open "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The result was the wonderful, fun song "Comedy Tonight."

When I saw this in a bio of Robbins broadcast this weekend (and I am paraphrasing since I don't have access to the original), I couldn't help but thing of how Thackeray and other novelists of his time would begin chapters with spoilers like "In Which Miss Sharp and Miss Sedley Prepare to Open the Campaign." I've written in the past about how titles and subtitles (including "In which" beginnings) can launch writers into their drafts. It's also possible to construct first sentences (for books, chapters, and scenes) that can get the juices flowing.

Many writers freeze when the get to first sentences because there is so much pressure to set the scene, create a great hook, and introduce the character perfectly. If such a sentence comes to you, fine. If not, that means you're human. Get to work putting the story down and worry about the perfect opening sentence when you are rewriting you work. Here are five approaches:
  1. Call me Ishmael. (Moby-Dick) - Write down something the character says. If you can get a character talking, he or she is likely to keep talking for a full scene. Take advantage of that.
  2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice) - Start with a premise, your thesis (if you know it). Most of us had to do this is school so the words that follow, the proofs, should come easily. This approach works well if you have something to say.
  3. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. (The Trial) - Begin with the protagonist's problem. Then move on to what it means to him or her. What might be done to solve it.
  4. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. (The Good Soldier) - Make a promise to the reader. Make it as big as you dare. And then try to fulfill it.
  5. It was a pleasure to burn. (Fahrenheit 451) - Start with a sentence that is charged with emotion. If you have a visceral reaction to it, you can ride that emotion through the sentences that follow it. Once you establish an emotion, you can turn it, for even more fun.
Now, any of these approaches might give you exactly right sentence or one that would never work. It doesn't matter if it gets you started. Since getting started seems to be the bane of most writers, that's a good thing. You can find 100 opening sentences on infoplease.

If all of these leave you scratching your head, try answering these versions of the journalists' questions.
  • When and where does the scene take place?
  • Who is this scene about?
  • What happened to him or her?
  • How did it happen?
  • Why should I (the reader) care?
Be specific and clear. And, again don't worry if you need to change your answers later on. Just get started.

Are you bedeviled about how to begin? How do you construct your opening sentences?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Every Other Friday - Marian Lanouette

Marian Lanouette was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and is the seventh child of ten. Unbeknown to her parents, at the age of five she started reading the "New York Daily News" stories about the murdered nurses in Chicago and the investigation. Marian followed the story every day as authorities rushed to solve the brutal crime. It had caught her attention and her imagination. To this day she stills checks her closet before going to sleep. Marian thinks it was on that day the mystery lover was created.

Marian's first book If I Fail, A Jake Carrington Mystery was released September 2012, and will be followed up in January 2013 with the second book in the series, Burn in Hell, A Jake Carrington Mystery. Each book is a mystery with romantic elements because, to quote Marian, "Life is both mysterious and romantic."

Tell me about If I Fail.
If I Fail, A Jake Carrington Mystery combines mystery with romance. The first in the series. I'm happy to report it's been in the top 400 on Amazon for police procedurals for the last five weeks.

What drove you to write If I Fail
Jake's story popped into my head one day and wouldn't leave until I wrote it. I had to put another story aside to get this one down on paper.

Who did you write it for?
This might sound corny, but I wrote it for Jake thinking "okay here's your story, now let me get back to my other one." He had other plans, and his story became a series.

What were your biggest obstacles?
I'd have to say learning the business of writing. I took refresher courses in grammar, POV, and characters to spruce up my writing. I also sought out professional organizations to network with other authors.

What are your productivity tips?
I write full-time and treat it like any other job. I get up, exercise, and I'm at my desk writing and editing for six hours each day. I set word goals and don't leave the desk until I achieve them. I also limit my time online -- otherwise it’s a pit that grabs a hold of you and doesn't let go.

Do you have any questions for me?
I loved the classes that you've given at the CTRWA - What tips would you give to increase ones productivity?

My attention to social media for promoting my book [has] taken a lot of time away from my writing. I try to limit it to one hour in the morning, one hour at lunch, and free for all at night, but lately it's taking me 2 hours just to answer email or respond to tweets and Facebook. (It has to be done, not complaining), just need to know how to manage the time for it all.

I strive for a minimum of 2,500 per day but know I can achieve more.

Few people would complain about 2,500 words per day, but you are far from alone in having social media as a distraction. If you are losing time from your writing, that is a real concern. The writing must come first, both in the hours working on the manuscript directly and in the hours of rest and reflection away from the manuscript.

I would worry about whatever in your brain says "It has to be done." If your first book is making you take two hours a day in responses, how many hours will you end up dedicating when you second book comes out? Fourth? Tenth? 

When I first started teaching (chemistry) I took more hours writing notes to students on their homework than I did preparing for classes. Bad mistake. I learned out to curb that fast. And the results were better for everyone. Social media is fun (and it can be a good tactic to build audience at the beginning of your career), but it is not the main show. Not everything needs an extended response. Not everything needs a response. Some things can be handled with form letters. Or do what execs do, and hire someone to take the bulk of the work for you.

I hope this helps. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The NaNoWriMo Survival Kit (Guest Blog)

Today, I'm guest blogging The Write Now! blog with my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit. Stop by and make a comment or ask a question.

For more on NaNoWriMo, check out my series.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Shock Treatment for Storytellers

The further you get into a novel, the more likely that the essence of your story will hide from you. Side characters want to tell their stories. Main characters wander into dark alleys. Outlines and note seem to be written in a different language. 

Some sort of shock treatment is in order.

My first resort when this happens is to return to my List of Ten for the book. I almost always find a potent reminder of why I wanted to tell the story to begin with.  And, more often than not, I add to the list before I leave it, renewing my enthusiasm and focus.

Sometimes I interview my character or write him/her a letter. This get the voice of the character back into my head (and often the problem is shutting it up).

Recently, I was teaching my Flash Fiction course, and we got into a discussion about setting. With Flash Fiction, setting can make or break the story, and my main point was to think of places where interesting things happen. Some obvious ones are police stations, hospitals, weddings, funerals, and battlefields. But, if you think less dramatically, you can think of places and situtations where conflicts occur over mundane things. In the class, we talked about people trying to renew their drivers licenses, buying suits for teenage boys, blind dates, and so on.

Make the list long enough, and you're apt to react strongly to one of the places or situations. You'll feel that nibble of inspiration. The next step is to put someone into the place or situation who surprises the audience. We workshopped an emergency room in the class and ended up having two people arrive who had been sewn together -- arms, sides, hips, legs, and feet. The didn 't get along, and their stories on how this happened didn't match.

What we ended up with was drastic, but entertaining.

Think of how you might take this route to get to the essence of your story. What is the place or situation that will put your character into the most uncomfortable position. Can you include an element that will surprise your reader? What conflict could push it as hard as possible? Could you write this as a Flash Fiction (1000 words or less) story?

If so, your story will come back to life, and you'll have a reference point as you go forward. You also may learn more about you character and what your story will be.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Productive Writing by Candlelight

I live in the NYC area, so I am without power, water, and connectivity. Thankfully, we have a good library which is now providing me with a way to log in, a charge, and a warm spot to sit. (Actually, I am kneeling so I can have access to a scarce outlet. Sitting isn't supposed to be healthy anyway, and the nuns readied me for marathon kneeling.)

So, with 20/20 hindsight, a few thoughts on how to be productive in primitive circumstances:

  1. Paper and pencil still work. I find them excellent for brainstorming and creating lists of ten reasons why I love my story (and you should, too). Since I have a planned scene to write, I can dig write in (albeit at a slower rate since my handwriting can become impenetrable).
  2. Make a list of questions to beat distractions. What do you need to know about your character? Which puzzles need to be solved? What have you promised in your premise? How will your antagonist react to your protagonists latest attempt at problem-solving? If you get questions down before a blackout, you have a good place to focus your energy.
  3. Rewriting was made for emergencies. (As long as you printed out your text beforehand.) Get your red pen out and attack your manuscript.
  4. Enjoy the adventure. Take notes. Something might be useful later.

Keep safe, folks!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

HTWF NaNoWriMo Series

NaNoWriMo starts this week. While a number of HTWF posts might be of some help (see especially the Fast Drafting series), here are the ones that I wrote specifically to help make your NaNoWriMo a success. I've included a guest post from NaNoWriMo guru Rochelle Melander. (I'll be guest posting on her blog on November 8 with my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit.)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Every Other Friday - Barry Crimmins Interview

Barry Crimmins is a former Air America Radio writer and correspondent, noted political satirist and author of the critically acclaimed Seven Stories Press book Never Shake Hands With A War Criminal. He helped bring the Boston Comedy scene into the modern age when he founded two of Boston's most fabled clubs: The Ding Ho and Stitches. Such acts as Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Bobcat Goldthwait, Kevin Meaney, Jimmy Tingle and many others cut their comedic teeth in the rooms Crimmins started and at shows he produced. In the interest of full disclosure, Barry is also my cousin.

Tell me about your latest work.
I’m not talking about my latest work because it is barely begun.

Or whatever you want to talk about.
I’ve had a book published. It’s a book of essays. So I’m sort of a cheater as an author because I just write things in chunks as they come to me. Although, if you read the whole book, it ties together a bit.

It’s called Never Shake Hands With a War Criminal, which is based on an incident at CNN when I was there to be interviewed and Henry Kissinger came in. A long story short, Kissinger offered me his hand. “I’m Henry Kissinger…” and he started bubbling like a Satanic water cooler, that idling Kissinger thing he does, “er, er, er,”… just waiting to make an arms deal or something.

And I just looked at him and said, “UGH” And I left, and they brought in a lot of security and all these people were all upset.

When I came back, Norma Quarles, CNN anchor at the time, said, “Why didn’t you want to shake hands with Dr. Kissinger?”

And I said, “Because I have a strict policy of never shaking hands with war criminals.”

And she said, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot.” Which I thought was the funniest part of the whole thing because she really was sucking up to him before then.

But anyway, that’s a bunch of essays from a while ago. And I continue to write essays, and maybe some more will get collected at some point. Maybe I’ll get collected enough to write an actual longer narrative of some sort. But I don’t know if I have that kind of discipline or if that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. But I enjoy writing essays more than anything.

I also have enjoyed over the years writing my act to perform live. That’s what led people at the Boston Phoenix to ask me to write some political essays for them, going back twenty-five or so years. And I had the great good fortune of being edited by a true journalistic Renaissance man, Clif Garboden, who was there at the alternative press revolution in the 60’s. Tremendous photographer, tremendous writer, tremendous reporter, and just the best editor ever. He taught me to write by editing my work. Never was critical. I would tell him, “Look, you can tell me I’m awful. That’s fine. I’m a nightclub guy.” And he said, “No, this it great. It has something to it that we’re just not getting, but we did move this here…” And after a while (it didn’t take too long), I learned what he was looking for. And I agreed with what he was looking for, and I learned to write from that. So that’s a great advantage I had as a writer was to have a great editor. And Clif Garboden was great.

He passed away nearly two years ago. And that, I guess, is part of why I’m not talking about what I’m writing. Right now, what I’m thinking about and working on and taking some notes on (I don’t know if I’ll try to put it anywhere or not), but I’ve just been dealing with grief a lot because an awful lot of my friends have been passing away. And a lot of the people with whom I speak when I was working on something – people I could actually take into confidence and say I’m doing this or that have passed on. I don’t believe in talking to most people about what I’m working on because most stuff doesn’t end up happening (for me anyway). I don’t know about everybody else, but if one percent of all the books I ever hear people tell me they were writing happened, that would be a lot. So I figure I shouldn’t be wasting anybody else’s time with that stuff either. But there are people who are old and dear and artistic allies you can go to.

I’ve lost a couple -- Clif Garboden and Bill Morrissey, the folk singer/novelist was someone else I could speak with. We actually – he’s gone now; it’s never going to happen – but we were talking about both writing novels where we would call each other. My characters would call Bill’s characters in the middle of the novels, and not make anything more of it, but to see if anyone would ever notice. Three or four times in a novel, you’d get these phone calls from another novel. We never did it, but we laughed real hard about it, and that’s enough. Some of the stuff you just keep for yourself. You don’t put everything into the word zoo. You can’t be too miserly. Some of it has to be offered as incense.

What are your biggest obstacles?

I think with me, as with any writer, it’s me. It’s all about getting out of your own way. And then getting under way.

It recently took me a year to get around to painting the upstairs bathroom. And while I was doing it, I realized that I know what to avoid. It’s hard work. It’s a small bathroom. It’s got a million angles in it. There’s wood next to everywhere you have to paint. It’s just a hassle. I know how to paint. That’s one thing I know how to do. I can fall back on it, if I had to. But this is like a trapezoid next to a triangle next to a parallelogram – it’s insane.

I think writing is like that bathroom. I think what I have to write soon is going to be complicated and hard because I’m getting to that point where –I’m 59 years old – if I put in this effort, if I take into account what Vonnegut and Twain said, and some others, you start losing it pretty soon. So I would like to do something that matters. So that’s both daunting and pretentious.

What I want to write about is grief and what to do with it.

And I also have no qualms about writing sentimental things. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage. Sentiment takes a bad rap in a lot of literary criticism. “Oh, that’s too sentimental.” Well, fine. I’m a sentimental person, and life, people, things, dogs, you name it, baseball teams – they’re very dear to me. And that’s what I know how to do. Be loyal and sometimes have enough guts to care about things, and writing about people who are like that – I think that’s okay. So I think I’m going to write a sentimental book about grief, if I get around to doing exactly what I want to do. And some of the grief is just grieving the loss of time. I spent so many years writing about and discussing American electoral politics. That was like a treadmill to nowhere. So I’m really trying to pick my spots. Right now I’m just taking notes, and who knows? Maybe just the notes will be found someday.

I know I’m no Twain, but I get as much out of reading his notebooks as anything. Just watching him put it together, and I get this little shot in the arm. I’m reading Twain… “I think I’m opposed to capital punishment.” That’s all. That’s all he writes down. And then, wow! You see him wrestling with some things and you think, “Wow, I’m wrestling with some things.” He was opposed to that then; you would have a hard time nowadays. He’s still ahead of us.

So, now that the bathroom’s painted, I guess I could start writing about grief.

Do you have any productivity tips?

If you can get deadlines, that’s really productive. If you want to be productive, become a working writer. I’m quite productive with a deadline. I don’t wait till the last minute. If I know a deadline’s coming up, I get it done before the deadline because I know what can happen near the deadline.

But, without the deadline, I can become less focused. And I’ve been less focused lately. So, you can try to find a real gig, at least for a while, where you have to deliver, that’s good.

For years, people would come to see my act, and, whatever happened in the news that day, people would expect me to have something about it. That’s an immediate deadline. Not only do I need to talk about what’s going on right now, but I have to be funny about it. I lived under that deadline year after year, and also -- Oh, I’m Seattle today, and the mayor said… -- and I’d have a little joke about that. That makes the audience know that I know where I am and who they are and what’s going on. So I had a life of those little deadlines, and it kept me quite productive for a long time.

I don’t know now if I’m not getting a little punched out. But I’ve gotten a lot of stuff down. There’s a big trail out there, and I hope it does some people some good. Whether or not I’m around to take any bows for it. But that’s probably better, if you’re not around, because all the crap’s out of the way.

My philosophy sort of came from my hero Twain – reading him and his notebooks and so on. And getting into that sort of source material of other people [tells you to] play to the ages, not the age. You never know who’s going to find whatever you do. If you do one thing that’s of value, and people know about it, there’s a good chance that a few people are going to come back and comb through everything.

I try to write stuff that won’t make me look like a jerk in a hundred years. And if you think about things that way you might notice current stupidity a little better.
Why that’s a productivity tip, I don’t know. (I actually had a thing in my head where I could have bridged it and made the ship stand up in the bottle, but it was a lie.) Anyway, good luck to anyone who is writing. If you do well, we could all benefit from it sooner or later, if only through our descendents.