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.