15 Writing Tips From a Pro So You Can Start and Finish Your Book With Success


Editor’s Note: This extraordinary series of writing advice articles was published on Saturdays last Spring, from February 28 through June 15, 2013. I’m hoping that Sarah’s thoughtful, encouraging writing can inspire other writers as it has me. (Check out her newest book Witchfinder here, her first indie novel, and read about how she wrote it with her blog here. Sarah’s on the cutting edge, carving new territory in the world of sci-fi/fantasy publishing. There’s so much other writers can learn from her.) With the recent launch of the new fiction platform Liberty Island now’s a better time than ever to give that novel a shot. Please check out this interview Sarah conducted with CEO Adam Bellow here to learn more: “It also has a unique mission: to serve as the platform and gathering-place for the new right-of-center counterculture.” – Dave Swindle

Tip 1: The Thirteen Weeks Novel Writing Program

How to apply the Charlie Martin Method to your first book.

Tip 2: Three Questions To Ask Before You Write Your Novel

Is your book big enough to choke a goat?

Tip 3: First You Catch Your Idea

Hunting ideas out in the wild.

Tip 4: The Plot Wars

By all means take up arms in the fight between “plotters” and “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-ers.” Just remember to take up a pen too.

Tip 5: How to Find the Time for Writing

5 time management rules for writers.

Tip 6: How to Escape the Blackhole of Endless Research

With these tips you can avoid dying buried In books and focus on writing.

Tip 7: How to Develop a Dynamite Writing Voice

In which we break open the safe to reveal the secrets of crafting exciting prose to hook your reader from the first page.

Tip 8: My Tricks for Beating Procrastination

Stop rotating the cat!

Tip 9: How To Ensure Your Novel Flies Right

Achieving Literary Liftoff.

Tip 10: How to Avoid Giving Up on Writing Your Book

Slow Dancing in the Dark.

Tip 11: How to Read Fiction and Watch Movies to Add Depth and Feeling to Your Writing

Look, Ma, No Hands!

Tip 12: What To Do When Writing Clicks Together

I Believe I Can Fly!

Tip 13: How to Build Your Writing Career

Block by Block

Tip 14: The Secret to Crafting a Conflict of Biblical Proportions…

The Duel.

Tip 15: Managing Your Deadlines

Beat the devil!

Tip 1: The Thirteen Weeks Novel Writing Program

How to apply the Charlie Martin Method to your first book.

Can you write a good novel in thirteen weeks?  I don’t know. I can. The shortest time I’ve taken to write a novel was three days, which so far happens to be my best-selling novel. (Alas, work for hire.)  And I’ve written a novel in five years.  That novel remains to this date – deservedly and mercifully – unpublished.  While the idea isn’t bad, it will take some serious rewriting to make it readable, the sort of rewriting that turns it into a trilogy and gives it new characters.

If you go on the evidence of the market, you’d do best to write a novel in a shorter time than thirteen weeks.

My average novel takes a little over a month, but I don’t count research and outlining and run up at the thing (which means finding the right voice and all that).

So thirteen weeks is probably about right, particularly since I’ll be doing my usual thing and writing other things in the evening, as well as editing a couple of other novels.

While it is tempting for the amateur to think that the quality of a novel is directly proportional to how long you take to write it, as far as I can tell there is no correlation.  At least in terms of readability and salability — which is my definition of quality for this project — there were authors like Rex Stout, who had a long-lasting career and who wrote his novels in an average of a week per.  There are also authors like J. K. Rowling, who is reported to have taken three years to write Harry Potter.  There is of course Tolkien, who took more than a decade to produce his works.  There simply is no correlation between quality and time.

You write a novel in as long as it takes to get the novel written.  And that’s all there is to it.  Even now, even in my case, some novels will appear to me fully-formed and with some I have to struggle for every word.

So I’m not going to say this novel will absolutely be finished in thirteen weeks.  It might be in more, it might be in less.  However, what I propose to do is set out a plan for writing a novel in thirteen weeks – and then try to accomplish it.  You are welcome to struggle along with me, if you wish.

Of course, writing suffers from the same problem as any other avocation in which you only get paid – if at all – after you finish the work.  You wander around the house, thinking up more interesting things to do, or if you hit a snag, you have the impulse of throwing the whole thing over and either going off to rotate the cat, or starting another novel deciding that the problem must be in the material.

The most common lament other than “I always wanted to write a novel, but never had the time” is: “I never finish them.  I just start them.”

I have found over the course of my career that the best way to overcome this is to be involved in either a group effort or one with well delineated schedules.

That is what I propose to do here.  I shall set dates for having finished each phase of the novel: planning, sketching, outlining, and then milestones in writing.

I advise you to read Techniques Of The Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain.

I also advise you to read enough books in the genre you wish to write to know sort of what you’re aiming for, and what is selling (at least to editors) in that field.  Do not be afraid it will taint your “true voice.”  It won’t.  What it will do is give you an idea of what has been done, so you’re not set to reinvent the wheel. A book that refers specifically to your field — “How to write science fiction” or “How to write mystery” — might come in handy, so long as you don’t let it persuade you that the book you wish to write is totally un-viable, because the books out there are biased towards a certain type of market which is now only a part of the real market.

Anyway, this project will allow you to compare yourself to a working writer, and chug along with me on the way to the finish line.

Want to see if you can do it?


Image courtesy Shutterstock / Zurijeta

Tip 2: Three Questions To Ask Before You Write Your Novel In 13 Weeks

Is your book big enough to choke a goat?

The Run Up

Or, In Which Things Have Already Gone Wrong

What happens very often when one decides to write a novel is: everything goes wrong.

It is a well-known fact to those who participate in National Novel Writing Month in November* every year that it seems to attract bad luck. One year, I had a pet die, a relative die, the roof over my office leak, and the printer develop a fatal short. I haven’t participated since because I’m afraid my livestock will die — I don’t have livestock.

The last two weeks haven’t been quite so bad, but I’ve got a lot of unexpected work, ranging from short stories to blogs to promoting my new book A Few Good Men, at the same time as one of my sons brought home something “interesting” from school that made 15 hours of sleep per day irresistible.

So — and this is part of successfully writing a novel or completing any project — we’re adapting to changed circumstances and carrying on.

Let’s start with frequently asked questions which, hopefully, will lay out what you need to know before tomorrow, when I will explain my method and schedule. And then we’ll have a post on ideas and how to work an idea.

1. What is a novel?

A novel is a work longer than a short story and normally involving weightier subjects or more involved action. The length has varied throughout the last century, mostly in response to technology. The people of NANOWRIMO* set their length for a completed novel at fifty thousand words. When they did this, you could not get a fifty thousand word novel published anywhere. The minimum in the last decade has hovered around eighty thousand. (Some category romances are thinner, but they also tend to be work for hire.)

However, if you read books from the first half of the twentieth century, you’ll find what is sold as a novel is often around fifty thousand words, and could be as low as twenty thousand.

On the other hand, it appeared to be cheaper to print longer works — hence things like the Ace doubles — thus leading to a slow growth in the size of the books.

In the late seventies and early eighties, a fatal intersection of word processing technology, marketing trends, and printing tech created the dreaded goat gagger — a novel so long that the only way to attain it was to combine several novels into one.  This ran around two hundred and fifty thousand words, and could be near-deadly to write. Often it was a group adventure with multiple story lines.

The advent of ebooks is pushing things the other way. People perceive books differently on the Kindle, and I’ve bought things called “novels” that were around thirty thousand words and not regretted the purchase.

So if you have anything between thirty thousand and two hundred and fifty thousand words, it can be “a novel.”

The only limitation on the size is if you want to send it to a traditional press. They still prefer works of around a hundred thousand words or more, though the goat gagger has gone out of style.

2. Do you plot?

The question is normally asked in the field as “Are you a plotter or a pantser?” (Pantser is shorthand for flying by the seat of your pants, with no plot.) My answer is normally “yes.”

I started out writing detailed plots and some books still require me to — for instance, Noah’s Boy, the last one I delivered to my publisher — yet some books  refuse to be plotted. Sometimes I can only see a chapter ahead.

However, for beginning writers — i.e., anyone who’s written fewer than five novels — I advise plotting the book in advance.  You see, I think the reason I no longer plot that much in advance is that I’ve internalized a lot of the rules and sense of what a novel is. I should have, after 23 novels.

This said, writing a novel is an intensely personal endeavor. I’m going to give several methods which will work, from full outline to “high points” outline, to a couple of paragraphs pinning down your idea. You can pick whichever you want to use, or none — we’ll still be talking about how long it will take to write, etc., even if you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Be aware that pantsers who are inexperienced at writing usually end up having to do heavy revision at the end. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, just something you should know.

3. How do I know if what I’m writing is really bad?

Well … you don’t. Because the first thing you have to ask is “Bad according to whom?” I encourage you to pick up ten books from either the New York Times bestseller list or from the “ten best books” list of anyone you respect. Unless you respect that someone so much as to subordinate your taste to theirs, I guarantee you’ll disagree with at least five of the book choices, and in fact you’ll consider one of them fit only to line bird cages (which is hard to do with Kindle books).

So when I lay out the best methods for writing a novel, and tell you how we should be trying to get better at this or that, what do I mean, exactly?

It’s hard to explain, but part of it is doing it better to your taste. If your dialogue sucks on ice, according to yourself, I can tell you how to improve it. If you can’t pin down a historical time period, I can pinpoint the best research shortcuts (most of the time).

The other part of it is doing it more like the style/ideas of someone you admire. If there’s a writer you really like, you can be looking to make your material more like his or hers. (Isn’t that plagiarism? No. No human being alive writes that much like another human being. Not even Spider Robinson’s conscious imitation of Heinlein classifies as plagiarism.) This involves studying the author, and we’ll cover this too, as we go through the thirteen weeks. If there’s a critic whose opinions you respect, you can try to fit more closely with what they consider good.

Still, there is no absolute good when it comes to art, and therefore no absolute direction. Each of us has one, and the best I can do is help you pinpoint it.

What about NANOWRIMO? How come they write novels in a month?

It’s obviously sheer madness to write novels in a month. All the best people write them in 13 weeks.

On the other hand, if you think you can be that fast, then feel free to write three novels.


* Comments about it being madness to write a novel in four weeks are obviously tongue-in-cheek, and not intended to be taken seriously. That said, I do borrow a lot of their hints on “how to get unstuck” — notably, “take a lot of showers.” More on that later.

images courtesy shutterstock / Dudarev Mikhail / kubais /  auremar / Lana K

Tip 3: Your Novel in 13 Weeks, Part 2: First You Catch Your Idea

Hunting ideas out in the wild.

If you’re going to write a novel, you have, of course, to start with an idea. Just like if you’re going to make a shepherd’s pie, first you have to catch your shepherd.

One of the questions I always get — in every panel, in every interview, at every con — is: “How do you get your ideas?”

The normal answer is: “I get them from [insert random, remote/small town].”  I use: “Hays, Kansas. But it will cost you a dime, and you have to send a SASE.”

The sad thing is that I could possibly sell ideas and never reach a point where I have none to sell. Like with everything else, ideas are something you train yourself to have, and once you start having them, you have them all the time. You’ll be Standing On the Corner, Minding your  Own Business (the infamous SOCMOB that guarantees you’ll be jumped by “two bad dudes”) when an idea will jump out of  a nearby dumpster, and there you have it.

For instance, the other day in my blog comments, commenter CACS mistyped “High School Cemetery” instead of “High School Chemistry,” and there was immediately a boarding school for vampires (children with special needs) in my head.

So, was that idea enough to write a novel?

Probably not, because it doesn’t interest me enough – but what you also have to understand is that the boarding school for vampires is not an idea for a story. It is an idea for a setting. I still don’t have an idea – and it is the idea that determines whether it’s a novel, a short story, or just a passing, throw-away detail in another story.

Let me explain: What you have there has no characters, no conflict, no… story. It’s at best a spark of a story, even if for a fantasy reader (or writer) it comes freighted with all sorts of implied problems like “do they have classes at night?”  “What do they do for the cafeteria — a blood bank?”  etc.

Don Quixote, Walter Crane, 1880

It’s still not an idea.

The problem I run into most often with beginning writers or, heaven help us, people who try to give me their ideas, is that they are not ideas – not complete ideas. Say you approach me and say: “I have this idea for a story. There is a magical shop around the corner, and it disappears.” I’ll say, “Yes?” Why? Because that’s not an idea. It’s at best a seed.

In the same way – and this happens just as often – if you come to me and say “there is this girl and this boy, and they fight over the boat he’s taking,” it’s not an idea. Not even if you then add in a revelatory tone: “It’s the Titanic.” (Though that last one comes close, and I could probably start with that and write a pretty good romance or paranormal mystery short story.)

If you think J.K. Rowling’s idea for Harry Potter can be summed up with “there is a magical school” or “there is a boy and he lived,” then you will have to think again.

To make sure you have a story idea, you need to count the elements:

a) You must have a genre-appropriate spark. (That vampire-school idea is a genre-appropriate spark. That is, if I wrote it it would fit in either vamp lit or YA vamp lit. A spark for a mystery might be: “Man killed by shark. It’s murder.”  It’s a spark because before you write, you have to figure out how to engineer a shark attack on command of the murderer.)

b) You must have a character, and there must be a reason why we – or at least you – give a hang about this character. This partly implies …

c) conflict, or a hint of danger or something the character desperately wants. (“There is Bob, and he’s happy and nothing happens” might be a nice thing for Bob, but it’s not a story idea.)

Note that the spark can be a setting or a twist on an old story.

So J. K. Rowling’s idea was: “There is a magical school. It coexists side by side with our reality. A boy educated in our reality is admitted to it. He turns out to be a pivotal figure in keeping the world from being taken over by the dark powers, who will actively try to subvert him/do away with him.” That’s an idea, and from it you can build not just a novel, but a series of novels — because the stakes are the world.

Anyway, one thing to remember is that the idea isn’t copyrightable. You can absolutely do “like Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library but in space” or “like Podkayne of Mars, but the main character is a rejuvenated grandma and the “Clark” character is her grandson.”

That is fine, provided that you also remember an idea is not a plot. If you stay true to your idea, you’ll find that the idea itself dictates changes in the plot. For instance, if your characters are in space, they are not in an English village – you’ll have to create a society there, and that will influence the plotting and how it goes, even if you hit all the same points.

But you can write the idea and never come close to the same story, in the same way that Fiddler on the Roof is built on the general lines of Pride and Prejudice, but the fact that it’s dealing with Jewish tradition and life in a village in Russia makes it all different.

Sometimes for a beginning writer it is comforting and reassuring to borrow someone else’s general idea. For instance, my first published book was Tam Lin, with Will Shakespeare as the main character and the fairy nursemaid legends mixed in.

And my idea for the novel I’ll be writing in the next thirteen weeks (Through Fire, the Second Book Of the French Revolution) is

The French revolution, in the future, if the queen of France were an import from a libertarian planet and her husband were a revolutionary who sets off the whole mess.  Zen Sienna doesn’t even fully understand Earth, but she must do everything she can to save the man she loves from an untimely end.

Now it’s your turn.

Remember that for a novel it must interest you enough to write however many words about this character, this problem, this twist, this situation.

So … what’s your idea?


image courtesy shutterstock / MJTH

Tip 4: The Plot Wars

By all means take up arms in the fight between “plotters” and “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-ers.” Just remember to take up a pen too.

To Plot or Not To Plot

The closest you come to holy wars among writers is on the matter of plotting versus pantsing. Pantsing is a highly technical term, roughly translating as “flying by the seat of the pants.” Plotting in this case means working out the details of your story in advance.

Should someone ask you if you’re a plotter or a pantser, you might think it is just a matter of curiosity; but be careful how you answer.  Whatever your answer, there is an even chance that if your listener is a writer — and even if he isn’t — he’ll have strong opinions on how you’re doing it wrong.

The only people without strong opinions on this are people like me who started as strict plotters, became somewhat looser plotters, and now find themselves as pantsers.  It is not an unusual journey even if the opposite trajectory is almost unheard of .  I have the theory that plotters who become pantsers after a number of books have in fact internalized the structure of a novel so well that the subconscious is pulling its own weight.

Plotters defend their method of work as resulting in tighter, cleaner books, and pantsers defend theirs as letting unexpected genius shine through more often.  And yet, I know many plotters whose work has sudden, unexpected surprises, and many pantsers whose plots work as precisely as a Swiss watch.

So, instead of telling you the way you should work, I’m going to assume you’re an adult and know yourself best. Besides, if you start out one way and it doesn’t work, you can always change.

What I’m going to tell you — quickly — is how some people write plot outlines, and then how other people write without mapping plots in advance.

The Nefarious Plot

The simplest form of a plot is a “high-points plot.”

Take Romeo and Juliet.  The high-points plot could be relatively detailed, or it could fit in the back of a postcard, in which case it would go something like this: Romeo falls in love with Juliet.  Parents enemies. Lightning-fast romance.  Secret marriage.  Forced separation.  Juliet pushed to marry Paris. Confusion.  Double suicide.  Parents chastened.

If you are the more detailed type of high-point plotter, you could have in stuff like the duel with Tybald, or the friar’s plot to fake Juliet’s death.

A more detailed form of plot is a chapter plot.  My chapters tend to coincide with scenes, so it would go something like this:

1- A duel between Capulets and Montagues on the street.  Supporting characters introduced, including Benvolio.  Duel is broken up by the prince.

2- Montague interrogates Benvolio about the cause of the quarrel.  Conversation turns to Romeo, whose behavior has been worrying his parents.

3- Benvolio interrogates Romeo on the cause of his changed behavior, and finds that he’s in love with Rosaline.

If you have no idea on how a plot should go, there are many guides to use, including Campbell’s the Hero’s Journey or (depending on the size of your endeavor) the simple injunction that your character should start the story in some sort of trouble and that his efforts to dig himself out of trouble should bury him deeper and deeper, until a grand climatic battle, confrontation, or effort is necessary to restore him to his normal life.  (Or get him better off than he was when the plot started.)

Most people do know how they want the story to go, though.  Depending on what you’re writing you probably know at least how it ends, and you can reverse engineer it every step of the way to see which scenes must be in there to make it work.

You should be aware that many beginning writers complain that once they have outlined the plot, they no longer wish to write the story.  In that case, you might wish to consider simply doing a high-points plot and leaving your subconscious to fill in the details as you write.

You should also be aware that sometimes the plot changes as you write and characters take on a life of their own.  This happens to some writers all the time, to others not at all, and to some occasionally.  If it happens to you, you’re normal.  Just roll with it, and change your plot as you go.  Of course, then you might find yourself becoming a pantser.

Flying by the Seat of Your Pants

I used to write plots so detailed that I’d just fill in dialogue and description, and I had a full novel.  And then… it changed.  I could write all the plots I wanted, but the story would refuse to conform.  Or the story blasted through so fast, I had no time to plot.

This is very unnerving and requires a great deal of self-confidence, which few writers have.  So you might find yourself spending an unconscionable amount of time doubting your novel’s course, what you’re doing, and even your sanity.

It’s okay if this happens to you.  No, really.  It’s disconcerting and worrying, and it makes you feel like you lost your mind — or at least it made me feel like I lost my mind — but it is not unusual and it is not in any way wrong.

Lots of bestselling authors wrote and write that way at least part of the time.  The ones that come to mind are Agatha Christie (who wrote that way sometimes, and who likened writing that way to driving down a road at night, seeing only a car length ahead of you at any time), and Terry Pratchett, who writes that way all the time, and whose works are some of the more intricately plotted fantasies ever written.

So, first, stop being scared.  Take a deep breath and start.  Trust your instinct and your voice.  Remember these magical words: you can always fix it in edit.  The reader will never know.

Second, if you get irrevocably stuck, try deciding if you might have painted yourself into a corner or if you’re afraid of what you have to write next.  If neither of these circumstances apply, take a couple of days off.  Go for a walk.  Read a couple of books.  Watch a movie.  Usually in the middle of other activities, something will click and suddenly you’ll know how to go on.  However, even if that doesn’t happen, come back to the book and try again.

The risk of pantsing is, of course, that you’ll need to do extensive edits, as the novel doesn’t go where you intended and/or has iterative chapters in the middle where the characters are stuck in a purposeless action loop. The good thing is that you CAN edit.

But at least you’ll have all the material right there, in front of you, which might suit your mind better than plotting it all in advance.  And, hey, you can always publish a “blooper reel” for the book on your blog and amuse your fans.

Full Steam Ahead

Whichever way you’re going to do it, pick one, and start writing.  Despite the heat writers generate when arguing over methods, if your results are good, no one cares how you got there.  And if your results are bad, it was a learning experience.

You can always change from one method to the other, if it doesn’t suit you or even if it stops working for you.

It’s your method, and you can do it however you want.  If the other side declares you a plotting/pantsing infidel, tell them I gave you dispensation.

We’re writers, anyway.  The worst any of us would do is kill you in a story, and since we also routinely kill our best friends and fans, that’s almost a compliment.

Tip 5: How to Find the Time for Writing

5 time management rules for writers.

Time And Writing Wait For No Man (Or Woman)

Believe it or not, when you’re a freelance writer, even if you’re working for someone else, you’re still expected to manage your time.

So let’s start by admitting we’re not going to have a novel ready in 13 weeks, since most of you – I presume – haven’t started.

The reason for this is that I was going along and doing preliminaries to the “13 weeks” posts when my editor – wisely – thought perhaps you guys needed to know when to expect the posts. Ahem. Being a writer, this had never occurred to me. One sometimes forgets that not everyone lives in one’s head.

So… we are still in the preliminary posts. I think I have two more, unless questions arise. And then we’ll start the countdown of 13 actual weeks, from beginning page of novel to end.

By then you should have a notion of whether you want to plot or fly by the seat of your pants, what your projected novel length is, and how to plan how much you need to write each week.

See, when we talk about planning your timing, in writing, it means two things: the timing of events in the novel, and the timing of your writing so you can deliver on deadline.

And yes, I’m aware that just like a lot of you will have different preferences when it comes to how a novel is timed – slow and languorous, or a mad cavalcade from beginning to finish – a lot of you will have this idea that you don’t time when you write, it just sort of happens when the muse descends from heaven and sits on your shoulder to whisper sweet nothings in your ear.

For the record, I’ve never met a professional, working writer who works on the muse-installment plan. There are some who will tell you they do in public. This is part of what we call keeping up the mystique, also known as “baffling the mundanes.”

Muses Are Notoriously Unreliable

Yes, some writers write an awful lot more than others (the interesting thing is that if you account for hours worked – instead of hours giving lectures on writing, or for that matter playing computer games – the production rate is not that different). Some write on a rigid daily schedule, some set a goal of two hours a day (or a week) and keep to it most of the time. However, no writer anywhere with a career extending more than a couple of a novels writes “when I feel like it.”

This is because “when I feel like it” ends up relegated to the bottom of your to-do list, and even the least busy of us have enough on those to see us through several months or years without time to think if we feel like writing or not.

So, before we start on the “13 weeks that count,” I will give you my rules of time/productivity management. As always, your mileage may vary. However, if you have a plan that says “the muse sits on my shoulder” or, alternately, a plan that says “I will work every hour of the day, unless I collapse with tiredness,” you are unlikely to finish this novel, either in 13 weeks or – frankly – ever.

Rules of Time Management For Authors

1st – Unless you schedule writing in, it will never happen. It will be relegated to that same space as “someday I’ll climb a mountain” or “wouldn’t it be nice to run a marathon.”

Schedule a day a week, an hour a day, five hours a day, but schedule it in. Treat it as you’d treat any job. If you are genuinely too sick to think, go to bed. But don’t say “I’m too sick to think; I’ll go play tennis.” Also, during your writing time, write. I was once on a writer’s list where people told me they couldn’t write as fast as I could because they “valued their product” more. Turned out that while on the list they discussed Warhammer and Sims and other games I only know of through hearsay. I probably produced less than they did per hour, but apparently it wasn’t so much their quality they valued as their play time. So, if you’re going to try to write professionally, turn off the games or use a computer that has no games installed.

Remember You’re Not A Machine

2nd – If you can schedule the writing in at the same time, try to do it in an isolated part of the house, and establish a ritual that helps you get in the writing mood. Writing is a lot like exercise. If you jump into it cold, you won’t be able to do it. (This is where people get the idea they need inspiration.) But in this as in everything else, you’re a creature of habit. If your brain becomes used to the idea that when you sit here, drink a cup of coffee (or whatever), and put on certain music, it’s expected to produce work, then it will produce work. As for the isolated part of the house, if you’re like me, you’re very prone to sudden “Squirrel!” moments when something runs across your field of vision. Also, if you live with someone there’s nothing as fascinating to children, spouse, or housemate as a working writer. I guess because most of the work is taking place inside your head, people are fascinated by the spectacle of someone completely immobile hour after hour, except for fingers tapping the keyboard. Sometimes my entire family gathers in front of the my desk to discuss the news of the day. I’m amazed that house sellers don’t list this as they list “view of the sea” or “view of the mountains” – “a clear view of a working writer.”

3rd – Now, you’re all excited about doing this writing stuff, but be aware that you’re not a machine. Yes. I know. I just told you that you need to schedule time in and now I’m telling you not to schedule too much time in.

A year ago, a writer friend and I decided to set a schedule for ourselves so that, besides the work for publishers, we’d finish all the novels we had in our drawer, and all the things that we’d meant to do, and have one indie novel out a month! This wasn’t completely crazy, since each of us has several books almost finished which were deemed unpublishable under the old model (mostly because they blend genres) which could now be sold. We set ourselves stringent deadlines, and figured we’d stop all our goofing off, and– and we both blocked HARD, even on books due at our traditional publishers. Working all the time is impossible. It’s like trying to exercise all the time – you’ll hurt yourself. Schedule time to write, but schedule some time with family and time for fun. Heck. You can even play some Sims, provided you don’t spend all your so-called writing time doing it. Don’t over-commit. You are not a writing robot.  Human beings need breaks now and then.

Aim at a Certain Word Count

4th – Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Most of the time, at least if you’re trying to write a novel in 13 weeks, your writing will be the highest priority during that time. But as your writing hobby becomes a career, you’ll find that you sometimes need to do other things. Sometimes editing that novel your editor is waiting for must be done before anything else happens. Trying to stick to your writing schedule in that time could become professional suicide. In the same way, if you’re scheduled to write but you really need a fact you don’t have before you start – and you can’t write around it or put a note to yourself – do the research before you write. In other words, don’t be insane. When you schedule, aim at certain productivity goals, but allow for exceptions. Strangely sticking too rigidly to your schedule can make you later.

5th – Count. I know I didn’t tell you there would be math. But, let’s say you want to do a novel in a month (to make my own math easier) and you want it to be 100,000 words long. Taking off weekends, you have twenty days. This means you’ll have to write 5000 words a day without fail. Say that one day you had to take for research or whatever. You might have to work on a Saturday to make up that number. (In fact, few people ever write a novel in a month and word count is more flexible than that, since your last version might be the result of several revisions, in which you add or subtract words. But if you’re aiming to finish a novel in a certain time, counting helps you know if you’re ahead or behind.)

Go think over your own arrangements, and I’ll see you next week.

Tip 6: How to Escape the Blackhole of Endless Research

With these tips you can avoid dying buried In books and focus on writing.

I sold my first novel, Ill Met by Moonlight, fifteen  years ago at a workshop on the Oregon Coast run by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.

The proposal was created at the workshop as an exercise. This being the dark ages, and the workshop house lacking internet connection, I wrote about something I knew really well: Ill Met by Moonlight (and the three books that followed, now available as an Omnibus) attempts a magical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s biography.

The problem: my confidence in my knowledge lasted until I sold the proposal. Then I panicked and bought thirty more books on Shakespeare, to keep company with the forty I already owned.

This is because a writer’s need for research isn’t exactly sane or logical.

Part of it is, of course, a search for information. My books always need research, and often more research than is immediately obvious.

Of course when writing science fiction, I buy the latest books on whatever will be in the novel — terraforming, or space flight, or genetic engineering. However, plotting details also often require research. Say there is a battle in the novel – I will read accounts of historical battles for the strategy and the feel. Or say that my character survived some horrible personal event – it helps to ground the novel if I read the biographies of people with similar experiences, or even clinical articles about similar cases.

For the book currently in the works (“Through Fire,” book two of the Earth Revolution), I find myself reading a lot of books about or set in the French Revolution.

The problem when you start doing that kind of research is that there is a nearly infinite number of resources, and you can get lost in them. By definition you research things you’re interested in, so of course you want to keep reading about it. Also, as long as you’re researching, you can claim to be working really hard, and you can delay having to face the blank page (or screen).

Twenty years ago, I knew people who had spent fifteen years researching a foreign country, had traveled to that country, and owned enough books on it to stock a large municipal library. All without writing so much as a word of their proposed opus.

Periodically I run into these same people at writers’ events or local libraries. They will accost me with the enthusiasm of new converts wishing to share religious revelation: they just discovered a fascinating fact about the country where their novel will eventually be set; the history of this or that region works wonderfully with their plot; did I know that such and such a ruler had a horse exactly like the main character’s horse?

Don’t fall into the endless research trap!

I nod sagely and smile. They have now been researching for thirty five years. Research has become a hobby, a way of life. If they wrote their novel, it would upend their entire routine. The novel will never be started, let alone finished.

It is also a disturbingly easy trap to fall into.

When I sold that book on proposal and dove into research, it was three months before I surfaced. I was about to buy another dozen books, when I stopped and thought, “Do I really need them? Or am I just afraid to write the book?”

I’d written eight novels before, but this one scared me more than others ever had. It was pre-sold. I’d cashed the check. Now I needed to live up to the editor’s expectations, right? She’d asked me for a witty, literary interpretation of the outline she’d seen. What if I fell on my face and proved incapable of doing what she wanted?

That was when I realized that no matter how many books I read, none would make the fear go away. I still had to start the novel eventually.  Would the next dozen books help? Would reading another scholarly dissertation on the meaning of the sonnets help me write about Shakespeare’s life before he ever went to London?

No, I didn’t know everything I needed. What did they eat for breakfast at the time? What were they likely to wear? What—

No matter how detailed an outline I had – and I had a very detailed one – there would be little things that arose in the writing which I would not know. Things like: “What type of pots did they use at the time? Were they ceramic or metal?” No matter how many books I read which describe everyday events, it was impossible to know every little detail as though I’d lived at that time.

To start writing I needed a general sense of the times.  And I couldn’t possibly know every little detail I’d need until I had a finished first draft. What to do then?

I learned the magic of unusual characters and search-replace. Say, in a scene I needed Shakespeare’s sister to come in, and I had no idea what her name was (yes, I did, but suppose I didn’t).  I’d either give her a place holder name and mark it with some character not common in novels – say, ^ — or use {look up name later}.

Find your experts before they find you!

At the end of the writing day, I usually spent half an hour or so looking through the manuscript for those marks that I only used in those circumstances, and then going through my books – or the net, or my acquaintance – for information to replace them with the real name, place name, or date or relevant detail.

Writing the Shakespeare fantasies, I answered most “how did they” questions of the everyday sort by using two volumes: Daily Life In Elizabethan England by Jeffrey L. Singman and The Writer’s Guide To Life in Renaissance England by Kathy Lynn Emerson.

More detailed questions or those on which the books disagreed, I made a note to investigate afterwards. One of the great advantages of novel writing is that you can always fix it until the book is finished. No one needs to know how many passes it took you.

Another good part of starting to write is that you start seeing what you need very clearly. This will allow you to ask the right questions of experts. What experts, you ask? The experts that you’ll discover. Or that, in some cases, will discover you.

Most experts are passionate about their subject, but could never write a novel. To them, you’re both fascinating and unreliable. You fill them with a desire to make sure you get things right.

So, where do you find these experts? Well, once you have a few novels published, they’ll beat a path to your door, usually starting with a letter headed, “I can’t believe you didn’t know that in winter they’d never burn that type of wood/cook with that type of fat/wear that type of coat.”  Treat those notes with respect. Explain the efforts you made to find answers and tell them how much you wish you’d had an expert on hand when you wrote the first book. Most people will offer to be on-call.

But what about that very first book? How do you find your experts then? First do a net search. There will be blogs about your subject, written by college professors, scientists or other experts, and most are amenable to a polite questions via email. Failing that, call your local library reference desk. They will often be able to connect you with experts. Failing that, call the local college and ask if they have an expert in x.

Finish researching! Start writing!

Make your question concise and articulate. You don’t ask “Tell me everything you know about glass manufacture in the seventeenth century”; you ask – as I did for one of the Musketeer Mysteries, “How big a mirror would a middle class woman in seventeenth century France own? And would it be glass or polished metal?”

(It is, however, a bad idea to call your local police and ask: “If you have a corpse, massing around 150lbs, where would you hide it in the metro area so it’s never found?” Another novice writer who was part of my group 15 years ago did that. The police did let her go after two hours.)

Accept that your time is finite, and that you can’t research every detail. Research just enough to write a first draft of your book, and any missing information will be both obvious and accurately pinpointed. Fix any missing information in revision, then hand it to your experts to read for accuracy before the publisher ever sees it.

When you’re done, remember to thank all your human sources of information.

But the most important thing is to know when you’ve researched enough and when to set the research aside and start writing.

You know enough to begin. What you don’t know can always be filled in. The alternative is to spend the rest of your life researching the perfect novel you will never write.


Images courtesy shutterstock /  Stefan Schurr / Tsurukame Design / Foto Bouten / leedsn / i4lcocl2

Tip 7: How to Develop a Dynamite Writing Voice

In which we break open the safe to reveal the secrets of crafting exciting prose to hook your reader from the first page.

I usually struggle with the “voice” of the novel at the beginning of it. I write and discard several beginnings before I finally find the way it wants to be told.

It’s not always true. The beginning of A Few Good Men came to me loud and clear while I was doing something totally different. The sentences were there, words and all:

The world celebrates great prison breaks. The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.

They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.

Monsters like me.

I knew who the character was at that moment, and what he meant, and the whole novel was right there in my mind.

I wish it were always that easy. My beginnings are usually so difficult that once I’ve got three chapters down I have done half the work needed for the novel.

And not only do I have a particular voice, composed of word choice, setting, and character, but each novel has a particular voice, a tone that brings it the most to life. Again, it is word choice, setting, character, and mood plus – in the beginning – setting the right hook to draw the reader in.

Imagine Tom Sawyer told in the tone of Wuthering Heights and you’ll see what the wrong voice can do to a novel.

Most books aren’t told in the wrong voice – not exactly.

My son is a singer. Not professional, but he sings around the house all the time.

If he knows we’re going to get upset at his singing – say I’ve already told him I have a splitting headache – he sings in a muted half-tone.

Most writing on the market is written in that muted half-tone.

The difference is hard to explain. Oh, the half-tone is obvious when my son is singing, but let’s step it up. Let’s say he’s singing while doing something else, not giving it his full attention. It still sounds pretty good. You might think that’s his best, until you hear him singing and putting his whole soul into it. And then you stand there in awe and go “oh, the other was a pale shadow.”

Writing is like that too, and until you see the real thing you might not realize the other is a ghost.

You get better at finding a book’s proper “voice” as you practice more. This is often observable in the writing of popular authors. (For this, it’s best to choose someone first published more than twenty years ago, when you were still allowed to serve your apprenticeship in print.) They were good enough – perhaps better than most people – when they first were published. But when you read early works, it’s like they’re singing through cloth. The voice you know and love is there, but somehow muted. It’s not till you get to their middle work, when they’re at their peak, that you get their full, glorious voice with no muting.

This process is normal. It’s also normal for the final books – particularly if the author was ill or very old – to meander or fail to “close” satisfactorily.

Of course, if you are the author, this can be a little more difficult to detect. After all, everything looks different from the inside.

So, how do you remove the muffling layers, and write in full volume and with full emotion?

I don’t know.

After 23 books published (and about 8 unpublished), I’ve learned enough that I can usually tell when I’m hitting full voice. Note the weasel word “usually.” Most of the time I know when the voice is doing what it’s supposed to do and hitting the right points to draw the reader right in. However, sometimes I’ll think it’s all wrong till I give it to one of my first readers, or else read it at a con. Every once in a while, the reaction to that “all wrong” book convinces me it’s in fact “all right.”

That mistake is more common in beginners. Kristine Kathryn Rusch once told me if you’re new to this and your voice seems bland and blah and is just sort of there, that means you’re writing in your full voice. Because it’s so normal to you, you don’t realize when you hit it.

This is why, if you’re struggling with a beginning, I recommend letting someone else have a look. They can see what you can’t. You can’t come at your own prose totally fresh. It’s just not possible.

But what if you’re struggling and you still can’t hit the right voice, and your readers confirm that “It’s okay but—” (which is normally how first readers explain “the voice isn’t quite right”)?

I am stuck there right now with Through Fire. I was trying to explain it to a friend, how it felt. “Imagine you’re trying to copy a classical sculpture – say the Venus de Milo. You know exactly what you’re aiming for, and you’ll know when you get there. But unfortunately the material you’re trying to use is melted cheese, and your only tool is a nail file.”

This metaphor works, because I know what “full voice” is supposed to sound like, I just don’t know how to build it with the materials at hand. It seems like I make a promising beginning, but the whole thing crumbles before I can shape it with the nail file. (This metaphor also allows you to say stuff like “I was stuck in the cheese again, today” at the kitchen table to confuse and amaze your family.)

So, suppose you are, so to put it, stuck in the cheese. What can you do to fix it, so your novel will properly hook the reader?

There are several techniques. The first and most common is to really try to put yourself in the place of your characters. And then change point of view. If you’ve been writing as an adult arguing with her spouse, try making it from the pov of the spouse… or of the child listening in.

I’m not recommending you change the entire way you want to do the novel, just try the experiment of writing the same scene from another pov. Facets will be revealed that weren’t there before, but, more importantly, it will show you what parts are needed and what aren’t, and how to go about pulling the two apart. Then when you go back to your real main character, you realize you can find the voice more easily. (And, of course, sometimes you find you had the wrong main character all along. Yes, it happens to plotters. Yes, it – still – happens to veterans who have been writing since even they were a toddler.)

The second most common technique is to begin elsewhere. Say your character is running from a serial killer. Wouldn’t it be much more suspenseful if you added a little prologue (I’m not one of the prologue-o-phobes. Just don’t call it that) or section with, say, someone discovering his last victim? Or just a short newspaper account of the crime scene? Knowing how bad the villain is will give your heroine’s escape more poignancy and help make the book more immediately accessible.

More common to beginning writers, though, is beginning too soon. You might think that you really need that dinnertime discussion of potatoes versus rice before the UFO lands on the roof, but do you really? Can the information on why the character is so hungry be given in mini flashbacks of a sentence here, a sentence there? Can you start with the crash as the UFO lands? Won’t that be more suspenseful?

Another thing you can do is change where the scene takes place. Say your novel starts with a marital argument. If your characters are arguing across the table in a restaurant, all the tension must come from the words, and the way they interact. But say you move it to a vehicle one of them is driving. Now, you can show the tension through abrupt (and perhaps dangerous) driving. It gives you one more tool to draw the reader in.

Other authors like to go in and cut out everything not absolutely essential: words, gestures, movements. In my case that is not always right. A lot of my books have a colloquial feel and need the few extraneous words or bits of setting. So be aware it’s not right for all books.begin, anyway!

Still, sometimes,none of this works. What then?

One of my friends suffers from first-chapter-itis. She’s been told so many times that first chapters are vital and how they must do all this work that she freezes on first chapters. Her first chapters tend to meander all over the place instead of getting to the point, and sometimes give completely the wrong impression what type of book this is.

I’ve learned not to say anything. I let her finish the book and then tell her, “Now, you see, the first chapter should match the book in this, this, and this way.” By that time she can usually also see it.

In the few times I couldn’t get the voice right till the book was finished, going back to redo the first chapter solved it. Well, almost every time.

With Darkship Renegades, on deadline, I let it go into the publisher still sure it wasn’t right. Three months later, as it was about to go to typeset, I realized what I had done wrong and sent in a new beginning. (Sometimes I wonder why my publishing house hasn’t set fire to me yet. I suspect the reason is that they’re either unusually merciful or I’ve driven them completely insane.)

In that case my difficulties were complicated by it being a sequel and my not being sure what the reader needed to know right up front to enjoy the book. Turns out it was far less than what I’d included.

So, if you absolutely can’t start a book right, do try to go past it. At some point you’ll relax and the voice of your voice in the particular version needed for that novel will come pouring out, and then you can go back and fix the beginning.

Most of all remember what a colleague of mine, David Weber, said at a science-fiction con back in 2007: You can make all sorts of mistakes, and your book can still be compelling. The most important thing is the voice. And the most important part of the voice is your confidence. If you’re sure that you can take the reader to the end of his journey and entertain him along the way, the reader will be too. If you waffle and hesitate, then the reader will think you aren’t very sure of your material. Readers want to feel they are in the hands of an experienced author, and will forgive almost anything if they are.

Now, as someone who often has to build her self-confidence daily, I can’t tell you how to acquire any, except by telling you, “If you don’t have it, fake it.” Put yourself in the mind of a really confident character, and let him tell the story. (Well, it works for me.)

Or just tell it anyway. You can always find the voice in revision.


image courtesy shutterstock / Aleks vF / Eric Isselee

Tip 8: My Tricks for Beating Procrastination

Stop rotating the cat!

Rotating cat

If you keep rotating, that cat will bite you.

Don’t tell the SPCA, but writers have the oddest relationships with their pet cats (even pet cats they don’t have).

When a writer is struggling with a piece of work, she’ll tell you she was vacuuming the cat, or he’ll say he was bathing the cat, or… I prefer to say I’m rotating the cat, because it’s an activity no sane person would find necessary. It doesn’t accomplish anything and it annoys the cat. A perfect image for writerly procrastination

I once read an article by Terry Pratchett lamenting the demise of the typewriter as a tool of the trade, because it took away one of his favorite ways of wasting time before getting down to writing proper. He apparently used to take a Q-tip and alcohol and clean the little metal raised letters to make sure the impression was really sharp.

Being of a different generation I could tell him that we young whippersnappers can find just as many ways to waste our time.

For instance, I’ve been known to remove all the keys from my keyboard and wipe both keys and base with bleach wipes, an activity good for consuming an hour or two and giving you an impression you accomplished something.

What drives this is a fear of the blank screen. Facing that screen is hard, even for —  particularly for — a novel you have outlined, researched, but not started yet.

There is an undefinable sense that once you save that first paragraph, the fate of the novel will be sealed for good or ill. Before that you don’t know if the voice will be tender, poetic, funny, or brisk, but once that first paragraph or page is saved, some of those options will have vanished. You can no longer think of this novel as the best ever to grace the world. Choices will have been made, and you are stuck with them.

This is not exactly true. I usually revise my beginnings after finishing the book. But it does limit some possibilities anyway. If you write your beginning as a comedy, then in the next scene have your character stumble on a serial killer’s lair and describe it seriously and graphically, you’re going to have people run screaming. (And not just because it’s a serial killer.)

So writers will try to find “legitimate activities” to put off the moment of typing in words.

The thing is, most pro writers don’t have to look around for silly activities. When pros – particularly these days – say they’ve been rotating the cat, what they actually mean is that they’ve spent their day with a dozen “little” activities and failed to write.

This is because the writing life is much like herding cats.

Cats going whichever way

If you don’t herd the cats, the cats will herd you.

Any working pro has dozens of big and small jobs waiting to be done. If you’re making a living from writing, you don’t get the luxury of tackling a book at a time.

Right now I’m juggling: A) starting Through Fire – which is under contract with Baen books, B) promoting A Few Good Men, which came out in March from Baen books, C) starting promotion for Noah’s Boy, which comes out in July, and D) trying to revise my old short stories and put one out a week (failing miserably at this). I also have five short stories due at various anthologies. For my sins, I am also cover designer for Naked Reader Press, a venture in indie publishing in which I hold an interest.

I’m also wife, mother, cook, and bottle washer of this household.

I’ve also got rights back to most of my books that weren’t published with Baen. My first priority is to re-release The Musketeer’s Seamstress, then the four other sequels one a month, and then to write the seventh book for which people have been waiting years.

When I’m completely exhausted from doing everything else, I go to bed with The Musketeer’s Seamstress on the Kindle Fire (which is surprisingly good to edit in using Documents To Go).

This week, the schedule got a little crazier, as I was requested to do an interview for my publisher to promote Noah’s Boy, and I got back the page proofs to Noah’s Boy, with a short turn-around time. I also vetted cover copy for Noah’s Boy which took a whole afternoon as I had to search for reviews of the other two books — for cover quotes.

If this looks completely insane – it is. When I take a break from an activity it is by doing another.

However it can get crazier and probably will. I hear from friends who have been in the field longer and who are now publishing indie as well as traditional. Most have added to the insanity by managing paper-book distribution of their titles; arranging for audio versions; and negotiating for the sale of rights/selling rights to movie companies. (This last is something I aspire to, since, crazy though it is, it pays well.)

So most of the time, what is hard for a career writer is not to stop rotating the cat, but to keep juggling all the cats without dropping one.

Juggling Cats

This is your brain on writing.

And yet, Through Fire must be started. Writing a first draft in six weeks is a stretch for me, even after 23 books published. (Yes, I’ve done it much faster, but it’s also very difficult.)

The fear must be faced, the cats expertly juggled. I close the door, forget all the other stuff that needs to be done, and try out beginnings.

There is an art to beginnings, one I didn’t stumble upon until I started writing short stories. If you read primarily novels, particularly if you read older – nineteenth or early twentieth century — novels, you might fail to realize that nowadays most people want to get “hooked” on the book within a few paragraphs.

Of course, there are different types of hooks. One of them is the surprise or juxtaposition hook. My favorite of these remains Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him, I killed him.

Note how it starts with someone following the main character, so even the unfamiliar Kenya Beanstalk capsule is forgotten in our rush to see what’s happening. And that last “I killed him” grabs us good and proper.

In the next paragraph, the character regrets killing the man without thinking (but not exactly killing the man) and disposes of the body very effectively indeed. By that time you’re getting a feeling you’re not in the head of an average person and you are well and truly hooked.

In short stories you have even less time, and I learned to do a startling first paragraph. My favorite remains the opening to the short story Something Worse Hereafter:

Dying is easy. It’s staying alive afterwards that’s difficult.

However, sometimes novels call for something more like getting in the mood. And sometimes the “hook” is specific to something quirky about your character, or simply gaining the reader’s confidence by being very upfront and seeming artless with them. We all know “Call me Ishmael” after all. I suggest getting out your favorite books of the same type you’re writing and noting the first paragraphs.  After a dozen of so, you start getting the idea.

Grinning Cat

Writing can make you go mad, but you must enjoy the journey.

Me? For months know I’ve known the first sentence of Through Fire is “I am a b*tch.” This is not something I particularly wanted, because I don’t like starting with that kind of word. I just have no clue what should follow that. While the woman is, by some definitions, a b*tch — in the sense that she makes plans and expects everything to fall into them — it’s not the idea I have of her in my head.

So it’s taken some struggling, but this is what I have so far.

I am a bitch. When my home planet wouldn’t conform to my expectations, I escaped to Earth, the world my ancestors had left to avoid being killed.

Perhaps it is poetic justice that I was captured, imprisoned, about to be killed?

I looked around my Spartan cell and shrugged. From somewhere came crying for mercy and the sound of a crowd cheering.

I had no intention of dying. My plan of escape was ready.  When the jailers came to get me, they’d be very surprised.

It’s rough. As I said before, I usually rewrite the first paragraph after starting. But it sets the tone and tells me where to begin.

Sometimes the beginning of a book is as hard to fix on as the smile of a Cheshire cat. You have to sort of approach it sideways so it doesn’t escape before you glimpse it.

This is what I have right now, and I’ll have to write at least twenty five thousand words this week. Not impossible but it will take me some concentration.

Wish me luck.

Tip 9: How To Ensure Your Novel Flies Right

Achieving Literary Liftoff.

Fly Novel, Fly!

All the writing books concentrate on beginnings and endings. Very few of them consider the middle, or even the middle of the beginning.

This is sort of akin to concentrating on your flight experience by making sure you have a good takeoff and a good landing and not caring in the least if your pilot decides to do loop-de-loops in the middle.

There are reasons for this, of course. I read somewhere that most of the fatal accidents in flights occur during takeoff and landing, and the same thing sort of applies to a book.

If you fail to capture the reader’s interest within the first few pages, you are clearly not going to make a sale. And if you end the book so disastrously that the reader feels cheated and wants to throw things at your head, you’re probably never going to make another sale to this person (and might have to wear protective head gear while traveling in their region).

But just because the moment of takeoff and landing, and the moments of starting and ending a book matter, it doesn’t mean that what goes in the middle is irrelevant.

I mean, consider the idea that you buy a flight to Poughkeepsie in the fine state of NY. Perhaps you have a hankering to visit the historic Vanderbilt Mansion.

Suppose that your plane takes off beautifully, and lands beautifully, but instead of taking you to the Queen City of the Hudson, the pilot decides it’s less trouble and much better for all concerned if he flies a few circles around the airport and then lands you back where you started.

No one would be that silly, you say?

Ah—you clearly haven’t read some of the books I’ve read.

It is actually a fairly common mistake, particularly of rookie authors still uncertain of their plot, to put all the might of their limited craft into starting and ending the book. Meanwhile, they have what I’ve grown to call “something goes here” middles.

The problem is that, in writing as in flights, if you’re going around in circles, no matter how entertaining you make the trip, calling out all the landmarks, if your book is going nowhere, people notice. After a while your reader starts asking: “Is this all there is? Is she running from the bad guys again? Haven’t we seen this before? But… nothing is solved.”

No matter how entertaining, people do catch on when you’re going around in circles

At that point the reader puts the book down – or reaches for the barf bag.

The way to avoid this loop-de-loop effect is to actually go somewhere. And the way to actually go somewhere is much the same as when you start a flight: you have to set your course early on.

This is more easily said than done, and the problems strikes both those who plot strictly and those who fly by the seat of the pants. In both cases it is all too easy to confuse “something happens here” with “plot is actually happening.”

This can occur even in the books of experienced writers. (And there are some writers, names withheld to protect the guilty, who have managed to build entire bestselling careers without once constructing a functional plot that doesn’t include loop-de-loop syndrome. There is a reason for this, which I will explain when we get to testing and evaluating your work.) And if it’s not going to happen, you need to set your plot on the right course early. You need not only lift, but to go somewhere.

This, to be blunt, is where I’ve been all of this week, stuck in a limbo between the beginning sentence and how to actually set my book on a course somewhere.

The beginning has changed – this is not something I recommend beginners do, until they finish the book – but the beginning bothered me. For one, no matter how much the character wants it, and while starting with “I am a bitch” is intriguing enough, it also will put a lot of readers off, unnecessarily, and it sets up a whole slew of expectations that are not, in the end, what I wanted.

For one, it is all too easy for someone to think this is fantasy about a shape-shifter changing into a wolf or dog. For another, it sets up an expectation for higher profanity and sexual content than I intend to deliver.

Don’t sell tickets to places you don’t intend to go.

It is in fact like selling tickets to New York City and then flying the passengers to Poughkeepsie. It might be a lovely place, and it might have some fine landmarks, but you aren’t going to climb the Empire State Building.

So, I revised the beginning paragraph. It still needs to be strong, of course – I still have to get people into the plane and interested in the ride.

I took off on the title and stuck to the theme of the book:

Long ago weapons were forged with metal that was put in the fire and beaten; stressed and pushed beyond its endurance point.

If it worked, what emerged was a sword that was strong, flexible and razor-sharp.

If it failed, the metal crushed or melted or otherwise fell apart.

In those barbaric times, they couldn’t see molecular structure. All it took was a weak spot, a flaw in the metal, and all the work would be ruined.

They couldn’t know till the metal had been through fire.

Finding myself imprisoned, accused of being one of the enemies of the people of Liberty Seacity, and condemned to death felt much the same. I didn’t know if I’d survive or not. I knew that whatever came out at the other end would never be the same.

And it didn’t matter, because whether I changed or not, I must survive and save those who depended on me.

Those last two paragraphs, the dismount from the setup of the metaphor to the more concrete reality of where my character is and what is happening to her, could be more graceful. They probably will be more graceful once I’m done polishing a bit. But for now, they work. The metaphor of being put through fire sets up the expectation that my character, like the weapon, will get put in unbearable situations but will emerge improved (if not invincible). And it establishes that the situation she starts off in puts more than herself in jeopardy, since there are those who depend on her.

Since this is the start to an adventure space opera, you can’t have much better.

I’ve toyed with the rest of the chapter, but – for various reasons – I’m behind where I intended to be this week. This is not appreciated, but it is inevitable.

Neither health issues, nor turbulence, nor sudden Pegasus shall keep this writer from finishing her novel.

Sometimes, when you take off on your planned flight, you find yourself hitting turbulence. The turbulence, in this case, was health issues – as unavoidable and inescapable as storms between you and your destination. You can push through them to some extent, but sometimes you just have to say “I can’t” and watch old mystery series on the TV until the symptoms pass.

So the chapter didn’t get written, but I know where it is headed and I can make up speed now that things have stopped shaking around.

The next portion of the narrative will dwell on the physical conditions of my main character’s captivity and the preparations she’s made so that, when they come to have her taken out and be executed, she can escape.

With the take-off – the ramp-up in the beginning – taking place in the right direction, we have a fairly good sense we’ll not get caught in loop-de-loops. The plot is, instead – and how it should be – set up as a series of rising challenges that will keep the reader entranced and interested, and that will land in a different place than where it started.

The first chapter will cement it, and set our sense of who the character is, and what her limits and challenges are.

All that, and more, will be done this coming week.

One of the things I like about this thirteen-week framework is that it’s sort of project management for self-instigated work.

Even though Through Fire is under contract, it is all too easy to lose that sense of urgency, and to spend time in rotating metaphorical cats. It’s easy to fiddle with this and polish that, and end up a year later with nothing done. (The myth that taking longer is better doesn’t help any writers become focused either.)

But since I committed myself to finishing this in thirteen weeks, I have to give up the idea of perfection and just try to do it. Like a flight that lost time to turbulence, I now need to make up for lost time so I can arrive at the destination when expected.

And that’s what I will do this coming week. Wish me tailwinds.

Tip 10: How to Avoid Giving Up on Writing Your Book

Slow Dancing in the Dark.

Am I doing this right? Do I look drunk? Is he a vampire?

You have your killer opening; you’ve polished it nicely. At least if you’re like me, you can’t help polishing a bit every time you look at it. You’re now fifty pages in, and everything seems to be going too slow, and you’ve lost track of where you were going, and you start to panic and think you’re doing it wrong.

This happens whether you are a plotter and had everything exquisitely planned in advance, or you’re flying by the seat of the pants and have no clue what actually works.

Once you have the first few pages of the book ready, and you are aimed more or less in the direction you will go, you start feeling everything went wrong and the idea you had to begin with is completely impracticable, and… and… and…

Keep calm and carry on. Take deep breaths. The experience you’re having is uncomfortable but completely normal. It’s sort of like having a root canal. Just because it’s unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Trust me.

What is happening at the psychological level is that you’ve now set yourself on one course to write your novel, and part of you – you know, the part that thought writing should be a really exciting adventure – is sitting back there going: “What? This is all there is? This is not fun.”

It’s bad enough if you’re making it up as you go along, because you can just have the nagging feeling something has gone wrong, and not know what.

It’s worse if you’re an outliner, as you might have had that opening happening much faster. Writing an outline is much like dancing would be if there were no gravity. You can make your character do anything and – because it’s impossible to plot all those details without making the outline longer than a novel – you don’t know what the opposition is doing precisely.

Then you come to write, say, a jail-escape scene, and gravity hits you with a thud. Your character can’t do that unless you wish to make the opposition almost comic-opera stupid. So you have to make her escape more difficult, every step more negotiated.

The bad news is that at this point, you can’t tell. All of us professional novelists have read a third or a half of a novel we started long ago and put down unfinished and thought, “How in heaven’s name did I think this made a good beginning?”

On the other hand, we’ve also all read beginnings we abandoned long ago and thought, “Wow, this is really, really good. Yes, I am better now, but this has sparkle and life, and pulls me right in.”

The problem here is that when you’re less than a third (I’m less than a fifth) into a novel, you truly can’t judge it. Worse, the friends who normally read stuff for you also won’t be able to tell you if it’s any good or not.

Beta reader and writer engage in a delicate dance. Don’t try it before you’re ready.

In fact, I must urge you to resist letting anyone see your novel at this stage.

Good beta reading is not only a skill, but beta reading for a particular writer is an acquired skill. The interaction of writer and beta reader is much like learning one of those complex dances like waltz or tango as a couple. It has to be learned and sometimes it will still fail.

When you’re giving an inexperienced beta reader a portion of a book, they’re going to find something. They want to help you.

Having very little to go on, and “knowing” you’re doing something wrong – otherwise why would you ask for help? – they will “find” things you’re doing wrong, even if there’s nothing to find. And since they only have the opening of the novel, they’re going to mostly concentrate on things they don’t know yet.

It is the nature of novels — particularly of science-fiction novels — to reveal things slowly, gradually. Learning how the world works is at least as much part of the fun as the particular story.

But a reader, faced with a beginning and the certainty something is wrong, will almost always demand to know more. “We don’t know why your character is doing this” is one of the primary complaints of people reading, say, the first two pages of a novel. And that’s true. And usually if the novel continues the reader will figure out the whys and hows gradually, as the story unfolds. (Again, this is particularly true in science fiction.) The readers won’t mind this or see the same issue once they have the whole book. But humans naturally concentrate on what they have, without taking in to account how small a share it might be of the finished work.

You’ve started the novel, and if the feedback you get tells you that you need more information upfront, you can’t judge whether that destroys narrative flow or not. Which means getting feedback on this portion will tempt you to sink the book.

Under those circumstances, I loaded the beginning of Darkship Thieves with so many explanations and begs that the novel went in the drawer for years, while I worked on other stuff, until I brought it out, looked at it, and saw that all the extraneous explanations were not needed.

Even earlier, as a very green writer, I did this by telling myself I needed to explain the entire fantasy universe upfront, so that people could just enjoy the adventure. Only when I set it aside and went back to read it did the fifty pages at the beginning of the novel read like “Take notes on this. There will be a test later.” You never got to the explanation, because your eyes rolled up into your head and you fainted from sheer boredom.

Turns out the reason novels introduce information slowly and in interesting ways is that they’re not textbooks. (I know. Who could have guessed?) No one wants to memorize a “list of facts about this world” no matter how fascinating you think they are.

No matter how high you jump, you can’t watch yourself jump.

Of course, the reason you’ll be tempted to do that is the same reason that you can’t judge your own work or your own “writing voice” or any of that.

It’s yours. You’re used to it. You’re not seeing it with fresh eyes.

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, whether you have a detailed outline of what you intend to write laid out and ready to go or you’re making it up as you go along, except for a few salient points, it’s safe to assume you’ve lived with this world and these characters long enough that nothing they do is truly a surprise.

It is possible, with practice and time, to develop a sort of in-between state where you can see the novel both as its creator and a completely new-to-it reader, but you can never develop it perfectly. Being able to see your stuff completely anew would be like lifting yourself aloft on your own arms while dancing ballet. Can’t be done. At best you can jump and sort of see the stage from above, but you can’t see yourself jump.

This is of course the problem of working in a medium where – more than words, character, or plot – you’re shaping the reader’s emotions. The primary purpose of a novel (or a short story or, often, a poem) is to take the reader on an emotional journey of some kind. In fact, words, plot, and character are all tools. You could say what a writer really does is sculpt raw emotion. (Well, you could say that if you want to flatter us!)

And you can’t take yourself on the same journey, because you can’t face the book with completely unknowing eyes – unless you manage to induce amnesia. (And how many times can you do that? And if you do, how do you know how many times you’ve done it?)

So, what do you do? And what if your novel is really boring?

Keep calm and carry on. Trust that everything is going according to plan. Yes, even if you don’t have a plan.

Sometimes you have to trust your complex moves will work out. You won’t crack your head on the pavement.

When a dancer rehearses his part of an intricate choreographed dance, he has to trust that he’s fitting in with the rest of it. That’s sort of what you’re doing. You’re doing what you learned to do, with craft; you’re telling the story your mind has created. Trust yourself and work forward.

Trust that it will be good when it’s done, or at least that you can rewrite it so it’s good. Trust yourself — which can be really difficult.

And you think, “What if it’s too ungrounded and makes no sense? What if it’s too slow? What if it’s boring?”

It might very well be. Or it might not. You won’t know till it’s done. Once you’re done, your beta readers should be able to give you a clearer idea of whether you messed up or not.

Sometimes I still get: “Your opening is slow. This is where it got better.” And then I go back and study whether it’s true or a reflection of that reader’s particular bias. (Yes, that happens too. Some people don’t like novels that start with jail escapes, or novels that start with the character asleep, or whatever. Readers are people too. This is why you need more than one — so you can check them against one another.)

The point is that if it turns out to be too slow, once it’s done, you can always go back and rewrite it. But not until it’s done.

For now, you just can’t tell. Keep your head down. Keep working. Keep your figures in the dance and trust that it all works out.

Don’t let your insecurities morph into an excuse to not write. The world is full of people who started a novel.  There are far fewer people who have finished a novel, let alone multiple novels. Your goal is to write and keep writing.


Images courtesy shutterstock / wtamas /  Leonid Dushin / Alexander Shadrin / Dmitry Yakunin

Tip 11: How to Read Fiction and Watch Movies to Add Depth and Feeling to Your Writing

Look, Ma, No Hands!

Always remember to wear a safety helmet while writing.

This week has been very bad for writing.  By now I hoped to be twenty five thousand words in.  I’m not.

If you keep in mind that when pushed and under the gun — such as when I got an invitation for an anthology and had an afternoon in which to deliver – I can and have written eleven thousand words in three hours, it seems as though there could be no possible excuse.  And there isn’t.

I can give you all the reasons for why I’m not further advanced than the first few pages of the novel.

First, my time has been horribly cut up.  But then, when isn’t it?  Mostly I write in the intervals between cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries, helping my sons with whatever project needs help, helping my friends with whatever project needs help, looking over page proofs, editing, running promotions on my self-published stuff, keeping track of the labyrinthine tax and business law affecting small businesses, getting exasperated at the news, and trying to get in at least an hour of physical exercise. Sometimes it’s a miracle I write at all.

A lot could be said about women and women’s role in a family, and how much I do, and not prioritizing my profession over the day to day of family routine.  Most of it would be wrong.

I know for a fact, from talking to my male writer friends, that the ones who stayed home to write – i.e., were lucky enough to have a wife who could support them – faced the same pressures as any woman.  It’s not a sexist thing, but an example of trying to make it in a field that very rarely pays and even more rarely pays well.

In my long, long apprenticeship (thirteen years before selling my first short story, but keep in mind that for a lot of that time I was barely writing, and rarely submitting because of this process), when it seemed highly unlikely I would ever sell, if the choice was between writing a new chapter or really cleaning the kitchen, a spit-shine (only not literally, because yuck) of the kitchen always won out. The kitchen, after all, affected other people now. Writing another chapter of the novel merely fractionally increased the chances of my selling a novel; and since those chances were minimal to begin with, to write or not to write was not a question.

To win the race, always remember there’s a finish line.

The temptation to treat your writing as a fun hobby or a romantic affliction is far too strong. I’m reminded of the quote from the movie Sliding Doors when the no-good boyfriend is asked if he’s finally finished his novel and he answers:  “I’m a novelist. I’ll never be done.”  (The hysterical laughter that a friend and I – both of us novelists – erupted in when that line came up probably puzzled the rest of the theater.)

Even for novelists who have finished many novels, finishing each new novel requires fighting back the encroaching tide of quotidian distractions.

That this week included “interesting events” in the news, an unusual number of appointments, and other such things having to do with family and other such obligations  is an explanation but not an excuse. While you’re writing, real life keeps on happening. And in the ultimate analysis, Robert A. Heinlein was right when he said:

In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.

So the goal is important, which is what I’m trying to give myself with this thirteen-week program.

Heinlein waxed eloquent about how to vanquish this sort of daily distraction in his Channel Makers speech — a fan of mine reminded me of it on my blog:

It means working when you don’t feel like working, even though there is no one to tell you that you must. It means following these rules even when you are disheartened by a long string of rejections and your head aches and your stomach is upset—and your wife thinks you are a fool not to look for a job. It means refusing to see your best friends when you are writing. It means telling your wife and children to get out of your study and stay out! It means offending people who can’t understand that writing must not be interrupted—not for dinner parties, not for birth, not even for Christmas. It means getting a reputation as a bad-tempered, self-centered curmudgeon—and resigning yourself to living with that reputation no matter how eagerly you want to be liked—and writers do want to be liked, else they would not be trying to reach people through writing.

And trust me, I’ve lost friends who thought I was too “self-centered” and too “ambitious” because I insisted on finishing a novel on time. If you want to succeed in any self-directed field of endeavor, be it art, science, or literature, it is what is required. And it is worth it.

Sometimes you have to look deeper to find why a novel isn’t moving.

But there is more to it. I mean, I know these techniques of discipline and focus and I’ve been employing them for years. So why did the writing come to a complete stall, and why I couldn’t force myself to do it? If I can write an eleven thousand word story in an afternoon, how can I add less than two thousand words to the novel in progress in a week?

Part of it is because a novel isn’t a short story. I know, I know. You’re grateful for my amazing insight and wish to subscribe to my newsletter.

And yet, it’s true. When you’re writing a short, self-contained piece, all you need is an idea of the high points to hit: beginning, middle, resolution. And then you run with it. Even so, my most egregious example was the one above: the story that was eleven thousand words and written in three hours. It’s called An Answer From The North; and frankly, it is more of a prose poem than anything else. I was asked to write about “kingdoms of the fairy” so I went for a walk, and got the general idea, came back and typed it in. I’d been reading a lot of paleontological research, which managed to fall in sideways and on the sly.

The novel I wrote in the shortest time – three days – was Plain Jane, a work-for-hire retelling of Jane Seymour’s life (Henry VIII’s wife, not the actress). I could only do it that fast because the story was to a great extent set, and also because I’d spent fifteen years or so reading about the Tudors and had a background knowledge of the “touch and feel of the period.”

Of course, in addition to those three days of writing, I spent a week reading up on Jane, specifically, and researching the facts of her life, including the “everyone knows” that turn out not to be so. But that would have been insufficient if I hadn’t been able to immerse myself in the period through the piles of documentaries, historical novels, and biographies I’d read of people who lived there.

And here we come to the main difference between novels and shorter, self-contained pieces: a novel by its very length and complexity needs to partake of the nature of the real world. Not literally, of course. Stories in the real world are way too complex; it’s difficult to find meaning in them; and they all end in death. In fact it could be argued that the main job of a novelist is to make order out of the chaos of real life. (At least it is if you don’t like the sort of inconclusive too-literary-for-words novel that makes you feel you should slash your wrists because everything is pointless.)

Sometimes a little delay is needed to get the story back on the road.

As I watched my poor novel stuck still in the starting position in this race, and with only four weeks to go, I realized I’d hit a similar point with A Few Good Men, though granted about halfway through. Which threw me. I kept thinking I needed to have more written before I hit this kind of problem. I was forgetting the difference between the books.

As with Through Fire, A Few Good Men is a novel about a portion of a revolution. I didn’t think it plausible to write a revolution that engulfed the whole Earth, even if the whole Earth was kept under a series of interconnected tyrannical regimes before. I posited that the revolution against those regimes would be piecemeal, local, and each individual “revolution” would have its own flavor and its own flaws and virtues.

The revolution in A Few Good Men starts halfway through the book. In Through Fire, we’re in the middle of it as the novel starts. And the problem was that despite all my reading on the French Revolution (which this portion of the series resembles), I was lacking the complexity of the real events.

Let me put it this way: the history books tell things as a forward progression, but they fail to inject all the uncertainties and day-to-day reverses of life at the time. This is why once I watched a series of documentaries on the Revolutionary War, the setbacks, the very real uncertainty of the time, I could make A Few Good Men sound far more true to what it was like to live in a revolutionary time of idealistic ferment, when (of course) no one knew that the revolution would succeed.

Look Ma, no head.

My problem with doing that for the French Revolution is that there don’t seem to be very good documentaries and/or novels set in the time period. At least the ones I could find were even more sanitized than the history books, in the sense that they had little feel for real daily life.

Still, I’ve done a little of it, and I think I’m ready.

Last week I told you to bull through the sense that you were going wrong. Most of the time this works, both for me and – I assume – for most people.

This time when I tried it, it didn’t work. So, in despair, I turned to reading things in a similar period to what I’m writing about.

Even if your work is in no way historical, there will be time periods that resemble what you’re writing about, or events that resemble the ones you’re describing. Though I don’t advise true-crime books to anyone, even those can be valuable to the mystery writer.

It reminds us that outside our neatly ordered story, in the real world, things happen with far more complexity than any writer could create.

The important thing to remember is to limit your time of working without writing. And to come back to your book ready to work and with new vision, knowing not just where you want to go and the important places to see, but also the scenic routes that make a journey unforgettable.


Shutterstock images courtesy / Duncan Andison /  Inga Ivanova / Tatiana Belova / Andreas Gradin

Tip 12: When Writing Clicks Together

I Believe I Can Fly!

Flying above it all

There is this state you enter in writing that is really hard to explain to anyone who has not entered it. However, I’ve found out that it is something that happens to all creatives, and I’ll try to explain it to you here, in case you’re new to this and have never felt it.

It bears explaining because when it first starts to hit, you might very well feel like you’ve gone around the bend.

As I’ve confessed here, I started out as a very tight plotter. No, not when I first started writing. I know very few authors who are tight plotters when they first start out. You sketch a page, write a beginning, you don’t even have a clue if you’re writing a short story or a novel, and you just keep writing a paragraph after a paragraph, and finally go: “Whoa! I have such and such a length.” At which point you look it up – something that in my day involved, of course, going to the library and consulting the writer’s market, but which can now be done on the net – and decide that you have a short story, a novella, a novelette, or a novel. (Don’t worry too much if you’re concerned about what on Earth all those things mean. They are mostly marketing categories and are passing from this world even as we speak. E-Publishing and print on demand are sweeping all that away.)

What your story was unlikely to have – beyond the words – was a coherent plot. Yes, there are people who are freaks of nature and have read so much that their stories naturally fall into a plot pattern that makes sense.

I wasn’t one of those people, despite having read about six books a day (give or take) between the ages of ten and thirty.

I started with the idea that in a story things happened. So things happened to my character, but they never led anywhere in particular. People got attacked, defeated their attackers, had breakfast, took showers, went shoe shopping, got attacked again…

I didn’t know that wasn’t a plot. It was, after all, a lot like reality, where – regardless of whether you are afraid of being attacked or not – you still have breakfast, shoe shop, take showers, talk to friends, etc.

But plotting is not reality. Reality doesn’t have to be coherent or presented to any purpose – but a story does, because otherwise, what is the point?

So my first flailing attempts at writing novels were sort of like people’s very early efforts at flying where they strapped wings to their back, trying to imitate birds all the while unaware that humans don’t have hollow bones, would require insanely long wing spans…

Of course, this was before the internet, or at least any type of online access by hapless beginner writers. I knew I was doing it wrong, but I had no clue how to do it right.

So I bought a ton of writing books, most of which had a pet theory of how everyone should write.

Nowadays when I’m trying to teach someone, or give them a hint, if I have very little time to explain things to them, or if they’re very young, or if I judge they’re going to resist the idea that they do not in fact have a plot – people resist the most obvious things – I tell them: Things Get Worse. Start from the principle that things get worse.

Now, does this make for a riveting narrative? Depends on how sadistic your readers are, of course, but usually it holds your attention at least to some extent under the same principle that makes people slow down to rubberneck on the highway.

However, as is, “things get worse” is incomplete.

I wrote an entire novel – a very long novel, at that – following this principle. It’s mercifully unpublished. I showed a piece of it to a friend the other day, to illustrate writing progress, and she said: “So, at that time you plotted by dropping walls on your character? Even if there wasn’t a wall nearby? They were walking along and whammo, flattened by the wall?”

That is about the size of it, actually.

If I get a few more minutes to get a word in edgewise, I tell them: “And when things get worse, it’s the character’s fault. His attempts at solving the last situation bring about the next awful one.”

This actually can make an effective short story – or Hamlet! – but it is very depressing. My first published short stories more or less followed this pattern. Which is why I’ll never bring them out again. (Look, I was promised $15 for them and was never paid. Let the poor things lie.)

At some point, though, you get tired of your character walking around like a Merry Melodies cartoon who just got a safe dropped on him. You start wondering if you can’t write a story that ends well.

The formula I came up with was as follows: start at a crisis point, then things get worse until we hit a climax of sorts, when the character acquires knowledge he/she lacked or changed his aim in the story or realized he/she had been mistaken in pursuing this course, then character changes tactics/aim/interest and fights back to win. At which point he either wins or goes down fighting.

It has lift!  It has altitude!  Now, how do I steer?

It has lift! It has altitude! Now, how do I steer?

To an extent, that is the formula I still use, if viewed from very far away (say the orbit of the moon).

There is a lot more to it, but if you have achieved this type of plot, your story is more or less functional. In terms of flight, you just discovered the hot air balloon, and you’re flying all over the countryside.

It’s not very useful, mind you. There were no mail drops by hot air balloon, and it did not replace any horses or carriages, because once you rose up you were at the mercy of currents of air.

In the same way, if you don’t plot any deeper than that, you might find yourself flying over some unknown territory or ending up with a story that you have no idea what it might mean.

But it will fly up and out. It will get somewhere. And it’s unlikely the reader will throw the book against the wall in disgust because your character just decided that, having fought of goblins, he really needs to go shopping for shoes, instead of figuring out who sent the goblins.

The book now will take you on a journey. It just might be a very random journey.

Which means, it’s still falling short of its purpose. You see, a story – unlike reality – is supposed to take you on an emotional journey. You’re supposed to follow these characters (for some reason. No it’s not necessarily that you identify with them. You can want them dead, for instance) through a series of experiences that lead to a point where you get emotional release and, if possible, intellectual satisfaction from the journey.

Take Cinderella (possibly the most used plot in the history of literature. One writer, Patricia Wentworth, made a long and profitable career out of Cinderella stories.) The reader watches in semi-horror as this daughter of a minor nobleman (in the original Cinderella at least) becomes imprisoned by her step mother and cruel step sisters. We appreciate her struggles, empathize with her, and want the mean people’s faces bashed in. So when the prince sweeps in, glass slipper in hand, we cheer the release/revenge. There is satisfaction in seeing order restored to the world.

Eventually – such as when I first got published – I started plotting my books very carefully, chapter by chapter, according to what the character needed and what emotion I wanted to evoke in the reader, pushing that emotion up and up until the mirror moment and the turnaround of fortunes. Around this time I had trouble with the “reward” part of the book, because, well, they’d won, so the emotion was released. (Fortunately my husband would make me go back and give readers what he called a cigarette moment. I refuse to discuss why. Suffice it to say neither of us smokes!)

It will never catch on as transportation!

It will never catch on as transportation!

This produced readable books, if rather structurally simple and sometimes subjected to sudden and calamitous crashes. I’d reached WWI aviation stage. (I wish I’d known that at the time. I would have worn goggles.)

A few years ago this process broke for me. My subconscious gave me bits and pieces that would interfere with my carefully planned – if simplistic – plot machine. It would throw up sudden, funny scenes in the middle of tragedy or amusing side journeys that didn’t seem to mean anything, until I realized they added a much greater depth to the central plot.

I think it is because by then I had integrated the basic structure into my subconscious and could not add to it without destroying it. Consciously I did not know this, but something in me did. And it felt like I was going insane.

Suddenly, I was flying a moon rocket and had no idea how the thing worked, or if I’d come back alive. Only I did. And the books were good. Better than the tightly plotted ones.

Help!  I didn't know it could go this fast!

Help! I didn’t know it could go this fast!

Since then I’ve come up with what I call a “hang loose” style of plotting. I’ve reverted to my initial idea of plot, which is only accurate for what I write today if viewed from a very great distance. I have the character and the character’s problem. I know some of the things the character is going to do to solve it because – having the character – I know what his/her personality dictates, i.e., a character who is primarily oriented to care for others and neglect him/herself is not going to come up with the same solutions as a character who is primarily oriented to look after him/herself. This is very basic, and of course there are finer distinctions. Then I have the mirror moment and when it will hit and why. And this more or less dictates the triumph.

I might or might not have other scenes I want to have in the book so the book says what I want it to. Say a scene of carnage from a misguided revolution…

Anyway these days, the beginning of the book is always a little choppy, because even if I’m using a character I used before – as I’m doing in Through Fire – I might not know the character as well as I think I did.

With Zenobia (with the singularly inappropriate nickname of Zen), I knew what type of person she was. I thought. At least I knew of a couple of decisions she made that were original and that I thought gave me an idea of who she was.

But as I wrote past the beginning part, I realized that the character has a past, beyond the past I thought she had. I’ve found that some of her quirks are due to things other than what I thought they were.

Suddenly – yesterday – while out driving, it all came together, and I realized who this character is, and what is pushing her.

Which means suddenly I can see the chapters between here and the mirror moment in glaring detail. These things must happen, because they come directly from character and situation. Anything else would be the wrong plot. And yet, it is a plot with everything functional, leading to that moment when Zen will see herself in the mirror of her actions and realize who she is and what she truly wants, beyond who and what she’s been taught to be and want.

It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s like you’ve been plodding along, and suddenly you’re in the air, and you’re being carried, and you see everything from above and realize it works.

When you hit it, don’t be afraid. You’ve done the work. Now enjoy it.

Hang in there!



images courtesy shutterstock / Galyna Andrushko / Andrea Danti / Victor Shova / martin garnham /  Steve Collender

Tip 13: How to Build Your Writing Career

Block by Block

Write a sentence. Then write another sentence.

Write a sentence. Then write another sentence…

It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that I’m not going to finish this by week thirteen. This is fine. It is fine because I did not start to write in week one, having first tried to lay the foundation for the writing program.

This should replicate your experience, particularly if this is your first novel, or if you are writing a novel that necessitates research – historical, scientific, or other. And there are very few novels that don’t.

For ease of calculation, let’s say you took the first three weeks either to brush up on writing craft – such as via Dwight Swain’s excellent Techniques of the Selling Writer – or to study up on the time of your novel, or even the theme of your novel. For instance, if you’re writing a novel involving space pirates it would behoove you to read novels about pirates past and present, so as to give your construction the necessary feel of heft and verisimilitude.

So, let’s say you took the first three weeks to research, study and plot. Depending on where you are on your writing development and how sure of yourself and this novel you are, it can of course take a much shorter time or a much longer one. Don’t be bound by my rules but by yours. Novels are an intensely individual endeavor, like any other art. While there are rules of writing and rules of craft, they don’t and can’t affect things such as how much preparation is enough for this particular writer or for this particular novel.

As I’ve said before, I’ve written novels in three days, and I’ve written novels in three years. All right, the one written in three years is near unreadable and never sold, but that might be a quality of my own, particular mind and lack of attention span – I have trouble carrying a theme coherently over a very long time. Or it could be the result of where I was at the time – that particular novel spanned the birth of both my sons, experiences that changed me profoundly so that the writer who finished the novel was not the one who started it.

Of course the conceit of the novel in thirteen weeks is that you’ll at least try to finish the novel in that time period. However, as has been noted in the past, this doesn’t mean you’ll manage it in a thirteen week period. It might very well take you two.

Then MAKE it good

… Then MAKE it good…

Two weeks ago I attended a writing seminar in Colorado Springs (something I intend to write about in a separate post.) During the seminar, Kevin J. Anderson quoted Jerry Pournelle on the subject of writing and finishing books. Apparently they were on a panel with a third writer at some point, and when the other writer asked what either of them did about writer’s block, Jerry Pournelle said, “There is no such thing as writer’s block.”

“But what do you do if you get stuck?”

“You write a sentence.  And then you write another sentence.  And then you keep going till the novel is done.”

“But what if it’s not any good?”

“Then you fix it so that it is.”

There is a good deal of horse sense in the above exchange and a truth that any writer who had made – or even aspires to make – a living in this field has run up against. Sometimes, for various reasons – but often because you’re under contract and you are broke and need the money – you don’t write the best novel you could possibly write. You write the best novel you could possibly write at that moment.

There are people who have spent ten, twenty years plotting a novel in their heads and researching every little detail and who have yet to write the first line.

They are a more extreme version of my friend whom I met nineteen years ago, when she had just won a contest with the first finished draft of her fantasy novel. I took second place in this same contest, and did not resent it, because I was still groping for how to plot, while her novel was finished and functional in all its parts.

It’s been 19 years. I’ve had over twenty books published since that day, as well as over a hundred short stories. My friend, arguably the better writer, has rewritten her novel something like 23 times. At one time she had an editor interested.  I don’t know where things have proceeded since then, except that I know her book is not published.

Now some of you will be saying this is justifiable if she’s writing a masterpiece.

Perhaps. There are authors who wrote only one book, and that one book is a masterpiece.

They are very few, though. More common are writers like Jane Austen who – for her time and the age at which she died – was relatively prolific and whose books run the gamut from meh to masterful. Had she only ever written Mansfield Park she would not be one of my favorite novelists. Whether her work would still merit critical acclaim I don’t know, but I know that almost every one of her fans is a fan of Pride and Prejudice first and foremost, giving the other books more or less weight according to personality and inclination. Had she only written one of the other books, she could only count on a small portion of her fandom.

Besides that, given how the market works nowadays and how difficult it is to get something widely distributed enough to be noticed – let alone remember – if you labor your entire life at a book and never consider it good enough to publish, there is a good chance your children won’t know what to do with it and will let it sit forever in its dusty drawer.

No matter how much you delay, plan or revise, you can't build this from building blocks

… No matter how much you delay, plan or revise, you can’t make this from building blocks…

On the other hand, if you have several books out, there is a chance one of them will catch the zeitgeist and become the defining book of the year or the decade and that as such it will go forward into immortality or as close to it as authors dare hope for.

So, let’s establish that the first duty of a writer is to finish something he or she won’t blush to have someone else see.  This doesn’t mean it’s the best possible book, or even the best book that author could write – just the best book that could be finished by that author, at that time.

It’s perfectly logical and reasonable for you to sit down at the beginning of a 13 week novel program, allot three weeks for research, then decide that for a hundred and twenty thousand words novel, you’re going to have to write twelve thousand words a week.

Being myself, I am much more likely to procrastinate, get ill and take care of other things and then, with ten days to go, decide I have to write twelve thousand words a day. But no one ever said I was a normal writer, and it’s perfectly possible that I need the burst of adrenaline to get over my doubts about my writing ability.

Twelve thousand words a week is sane for most people. Say you take Sundays off – that leaves you roughly two thousand words a day – about four pages single spaced. I’ll give you that it’s a respectable clip, but it is not an unheard of amount for a professional writer.

The secret, of course, is to think what you’re going to write in advance, so when you sit down you can write two thousand words with a minimum of fuss.

In my case, with this novel, I knew this was going to be rough unless I took the thirteen weeks. This is because at this moment I have a lot of competing work not in the same world or in compatible worlds/styles to this novel. So, barring my doing my crazy burst of writing in the final ten days, I knew this one would be fraught with interruptions and might take me longer.

But given work, time and persistence, you might be able to do this.

… But given work, time and persistence, you might be able to do this.

It probably will take me four extra weeks or so – its deadline is in August – and I’m willing to give it that.

However, if you know that it’s physically impossible for you, where you are in life and craft right now, to write two thousand words a day, plan on a thousand and two thirteen-week periods.

And then, at some point, work by the method of writing a sentence. Then writing another sentence, then writing another one, until the novel is finished. Even if you know the result will be bad, you can always revise afterwards.

Part of the decision on how to do this and how much time to set aside for it, depends on your self-knowledge. As I said, I’m the sort of writer who works best – sometimes only works – in a burst of panic fueled by the approaching deadline. (Before that I tend to be in search of some unattainable perfection.) I’m not unusual. About half of my colleagues function this way.

Meanwhile, there are those writers for whom seeing an approaching deadline completely shuts down the creative ability. There are other writers like my husband who can decide the word count and the matching plotline point in advance and hit it exactly every day.

There are also writers who, if they miss the deadline – even a self-imposed one – will decide it’s all for naught, they’re failures, and there’s no point trying again.

If you’re one of the latter type, please give yourself two thirteen week periods, then work as though you have only one. This means your chances of driving yourself to despondency are lower.

Part of the advantage of working for yourself is that you know how you work, and therefore can manage yourself better. The bad part is that you know yourself and tend to give yourself way too much slack.

Right now I’m running about four weeks behind deadline for the end of the thirteen weeks. Because I know myself, I’m not panicking – yet.  My plan is to finish out the thirteen week posts, and then take on various aspects of craft such as exposition, character, etc, in these articles while continuing to work on my novel. For those of you following along or setting similar deadlines, I’ll have a note at the end of each post tracking my progress on Through Fire or the next novel, Darkship Revenge.

I will note that part of the reason for the slow progress on the novel is that I am writing more than two thousand words a day on other projects  – even not counting my daily blog posts – because I have requests for short stories, as well as two novels I’m rewriting for publication. And trust me, some of those words are happening by the method of writing a sentence, then another sentence, then another sentence and fixing it all when it’s done.

Sometimes that’s the only thing you can do.


images courtesy shutterstock: koya979 / Pecold / photosync / CoraMax

Tip 14: The Secret to Crafting a Conflict of Biblical Proportions…

The Duel.

They got to fight for the story to win.

They got to fight for the story to win.

Editor’s Note: Sarah Hoyt’s 13 Weeks Novel Writing series will now be appearing on Saturdays alongside Charlie Martin’s original 13 Weeks series, my 13 Weeks Radical Reading Regimen, and additional upcoming 13 Week experiments. It’ll be a self-improvement-themed saturday with numerous writers exploring techniques to better themselves. -DMS


You’d think the title of the post would refer to my relationship with the book this week. Though mostly what kept me from engaging it too closely mano-a-keyboard was the fact that my eczema decided this was an excellent week to engage in a revival ALL over my palms and the tips of my fingers. I must find out if Dragon Naturally Speaking will work for me in its latest incarnation. Last time I tried was several versions ago and it couldn’t cope with the accent, even after training.

There are a number of my colleagues who do use Dragon, and I might have to try again, if my hands continue their current path of rapid disintegration. You too might consider it if you find yourself blocking hard. Sometimes just changing the way you work jiggles the block loose.

At any rate, despite the slow progress on the book and my fight with my body’s issues, the “duel” I’d like to discuss refers to “conflict” in the book.

My first introduction to some people’s concept of what conflict should be came in my first writing group, where a gentleman objected to the chapter I’d submitted because “there’s no conflict.”

In fact, there was a young man rapidly clearing out of the home he’d been living in for close on to twelve years, because he had come to the conclusion those who were hunting him had found his location. I explained that there was conflict, not just potentially between the character’s desire to get away and the certain objection of those hunting him, but also between the character’s need to escape and the desire of his patrons to protect him. Then there was the conflict inside the man himself, between his wish to stay in the only stable home he’d ever known, and his fear of bringing death on his adopted family.

The writers’ group member blinked at me stupidly, (I use the word advisedly) and said “But you know, conflict. Like fist fights. Arguments. He has to argue with someone.”

While I will agree that chapters are better for a bit of dialogue — these days when I have a character alone for a few chapters I have him mutter to himself, talk to a pet, plant or ghost of dead friend if I can at all contrive it without making him sound completely insane – and while I will concede that arguing (and fist fights!) are conflict, they are more the external expression of conflict than the real thing.


Confused? Don’t be.

Dwight Swain – and just about everyone who ever advised writers, but I first came across the concept, explicitly, in Swain – says you should have a conflict in every scene (for me scenes are roughly covalent to chapters because I was trained in classical literature. But there is no right or wrong for that. You might have several scenes per chapter or several chapters per scene.) It could be internal of the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go or external of the I-wanna-go-but-can’t. It can even be fist fights if you have a great need to externalize it and are good at writing them (a lot of people aren’t. It’s a craft.) But you should have a conflict in there that gets solved by the end of the scene at which point, if you are smart, you will have introduced the conflict for the next scene.

Now I’m telling you that ideally this should lead up to the big climax confrontation.

For an example, I’m going to use the movie Prince of Egypt, mostly because I was re-watching it yesterday while cleaning my desk (yes, it’s horrible history, and I gather horrible Biblical scholarship too, but it’s a good story.)

I prefer using movies for this type of explanation because there’s a higher likelihood we’ve all watched the same movie (or can cue it up on Amazon prime or YouTube) than that we’ve all read the same book. Also novel plots are, by nature, more complex. Movie plots tag at about a short story level, which makes it easier to see the bones of the story.

For those who haven’t seen it, the movie relates the familiar story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.

The very first scene sets up the overarching massive conflict and sets the pointers for the duel. However, if this were an unfamiliar story, you might not be aware of that. It might seem like the prologue or scene setting for the “story” which will only properly start when Moses appears as a self-sufficient actor.

After establishing shots to set up the idea of slavery we see Moses’ mother put him in the river and see him being found by the pharaoh’s wife.

Again, if we didn’t know the story, it would seem to start when Moses appears as a self-willed actor, in the next scene in which he and his “brother” Ramses have a chariot race all over the building area for the pyramids.

Is this “conflict”? You bet it is. Over the next few scenes, despite the fact that the writers manage to convey a deep and brotherly affection between Ramses and Moses, we get the feeling of a deep sibling rivalry, of the sort you’d get when the older son is expected to be sober and responsible, but the younger one is allowed to be a scape grace. (In other words, what happens in any society where power and wealth tend to devolve on the older son.)

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This rivalry and the pressures on Ramses to live up to his father’s legacy mount through a series of scenes, and then, of course, Moses discovers his true origin, which sets the stage for his killing an overseer, fleeing to the desert, finding himself and returning to free his people.

That is when you get the absolutely magnificent scene of the plagues. This is The Duel of the movie. There’s more of the movie afterwards, but the climax of emotion hits at this scene.

Why do I say it is magnificent? Because as the movie sets it up, it is just about perfect. It’s a strong enough narrative architecture that I forgive the movie every sin against history and biblical accuracy.

What you have in that scene, where Moses reluctantly calls down plagues on the home he still loves and on the brother he can’t help admiring, is the culmination of all of it: the sibling rivalry set up on the very first scene where they appear together; the love that is obvious between them; Moses’ origins; the situation of an enslaved people and of their (fearful) enslavers.

All of the movie, through serious scenes, silly scenes and funny ones, builds up to this duel where two honorable men, living up the best they can to their sense of mission and honor are pitted against each other in an inexorable battle, despite the deep and abiding brotherly love between them.

Ideally the duel in a book is like that. It has been built up to, step by step, by each scene in the book, even those that only glancingly touch either antagonist or protagonist. If the conflict between them is not present on the page, then the conflict that is there must build towards that greater duel. What I mean is, say the sibling rivalry affects also how Ramses takes up the mantel of his father’s responsibilities, even though he’d much rather be acting like a goofball. It affects how Moses reacts when he finds his true origins. And that in turn makes him become who he is supposed to be– Ramses formidable antagonist.  Each of the minor conflicts pushes the men towards the inevitable duel.

Of course your protagonist and antagonist are covalent in power and strength. Godzilla versus Bambi is a short, pathetic story.

Most successful novels and even short stories manage to at least balance the opponents in strength. What is far rarer is balancing them in honor and duty and purity of intentions. That raises the duel in Prince of Egypt to a whole other level, because neither protagonist nor antagonist can act in any way but how they’re acting. The only one who even could back out is the protagonist, and of course he can’t.

Must you do this in your novel?

Well, no. I haven’t managed it. (I almost typed that “even I” then realized how ridiculous that sounds. I’m certainly not some kind of wonder of writing, but merely a willing apprentice.) For one I don’t usually spend enough time in the antagonist’s head to establish him as full of duty and honor. The closest I came was Jarl in Darkship Renegades, and he’s surely not the main antagonist. The main antagonist might have very good reasons, but we don’t hear him enough to establish them.

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However, as you write towards your duel scene, keep in mind that ideal from Prince of Egypt. If you find a way to make your antagonist and protagonist not only equal in power but in honor and purity of intentions as well, do so. And if you can manage to make them not want to fight at all but boxed in by circumstances, it can be heartbreaking. (Just remember they still have to be fully conscious actors.)

What you need to have in place, though, is all the scenes pointing towards the eventual duel. If you don’t have that… make a note on one of your note pads (or postit notes. Or napkin. Or novel diary. Or whatever you use to keep track of) to revisit it in re-write. You’ll probably find just a little tweaking will do to point to the inevitable clash.

Also, if you can – sometimes one can’t – stay away from clichés in establishing the motives of your villain. It’s not as important with your main character, weirdly.

“But Sarah, you just said the sibling rivalry between Moses and Ramses is a cliché. And you said it was a good setup.”

It’s not quite a cliché. It is a pattern that is found again and again whenever a society gives disproportionate power and responsibility to the older son. (That is most societies until recently.) It rings true that way.

The clichés I’m talking about are more the ones which act as a cop-out and make the villain less than a full actor. Stuff like “he was hurt as a child, so he—” or “He was bit by a dog as a child, and so he wants to kill all the dog-people of Tryffar.” Real people are not like that and are not that simple. Viewing slaves as a patrimony of your race? Sure, it’s been done. Desiring to exterminate all slaves because one looked at you cross-eyed when you were two? That’s not just poor storytelling, it’s poor psychology, the sort of discount-rate Freudianism even Freud didn’t believe in.

You can make your character as traumatized and abused as you wish, only remember to make him a fully conscious actor, despite and through it. His upbringing and his sense of duty might be boxing him, but he still can choose to follow through with it as a fully conscious and sane individual. And if possible make his worst actions come from his loftiest intentions, because in real life, they so often do. Overreaching often leads one to have to “cut moral corners” and brings about the type of situation where one convinces oneself the end justify the means.

It hardly ever does.

So, keep that in mind as you near your duel point. And if you feel you already botched it, take heart. You can always clean it up in revision or, as a video making friend of mine says “you can fix it in post.”

Now, on your mark, set, get ready for the duel.


images courtesy shutterstock / Mike Heywood / Patrick Foto

Tip 15: Managing Your Deadlines

Beat the devil!

What if your muse's ship sank?  What if she never gets here.

What if your muse’s ship sank? What if she never gets here.

And so we come to the end of the thirteen weeks, and I have about a quarter of the book/maybe a half written. The indecision is that I don’t know how much it will change and how much I’ll keep of what I wrote.

Part of this of course is that – as I explained – I started the book before I was quite ready to do it, and part of it is that I seem to have this odd relationship with deadlines, particularly self-imposed ones.

Take National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), for instance. My very first year participating, I completed Darkship Thieves. But any attempt to recapture such success has been mixed at best. What seems to happen is that the moment I commit to NANOWRIMO all heck breaks loose in my personal life.

I’m not particularly inclined to New Age explanations of such things. I can completely understand how reluctance to finish a novel could give me a massive cold/sinus infection – or at least there seem to be indications of psycho-somatic effects of that kind in other contexts. However, I defy anyone short of a committed solipsist to tell me how it is possible for my reluctance to close with a deadline would cause my sons to get sick, appliances to break and/or other emergencies to land in my lap.

And yet they do. I’m not alone in this – I have a friend who refuses to do NANOWRIMO because when he tries it someone close to him dies. I have another friend who says she can’t afford the home-repair bills that NANOWRIMO induces. Having watched her through three bouts, I can say she’s right.

Perhaps there is some field of anxiety that writing generates. Perhaps a century from now someone will say “oh, of course, that was the book Gremlin field. How could they not have known it?”

I’m joking of course, but when I think of this one book I’m supposed to write that every time I start working on causes my basement to flood, the laughter turns a little shrill. That book has been under contract/on the backburner for eight years, but the effect never fails to happen. Perhaps I only work on it when I feel a flood coming at a subconscious level? Maybe I should just buy a sump pump and bite the bullet?

On the serious side – and something I’ve discussed with my publisher – I do have a serious adverse reaction to approaching deadlines. Besides the chaos that periodically engulfs my life, there seems to be a psychological aversion to writing to the deadline. I do regard this as a personality failing, but it seems pretty common to writers.

Maybe a journalist-friend will let you borrow their muse?

Maybe a journalist-friend will let you borrow their muse?

Part of it is – I think – the result of early training for all of us. We are taught that writing is an art form, and therefore can’t be tamed or it somehow fails to be authentic.

Is this true? I don’t know. As I write this, I can hear my journalist friends laugh at me, which is funny since the nearest one is several hundred miles away.

On the other hand, writing as a journalist and writing as a fiction writer are different. Even writing a fictionalized version of reality is different. I could write Plain Jane, my fictionalized biography of Jane Seymour, in three days because the central facts and dates could not be disputed. Jane could not, in fact, in the middle of the book, decide to run away to sea and become a pirate (something Kathryn Howard, in No Will But His very much tried to convince me was an acceptable ending for her story.) I couldn’t suddenly realize how much the story would be improved if I gave some horses the ability to fly, and then go back and retcon the work so it could have flying horses.

Practically any fiction work, not based on hard and fast facts calls for more invention than that. Even mystery where you can halfway through the book go “What if the dagger belonged to the king? It would be a lovely red herring.” Even romance where you can go “Wait, what if I give the main character a tragic past involving dolphins?”

So having your full faculties about you and being fully in the head space of the work is more necessary to a novelist than to a non-fiction writer. I can, more or less on command, given some time, write a summary of facts, or even an opinion piece. But when I’m frazzled, ill or distraught, I can have the hardest time seeing the “full world” of a novel and the things that can affect my character which are not in the outline.

I know it’s fashionable to say that the quality of books in general went down when publishers put authors on what I’ll call “the treadmill system.” I’m not sure this is true. A lot of the golden age authors (whatever the golden age is considered to be for science fiction, mystery, etc., were on what I’d call a “write by the yard system.”

“We need 36 inches of story by tomorrow, can you deliver?” seems to have shaped a lot of the pulp era writing, and for all that, it is still considered a golden era. To go further back, Dumas, Dickens and a half dozen others turned out copy with such fluency that people suspected them of having helpers chained in the basement, writing things for them.

However, I will admit that reading some of the books from the more rushed part of author’s careers – i.e. when they were turning out the most books per x amount of time – you often get a certain feeling of “thinness.” In textile terms, the fabric is beautiful, the pattern intricate, but you can see through it. You get a feeling the story is sort of a hastily erected Hollywood scenario, with nothing at all going on in the parts where the light doesn’t shine.

Perhaps your muse needs time to go deeper

Perhaps your muse needs time to go deeper

Not to detract from the story, as such, and some of them are perfectly enjoyable, but you feel as though the author could/should have taken more time over the books and come up with something deeper. This is not always true. Readers of Georgette Heyer will recognize Black Sheep and Lady of Quality as essentially the same book. They are in fact so similar that when I want to verify some point, I often pick up the wrong one. (And for the gentlemen – and some ladies – who “don’t read romance” let me assure you that Heyer is not what you think of as romance and that it’s likely you’ll enjoy it. My friend Dave Freer recommended I read Heyer for learning better plotting – he was right.)

If asked, I’d guess that Lady of Quality was the first one, and then Black Sheep the redone, deeper book. I’d have been terribly wrong. Lady of Quality was published in 1972 while Black Sheep was published in 1968.

Something clearly bothered the author about that plot and how she’d worked it out, but it wasn’t lack of time that made it seem a little thin.

I’ve seen the same again and again with friends who get to go back and revisit the books written under pressure (particularly as indie reissue comes on line.) Some are improved, but it’s sideways and backwards and not the result of “more time to work on it.”

So, what to do?

Should you sit around waiting for the muse to show up to make sure your book is the fullest, deepest it can be? I’d say not. While it’s true that some of my ideas I’ve revisited 15 years later and made much better… Do you even know you have fifteen years? Isn’t it better to put the story out there, right now, in the best form you can, and then worry about improving it a few years later, perhaps with different characters and under a different title? Waiting for the fickle muse can mean you never write at all.

On the other hand, what if you’re a professional of some experience, and you’re “this close” to finishing when the deadline hits? Sometimes it’s okay to wait. Just don’t wait forever.

So, my closing advice on this Write a Novel in 13 Weeks Thing, in two parts in the next two pages.

Editing calls up a more practical muse

Editing calls up a more practical muse

Set it aside for a minimum of a couple of weeks, but set a date to come back and look it over. If you consider it good enough now (it might not be) get someone you trust to look at it. For this purpose, you mom isn’t someone you trust, and your significant other might not be, unless you can trust them to tell you the unvarnished truth but not run you down unnecessarily.

Let them – at least five people – read it and give you written comments. Then go over the comments. If more than two people agree something is a problem, it might be. (Or the problem might be different. For instance “nothing happens” might mean you have too many passive verbs creating that impression.) On the other hand, if only one person has a problem with something, ignore it, unless the something was bothering you or it’s a matter of fact – in A Few Good Men a friend reminded me that cloth rots. Yes, I know. You’d think I’d have known that?

Because sometimes what people think they have a problem with is not actually the problem; read the comments and give it a few days to percolate. Do not immediately sit down and change anything. (Unless it’s a typo.)

Then go over your book and see where you can deepen, and where you need to retcon, and make it the best book you can. Be aware that revising a novel is as difficult as writing it, if not more. Once more I must recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, how to Edit Yourself into Print. It’s one of the few books that won’t drive you insane with nit-picky advice aimed at non-fiction writers. Read it, and re-read your Dwight Swain, digest it, then embark in editing.

After that we must talk about marketing, and given how strange things are right now, this might seem more than a little daunting. Don’t be too afraid. It’s daunting for everyone right now. I’m hoping – I’m still trying to figure out my schedule going forward here at Lifestyle – to do something short on Thursdays about changes in the industry, what they mean for marketing, and what the options are, from going indie to going traditional, to going indie-to-traditional, to going … any other way that offers. I hope to do at least some of that and guide you.

Keep the muse on the clock

Keep the muse on the clock

If you didn’t finish your novel in these thirteen weeks:

Hey, neither did I, and I’ve finished books successfully in short times in the past. This time, it just didn’t work.

If you’re inclined to beat yourself – I am! – don’t. It solves absolutely nothing. Instead, analyze what went right and what went wrong. If you’re stopped because you need to figure out your world more, go and do that. If it was just the basement flooding and you can’t do anything better than buy a sump pump… forge forward.

Some suggestions, always keeping in mind I don’t know you or what stopped you, and so your mileage may – and almost surely will – vary.

Don’t give yourself all the time in the world. It’s possible that the muse’s name is Godot. Instead give yourself a deadline extension. This is particularly important if it is a self-imposed deadline. If it’s an external deadline, it might involve negotiations with your publisher.

I have a hard deadline for Through Fire for August first, but I’m only giving myself five weeks, so I can force myself to work ahead of schedule. I’ll keep you informed on how it goes in my next thirteen weeks series (in which I’ll take on various aspects of writing that hopefully will help both those still writing and those revising.)

Take a deep breath and see if there is something wrong with the novel preventing your writing.

Changing your writing place might help – this is particularly important if you don’t have an office with a closing door. Find one if at all possible. (I don’t have one, and finding one would involve moving. That’s a discussion for another day.)

Consider going away for a week – borrow a friend’s place, move to your parents’ spare room, go camping with a place nearby to charge your laptop – and make writing your first priority. Almost every professional novelist I know does this every so often. If nothing else, it re-focuses your commitment to writing.

For both those who finished and those who didn’t: Good luck, and I’ll be catching up with you here at PJ Lifestyle.


Images courtesy shutterstock / LiliGraphie / kurhan /Netfalls – Remy Musser / auremar / Dmitry Burlakov