Writing Through a Transitional Period

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I’ve been at my new job for a month now. I’m working on a different schedule, sleeping on a different schedule. It’s going well, and I’m happy there, but even with my best efforts, my writing output has taken a hit. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Try to make (or keep) your writing a daily habit, but don’t stress if you miss days. That’s solid general advice, but even more important to remember while you’re making big life changes. But if your writing style has never meshed with the “write every day” advice, don’t try to force yourself now while you’re under stress from other sources.
  2. Accept that you’re probably going to be less productive for a while. This will be a harder pill to swallow for some than others. I can crank out thousands of words a day during NaNoWriMo when I’m super motivated, but outside of that I can still usually slap down 500-1000 words on any random day. That’s not happening now, some days because I don’t have time, others because I don’t have energy. It’s okay. I have to remind myself of that often, but it really is okay.
  3. Your writing time frame might change. If you used to have large blocks of time to get a lot of writing done (like the weekend,) maybe you don’t anymore, and you have to become one of those “five minutes whenever I can” writers. Or maybe you suddenly have bigger chunks of time than before, but only on certain days. Prioritize your time, plan for writing sessions if you can, but keep #1 + #2 in mind.
  4. Write everywhere. Also good advice in general, but keep a notebook on you at all times, or write a few lines on the back of your napkin on break, or dictate a snippet into your phone. You can type it up later!
  5. Don’t allow your writing time to cut into your sleep. I’ve said it before in NaNo prep posts, and I’ll keep saying it until the end of time. Healthy sleep is basically the best thing for you, physically, emotionally, and creatively. Burning the midnight oil every once in a while is fine, when you’re inspired (or on a deadline,) but if your solution to a lack of writing time is to get an hour less sleep every night, that’s probably not going to work long-term.
  6. It’s okay to do other things with your free time. I’ve picked up cross-stitch again, and I’m spending more time listening to music (which I don’t generally do while I write, lyrics make me sing along and lose focus.) I need relaxing activities that don’t demand so much creative energy. Part of my brain is always chanting “but you could be writing right now,” and that’s true. But if I let writing stress me out, I’m not going to want to do it at all.

I’m hoping now that I’ve got a better handle on my new, rebooted life, I can be more productive in May, but I’m still keeping my goal pretty small: write for half an hour a day, more days than not. It keeps me writing actively, but it’s doable without a lot of time or stress involved.

#spookyromancenovel update!

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It took a little longer than I meant it to, but the draft reread is done, and I have pages upon pages of notes about what works, what doesn’t, and that time I gave Shannon a magical umbrella that could hit like a sledgehammer then completely forgot it existed.

Chekhov’s Umbrella, anyone?

So I’ve got some world-building to flesh out, for sure. I’ve got some pretty hideous plot holes that need paving, especially in the latter half, which I was racing through for NaNoWriMo. But overall? I’m feeling pretty good about it. For something I threw together in just over two months with zero planning beforehand, it’s actually a decent first draft.

The big rewrite will be soon. My rough plan is use the rest of January for the planning stuff–world-building, ironing the kinks out of the time line, brainstorming fixes to the plot holes, beefing up my subplots. Then I’m hoping to get the second draft cranked out by the end of March, another two-month window. It seems to be the right length of time for me.

Will you be hearing much about it in the mean time? I’m not sure. Whenever I do a rewrite I end up coming up with new editing tricks, which usually turn into Editing Notes posts. So quite possibly. But I’m also two weeks into the new reading year, and I’m swimming in books, I love my reading challenges, so there’s still going to be tons of reading content, too.

My goal, much like back when I started with What We Need to Survive, is to have this released sometime by the end of the year. I was disappointed not to put anything out in 2018 after three straight years of a book a year, but I didn’t have anything worth publishing. The rock star novel I was so excited about is still on my hard drive, and I may go back to it some day, but it’s definitely not ready for anyone else to see, and that’s the lesson 2018 taught me–not every story is going to work out like you want it to.

#spookyromancenovel, on the other hand, feels like it’s going to be great. After some more work, of course!

Writing Homework #13: Song Lyric Inspiration

Song and song-lyric writing prompts are nothing new, but I’m going for a slightly different tactic here.

My husband and I are both devoted Pumpkinheads, being teenagers from the ’90s, and early on in our friendship we bonded over our similar tastes in music quite strongly.

On our car trip for Christmas vacation, we popped in some Pumpkins for nostalgia’s sake–I hadn’t actually listened to Machina – The Machines of God in years.

I was caught by a single line from “Try, Try, Try” —

the automatic gauze of your memories

In five words, it says so much. How memory is imperfect and fades over time, and how that’s something beyond control.

Now, if I wanted to use this directly in my own writing, obviously that’s plagiarism. And plagiarism is bad, okay?

But there’s nothing stopping me, or any writer, from noting down lines we love, that speak to us, and adapting that imagery or emotion for ourselves, reinterpreting it.

I’m not going to go so far as to recommend you keep yet another dedicated journal just for song lyrics, like the vocabulary journal, but if you already do have a little notebook handy for your writing thoughts, add those song lyrics in, with whatever images or ideas they spark in you, however they make you feel. Take some time to listen to old favorites, especially music you might have neglected for a while, see what memories the songs conjure up, and write about that too.

When you need inspiration later for your projects, or when you need to capture a specific tone for a scene, you’ll have your own words ready to guide you.

Let Me Tell You a Story #27: Procrastination

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” Ray Bradbury

I’ve been a big proponent in the past of the axiom “write every day,” but I can only rarely fulfill that goal. I’m not a full-time writer–I have a day job. I have family responsibilities. I like to play video games.

During NaNoWriMo each year, with a clear goal in mind (50K or more) and a huge community of support around me, I have no trouble pounding out the word count daily.

Then December hits, and the holiday frenzy begins, and I’m kicking myself for not having time.

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This is what my current progress looks like. And the longer I go between writing sessions, the harder it is to make myself sit down and do it. Why? Because I feel like a failure for not writing every day. Because I’m so far behind I don’t believe I can catch up.

But that’s nonsense, and I know it. When I can make the time, I can pump out the words like my fingers are possessed, flying over the keyboard almost without volition. I’ve written over 7K in one day before (this year’s NaNo); I’ve written 10K in a weekend (when I started the original draft of What We Need to Survive); I once wrote, rewrote, and edited a 12K novelette for a contest in six days, start to finish.

Writing isn’t the problem. It’s the motivation to write that’s coming hard. Even now, I could be working on my project instead of this blog post, which I could just as easily do tomorrow. Or even when I wake up Monday morning, because who would know if I hadn’t just given away that it’s actually Saturday afternoon when I’m writing this?

And the farther behind I fall, the harder it is to feel like the effort means anything.

I don’t think it’s bad to write every day, if it’s something you’re capable of, or something you need to do to keep yourself writing. This isn’t me slagging off at writers who have dedicated writing time each day.

But the longer I try to keep up that sort of discipline myself, the more stifled I feel by it.

Write when you can. If that’s five minutes while dinner is on the stove, or five hours when you have the day off your regular job, it doesn’t matter. Write when you can.

Mind-Mapping Goes Digital

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Over the course of my vacation last month, I covered five sheets of notebook paper with mind-map-style notes about one of my possible NaNo projects, a non-hierarchical wolf-shifter-society romance.

As I was working outside of my usual space and without the benefit of a computer, I didn’t mind mapping it all out by hand. But when I got home, I knew that trying to work from paper to screen would irritate me.

Fortunately, around that time, Tumblr introduced me to RealTimeBoard, a free virtual whiteboard app.

From the short introductory videos I watched, the app is clearly geared towards team project collaboration, but as you can see from my consolidated mind-map above, it works perfectly well for single-person projects too. With a little forethought, I managed to plan a layout from the center outwards that incorporated all of my individual maps into one massive, color-coded monstrosity.

As with any new program, the learning curve on using all its features will take a little time–I’m sure I haven’t explored everything yet–but once I got past the initial five minutes of the WTF-does-this-do, I was fine.

And on a more personal level, I discovered I quite like mind-mapping as an outlining tool, and now that I have an app for it, I’ll probably use it again in the future.

Writing Homework #12: Try a New Outlining Method

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Since I’m trying to wrangle my plot bunnies and choose which one gets fed during NaNoWriMo this year, and I’ve got seven to choose from, I thought this would be a great time to investigate different ways to outline. I’ve already tried a few throughout my years of writing, with wildly varying degrees of success, but I got it in my head to try as many as I can now, while I have all these ideas to cultivate.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to take a story idea you have an try out a new-to-you method of outlining it. I’ve assembled several ideas, but there are certainly more methods out there.

#1 – Standard (Research Paper) Outline

Just like the ones back in school, this is your Roman-numeral, descending outline. Straightforward, especially if you’re already familiar with it from a thousand sheets of class notes or research papers–just change the sections from Introduction, Thesis, etc. to Act I, II, II (for the three-act structure) and make the subdivisions into chapters; or if that’s too rigid, use the sections for the major plot points you want to occur, the subdivisions for scene details, and figure out the chapter divisions as you write.

#2 – The Synopsis

Take a sheet of paper (or a blank document) and write out in simple action sentences the plot of your novel. This one’s quite flexible; it doesn’t need to be as formal as writing a synopsis for publishing agents, though it still shouldn’t go into great detail at this stage. Include notes for character motivation or settings where you already have ideas, but in truth, this is the bare-bones summary of what happens in your story.

#3 – The Snowflake Method

If the Synopsis is a quick-and-dirty approach, the Snowflake Method is its fractal cousin. Its creator explains it in more detail than I can–but briefly, you start with one sentence describing your entire premise, then expand that into a handful of sentences detailing the major plot points, then expand that into paragraphs with the first details of how and who and why, and so forth.

#4 – The Headlight/Flashlight Method

Useful for us pantsers who have a character already in mind or know how the story starts, this method (which I’ve seen frequently under both names) is a brainstorm-as-you-go plan, where you take what you already have and only plan a few chapters in advance. At each major decision point, you can explore as many new ideas for how to proceed as you want before committing to writing the next few chapters. By its nature, this method isn’t as strong for a situation like NaNoWriMo when you might want all your planning done ahead of time, but it certainly appeals to me!

#5 – The Zero/Discovery Draft

An anything-goes race from start to finish, written with more depth but less precision than a synopsis; the kitchen sink of outlines, where everything from detailed character descriptions to snippets of dialogue to [insert fight scene here] is acceptable. Author Leigh Bardugo describes her process for one of my favorite YA novels Six of Crows as “I write a skeleton and then put meat on its bones.”

#6 – Mind Maps

A visual, non-linear outlining method that I have no experience with myself, so I’ll point you here for a comprehensive breakdown. It seems a little intimidating to me, as I’ve never attempted anything like it–but that means I probably should, right?

#7 – Note Cards/Sticky Notes

Another visual method with the bonus of being rearrangeable, for stories without firm timelines at the outset. Depending on your planning style and level of abstraction, each note card can be a scene, a chapter, or a simple major plot point if you’re in the early stages. You may end up using the note cards to build a more classic outline in the end, but for strongly visual thinkers, it might be an easier way to get there.

I hope this has given you some ideas for the care and development of your plot bunnies–good luck!


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Let Me Tell You a Story #27: Too Many Plot Bunnies

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With a completed series behind me and a NaNoWriMo novel draft I’m not ready to tackle rewriting, I’m stuck firmly in Plot Bunny Land. I have seven WIPs at the moment with drabs of story notes, partial scenes, and the vaguest of character sketches and outlines–they range from a mere 581 words to a fat-bunny size of 5,941.

I’m still writing nearly every day, but over the past few weeks I’ve added a few hundred words at a time to four of those seven bunnies.

I have no idea what to write next.

Each one is appealing to me, in one way or another, or I wouldn’t be writing them in the first place. I’ve got ghosts in a library, reunited old friends (two takes on this one), geeks in love, lesbian witches, a werewolf shifter pack with a family structure instead of the debunked Alpha/Omega nonsense, and a man belly dancing on a bar. They’re all fun.

But I don’t know where any of them are going. The downside of being, in all major ways, a pantser.

So today I’m brainstorming ways I can choose between these fluffy little rabbits and focus on just one story to write.

  1. Continue as I am, adding to each story as the ideas come, until one takes over naturally. PRO: doesn’t force me to choose. CON: getting one project finished will be extremely slow.
  2. Pick one at random and force myself to write it while ignoring the others. PRO: might help me get my work ethic (and word count) going again. CON: higher risk of burning out on a story midway through.
  3. Spend some time developing a rough outline for each one, then choose which one to work on based on whatever feels more complete/inspiring. PRO: will probably lead to the most informed choice and best first draft. CON: does not at all play to my strengths and will involve a great deal of work up front before making a decision. PRO #2: at the end of whichever project I pick, I’ll have still outlines and notes assembled for the rest of them.

Given that it’s the middle of September and I’m about to go on a week’s vacation (yay!) I’m leaning towards #3, despite it not being my usual style. If I take the next six available weeks before NaNo starts, I can probably work up a reasonable plan for which story to choose and be ready to write a draft of it in November.

Wish me luck, my lovelies. I think I’ll start this afternoon.

Writing Homework #11: Prep a Name Master List

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Every author handles choosing names differently, but speaking for myself, it’s often a struggle. Consulting baby name websites and lists of the most popular names in a given era are great places to start, but I often find myself wading through tons of blah names without feeling inspired.

What struck me lately is that I keep meeting people with fantastic names that I wish I could use. I can’t–not in full, anyway–but there’s a way around that.

If you’re like me and you have a notebook on you at nearly all times, simply write the name down for later. (Not in front of the person, that would look weird!)

But for the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to draw names to work with from a pool. Head over to IMDb and find a favorite show or movie, then click through to the full cast and crew listing.

I’ll be pulling names today from Stargate SG-1. I miss that show.

To keep this small, I’m going with ten, though a master list you could make as long as you want to start, and keep adding to it whenever you find something new. My only criteria at the moment is to pick a name I like, which is vague–maybe the first name is pretty or the last name is one I haven’t heard before or the two just sound good together.

  1. Amanda Tapping
  2. Andy Mikita
  3. Charles Correll
  4. Jonathon Glassner
  5. Jacqueline Samuda
  6. Claudia Black (okay I picked her because I’ve loved her since Farscape, I confess)
  7. Gillian Barber
  8. Karen van Blankenstein
  9. Kevin McNulty
  10. Jennifer Calvert

So, realistically speaking, we authors can’t/shouldn’t use any names as they come. If I write a book where the main character’s name is Amanda Tapping, even if the story has nothing to do with any Stargate elements and the character looks, sound, and acts nothing like the actor…well, you get the situation I had last year when I read The Summer of Chasing Mermaids. And also, if Amanda Tapping found out, she might not be pleased.

So, it’s time to break the first names free of the last names and do some rearranging. On my first pass, I got these shiny new names, all perfectly usable:

  1. Karen Tapping
  2. Jonathon Mikita
  3. Gillian Correll
  4. Jennifer Glassner
  5. Andy Samuda
  6. Kevin Black
  7. Amanda Barber
  8. Claudia van Blankenstein
  9. Charles McNulty
  10. Jacqueline Calvert

My criteria for rematching the names was simple. Everyone had to be shuffled, and I wanted them to sound good together. Which made me wonder what that means, so it’s time to take a look.

Many of these new names share sounds. “Gillian Correll” has the Ls, “Andy Samuda” the Ds, “Jennifer Glassner” shares the -er ending, and “Jacqueline Calvert” doubles down by sharing both the L and the hard C.

In the names that don’t share sounds, the rhythm of stressed syllables flows well. The hardest on the mouth is probably JON-a-thon mi-KI-ta, but it’s not terrible, and maybe that character will go by Jon instead.

There’s nothing stopping me from rearranging the first names again to switch up the ones I don’t like quite as much, but some of these names are already forming characters in my head. “Claudia van Blankenstein” is a Gothic Romance heroine name if I’ve ever heard one. “Charles McNulty” could easily be a teenage introvert whose parents insist on calling him Charles even though he’d want his friends to call him “Charlie,” if only he had any. (Poor Charles!) “Amanda Barber” would make a great real estate agent, with easy-to-spell-and-remember name gracing billboards and bench-seat ads all around town.

Go forth, my lovelies, and make yourself master lists of names, so when you’re tumbling through your draft and suddenly you need a real estate agent, you have a name ready to go.


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Save Every Word You Write

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When I got into art journaling last year, I found myself hungry for new media. I had some craft acrylics leftover from old projects, I had plenty of paper and fabric and yarn, but I wanted more. Lots of the journals I saw and admired used watercolors.

I had some old tubes from a set I bought on a family vacation. I don’t know how I always ended up with new art supplies on vacations, but I did. I hadn’t touched them since high school, so at least twenty years ago, and I didn’t doubt they were damaged, but I still had them. Rather than buying a new set, I decided to rescue them.

Watercolors 2

Some of the colors were fine, like the cadmium yellow and red, squeezed out of their tubes as easily as if they were brand new. Some, like the burnt sienna and black, were stubborn and gooey–I had to slit their tubes open with a blade and scoop them out.

The worst, the white and crimson, had completely dried out–I peeled the slit tubes away from them like wrapping paper.

But I can still use them. Add a little water, and presto, it’s still paint.

Where am I going with this?

Save everything you write.

Every plot bunny. Every imagined scene without a story attached to it. Every line of dialogue or descriptive phrase cut from a piece during editing. Save all of it.

Your words don’t lose their power with age anymore than my watercolors did.

Every time I sit down to edit a first draft, I make a new file called “Deleted Scenes.” Anything that gets cut ends up there. Does any of it make it back in later? Not usually, but a joke from one of those deleted scenes in What We Need to Survive is now in a different scene in the forthcoming What We Need to Rebuild, where it works much better.

The joke didn’t get cut because it was unnecessary, or even because it was bad–it got cut because the whole scene needed to go, and there wasn’t a place for the joke anywhere else in the book. Turns out, two books later, it found a home.

Save everything you write. You don’t know when you might need it again.

Let’s Talk About Tropes #7: Second-Chance Romance

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There’s a special place in my heart for a good second-chance romance story, but when this trope goes bad, it goes super-bad.

Why?

To answer that, let’s break down the basic elements:

#1 – Establishing the previous relationship and conflict

For the current story to qualify as a second chance, there needed to be a first one. Were the characters already dating/engaged/married? Was this a childhood sweetheart situation, all innocence and cuteness, but then they went off to different colleges? If the separating conflict is too serious (cheating, abuse, etc.) it may be hard to show the characters recovering from it believably. If the separating conflict is too weak or mundane, our beloved second-chance aspect of the new romance may feel shortchanged.

#2 – Reconnecting the characters

By far the most common one I’ve seen is for one character to move back to their hometown–second-chance romances are often paired with a Small Town Setting™ to up their charm factor. But that’s not the only option by any means. If the characters work in the same field or related ones, one of them could take a new job that puts them in the other’s sphere. They could run into each other randomly in a Big City Setting™; they could both attend the same important event, like the wedding of a mutual friend; they could stumble over each other on social media somehow. The Internet is a magical thing, after all.

But with all these viable options and more, why do so many seem forced? Well, because, to some degree, they are. If the point of the story is the romance (which it is, of course, to us romance authors) sometimes we’re more focused on getting the relationship going again than how the characters reconnect, which means we’ll slap any old reason on the face of it to put our two leads into each other’s faces. Take a little extra time to think through reasonable situations. Ask your friends where and how they’ve run into people they used to know, and what (if anything) came of it, whether the relationship is romantic or not. I mean, I ran into someone I had a crush on in junior high while we were both in line at the post office to send Christmas presents to our families. Absolutely nothing came of it–no number exchange, no attempt to contact each other again, I haven’t seen or heard from him since–but for a pair of fictional characters, that meeting could have had different consequences.

#3 – Layering old and new conflicts

Every romance has to have conflicts; the best question to ask is always “Why aren’t they together now?”

But second-chance romances have an extra layer to handle: resolving the old conflict somehow while maintaining new ones. Your leads aren’t the same people they used to be, no matter how familiar they may seem to each other–they’ve changed. What is it about how they’ve changed that means the unresolved conflict from their previous relationship can be overcome?

Sometimes I’m disappointed by the couples rekindling their flame too quickly, because they toss the old conflict out the window with barely a pause to breathe. Make sure the issue is given the weight and consideration it deserves (which will depend, of course, on how serious it was to begin with) before letting your couple fall into bed together.


So, my lovely readers, do you like second-chance romances? What is it about them you enjoy, and what pitfalls are you tired them falling into?