Archive for writing

writing

Idea Time

I’ve made the mistake of having multiple projects all in the same phase at the same time. I often work on more than one thing at a time. There may be something I’m editing/proofreading and getting ready for publication, something I’m drafting, and something I’m researching or brainstorming. I’ll do the editing in the morning, writing in the afternoon, and research in the evening.

That how things were working recently. I was doing market research reading for one thing (I’m going to rework something I’ve written to go after a different market, so I’m reading books in that market to get a sense of the style and pacing), revising another thing, and researching another thing. Usually there’s a flow, so that after I finish revising one thing, I start drafting the thing I’ve been researching. But I’m in a unique circumstance, in that the thing I’m researching is a bigger project that’s taking a lot of research, so it’s nowhere near ready to be written, and I’m moving straight to drafting the sequel to the book I just finished revising.

The idea phase for all these things blew up at once yesterday. I got the idea for the sequel and got it decently fleshed out, so I can start doing serious development on it. Meanwhile, although I’ve been doing background research on the world for that other project, that research sparked a bunch of ideas yesterday, including an entire plot, and that world is starting to come into focus. And then I also started to get a sense of how the thing I’m reworking might go in this new structure.

I had three books trying to write themselves in my head last night. Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of sleep. I’m surprised that I don’t seem to have dreamed any of them, and I wasn’t getting them muddled. They all remained distinct. It was more like a music player on shuffle, where a song from one album would play, and then it would flip over to a song from another album, then over to a song from a third album, and then at random among all three albums.

I may have to do some massive brain dumping today, writing out everything I know about all three ideas.

Tomorrow is supposed to be the kind of cold, rainy day I’ve been longing for, and I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything, so I may treat the day as a kind of retreat, with some brainstorming and some viewing of related movies to help spur more ideas.

writing

Taking My Time

One of the most common bits of writing advice is to set aside a manuscript for at least a couple of weeks (or months) before you go back to work on it so that you can see it more clearly and be less attached to the process of writing it, but I’m not sure how many people actually do it. We end a book with great enthusiasm and can’t wait to get it revised and finished, or else we’re impatient about being able to submit or publish it, or we’re on deadline and don’t have the time to wait.

I will confess to being guilty of all of the above. I seldom have the luxury of being able to let a draft sit, and even when I do, I usually feel like I already have a good sense of the problems and know how to fix them.

Without really planning to, I ended up taking a more than two-week break over the holidays when I was in the middle of a revision round, right at the point where things needed to be fixed, and I have to say, it made a big difference. I’ve been able to see a lot more clearly where the plot problems were, and it’s been relatively easy to see how to fix them. Some of that may be because I’ve had time to mull it over, but I think a lot of it has to do with being hazy on remembering exactly why I wrote things the way I did in the first place. When you know why you wrote something, you’re more resistant to changing it because you can justify it to yourself. Once that memory becomes fuzzy, you’re just reading what’s on the page, as though you’re a reader or editor, and if what’s on the page doesn’t work, you know you need to fix it. There’s no arguing with yourself or rationalizing.

That’s especially valuable with humor, where the joke that might have made sense while you were writing it because you understood where you were going with it no longer works without whatever was going on in your head at the time, and that means readers won’t get it. You know it has to go.

Really, as much as I hate it, giving myself more time and slowing down really does make books better. I trained as a journalist, so I’m very deadline focused. Worse, I worked in TV news, so our deadline was absolute. We had a newscast going on at six, whether or not we were ready, so we had to be ready. In that world, being able to work quickly was valuable. I had a reputation for being able to sketch out a story in the car on the way back to the station, so I could get the script written and get it to the editor to cut together the story right away. They’d send me on the late-afternoon stories because they knew I could get back to the station after five and still have something ready to go on the air at six. When I was working in PR, my boss used to brag about me being able to “turn on a dime and give change” because they could throw an urgent assignment at me and have something written within an hour or so.

That can be helpful when writing novels because it means I hit my deadlines, but that sense of rush, rush, rush isn’t always for the best. I’m so focused on getting it done quickly that I may not be doing it as well as I should. I can still write quickly, but giving it a bit of time between phases would probably improve the finished product.

Since I’m developing a new series, I’m writing the first few books before I publish anything, and that should give me some time. After this draft, I’m going to write the next couple of books before I go back and do another draft on the first book. That way I know I’ll be setting up anything I need for the first few books, but I also will have plenty of time to let the first book rest so I can really revise it and make it shine. After all, I’m hoping this book will suck people so deeply into this world and these characters that it will make them eager to keep reading the series.

writing

Bad Research

While I haven’t been feeling like doing much else, I’ve been doing research reading for preliminary input for some worldbuilding I want to do. In other words, reading history and calling it “work.” I guess I’ve steeped myself in the subject pretty well, since I was reading a book, thought its assertions sounded off, looked it up online, and found that historians were screaming about this book and how wrong it was.

The book is A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester, and it’s a pretty inaccurate depiction of the medieval era. I have no problem with “pop” history — written for ordinary people rather than academics — but this is just bad. He’s using secondary sources (when he even cites a source), and they’re outdated Victorian sources that have been debunked. He’s looking at things from an era in which they thought the “classical” world (ancient Greece and Rome) were the pinnacle of civilization, with the conceit that the current (Victorian) era was a revival of that. But this book was published in in the 1990s.

Here’s the bit that had me jumping online to look it up: he asserts that medieval peasants had no sense of time, I guess because they didn’t have watches. But as historians have pointed out, that doesn’t mean there was no sense of time. The churches rang their bells for the offices of the day, and just about everyone would have lived in earshot of a church since they’d have to be in walking distance. They’d have had more awareness of time than a modern person who doesn’t wear a watch.

Not to mention, in an agrarian society they’d have been tending to animals, and anyone who’s ever dealt with animals knows that animals are very routine-oriented. You don’t have to have a watch for your animals to let you know that it’s time to eat, time to return home, or time to sleep.

It seems this author got all his info about how peasants lived from writings by noblemen who were trying to justify treating their peasants like animals.

From a history standpoint, I want to throw the book against the wall, but since I’m getting ideas for creating a fictional world, I may as well read his fictional version of the world. It’s basically a fantasy world. Fortunately, I bought it used, so I didn’t send any money to this bad research.

writing

Hiding and Revealing Clues

I’ve been chugging along on this book, but now I’ve reached the point where I have to start moving toward solving this thing. I’ve spent so long trying to hide clues, and now I have to reveal them. This is where it gets tricky, trying to make things hard for my sleuth (and for readers) while still needing my sleuth to uncover things. One challenge I have is that the situation makes it hard for her to find and interview suspects, so I have to come up with ways for her to meet up with them.

Mysteries are a lot harder than they seem to write. It’s strange, the Enchanted, Inc. books were essentially mysteries, just without the dead bodies, but I don’t seem able to move what I was doing there over to this structure. I think there was less pressure to make things tricky there because the story wasn’t really about the “case.” It was about the magic and all the other stuff that was going on with the characters. I think, to some extent, that in a mystery series, readers follow it more because they like the characters and situation than for the actual mysteries, but to get readers to that point, the case in the first book has to be good. I just read the first book in a mystery series in which I liked the sleuth and the concept, but the case was handled so badly that I don’t think I’ll be reading any other books in the series.

What I’m having fun with is building a new “world” and creating new characters. That’s always been my favorite part of writing. The actual story and the plot have always been my challenge. It took me a long time to figure out what to do after I came up with a situation, a setting, and the characters.

I’m afraid Thanksgiving is going to kill my momentum, just as I’m getting close to the end. I guess I’ll just hole up in the guest room while everyone else is watching football.

writing

Imaginary Places

I’m getting close to the halfway point on the book I’m working on, but I realized after yesterday’s very productive writing session that I did something wrong with that scene. Today I’ll have to backtrack and rework it to move things in the right direction. I’m trying to figure out when to introduce a particular element that will move the plot forward dramatically but also complicate things for the main character. I think I moved part of it up way too quickly and need to add the other part first.

Meanwhile, I think I’ve fallen in love with my setting, which is a problem because it doesn’t actually exist. I believe there’s a particular word in one language (that I don’t recall) that translates to homesickness for a place you’ve never been. This is like that, except it’s a place I can never go. I created a fictional small town that’s very loosely based on a couple of actual towns. I stole some geography from two places and put them together to get what I wanted. Then I started adding the elements I needed for the story, along with giving the town a background that explained some of the things. The result is a town I would like to visit, maybe even live in.

There’s a “downtown” area with a main street and a couple of side streets built in those turn-of-the-century downtown-style buildings you see in a lot of Texas towns. Sadly, in a lot of these towns, those buildings are now empty or torn down. People try to start businesses there, but they don’t last long. If a business is doing well there, the building no longer meets its needs, so they end up building a newer building on the edge of town. But in my town, they’ve found businesses to go in these buildings and have even built apartments on the upper floors. The town’s in the process of turning around and finding a new identity after it almost withered away.

One of the businesses in my old downtown is a Mexican restaurant. Either it used to actually be a saloon or it looks like it because that’s the vibe it has. It has wooden floors and a pressed tin ceiling, a big bar at the back that’s now counter seating, and the traditional mirror behind the bar. The food is excellent, and it’s the town hang-out. Late last week and over the weekend I was writing a scene set in this restaurant. My main character’s been stuck in this town after a lot of things happen, including one of those sudden cold fronts that takes it from a pleasant morning to sleet by evening, and she walks to this restaurant, where she meets a lot of the other characters, since it’s one of the few places still open and a lot of the people who were in the vicinity of the murder have come there for dinner. That meant I spent days craving Mexican food, but the problem was that I wanted to go to this restaurant, which doesn’t actually exist.

Fortunately, there were tacquitos at a party I went to over the weekend, which eased the craving somewhat. And I found a recipe for cheese enchiladas that sounds like what I like, so I’m going to try making that this weekend.

There’s also a diner in town that’s in a remodeled old train car. That one is based on a restaurant I went to in Oklahoma, which is in an old train car. I somewhat modified it, but I liked the idea, and it fits with the town’s story.

Today I need to decide what kind of library they have and what its building looks like.

writing

Lessons from Stephen King

A book on writing and publishing I was reading mentioned a piece of Stephen King’s advice from his book On Writing, so I thought I’d check that out of the library and read the whole thing. I haven’t read a lot of Stephen King because I’m a massive weenie who can’t handle a lot of tension and who doesn’t like to be scared. I’ve read a collection of his short stories. I read The Dead Zone after starting to watch the TV series. Oddly, it wasn’t the spooky supernatural stuff that made that series too scary for me to watch all the way through. It was when the creepy politician became the focus that I got too freaked out. I guess it’s the same reason I can’t watch or read courtroom stories. I know vampires and monsters are fiction, but lawyers and politicians are real, and that’s truly scary. I also read The Colorado Kid, which was the (very loose) basis for the series Haven. He’s an incredibly talented writer, so even if I’m too chicken to read most of his work, I figured I had something to learn from him.

The first half of the book is essentially a memoir about how he came to be a writer. I came away from reading that with the sense that I’d actually like him a great deal if I met him. I might even need to give more of his books a shot because, from the sounds of things, I get what he’s trying to say, and it seems like the impression I have is more from the movies made from his books, which tend to take a very different perspective.

The second half gets into more how-to, at least how he approaches writing. I think my biggest practical takeaway is his advice that the second draft should be 10 percent shorter than the first draft, tightening it all up and getting rid of any flab. In my case, I would probably adapt that to say that after I think the book is done, I should do another pass to remove 10 percent. My first draft tends to be fairly bare bones, almost like a screenplay, so it’s mostly dialogue and action. There is some flab, certainly, since I tend to process things on paper, having the characters think about or talk about what they should do or have done, and once I’ve figured all that out, I can cut the process part. But I also have to add things like emotions and description. My second drafts usually involve cutting huge chunks and adding huge chunks. But after that, trying to trim 10 percent, whether it’s in whole passages or individual words, might be a really good exercise. He even has an example of how he edits a scene to show the kinds of things he cuts.

There’s also some good inspirational stuff that I need to keep in mind when I get discouraged about the business that comes with writing. The quote I probably need to embroider on a throw pillow is: “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

Now maybe I need to try more of his novels. Any suggestions for weenie-safe Stephen King books?

writing

On Target

I’ve finally made it back to my old proven working schedule, writing before I do anything else in the morning, and I’ve already written almost half of my target word count for the day. I guess the proven schedule really does work, as much as I hate it.

I write in an application called Scrivener. It’s designed primarily for fiction writers and has a lot of fun little functions I’m still discovering. One thing I like is that it works like a binder where you can keep all documents relating to a project, so research notes, character lists, etc., are all in one handy place. You can put each scene in a separate document and the software compiles it all into one Word document when it’s done (it’s a pain to write in separate documents in Word). While you’re drafting, it’s easy to jump to other parts of the book if you need to fix something, and it’s easy to move scenes around. There’s a spot on each document where you can write notes about what the scene’s about, and there’s a mode in which you can see those notes as notecards, which helps for plotting. You can lay out the scenes you know by writing on the notecards, then go back and actually write the scenes.

One of my favorite features is the project tracker. There’s a little window you can bring up where you enter your target word count and target daily word count, and it shows your progress. The bar starts as red, gradually turns orange, then a yellowish color, and gradually turns bright green as you near your goal. Or you can set a target word count and a deadline and which days of the week you plan to write, and it will calculate how many words you need to write a day to hit that deadline. It recalculates if you go over or under your daily target. One of the great joys in writing life is going over one day and then opening the application the next morning to see that the daily target has gone down. It’s a great motivator to do just a little more. The closer you get to the deadline, the bigger the impact going over (or under) the daily target has because it’s spread over fewer days.

I also like that there’s a quick reference panel you can bring up without leaving the document you’re in. I use that for a character list. When I come up with a character, that person’s name and any vital info I need to remember go in the list. Then it’s easy to check when that character appears again and I need to be sure of his name and how to spell it or if I need to remember something like a character’s sister’s name that was only mentioned offhand once earlier in the book.

You can put pictures in the documents, too—not to appear in the final compilation, but showing up in the notes on the side. There are places to put reference photos in the binder, and there are character and location sheets where you can put photos, but if something is critical to a scene and you need to refer to it frequently while writing the scene, you can put it in the notes for that document.

Today I’ve already watched my daily tracker turn yellow, and the project tracker has gone from red to orange. My daily target word count is dropping gradually. It’s already below my usual daily output, so I feel like I might be able to draft this book this month. Then again, I haven’t hit the dreaded middle slump yet. So far, I’m still getting scenes in my head every night and am just having to transcribe them the next morning.

writing

Taking Dictation

That book really took off over the weekend. I can barely keep up with all the stuff my brain keeps coming up with. Whole scenes are playing themselves out in my head. I got several thousand words written on Saturday. Now I need to do a little revision and regrouping because I got ahead of myself and skipped over some things that need to happen before other things can happen.

Although I’m mostly winging it, I’ve realized I do need some structure. I’ve taken some advice I’ve read and am writing a short synopsis from the villain’s point of view: what they did and why and what they’re doing in reaction to the other events in the story (using the singular “they” here to avoid any potential clues, like the gender of the character — I don’t want to spoil the book before it’s even written!). That allows me to have something of a timeline in mind to use as a framework and gives my heroine something to bounce off against.

I was on such a roll that I skipped an event I’d been planning to go to on Saturday since I didn’t want to risk losing all the stuff in my head before I got it written down. And that turned out to be a good thing because I noticed an odd burning smell in my car when I drove home from church Sunday. That’s about a fifteen-minute drive on neighborhood streets, so it could have been potentially bad if I’d driven halfway across the metro area at highway speed — and it would have been after most repair places would have closed for the weekend, so I’d have been in big trouble if I’d actually broken down. I don’t plan to go anywhere today (I have more scenes to transcribe, and there’s a front coming through, so the weather is nasty), but I’ll run over to my neighborhood mechanic in the morning for them to check it out. None of the warning lights have come on, but it’s not a happy smell.

Now I’ve got a cold, gray day, perfect for plotting mayhem and murder while wrapped in a blanket and with a cup of tea by my side.

writing

Mixed-up Ideas

I found myself at an odd standstill yesterday. I knew what I wanted to write, but I couldn’t seem to get started. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t decide on a starting point for the story. Every opening I came up with was either too early, with too much happening before the action really got started, or too late, with not enough setup to explain the situation. I couldn’t think of anything that was a happy medium.

My other problem was that this story got tangled up with another story idea that’s been living in my head. I had a lot of that idea developed but was missing some critical elements. This one story idea that I was supposed to be working on gave me the idea for one of those missing pieces. But then that story started writing itself in my head. I’m not ready to work on it because one of the critical missing pieces is an actual plot, but I was seeing scenes and characters, and they were overlapping the story I needed to be working on.

I think I got it all worked out last night. I found a good starting point and I have a better grasp of that character, so I think I can start writing today. The other thing has also made progress and I think I know where I need to go with coming up with a main plot, but it’s content to sit aside for now.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying another short burst of fall weather. This is one of my two favorite kinds of fall days, cool and crisp. I took a walk before breakfast, and it was lovely to come in and make a pot of tea to warm up again. Then it was just right for sitting on the patio with a cup of tea after breakfast. My flowers are all still blooming, and the sun had come out, leaving a bright blue sky. I may find excuses to sit outside the rest of the day before I have to go to choir.

writing

On to Proofreading

I’ve finished the edits and am now doing my proofreading by reading the whole book out loud to myself. I thought I’d edited thoroughly, but it’s astonishing how many little things I’ve caught in just the first couple of chapters. They’re not necessarily errors (though I have caught a few of those), just awkward phrasing or unnecessary words.

And I’m really liking this book more and more. Although reading out loud catches errors, it also means reading it through in a way I haven’t really done, and I’d like this book even as a reader. That’s a good sign.

But as much as I like it, I will be glad to stop working on it and do something else for a while.

I’ve been pretty diligent so far this year. I’ve almost spent as many hours writing as I did all of last year, and I’ve already passed the amount of time I spent writing in most of the previous years. Let’s hope this book goes somewhere because I spent most of this year’s time working on it, and it would be nice to have something to show for all that effort.