Archive for writing


Using Structure

I’ve got a library book festival this weekend, and in addition to being on a panel, I’m doing a workshop on story structure. I spent much of yesterday working on my workshop, and doing that made me realize where I’m going wrong in the book I’m working on. It’s not a massive course correction, just some subtle things, but I’m glad I caught it now rather than after a draft when those little things had become major.

Some people seem to think of structure as a restriction or a constraint. I find it a useful tool. In a novel, you don’t really have to force it into a particular structure. I find that looking for the various stages is a good way to find the story and to stay on track instead of wandering all over the place. Just filling in the very basic elements of structure is a good way to test an idea. I think, to some extent, the difference between an idea and a story is putting some kind of structure to it — what does the hero want, what’s stopping him from getting it, what will he have to do to get it, what big decisions will he have to make along the way?

This is why I like doing workshops, even when I’m busy. I learn as much from preparing as any of the attendees do. It forces me to take a step back and evaluate what I’m doing instead of falling into bad habits or going on autopilot.

If you’re in the North Texas area and want to know more, I’ll be doing this workshop at the Mid-Cities Teen Book Festival on Oct. 20. Come see how story structure can work for you.



Finding Flow

After some regrouping in previous days to fix some elements of the book before I moved forward, I made good progress yesterday.

Some of it may have been thanks to one of the sessions I went to at the event this weekend. It was about creativity and got into discussion of the “flow state.” I’d read the book on the subject when it first came out. Well, started to read. Then I had to return it to the library because it was due and there was a waiting list so I couldn’t renew it. I may have to pick it up again and make another stab at it.

Anyway, a flow state is when you just start doing something almost automatically. The critical part of your brain gets turned off and you lose track of time. It’s like you blink and an hour has gone by and you’ve written a couple of thousand words. I’ve experienced this, and it’s wonderful. I haven’t been doing a lot of it lately because I’ve been so busy analyzing what I’m writing.

One of the ways to help get into a flow state is to listen to classical or jazz music. Apparently, there’s something about that kind of music that distracts the part of the brain that normally trips you up, and it frees you to just create. Normally, I write in total silence, but I thought I’d give it a shot. I did get a fair amount done when I put on a Chopin CD, but I found that I focused a bit too much on the music because the music was so familiar to me. Next, I opened my Amazon Prime Music app and played my new choir director’s album. When she’s not directing our choir, she’s a concert pianist and has a lovely album of reinterpretations of classical Russian pieces for piano and cello. The new arrangements mean the pieces aren’t so familiar that they’re distracting. That worked well enough that I was startled when the album ended. Then I found a playlist of classical music for focus, and that also worked, except when a familiar piece popped up and I had to see what it was (in one case, it was a track from a CD I have).

So, it seems that playing unfamiliar classical music is the trick. I have written to movie soundtracks in the past, and that can work. Then the music becomes so familiar I can tune it out. It doesn’t work for John Williams because I just want to listen. One of the best CDs for tuning out the world and writing for me is the fifth Harry Potter soundtrack (Order of the Phoenix). But it just doesn’t work for me for this book. It’s the wrong mood/tone.

Now we’ll see if it works again today or if it’s just a fluke.


Lazy Work Time

I’m in the early phase of a book, when I’m still kind of finding my way, figuring out the specifics behind a vague sentence in the proposal. I felt like I ran into a brick wall yesterday, where I wasn’t at all sure what should come next. When I immediately became quite distracted, I figured I knew what was up: my brain was trying to solve the problem and was getting me out of the way.

I woke up this morning with a partial solution. We had a good cold snap, so it was my first night of the season to get to sleep under the real comforter (instead of the knitted lace blanket or the light down throw) and wake up feeling warm and snuggly while it was cool outside, so I let myself lie in bed to enjoy it. That was when I found myself rewinding in the book and finding the spots I needed to tweak to set up what happened next. I’m still not exactly sure what happens next, but that may come to me once I go back and fix things. The things I need to fix are worldbuilding issues and how they intersect with the characters and story, so once I get my world clear, I think everything else will come together better.

So, all that lazing about this morning was really work time. Considering that I actually had narrative in my head that I now just need to transcribe, I don’t think that’s even a stretch or a rationalization.

And that’s why this job is awesome. I can get some really productive stuff done while snuggled under the comforter. Next, I’m going to take a cup of tea onto the patio to write out my revised outline and make sure it still makes sense now that I’m fully conscious.


Diving In

I got a rough outline of scenes done yesterday, as well as developed the major characters. That means it’s time to start writing. I just have to do one bit of research and work out a timeline, and then I’ll be ready to start. This shouldn’t feel so much like the dive off a cliff that starting a new book usually feels like, since I’ve already written about a thousand words, but there’s still a moment that feels kind of like vertigo.

Meanwhile, I got my kitchen cleaned yesterday. I’d already organized the cabinets, and now the counters are pristine. I still want to do a little work on one of the pantry shelves and I need to mop the floor, but it’s progress. Cleaning is a better way to take breaks between writing sessions than social media. It’s movement that counts as exercise and that feels different from sitting, and it has visible results that are very satisfying.

We’re getting into the time of year when I really want to bake, but I’m strangely not all that keen on eating at the moment. I haven’t had much appetite since I got that cold a couple of weeks ago. I’ve even got desserts that are ready to go, but since I haven’t been hungry, I haven’t bothered. I’m stockpiling recipes for when I have a baking urge and am hungry. I’m trying to focus on nutritious food when I do eat, and I’ve been trying new recipes from a cookbook on the Mediterranean diet (recommended by my doctor), so I guess that takes care of my cooking urge. This weekend, I made a vegetable lasagna, which used a couple of kinds of squash, red bell pepper, goat cheese, and olives with marinara sauce and whole wheat lasagna noodles. It was … interesting. Not bad, but given the effort involved and the quantity produced (I have enough in the freezer to provide all the veggie lasagna I could ever want for months), I don’t think it will make it into regular rotation. We’re supposed to get a cold front this weekend, so I think I’m finally going to get to make a stew with my Instant Pot.

And that’s enough rambling for the day. Time to dive off that cliff and get to work!


Planning vs. Procrastination

Yesterday was all about getting back into the mindset to start work on this new book. The last time I opened those files was in February, so I had to dig up all my notes and remember what I’d decided about the characters and story. Then I realized that I hadn’t done much development for the characters who weren’t in the opening scene that was part of the proposal. I had a vague mental image of a character we’re about to meet in the next scene, and I knew the role he played in the story, but I didn’t have a good sense of his personality. I also realized I didn’t even know what the main character looks like. She’s the narrator, so I was seeing the world through her eyes and never actually saw her.

So I spent most of yesterday on character development. Today I’m going to be working on a more detailed outline, figuring out what scenes there need to be and a bit of what happens in each. I have a couple more characters I need to develop in more depth, but that may wait until they come up in the book.

Some of this feels like it could be procrastination, but I think the writing will go more smoothly and there will be less rewriting if I have more of it figured out ahead of time, if I make a lot of the tough story decisions up front. I reserve the right to change my mind if something better comes up, but it does help to have a plan up front.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to move more throughout the day, so every hour I’m taking a short (using a timer to keep it short) break to do housework. I got my kitchen mostly cleaned yesterday in five-minute increments. I have to admit that it was nice to come into the kitchen this morning to make breakfast and see all those clean, clear surfaces. Last week, I reorganized one of my cabinets, getting rid of a lot of extraneous food storage containers and clearing space to put a lot of other things away or make things that were at the back of the pantry more reachable. I seem to be becoming a neat freak as I get older. We’ll see how much organization and cleaning I can do in five-minute sessions throughout the day.


Research vs. Revision

There are some dangers to being in research mode on one project and revision mode on another. I’m not overly crazy about revision. Sometimes it’s fun to take something that’s not so great and take it to the next level, but usually it’s just plain tedious. The excitement of discovering the story is over and there’s often a deadline looming. It’s very easy to fall into a zombie-like state and realize you don’t even remember what you’ve just been reading.

That’s why I’ve been breaking up revision sessions with research sessions. I work on a chapter, which is about as much as I can deal with before I find myself getting lazy, then I spend half an hour or so reading a reference book. Except sometimes the time gets away from me because I LOVE research. What I’m reading right now is history, which is something I love. I would have majored in history in college, but I wasn’t sure what kind of job I could get with that degree (and I needed to find a job to support my goal of writing novels). I probably ended up with an informal minor in history because almost all of my electives related in some way to history.

To me, reading a book on history is almost as much fun as reading a novel. For the book I’m researching, I’m drawing upon multiple historical periods. One is one I know a lot about, so I’m mostly looking for new insights and details that are pertinent to the world I’m building. One is a period I’ve done some research in and am interested in, but I still have a lot more to learn. And one is a period I know next to nothing about, but it’s fascinating to learn. I hadn’t even thought about drawing upon this period, but I was watching a documentary that I hoped would touch upon one of the other periods I was researching, and it brought up a lot of information about this other time, and I realized how relevant it was to the story I had in mind.

If I do my job correctly, readers may recognize bits and pieces in my world that are relevant to our real world, but it will still be a new and interesting place. Building a world is a lot of fun, imagining their history and culture, thinking about what it looks like, what people wear, what they do, what they eat, and so forth. This will be a true “secondary world” in that it’s not set in our world in any way, though it is based on things from our world (since that’s the only world I’ve lived in). It’s a story idea that’s been lurking in my head for years, and it’s finally jumping up an down and demanding attention.

But first, I have to finish revising this book. In between research sessions.


Making Good Choices

Something I’ve been struggling with lately is finding the right balance for creating tension by making things difficult for my characters.

It may have something to do with other stress I have going on in my life and in the world, but I’ve lately had real difficulty reading books in which characters make poor choices. I’ve been reading a series that I enjoy, but it’s sometimes difficult to get through because the characters just keep making bad choices that get them into more trouble. I spend a lot of the time I’m reading going “No! Don’t trust him!” or “Arrghh! You know better than to do that!” I sometimes even have to put the book down and walk away for a little while (which, I suppose, is a good sign that I’m emotionally invested).

I seem to have overcorrected in my own writing. The feedback I got from my agent on a book I’ve been working on is that there’s no tension because the characters never fail. If they come up with a theory, it’s proven correct. If they try something, it works. Looking back at it, I can see that, and I can tell I was writing most of it during the spring when I was going through all that medical stress. Maybe trying to write a book during all that was a bad idea. Or maybe I should give up on traditional publication with this story and publish it as something to read when you can’t deal with stress. A publisher wouldn’t be interested as-is, but there might be enough readers who just want a fun read to relax with.

What I need to find is a happy medium, where the heroes can make good choices that don’t make me groan out loud but still be wrong and still fail. That means the villains need to be smarter and more active or the heroes can be missing key bits of information. That’s still a bit stressful to me because institutional injustice, where the bad guys have all the power, is one of those things I find it hard to read/watch. But I’d rather have my characters up against someone who has too much power and that causes their efforts to fail than have my characters make dumb choices. If they trust the wrong person, it should be someone even the reader thinks they should have trusted. I don’t want readers going “No! Don’t do that, you idiot! Can’t you see he’s up to no good?”

I’m in a better place emotionally and medically right now, so maybe a lot of the problem will be taken care of going forward. I’ll just need to take a step back before I can work on fixing that book. And in the meantime, I can work on something else.


Almost There!

I’m so very close to the end of this draft, fewer than 10,000 words to my target word count, and at the point where I more or less know what will happen. That means a couple of days of hunkering down and shutting out the world.

Fortunately, this is the phase where it usually starts to get a little easier because I have some enthusiasm and can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m out of the slog of the middle and at the part where things really get exciting.

In this book, I’ve got a few events I’ve been looking forward to writing for a long time, so I hope the execution lives up to my imagination.

For added motivation, next week is music and art camp, so if I don’t finish this week, I’ll have to come home after a morning with small children and try to get the energy to write. If I do finish, I can give myself a low-key week to maybe do some brainstorming and research or work on publicity stuff rather than worrying about trying to get the words out.

I think I need a little time to remind myself that I started out doing this for fun. It’s easy to forget that when you’re in the middle of a book and struggling to keep going in spite of all the other shiny new ideas, or when you see royalty statements and realize how little money you’re making from all this work. Writing was the way I played. Now it’s the way I make a living, but there should still be that sense of play about it.


Making Smarter Villains

I was pretty down on myself about productivity (or lack thereof) yesterday, but I really was kind of stuck. I didn’t like the scene I was working on, and it affected the things that would happen next. As a result, I fell prey to all kinds of distractions.

But I made myself do another round of brainstorming later in the evening, and that was when I realized that none of what I was trying to write really made sense. It fell into the “who would even do that, and why?” category. Meanwhile, a totally new event popped up, and that sent things into a different direction that will be a lot more fun.

So maybe all my distraction yesterday was my brain getting me out of the way so it could think of new stuff. This new stuff is pretty much going to kill a bunch of stuff I’ve already written, so I’m further from the end than I thought, but it’s a lot better.

Funny, I just couldn’t come up with a reason why the bad guys would meet in public to do their nefarious scheming so they could be overheard, even if they were using magic to create a zone of privacy around themselves (that they didn’t know wouldn’t work on a magical immune). I had the good guys meeting privately and being sure not to talk in public, and then the bad guys sitting in a restaurant to scheme. Ugh. So all that has to go, and the heroes have to figure things out some other way.

Villains can be pretty dumb, but it’s a bad idea to build your plot around that. It’s so much more interesting if they’re smart, but with maybe a blind spot or two.


The Best Writing Advice

One good effect of getting rid of cable while also shifting my schedule to being more of an early bird is that I’ve been reading a lot more. And that has reminded me of just how important reading is to being a writer. If you want to write better, read more.

Read the classics in your genre, the works that established the tropes.

Read the recent award winners and bestsellers, so you’ll know what’s currently setting the standards. Read new releases from debut authors so you’ll know what’s been bought recently from authors without a track record. Read the books that are getting a lot of buzz. Seek out things no one is talking about and try to figure out why.

Read outside your genre, especially in genres that cross over with yours. If there’s going to be a love story in what you’re working on, read romance novels. If there’s an action/adventure element, read action/adventure books and thrillers.

Read biographies and memoirs and books about psychology to get a sense of how different kinds of people think and behave.

Read history to get a sense of the patterns of events, actions, and reactions. Also, more about how people think and behave.

Read books about subjects that may come up in the stories you’re writing, such as science, food, textiles, war, diplomacy, revolution, technology, etc.

Read books about writing. Read books about business, marketing, advertising. An author is essentially an entrepreneur, so you’ll need to know these things.

Really, just read. You’re putting words and sentences and ideas into your brain, and it will all be processed for fodder. If you don’t like to read, if all this sounds like too much work, then it will be hard for you to make it as a writer.

For me, one of the best things about being a writer is getting to count time I spend reading as “work.”