Gwen Hernandez

Author of romantic suspense. Scrivener expert.

Thanks for a good life

Happy Thanksgiving image

I like Thanksgiving. Unlike the über-materialistic-buy-buy-buy madness of the four weeks that follow, Thanksgiving encourages us to focus on being grateful for the people and things we already have in our lives.

Who doesn’t enjoy gadgets and clothes and vacations and a nice house? But I don’t think they make us happy. Not really. (Okay, well, travel makes me pretty damn happy, but it’s best when I’m not alone.)

I’m most grateful for the things I can’t buy:

– My family and friends

– Good health

– The freedom to pursue the career I want

Boys with clown faces

Seriously, that’s it. That’s all I need. I could even live without the last one as long as I had the first two. Though I’d rather not. ;-)

My iPhone might make my life easier, and even more fun, but I’d never trade it for my husband or one of my kids, or even a friend. Honest!

You laugh, but the rat race that so many of us are on because we feel like we have to have that car or live in that house or wear those clothes—just to impress a bunch of people who don’t love us—forces us to give up our time with those who do love us.

When my first son was born I really, really wanted to stay home with him, but I couldn’t because we had bills to pay. It never—not once—occurred to me that we could adjust our lifestyle to lower our expenses so I wouldn’t have to work.

(BTW, I’m not saying that staying at home is the right thing to do, only that it was the right thing to do for me.)

By the time I had my second son, we had been introduced to authors like Stephen R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and Thomas J. Stanley (The Millionaire Next Door), and we were thinking very differently about our money, our lives, and what matters.

I had quit my job to start a consulting business and wanted to continue working from home. We sold both of our newer cars and paid cash for an old van. I drove my husband to work on days I needed the car. We cut down eating out to once or twice a month at cheap restaurants. We budgeted everything down to the penny (still do).

Best thing we ever did. Tightening the belt doesn’t feel good—it’s hard to cut back on the lifestyle you’re used to—but it was worth it to be home with my babies.

Boys standing in the rain

It was worth it again in 2008 when I quit my 55+ hour/week job as a manufacturing engineer. That time was even harder because we had a big house in a nice neighborhood—the kind where everyone is trying to keep up with the Jones’—new cars, and a trip to Europe planned.

But we had learned our lesson. Since we’d been living below our means, we were able to get creative with our budget, postpone the trip to Europe for two years, and keep the cars and house.

The stress levels in our house plummeted. My kids finally had someone at home to help with their homework and pick them up from sports practice. My husband and I weren’t both getting home late and scrambling to put dinner on the table. We no longer had to spend our two precious days off each week running all the errands we couldn’t get done while working.

There’s something uniquely satisfying about stepping off the treadmill, backing away from the culture that tells us we need more, more, more to be happy, and refusing to be owned by the things we own.

We had less money and less of “the good life” and a lot more happiness.

Which would you prefer?

Boys sitting on grass facing away

A simpler lifestyle requires less cash. When you need less cash, you suddenly have more freedom in the work you choose.

Sure, we all need enough money for the basics, and not everyone can afford a safe roof over their head or good, healthy food on the table. But if you can, I’d encourage you to think about what you’re truly grateful for this year.

Does the life you live let you enjoy those people and things that matter most?

If not, are there things you’d be willing to give up so that you can enjoy them?

I hope I didn’t get too preachy, but I feel very strongly about making the most of this life we’re given. At the end, none of us will care if we’re surrounded by cars and computers, wearing fancy clothes and lying on satin sheets. We’re going to want our loved ones at our side.

I hope you have yours by your side this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Why I read

Image of woman using laptop inside giant book

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
~ Stephen King

You can find amazing things between the covers—actual or virtual—of a book.

I’ve been a book lover since I first sounded out the words detailing Spot the dog’s adventures. As an only child with lots of time on my hands, reading offered adventure, romance, education, and thrills during long, boring summers (and pretty much any other time of year).

I became one of those awkward teenagers whose friends made fun of her for knowing weird, “big” words—though not necessarily how to pronounce them—like gauche and risqué. By age sixteen, I had solved dozens of mysteries with Nancy Drew, visited exotic places full of intrigue with Mary Stewart’s independent heroines, run with spies, chased down terrorists, lived in worlds of pure fantasy, and traveled in time.

Not that I spent every moment buried in a book. I’ve always loved to travel, explore, hang out with friends, and be active in the real world. But reading was by far my favorite way to fill downtime. During the summers in junior high and high school—before I could drive—I would burn through 10-14 books a week.

Thank you library.

I can still read like that, but I rarely do. There are too many other things I want and need to do.

And yet, as a writer, it’s imperative that I continue to read for more than research or obligation. Not only because I still love stories, and they soothe me, but because they refill my creative well.

As a reward for finishing the first draft of Blind Ambition (Book 2 in my Men of Steele series)—insert happy dance here!—I bought Joanna Bourne’s latest book, Rogue Spy. [If you love history, romance, intrigue, spies, danger, daring and exciting characters, and twisty plots all wrapped in prose so beautiful it makes you want to cry, you must check out her books. I wrote more about her here.]

Twenty percent of the way in, I was struck with the need to take notes for the book I’m working on next. Something about the way the hero viewed his world—through the eyes of a painter and a spy—got me thinking about how my own hero must see his world—as a photographer and a sniper.

I know this stuff. I’ve studied it. But sometimes seeing it done well is better than reading a craft book, attending a lecture, or taking a class on the topic. These are lessons I already know, but reading a good book can inspire me to see my own work in a different light, and apply those lessons in a new way.

The only way to become a better writer is to write. Absolutely. But writers also need to read. Reading is what fed my passion to write in the first place. It’s where I acquired my intuitive sense of story structure and narrative and character.

Reading inspires me as a writer the way a painter might be inspired by walking through a museum.

Reading a really good book also just makes me happy. :-)

That’s why I read. What about you?

Snow and showdowns

Snow on field and bare trees

We had our first “sticky” snow of the season overnight. It didn’t last long, and I know it’s just the beginning, but it still made me smile. Especially since the sun came out.

If you’re working on NaNoWriMo this year, let me know how it’s going.

I have my own goal for November—to finish book two in my Men of Steele series—and I’m really close. I’m struggling with the final showdown, but I keep reminding myself that I just have to get something down on the page so my brain can start figuring out how to make it better. It helps.

Whatever you’re working on this month, good luck!

Brain on fire

Pic of woman with ideas around her headMy brain is on fire.

In a good way.

I’m not officially participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I’m still writing as much as possible. One of the benefits of working on my book every day is something I’ve noticed during NaNo in years past: The more I write, the more ideas come to me at all times of the day. Last night I even had a dream that rehashed the scene I was working on, something that rarely happens to me.

I love this state.

The joy, this constant flow of ideas, is how I felt when I first started writing nearly six(!) years ago. I thought about my characters while walking the dog, jogging, driving, shopping, eating, sleeping, cooking… At any time, I might get hit with the solution to a troubling scene, an idea for how to make the stakes higher or deepen the emotional impact, or a great twist.

Sadly, this phenomenon also works in reverse. Worse, I’ve tested the theory several times. ;-) The less I write, the less motivation I have to write, the more time passes between great ideas and thoughts of my story, and so I write even less. I sit down and stare at the page with no idea where to go next.

That loss of excitement and flow is the reason I signed up for NaNo the second time (and 3rd, 4th, 5th). To remind myself that consistency was the key to getting my writerly brain back, banishing the infernal internal editor who blocks me, and rediscovering the joy of telling stories.

It also reminds me that I can write way more words than I think I can.

When it comes down to it—like with anything—the key (for me, anyway) is to keep working at it. When it’s a slog, I brainstorm, free write, or reread parts of the story that I’ve forgotten. I do research or write backstory scenes to get to know my characters better. Anything to keep my head in the game.

Anything to keep my brain on fire.

Leveraging Scrivener for NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo shield logo

For the first time since I started writing, I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo. Not because I doubt the value of it, but because I’m nearing the end of my book and I need to focus on finishing and revising, rather than stressing over daily word count.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t remind you of all the ways I think Scrivener is great for NaNo. :-)

The key to making your 1667 words per day is to never stop writing. Don’t edit, don’t research, don’t stare at the wall trying to craft the perfect line of dialog. Just write. Scrivener can help.

Since this post has become an annual tradition—and I don’t think I can top my suggestions for last year—here’s the lowdown on Scrivener’s best features for NaNoWriMo—and a bit of inspiration—from 2013.

Time-delay the Idea Fairy

Create a couple of text documents somewhere outside of the Draft/Manuscript folder before you start.

1) A document to jot down concepts that come to you for future scenes. When an idea hits, you can make a note of it and get back to work. I call mine “Ideas”. Clever, yes?

2) A change log to keep track of changes you want to make to existing scenes. Don’t go back and make the revisions, just note them in the log and keep writing as if you already did. In another dazzling display of brilliance, mine is named “Change Log”.

Just Keep Writing

Next time you get stuck trying to figure out the witty dialog in a scene, the ideal name for your fictional corporation, or the mating rituals of the Asian long-horned beetle, create an annotation (Format—>Inline Annotation) or a comment (Format—>Comment) to make a note of it and keep writing.

Later you can go back and use Edit—>Find—>Find By Formatting to search for annotations and comments when you’re ready to work on them. AFTER you hit 50K.

Block Distractions

Free yourself from distractions with Full Screen Composition mode. Called Full Screen in Windows and Composition mode on the Mac (to avoid confusion with Mac’s full screen option), this feature blocks out everything but your blank page so you can just write.

Consider adding a custom background color or image to keep you in the right frame of mind.

Add a pair of headphones or earbuds—with or without music—and you’re ready to rock.

Pre-Plot, If You Prefer

If you’re a plotter, consider creating your scene documents beforehand either in the Binder or the Corkboard. If you like to plot using index cards, then select the Draft/Manuscript folder, make sure you’re in Corkboard view (View—>Corkboard if you’re not), then click the circular green Add button on the toolbar to create a new card. Title it, add a brief synopsis of the scene and repeat.

Once you have all of your scene documents created it’s merely a matter of filling them with words starting November 1.

Keep Important Info at Hand

You don’t want to spend your precious writing time searching for a key piece of information. Before November rolls around, import into your project any research documents, images, or references you must have in order to write. Select the desired folder (outside of the Draft/Manuscript folder) and go to File—>Import. For web pages, you might want to use References instead.

Track Your Progress

Your goal is 50,000 words, and Scrivener makes it easy to track your progress with project targets. Go to Project—>Show Project Targets (Mac) or Project–>Project Targets (Windows).

You can set a target for the entire manuscript, as well as one for each writing session. The session target is nice because it lets you track your word count either over the course of a whole day, or in smaller writing “sprints”.

One thing to keep in mind with word count is that the NaNoWriMo site might calculate word count slightly differently than Scrivener. For example, Scrivener counts a hyphenated word as two, while the NaNo counter looks for spaces to identify each new word and only counts hyphenated words as one. So, you might want to shoot a little beyond the 50K finish line just to be on the safe side.

Download the NaNoWriMo Template or Trial Version

Current Scrivener users can download a special NaNoWriMo template that comes loaded with predefined project statistics and compile settings.

For those who are new to Scrivener, Most Wonderful Keith and his crew at Literature & Latte have put together a NaNo version of the Scrivener free trial that gives you extra time to play with the program and includes the template I mentioned above. If you decide you love Scrivener, wait for the NaNoWriMo discount at the end of November before you buy.

Remember the Point

Don’t forget that NaNoWriMo is intended to be fun. It’s supposed to be a challenge that forces you to re-evaluate what you’re capable of. 4000-word writing days? You betcha. Writing for three, four, or eight hours in one day? I know you can do it.

And in the end, even if you don’t reach 50K, you’re still a lot further ahead than you were on November 1st. That makes you a winner no matter what.

Good luck!

For more information on the features mentioned in this post, check out Scrivener For Dummies or sign up for an online class.

5 Year Anniversary!

By the way, this week was the five year anniversary of my blog. I can’t believe I’ve been writing posts for that long, or that some of you have stuck around with me since nearly the beginning. For my followers—new and old—thank you for your continued support.

If you’re curious, here’s my first blog post from October 27, 2009: Goal, Motivation & Conflict.  At that time, I’d been writing for less than a year. It wasn’t long before I put up my first Scrivener post, and the rest is history… ;-)

No spoilers!

book cover with back copy Xd out

Don’t spoil it for me!

I hate spoilers. I know people who read the last page or last chapter of a book first, just so they can be sure they’ll be happy with the ending. No way, uh uh. I don’t even read the back cover copy (aka BCC)/description most of the time.

Say what?

I know, I know. If a book cover catches your eye, what’s the next thing you do? If you’re like most people, you turn it over to read the back (or the description at your online retailer of choice). And that’s what you’re supposed to do. Authors and marketing departments spend a lot of time carefully crafting those words to suck you in entice you to buy the book. We want you to decide you can’t possibly walk away without it. You have to know what happens, how they survive, how they triumph.

But here’s the problem for me. The BCC often gives away the early major plot points or twists, thus, in my opinion, eliminating that element of surprise for a good chunk of the story. I am not okay with that. I like to be delighted by the unexpected novelty of each twist and turn, not flipping the pages—possibly skimming—just to get to the part where I don’t know what comes next.

I’m sure it’s a personal flaw.

I’m reading a book right now, and I finally decided to check out the BCC now that I’m at the two-thirds mark. I’m so glad I waited. Whoever wrote the description took us more than halfway through the book!

My rule of thumb is not to reveal beyond the first major turning point, the one that launches the main character on his or her true journey. Just enough to show what the characters want, maybe a little about why, and what’s standing in their way (yes, GMC). Beyond that I’m trying to convey the genre, the level of heat, and the type of romantic suspense I write (military-themed, as opposed to FBI or serial killers or PIs).

So how do I choose books if I won’t read the description? Well, if it’s an author I don’t know and I don’t have a recommendation from a friend, I start with the cover like everyone else. Most of them are geared to tell you exactly what to expect from the book. Half-naked guy with a gun (guilty), expect romantic suspense with some open-door sexy times. The guy is wearing camo pants? Military themed. He’s wearing a holster? Law enforcement. He’s wearing a SWAT vest? Um, obvious, I hope.

Okay, once I know it’s the right genre—assuming the cover fits—I might hastily skim the BCC looking for keywords while trying to avoid specifics. Like humming so you can’t make out the important parts while someone talks about the latest episode of your favorite show that’s still sitting unwatched on your DVR .

If I knew I could trust copy writers not to give it all away, I’d probably read their work more. But I’ve been burned too many times. I’ve learned my lesson.

Of course, I hope you’ll read my BCC. I worked hard on it, and I hope it works on you. ;-)

Are you a last-chapter reader, a hope-for-the-best reader, or somewhere in between?

Writing a series in Scrivener

books on a shelfBook series are king in the world of genre fiction. So popular, in fact, that it’s rare to see a standalone book these days. But how to handle writing a series in Scrivener? One book per project or one series per project?

My personal preference has always been to keep one manuscript per project and drag overlapping research/supporting materials from one Binder to the other as needed. I like a clean Binder, and multiple manuscripts sounds messy and possibly confusing.

I also worry about the overall file size for a multi-book project—especially if I have a lot of images and PDFs—because large files can make for slow backups, transfers, and auto-saves.

(If you need a single place for all research, images, and so on, but still want separate projects for each book, I recommend a single project file as a “series bible” that you can keep open while writing in another project.)

But some recent conversations with writers who use one project for an entire series—like Mindy Klasky with her Diamond Brides books—has me rethinking the multiple-book file.

Here are some of the benefits to keeping a connected series of books in one Scrivener project.

  • Need to change a name/word throughout the series? You only have to run Project Replace once.
  • You can search for overused words and phrases across the entire series, and verify consistency of things like company names and descriptions of places or people.
  • When you need to add a new character, you can do a quick search to ensure you haven’t used that name already. It’s easy to forget minor characters’ names by book five.
  • Tracking a story arc, timeline, or a character’s voice over several books in a series is much easier if the books are in the same project. Label, Status, and/or keywords are your friend here. Save a project search as a collection for a quick way to view all of the related documents or compile them into one file.
  • Having all of your research, notes, character information, setting details, and other supporting materials in one place has always been a clear benefit.
  • It’s a cinch to refer back to previous story lines or characters without opening a separate file.
  • If you’re self-publishing and want to put a sample chapter into the back of a book, you’ll have easy access to the content without opening another project. Plus, you can re-use some of the same front and back matter items across the entire series.

When I started writing Blind Fury, I wasn’t sure it was going to turn into a series, but now that I’m working on books two and three, I can see the value of having quick access to the other stories. That need will only grow as I write more.

I think at some point there is probably a practical limit to the number of manuscripts you should keep in one file—Six? Ten? Twelve?—but depending on your needs, the pros may far outweigh the cons.

Wondering what a multi-book Binder might look like? Here’s an example of how might approach it (based on a conversation in the comments with Gail and Gary). I changed the icon for each book folder to make it easier to pick them out in the Binder. [Added 10/17/14]

Multi-book Binder example

If you’re working on a series, what’s your preference? Any other benefits or disadvantages I didn’t mention?


Photo credit: HarryPotterBooks by Pastorius (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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