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How to fail at writing


Quote by Thomas Edison, "I have not failed. I have just found 9999 ways that do not work." in blue lettering on white.

I’m all for the idea that failure is merely figuring out what doesn’t work, finding out where you need to focus your energy, and that it’s an important part of the learning process that we often stigmatize to our detriment.

However, I really wish my method for producing a novel didn’t resemble Edison’s light bulb-inventing process as much as it does. I’m mainly a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants or “organic” writer—who doesn’t plot my books in advance. (Believe me, I've tried.) For a logic-oriented person who likes to make lists, and plans just about everything else in her life, this is disconcerting, irritating, annoying, and a long list of other synonyms.

For my books, I have learned that I need to understand what the antagonist is doing and why, or I won’t get past the first quarter of the book, no matter how exciting my initial premise. Without the villain's goal and motivation, I can’t figure out how to escalate their actions against the main characters in a way that makes sense.

I also need to know the inner conflict between the hero and heroine (what’s keeping them apart), and the outer conflict (what’s keeping them together). The latter usually relates back to the antagonist/villain, so it’s all linked.

In order to determine these things—because even when I think I have them, I usually don’t—I must write. I write scenes (or partial scenes), discard them, write new ones, repeat. Every scene (or set of scenes) is a method for testing an idea. It also spurs my subconscious to go to work on the story in ways it just won't if I'm only sitting around thinking or making lists of ideas.

Eventually, I do nail it. (Hopefully, it doesn’t take 9,999 times!!) And once I have the early stuff figured out, the rest of the book comes together much faster. Not fast exactly, but faster.

So, if you've ever wondered why it takes me so damn long to write a book, mystery solved.

I’m slowly learning to, well, not love, but at least work with my method. Honestly, I feel lucky I have a process at all. I’m writing, so life is good.

How about you? Do you have a process for writing—or anything else—that frustrates you, but ultimately works?

Scrivener for plotters with Hope Ramsay

For something different—and to celebrate the start of my Scrivener online classes today (it's not too late to sign up)—I thought you might enjoy learning how someone besides me uses Scrivener.

Hope Ramsay4X6Hope Ramsay is the bestselling author of contemporary romances in the Last Chance series. She’s also a pretty savvy Scrivener user. She was generous enough to sit down and talk with me about how she uses Scrivener to write her books.

GH: You write your Last Chance books in Scrivener for Windows. How did you first hear about Scrivener, and how long have you been using it?

HR: A couple of my writing buddies have been using Scrivener for a long time – but they are all Mac users.  And I’m an avowed PC fan.  So I didn’t pay much attention until Scrivener came out with the Windows version.

I read a couple of blogs about the PC version, but I was skeptical.  I just couldn’t believe that a word processing program that cost only $40 could be worth much.  But my Mac friends were all swearing on it.  So, since it was inexpensive, I bought the PC version.  I expected to hate it.

But to my utter surprise, I fell in love with the program within about five minutes’ time.

GH: I had a similar reaction. What features sold you on Scrivener?

HR: The main thing that makes Scrivener so great is the way it allows a writer to break down a big project into its component parts.  Using Scrivener I can organize my work by scene.  I can easily move scenes around.  I can insert scenes.  And I can see the way the scenes fit together.  I can edit two scenes simultaneously.

I compare this approach to the difference between listening to music on a cassette tape, versus an Mp3 player.  To get to a specific song on a tape, I would have to fast forward through a lot of irrelevant stuff.  On a digital player, I can go to the album and song with a couple of clicks.  The cassette tape (and traditional word processing) is what computer geeks call “sequential access.”  But Scrivener gives me “random access” to any part of my project.  The binder allows me to move to a specific scene directly, without having to search through all the other scenes to get there.  That is so incredibly powerful.

GH: Great analogy, and I completely agree. Okay, you’re a serious plotter. Can you give us an overview of how you use Scrivener to support your writing process? (Readers: for a detailed look at Hope’s process, complete with screenshots, check out her post at the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood from last September).

HR: I am a serious outliner.  In my pre-S days I used a Microsoft Access database that I developed myself.  (Can you tell I’m a seriously geeky computer person?) In my database I created my own version of the index cards you’ll find in Scrivener.  They were basically database entries for each scene and I tracked POV, scene goal, antagonist and what happens at the end of the scene.  I could compile these database entries into an outline that I printed out and had handy whenever I was writing.

But I kept losing the damn papers.  And while the database was powerful it wasn’t user-friendly.  And making changes in the outline on the fly was practically impossible.  So my original outline would get filled up with penciled in notes.  My database was great for starting out, but once I started writing, it was no help at all.

But with Scrivener, I can create scene cards at the beginning, and then I can amend them on the fly.  I can add scenes as they occur to me.  I can move scenes around.  I can keep notes about what’s supposed to happen in a scene (using document notes attached to the scene).  I can use Scrivener’s meta data tags to keep track of which story arc (or arcs) a scene fits into.  I can use labels to tell me what story step the scene fits into.  (I talk about this in my September Ruby Blog post.)

Every book starts out with eleven or twelve scenes and turning points, right down to the black moment.  But of course I add scenes as I go.  Because I am a plotter, but I’m also open to new ideas that occur during the writing process.  So the outline changes as I write.  But every day when I sit down at the computer, there’s my outline staring me in the face.  The binder along the left side of the screen just keeps me focused and on track, and it helps me capture and organize new thoughts.

Basically the cards are my life!

But there are other nifty things about the program.  The split screen allows me to make sure that something I’m writing in one part of a book is consistent with something I’ve already written.  I can see both scenes simultaneously (and edit them at the same time, which is so cool.)  I use the document and project notes options extensively as I write a first draft.  So when I’m finished I usually have a whole list of things I need to think about as I polish and revise.

I also use Scrivener’s project and session goals.  They motivate me.  Each morning I open that session target window and it stays open until I make my 2,000 words for that day.  It’s amazing how just watching the words pile up (and the status bar turn from red to green) can motivate me.

GH: That's a great overview of some of Scrivener's best features. What do you wish you had a better grasp of in Scrivener?

HR: I wish I understood how to build templates better.  Also, I’m never entirely happy with the way Scrivener compiles a document into Word.  It always requires some fiddling to get it all formatted right.  I don’t know if the problem is me or the program.  But since I don’t compile documents very often, I haven’t invested a lot of time in figuring out templates and such.

GH: Templates and Compile are the two things I get questions on most, so you're not alone. Do you use Scrivener for anything other type of writing?

HR: No I don’t.  Most of my other writing for business is very short stuff that Word can handle.

GH: Do you have any thoughts on how Scrivener could be better?

HR: I have two things on my wish list for Scrivener.  First, I’m waiting not so patiently for an iPad version of the program.  I’ve heard that it’s in the works and I can’t wait.  If I could use Scrivener on my iPad, I could stop lugging around a lap top when I travel.

I’m also envious of my friends who use the Mac version of Scrivener because their version integrates with the Mac text to speech program.  The PC version does not.  I always have a text-to-speech program read back my first and second drafts.  But I can’t do that in Scrivener.  I have to either compile the draft into Word where I can use my text to speech program (but I will lose any edits I make in Word), or I have to cut and paste back and forth between the text-to-speech program and Scrivener.  It’s a pain for the first draft.  Not so much for the second draft because once I compile the second draft, all the rest of my edits will be done in Word.  The only reason for that is because my publisher uses Word for copy edits.

GH: Tell us about your most recent book release.

LastChanceBookClub_hi resHR: My next book is the first in a new, three-book Last Chance series that features members of the Last Chance Book Club.  The first book in the series is about Savannah White, a single mom, who returns to Last Chance to restore her grandfather’s movie theater.  Savannah is immediately adopted by the community and becomes a member of the book club, which is reading Pride and Prejudice.  And lo and behold, there are some parallels between Savannah’s life and Lizzy Bennet’s life.  Savannah is being pursued by Rev. William Ellis, who does not make her heart sing,  And she’s forced to spend time with Dash Randall, a man she has despised since she was a little girl.  Meanwhile, Dash is a wealthy man and the matchmakers in town have decided that he’s definitely in need of a wife.  But will it be Savannah or Hettie Johnson, the CEO of the Chicken plant in town?  You’ll have to read it to find out.

Last Chance Book Club is not a complete retelling of Pride and Prejudice.  It’s more of a sideways adaptation where I’ve borrowed heavily from Austen.  What makes it fun is that the book club members are actually aware of the parallels, so there is a lot of Austen trivia thrown around.  I’m a big Jane Austen fan, so writing this book was a lot of fun.  Last Chance Book Club will be in stores this April.

GH: What’s next for you?

HR: I’ve got a shortstory entitled Last Chance Summer that will be out in e-format this summer.  The next full-length novel is Last Chance Knit & Stitch.  Molly Canaday, a member of the book club, is the heroine of this one.  And she bears a striking resemblance to Josephine March, the heroine of Little Women, which just happens to be the book the club is reading.

GH: Thank you so much for joining me today!

It was my pleasure.  I am such a fan of the software I welcome any and all opportunities to sing its praises.  And I’m happy to answer any questions about Scrivener or my seriously OCD writing process.

Hope Ramsay is an award-winning, bestselling author and two-time Golden Heart finalist.  Her series of heartwarming romances, published by Grand Central Publishing, have won critical acclaim.  Hope is also a member of the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood and regularly blogs about storytelling and plotting.  She is married to a good ol' Georgia boy who resembles every single one of her Southern heroes.  She has two grown children and a couple of demanding lap cats.  She lives in Virginia where, when she’s not writing, she’s knitting or playing on her thirty-five-year-old Martin guitar.

Need more help? Sign up for an online class, read more Scrivener articles, or schedule a private training session. If you don't already have it, you can download Scrivener here.

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Plotting for NaNoWriMo & Winners

Do you jump right in?

I’ve always thought of myself as a pantser, despite the fact that my left brain generally rules all other areas of my life. So I was surprised to find potential scene lists for my first two manuscripts while flipping through old notebooks the other day.

Apparently I did more planning in the early days than I remember.

I’ve made several attempts at becoming a planner/outliner, and my best-written book to date was borne of a rough outline and the 30 days of literary abandon known as NaNoWriMo. Yet I still resist moving into the outlining camp.

It’s probably a patience thing. I’m always eager to jump right in when a story is pulling at me. But then several months later I’m floundering, usually after hitting the midpoint and realizing the conflict isn’t strong enough, or that I’ve written myself into a corner.

Which brings me back to the need for a better outline. And I’m starting to think I may have been doing it wrong. Or rather, that I wasn’t patient enough to do it right.

Or do you plot your course first?

With NaNo again looming, I recently picked up K.M. Weiland’s book Outline Your Novel. And instead of answering the exercises with “I kind of have an idea of what should happen there, but I'm not ready to commit”, I forced myself to brainstorm actual answers.

And guess what? Some of the ideas I came up with are awesome (if I do say so myself). Even something as simple as coming up with a premise sentence brought an epiphany on how to raise the stakes.

I’m even more excited to write the book than I was before. And with a decent outline to follow, I won’t get stuck wondering what comes next when I finish a scene.

I don’t see myself writing 80-page outlines any time soon, and the pantser in me still gets the freedom to change the storyline if a better idea comes along, but if this goes well, I may just be a convert. Again.


Thanks to everyone who participated in my blog’s birthday celebration! Here are the winners (chosen by

– Signed copy of Scrivener For Dummies: Dave

– Free Scrivener online class enrollment for 2013: Beth K.


Photo credits:
Cliff jumping: By Rafi B. from Somewhere in Texas 🙂 (Flickr) CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Charting a course: By U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Eboni C. Cameron (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Facing the abyss

Every time I talk about my evolving writing process, I’m sure my long-time blog followers just roll their eyes and think, “Again?” Watching me over the last two years has been like the proverbial tennis match where I’m the ball bouncing between Plotting and Pantsing.

My first three books—and two in there that went unfinished—were written “into the mist”, begun with only the spark of a premise and a rough idea of my characters. After the pain of cutting as many as 15,000 words to work myself out of a corner, and being unable to finish those two books for lack of direction, I decided that I should approach my writing in a more organized fashion. One that befits a logic-oriented, list-making planner like myself.

I came to this opinion after reading brilliant books from the likes of Larry Brooks and Blake Snyder and hearing others wax on about plotting and structure and how it saves them. Published authors talked of the need to provide synopses or outlines for future books to their editors, and I wondered how I'd ever do that if I remained firmly in the pantser crowd.

And while I did manage to do some rough outlining before I wrote BLIND FURY—outlining that helped keep me on target during NaNoWriMo—I still ended up writing blind a lot of the time. Which, to be honest, is half the fun.

So, I fancied myself a hybrid writer, plotser, tweener, or whatever your favorite term is. If I could just take a few weeks of “prewriting” to nail down the GMC for the main characters and get my major turning points in place before I got started, the words would flow like the great Mississippi.

Or not.

So—for now—I’ve decided I’m this kind of writer: a heavy-on-the-pantsing hybrid writer who must (as my friend Sharon Wray put it) “embrace the abyss of revisions” at the end. Because, let’s face it, my need for perfection from the outset came from a desire to avoid those agonizing rewrites that I now think are unavoidable whether I plot or not.

I had become so paralyzed by my need for a workable structure that I didn’t write anything of value for four months! I played with scenes, wrote ten—I’m not kidding—different story openings for a book I’ve been thinking about for months, wrote getting-to-know-my-character scenes, and generally goofed off, but didn’t sit down and get serious.

Some of those words will be useful, but it avoided the real work of starting the book.

A few things helped get me unstuck. Dwight Swain’s amazing book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. A lot of omphaloskepsis. And just this week, this post by Allison Brennan.

So, I’m back to where I started, but with a different perspective. I now have an awareness of structure and of what types of scenes I need to be writing if I’m in the first 25K of the book versus the last 25K.

I know about scene and sequel, motivation-reaction units, active setting, and ending hooks. I know that if I finish the book and it doesn’t need any plot changes—ha, I wish!—I’d still have to go back and layer in more emotion, dig into deeper POV through setting, tighten the action, polish the words.

I know that if I finish the book and the structure is off, I can fix it.

I know that if I run with my original idea and get stuck along the way, I can always back up and forge a new path.

I know that the first draft doesn’t have to be—and in fact, will never be—perfect.

So I'm standing on the cliff facing the abyss again.

Time to jump.

Photo credit: MORARU RIDGE IN FOG – BUCEGI MOUNTAINS © Iuliana Bucurescu |

Word processing

I’m starting a new manuscript. I love the feeling of having a new story rolling around in my brain. Usually, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. And after two years of working at this, I’m starting to learn how my creative half works.

It starts with the spark, whatever that is and wherever it comes from. For example, the spark in Slow Burn was the idea that a guy on a mission finds a woman floating in the water and his reaction when he realizes she’s alive is: “damn”.

But how to go from there to a 300-page book? Good question. I used to just write. It was an exciting and stressful process wherein I wrote about 10-20,000 words and then realized I didn’t know where to go next.

On a few occasions, I backed up and started over and the end result is much better, especially after several rounds of revisions. In a couple of instances, I stopped altogether. I have two 100-page manuscripts out there whose characters I still think about and hope to someday find a story for.

If you’re one of the diehards who’s been around since the early days of me yapping in bits and bytes, you know that I’ve begun a slow progression towards plotting. Actually, that makes it sound like a smooth transition, but it happened in fits and starts with plenty of backtracking. And a one-eighty or two. Be honest, you were all just rolling your eyes as I went back and forth trying to find the magic process that would make writing easy. Hah! As if.

I'm envisioning my journey like a football game where I gained and lost a lot of yardage, but eventually made a first down. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a plotter—and although I’m migrating toward that end of the scale, I’ll probably never be a detailed outliner like Suzanne Brockmann (she of the 80-pagers)—but I’m definitely not writing into the mist in quite the same way that I used to.

In fact, that post about writing into the mist was written shortly after my first attempt to outline Blind Fury. It turns out that I just hadn't found the right story. I gave up too soon. I didn't play enough.

After I tackled outlining a second time, I met with success. Blind Fury is currently in the CP comment stage after a first-pass round of edits, and is my first book to surpass 70K. I still changed the outline as I went. And in between the major turning points I was still writing in the fog, sure only of my approximate destination. That’s the pantser part of me getting to play.

And yet, I rarely got lost in the fog precisely because I knew where I needed to be and could correct my course—or decide to take a detour—as needed. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me, and I’m so glad to have figured it out. I think knowing your own process is as important as understanding the craft of writing.

Because suddenly, I can estimate how much time I need to write a book. And while that doesn’t matter now, since nobody’s asking, I hope it will someday. I know that I need 4-6 weeks of brainstorming, teeth gnashing, and general fretting that I’m a two-trick pony, before I’m ready to start (though an advance check might induce me to get creative in a hurry ;-)).

During that pre-writing phase, I write random scenes and backstory ideas. I try to come up with a log line and a short pitch, and the GMC for each major character. I get a feel for which story ideas I do and don’t like. I play with the outline. I tweak it. Once I have it down, my brain ruminates while I do other things and bubbles up suggestions while I’m driving or reading a book.

Then I play some more with scenes that I think will fit the outline. Just the ones that pique my interest. And then at the end of that, I have a pretty good starting outline that will probably change—but not enough to make it unrecognizable—along with some scenes which may or may not make it into the final story in some form.

And then I start writing in earnest. With Blind Fury, I wrote almost 80,000 words in two months. That accounts for more than half of the total words I wrote in 2010. And I think it’s some of my best work ever (but I could just be delusional—ask my CPs).

Today I filled in the basic story structure for MS1_2011 (uh, working title) and I’m getting excited. Based on what I came up with, I started playing with character backstory scenes and I’m having fun again. Maybe in another week or so, I’ll be ready to hit the keys in earnest.

I can’t wait.

Working with a map


Were you a fan of outlines in school? I know I wasn’t. Unfortunately, they’re a necessity in a writer’s life. If you don’t outline the book beforehand, you still have to do it later on some level in order to create a book blurb, pitch, synopsis, and query letter. If you’re a plotter or a plotser, you’re doing some level of outlining before you write.

Somewhere between my past method of zero planning, and Suzanne Brockmann’s 80-page summaries, I’ve come up with the basic plot structure for my next book. And this time, so far, it seems to be working.

When I’m stuck, I go back and check the outline, figure out what I'm aiming for, and get back on track. Sometimes, I change my route, but still head in the same general direction toward my next plot point.

Sticking to my old cross-country travel analogy, I used to get in the car and drive, knowing I’d end up on the opposite coast, picking the route as I went, with maybe a vague idea of the cities I wanted to visit on the way. Now, I’m planning out the overnight stops and the final destination, while still leaving room for side trips and detours. Maybe someday I’ll be like Ms. Brockmann who uses GPS to plan her routes.

For the first time, I’m finding freedom in the structure. It unblocks those blank-page moments, but I’m free to change the outline as new ideas come to me. Yes, it was a lot more work up front. I couldn’t sit down and start writing the story like I used to without some planning.

In order to keep from feeling cheated out of the fun of writing “into the mist”, I still let myself create scenes as they came to me. I worked on openings, scene ideas for several different story lines, and character sketches/interviews. I created and scrapped multiple versions of the story structure and subsequent outline. This is sure to be an evolving product and process.

Best of all, with my outline entered faithfully into Scrivener, I was able to figure out how a subplot with a secondary character might fit into the story and create a key conflict. I’ve struggled with that in the past, and I believe it’s one of the reasons I could never get to 80K. To get a bigger book, I need more integrated subplots to create a richer story with potential for future books. Those who can fit in the subplots without an outline are either far more talented writers than me, or don’t mind copious amounts of revision.

Is this my new process going forward? Time will tell, but I’m excited by the possibilities.

Pillars of the story

A copy I found in the Westminster Abbey gift shop in London.

I'm munching on deformed peanut butter cups and brainstorming for my next book. There are three ideas swirling in my head right now (or maybe four), but I think I've finally picked one and so I'm figuring out the basic plot points.

Yes, I've said I'm a pantser, mister–or whatever you want to call it–who doesn't work well with structure. I've gone back and forth on plotting versus pantsing and somewhere-in-between so many times your neck probably hurts from watching. But I think my failed experiment with plotting had less to do with the act of creating a structure, and more to do with not having found the right one yet.

But I was recently re-inspired.

My husband and I are watching the Starz! production of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (on Netflix instant play via Wii–LOVE my technology). He's one of my very favorite authors in any genre, and that book is up at the top of my list of best books ever. It's been years since I read it, so the mini-series–which is surprisingly well done–has been an excellent reminder of what an incredible storyteller Follett is. And I've noticed a couple things.

Follett's not afraid to put his characters through hell. In fact, I cringe at what they go through and at how evil some of the antagonists in his story are. As events unfold, I can almost imagine Follett asking himself, “What's the worst thing that could happen to this character now?”

Also, the character's goals and motivations are very clear, and they act accordingly without fail.

So as I move forward with my next book, I will try to incorporate these elements and create a framework on which to build my story, while still honoring my need to “wing it” from plot point to plot point. The major plot points are the pillars, and the fun is in creating the arches that connect them.

Wish me luck on my journey from apprentice to master builder. And, good luck in your own journey!