Join my newsletter for freebies and info on upcoming books, classes, appearances, and discounts.Join Now!
banner image

Breaking through the wall

512px-Wall_climbing_plantWhat do you do when you hit a wall in your writing?

I’m under a tight—self-imposed—deadline to get Blind Justice to my editor and I was absolutely stuck on how to approach the climactic scene. I only work with loose outlines and don’t usually have a solid idea for the ending until I’m more than halfway through the book.

That held true with this one. I had some thematic ideas and snippets of scenes that I knew I wanted in there, but not the whole showdown. I know for a fact that if I stop writing to think, nothing comes. I’ve talked about it before. But what to do in this case?

I finally decided to create a new document outside of my Draft folder (that’s Scrivener-speak for opening a blank page in my project that won’t be included when I print) and call it “Showdown ramble.” Then I proceeded to type out all of the questions I had about what the characters wanted, what they could or should do, and so on.

At first it was a list of unanswered questions, but as I wrote I started coming up with ideas for how to answer them. I also asked questions like the following:

– What if X wasn’t the villain? Who would it be?
– What if the final showdown takes place somewhere besides Z? (I had a location picked out, but it changed based on this exercise.)
– What other places might have significance to the involved characters that would work for this scene? (This is how I found the new location and it surprised me.)

The words started flowing and after an hour I had 750 words of questions, some answers, and some new ideas, as well as a pretty good idea of what needs to happen.

So, I’m back on track and working on the climactic scene this week. Yay!

What do you do when you hit a wall in your writing?

Image credit: By Wilfredor (Own work) (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

Why Disney kills off the parents

Dumbo_1Have you ever noticed that children’s books and movies love to kill off the parents? Or at least get them out of the picture so the fun can start. Disney especially seems to like orphans as protagonists.

Think about it. Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi, Aladdin, The Lion King, Jungle Book, Tarzan, Little Orphan Annie, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Chronicles of Narnia, Home Alone.

I could go on.

When my boys were younger, it bothered me that they were bombarded with the message that the adventure doesn’t begin until the parents are gone (often permanently).

But then the other day, when I was lying in bed in that half-awake half-asleep state that often brings me plot twists and solutions, it hit me.

Orphans invoke empathy.

Seriously, what tugs at our heartstrings and emotions more than a child losing a parent? It’s a trauma we can all understand, and most of us fear. The orphan is the underdog, deserving of our sympathy, and easily forgiven most transgressions in light of their loss.

As a writer, the ability to invoke that kind of emotion from the reader/viewer is gold. If we don’t invest the reader emotionally from the beginning, it doesn’t matter how thrilling our plot is, she won’t care.

In Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT, he tells us our hero needs to “do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win.” The audience must be “‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” The term “save the cat” comes from the cliché of the hero rescuing a little kid’s cat from a tree so we know right up front that he’s a good guy at heart.

Essentially, there must be something about the character that makes them likable, so we’ll root for them and stick around for their story to unfold.

In THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, James Scott Bell provides some ideas how we can “emotionally bond” the reader to the main character.

1. “Make the Lead care about someone other than himself.”

Snow White is kind to animals and dwarves.

2. “Have the Lead do things to help those weaker than he is.” (Snyder’s save-the-cat moment.)

Katniss volunteers to take her little sister’s place in a fight to the death. Aladdin steals food for himself, but then gives it to two younger orphans who are starving.

3. “Put the Lead in a situation of jeopardy, hardship or vulnerability.”

Bingo! Orphan the kid and you have jeopardy, hardship, and vulnerability all wrapped up in one heart-string-tugging bundle. Add unsympathetic relatives, step-parents, or school mates, and you have a character we can’t help but root for.

As a writer, I can’t help but admire that.

Photo credit: By The Walt Disney Company (Trailer) , via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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

It’s all in my head

My husband caught me standing in front of my computer staring off into space once. “What are you doing?” he asked.

Me: “Working.”

I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of work lately. Hours and hours of it.

It’s directly related to the revise-and-resubmit letter I got from an editor a couple weeks ago. At first I focused on the minor revisions to fix some less-than-heroic actions on my hero’s part.

That was the easy stuff.

But I’m sure if it were that simple she would have said, “Fix these and I’ll send you a contract.”

How’s that for wishful thinking?

Unfortunately, she also mentioned this pesky thing about the internal conflict getting in the way of them working together toward a common goal. But wait, I thought, what about them trying to stay alive? Find her friend? Stay alive? Hide from the police? Stay alive?

Okay, but I also see where she’s coming from. An agent made a similar point last year. I think the problem is that they don’t start really working together until the second half of the book. They’re stuck together, hiding out together, but totally at odds with each other over a secret the hero’s keeping.

It works for me. My critique partners and beta readers didn’t have a problem with it. But, the industry folks—the ones who rep authors or buy their books, the ones I need to impress—do.

‘Nuff said.

An R&R is hard because there’s no editorial relationship. I can’t ask follow-up questions or push back. I have to go with what I think she meant in her one or two sentences of feedback and hope I know what the hell I’m doing.

So, I’m back to staring off into space a lot, followed by flurries of scribbling in bright colors on too-small whiteboards, and almost no actual writing. There’s nothing to write or revise when I haven’t yet figured out how to keep the essence of the story I love so much, while making it better.

Read: publishable.

All this hard thinking is the reason I started tracking my hours—though I don’t count the time I ponder my MS while driving, running, trying to sleep—in addition to my word count. If I had to gauge my progress by word count right now I’d be looking for a day job again.

Instead, I’ll go back the hard work of staring off into space.

Photo credit: Hansjorn , 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 |