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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 [Public domain, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], 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 |

Throwing off sparks

Maybe it’s all the excitement/stress/ nervousness surrounding the upcoming RWA conference—in less than two weeks!—but my creative brain has been AWOL for the last few, uh, months. Revisions, yes. Coming up with new ideas? Not so much.

I was especially stymied by an idea for the follow-up to BLIND FURY. I wanted to have a log line, three chapters, and an outline ready in case an editor or agent asks, “What else do you have?” Or, “Can you do a series?”

I want to be able to say, “Well, as a matter of fact…”

The problem was that I was trying too hard to shoehorn existing characters into something and killing all of my creative energy. I finally realized that I needed a spark—an opening scene or killer conflict that comes to me as an aha moment—before I worried about who would be in the book. All of my past books have been spark first, then characters, then plot.

Once I flogged myself a few times for abandoning “the formula”, I hashed out a few ideas with a friend and realized I was still working within the constraints of a couple of characters I didn’t really like that much. Good as secondary foils, not so great for hero and heroine.

And then I came up with an opening that I liked. And a log line that needs some work, but is not bad. And then I started writing just to get a feel for the heroine, who is new to me.

Love her already.

Big sigh of relief. I haven’t fleshed it all out yet, but I’m back on track.

At least until next time I derail. 😉

Has your creative side ever taken a powder? How’d you handle it?

(Credit: Free photos from

Trolling history

Current events not enough to inspire your next story? How about trolling history? For example, the History Channel website lists the following interesting events for March 1st.

1961: President Kennedy establishes the Peace Corps

1932: The Lindbergh baby is kidnapped

1910: Trains are buried by an avalanche in Wellington, Washington

1692: The Salem Witch Hunt begins

1872: Yellowstone Park is established

1917: The Zimmerman Telegram (proposing an alliance between Germany-Mexico against the US) is published in US newspapers

Even if you don’t write historical settings, past events might spark a new idea. Play with it. Have fun!

Blank slate

Yes, I covet office supplies... Photo:

I like to brainstorm on a whiteboard. In my dreams, it’s 6’x4’, rolling, and two-sided. In reality, it’s 16”x23” and lying unmounted on the carpet.

There’s something about using a dry-erase board that taps into my creative side. I can use colors, make connections, write upside down if I want, and—probably most important—easily erase at will. It’s kinetic and unboxed. I can stand and move while capturing my thoughts.

Yes, I could do this on paper, but I think the sense of permanence (and probably the sense of waste) stifles my creativity in comparison to the whiteboard. On paper, my ideas are not so easily erased or rearranged. My efforts become messy and require more paper. (I do have a stack of scrap for this purpose.)

The computer makes up for paper’s disadvantages, but requires a more linear approach without some kind of special software or mouse for freeform expression.

For some reason, when I use paper or the computer, I feel like I’m tied to the ideas previously written, and I tend to get stuck in a thinking rut. It’s purely psychological, but why fight it?

I also like the large space afforded by a board. I can write in big, bold strokes, change colors, draw lines and symbols, and just…spread out. With a big enough board, I can make notes on several different areas of the story at a time. Character stuff over here, plot ideas over there, and GMC notes at the bottom.

I use the computer to capture my freeform notes before wiping the board clean, and once I get to the writing phase, I prefer the computer. With Scrivener, of course. 😉

But for now, in my pre-writing phase, I’m getting a headache from the smell of dry-erase markers.

Chalk outline

In spite of my handy, dandy outline, I’m already revising part one of my current MS. Such a revision is exactly what I was hoping to avoid by having an outline, but in this case it had more to do with tweaking my hero, than with changing major story events. In light of this, you might be wondering if I’d consider the outline a failure.

Absolutely not.

In fact, I’m surprised to find that it’s making my life easier, and actually helping with the creative process. When scene ideas come to me, I wedge them into the outline to see how they fit and affect the scenes around them, making other changes as necessary.

Even more importantly, when I’m stuck and not sure what to write, I go back to the outline—stored conveniently in a Scrivener document within my project—and figure out what needs to come next. It provides direction. I can still get there any way I want.

The outline isn’t written in stone. In fact, it get tweaked (usually in minor ways) frequently, but for the most part, my major turning points have stayed the same. It’s the arches in between the pillars that change. The highway between cities that sometimes requires a detour.

I like to think of my outline as a WIP just like my MS: fixed, but easily modified. It’s definitely not a tool that I’m ready to draw a chalk outline around.

Stop the movie

Many writers complain that they can no longer read for pleasure, that their writer brain won’t let them get into the story without analyzing for plot points, tension, and word choice.

While I find myself occasionally noticing these things as I read—or stopping to wonder how the writer got me to read 30 pages without noticing—I still have the opposite problem. Even with a book I’ve read before, I often cannot shut off the movie in my head to concentrate on the actual words.

This is especially true of a well-written work of the type I’d like to emulate. I might be able to focus on the first few paragraphs, but after that, I get sucked in and my movie is off and running. Ten pages later, I realize I’ve failed to learn anything except that this particular author has something I don’t, and I’m no closer to figuring out how she does it.

So, I’m trying something new. I’m typing out the passages I want to analyze in an attempt to contrast an author’s craft with my own. What do her paragraphs look like in Scrivener? How long are they, how much emotion and detail do they have? How long is an action scene or a love scene? Then compare to my own.

How does it feel to write those words and paragraphs? What kind of cadence and flow do they have?

I have no intention of plagiarizing the works, or copying the writing style. I have my own voice. But I can’t think of another way to slow down and focus on the content than this, and I think there is value in seeing the other author’s writing in a similar format to my own. I have no idea what my words and paragraphs would look like in a paperback. Is there enough whitespace? Too much?

But I know what hers look like, and now I can compare them on a level playing field.

I tried this experiment today after I’d surpassed my 1K/day goal. So far, I think it’s helping. I was able to pick out the internal dialogue, bits of setting, and emotional elements, and how she was fitting them in without slowing things down. While I’m nowhere near cracking the code, it can’t hurt.

I’m certain that most of the benefit of this method comes from slowing myself down. I read at 400+ words a minute. Even more if I speed read (which I don’t for novels—I like to relax with them). Reading out loud would be another option for slowing down. The average person—depending on what part of the country they’re from—speaks at around 200 wpm. But I type around 60-70 wpm. S-L-O-W compared to reading. This forces my brain focus on the words, and messes up the continuity.

For this exercise, that's a good thing.

There are surely other methods that would help. I often find value in summarizing the chapters or scenes to see how the author makes the book flow and sets up the structure (similar to Larry Brooks’ deconstruction method, or James Scott Bell’s plot analysis exercise). But I like to try new things too.

So tell me. How do you stop the movie in your head?