CJ Redwine, whose query workshop I’ve mentioned before, got a great new book deal. Unfortunately for the rest of us, she’s only going to be doing one more query workshop and then she’s calling it quits.  She says she still has room and the last one starts Monday!
You missed your chance. I hear she’s creating an eBook with this info. I’ll update you.

We suck. Seriously. I mean, there’s lots of reasons we’re awesome. I wouldn’t not be a writer for anything, but still.

We always know what’s going to happen next. Well, in fiction. Not like we can predict the future or anything.

  • We yell at the television for bad writing. E.g. “You can’t just ignore the rules in the world you created, writers! Why? Why are you doing that? You’re lazy. That’s why.”
  • We throw books. We even have a name for books that deserve to be thrown. “Wallbangers.” I know this makes sense to us, but how weird is this? We roll our eyes, grumble, and then BAM. Book meets wall.

We’re more interested in the imaginary people in our heads.

  • Holding conversations become difficult because there’s too much noise. Except we’re only talking to one other person. Well, one other live person.
  • We stand in the kitchen, peeling carrots, and the knife clatters to the counter. “I know what happens next!”, we squeal and run for our notebooks because if it’s not written down we’ll forget and then want to gouge our eyes out with the carrot knife.

We’re always reading. Fiction for fun, fiction in our genre, writing books, blogs on writing, agent blogs, publishing news. If it’s in print, we probably read it.

  • This totally should not be annoying. How can such a solitary activity annoy other people? After we’ve been asked the same question three times and we look up and say, “Huh?”, apparently, it’s annoying.
  • We get snippy. “I only have twenty pages left. Could you just try to stop the bleeding and wait for me in the car?”

What do you do, as a writer that annoy the non-writerly types in your life?

 

I bought another pack of index cards.  I’m at this point in my story where I’m chucking what doesn’t work (after 11k words, trust me when I say: it could be worse).  I’ve got to keep what works (mostly the characters) and dig deep and find the goals and the antagonist(s) and the conflict.

(Why do I forget these things when I first start writing?  It’s like I have to play with my characters for a bit before I can rip them apart and say, “You’re not quite right.”)

So, I’m in the grocery store and there’s this pack of index cards. A big stack, probably a 100.  And they’re unlined… *sigh* (The lined ones restrict my process, somehow).

Next thing I know, despite the fact that the last time I tried using index cards to plot it was a colossal failure, I bought index cards.  Again.

I get so caught up in how well it works for authors like Roz Morris (who convinced me to do it last time with her very good book, Nail Your Novel
, and she’s just so passionate and convincing) and Johanna Harness (who I’ve linked to before about her use of magic index cards).  They make it sound so fun, and creative, and organic.  But, that’s where it doesn’t work for me.

I think I crave the structure that goes with them.  Being able to make sense out of something huge and messy. As first drafts tend to be.

I write down everything floating in my head, and really, that’s a lot.  But it’s not a whole novel. And, so, I have my index cards, which amounted to about 20 for the first act, 8 for the second act, and 2 for the fourth act (I write with a 4 act structure) the last time I tried.  Nothing for act three.  The middle. Which, you might’ve heard, has been known to sag.  Be boring.  Or be full of crazy, not-organic stuff, that a writer just makes up to fill her damn index cards.

I need what happens next to come from the choices and actions my characters take before.  And I just don’t know how to do that with index cards.  It doesn’t work that way, for me.

What works for me is a notebook. A big, fat notebook with lots of pages.  Where I will just write scenes down all over.  Make outlines. Draw conflict boxes. Write letters from my characters.

Does anyone need any index cards?

I learned a few years ago, when I lost an entire weekend to the time-suck that was Seasons 1 and 2 of Grey’s Anatomy, if you watch a television series in order, for at least a season, you can actually learn a lot.  A season of television (good television, anyway) has story structure, character arc, and escalating conflict.

Think about it.  You get 22-25 or so episodes in a season of (most) TV shows.  A season is structured to introduce the season’s conflict, build the tension, tie up the plot in a nice bow, and introduce next season’s story question.  An episode does the same thing, only on a smaller scale.  Look closer.  That’s right.  You can divide an episode into about four parts, usually where they place commercials, that have those same elements.  And, ideally, a scene would do the same.  I think some writers miss this, but a novel should be the same way.  Novel > Acts > Chapters > Scenes.  And they all perform the same way.

Just like story structure, a season of television has characters who have to grow.  Bob Mayer explains perfectly why a character needs an arc:

If you take your protagonist as she is at the beginning of the book and thrust her into the climactic scene, she should lose to the antagonist.  A key portion of the story is her growth into a person, that by the climactic scene, can defeat the antagonist.

If they could beat the season’s big-bad at the beginning, then what’s the point?  Each episode shows the character face a challenge and grow to become the hero who can win in that final battle.

And, of course, every episode ratchets up the stakes in the conflict just a little more so that, by season’s end, you’re begging for the showdown.

Read More →

In my not-writing day job, I do therapy.  I spend my day encouraging people to accept and care for themselves, helping them search for balance, and examining what, in their lives, isn’t working.  As day jobs go, it definitely doesn’t suck.  But I have learned that bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it and then we’re left to pick up the pieces and deal with all the ensuing emotions.

To me, especially when writing romance (which, I do), the two main characters have broken places*.  It’s not that they couldn’t get past what’s dug in deep or that they’re incapable of healthy relationships.  It’s that, just like in real life, we sometimes make bad choices when it comes to who we date and those bad choices can often be seen through a filter of our experiences.  I know people can grow into their thirties, forties, fifties or older before finding what makes them choose people who are wrong for them.

In romance, to me, it’s about coming upon this person who is actually a perfect fit.  Not perfect.  Perfect is dull.  But perfect for the character.  And then it comes down to this push-pull that they’re just right because of how they not only soothe, but embrace, the broken places except the character isn’t ready yet because they need to grow.  Need to arc, if you will.

Jennifer Crusie wrote, in her essay Dating Death: Love and Sex in Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

“I love you because” is conditional love, based on what the object does for the lover; the “You complete me” statement that sounds good but is really a threat: “Complete me or lose me, it’s all about me.” Mature love, goes beyond that and says that it doesn’t matter whether the object is wonderful or not, the love is just there, like the air we breathe.

In romance, our characters push past the lust and infatuation and all the reasons this person is wrong (which are sometimes also the reasons that person is right) and come out the other side in a mature, healthy relationship.  And then they get the happily-ever-after.  It’s because they examine the broken places, they find a way to heal or embrace them, they stop doing what isn’t working.  And it’s not because love heals all wounds, it’s because real love makes you want to be a better you.

More on this topic:

*Broken places is a term I personally use.  It’s not clinical in any way.  It comes from many conversations I had with a friend about how our broken places make us who we are.  They make us grow and become better at being ourselves.

“…because real love makes you want to be a better you.” ~ Click to Tweet

I read a post a few days ago.  It’s not the one linked below, because I had Kindle Klipped it to myself and read it there.  In fact, I can’t track it down at all, because a Google of “brainstorming 100” comes up with lots of posts from different sites.  It didn’t even hit me that much when I read it, except to say, “Hmm.  That idea doesn’t suck.”

But then I started reading a novel and, while trying to go to sleep, began looking for the GMC in that book.  I was impressed to realize that while the hero’s GMC is obvious from the beginning, the heroine’s changes (although they’re all connected to what her real goal and motivation was all along).  Sometimes, we don’t know what we want.  Sometimes we do things and we don’t know why we do them, except they have to do with this immediate thing we want that isn’t such a huge thing.  But, in the doing, it evolves and we learn more about ourselves and, if that need is met, we start looking for more of what made us feel good about meeting that need.

Does that make any sense?  I think I slipped into therapy-speak for a minute.

Anyway, so I’m examining the GMC for a book that is certainly well-written but is not at all my story or similar to my story.  And then, I think I figured out where the term brainstorm came from.  Because, like lightning flashes, I got hit by realizations of why the 76 page outline (let’s just stop kidding ourselves and admit it’s a first draft at that point since I’m still in the first act) petered out.

I NEED goals.  I know this.  This is not news to me.  Understanding the need for goals, motivation, and conflict completely changed writing for me.  It made it actually do-able.  And yet… there it was.  No. Freaking. Goals.

So, I made a choice.  It’s 76 rough pages.  If I don’t keep a word of it, who cares?  It can’t hurt that I’ve put my characters in situations just to see what happened.  It can’t be bad that I got a really good idea of how they interact and converse and feel.  Even if exploring completely outside of what I’ve written means I have to start over, it’s not really starting over.

I tried the idea.  In one sitting, brainstorm 100 things.  And the thing to remember about brainstorming is, you write EVERYTHING down.  Even if it’s “stupid” or it doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes, we can write ourselves into a corner and there’s no coming back until you are ready to chuck the corner, the wall, the whole damn structure to see how you get there and where you need to go.

Just for kicks, here are some directions on Brainstorming 100.  Let me know how it works out for you!

Oh, you’re wondering if it actually worked?  It opened the story up.  I’m still working on it, but I’m no longer banging my head on the keyboard.  That means it worked, right?

There are approximately a billion ways to create a character.

A lot of people use character worksheets or questionnaires.  I do not use these.  I will be brave enough to admit that one of those reasons is because I never spell questionnaire correctly on the first go.  That alone puts me off them.  But, really, they just don’t work for me.

I have a few personal tricks for developing* a character.  I usually, but not always, start with an idea of what they look like using pictures of actual people.  If it’s not there from the beginning, it comes quickly.  Once upon a time, I considered this a very amateur way to discover character and would’ve never admitted it to anyone.  That time has passed.  For one thing, I no longer care what works, as long as it works.  For another, Jennifer Crusie does it, so there.  I read once, and I’m sorry–can’t find where–that it helps to open the picture up in whatever picture editing program you use and flip, or mirror, it.  Then, the person looks just different enough that they could be your character and not a specific actor or model.

Notebook. Pen. Good music.  Freewriting. My brain basically vomits the character onto the paper.  And not in a lovely biographical sort of way either.  Here’s an actual quote from my current notebook:

I know Kat was deprived of positive regard, acceptance, and love.  She was USED, her flaws driven home at every chance…Jack, who so needs a new name, has had a very different experience…He has two younger sisters who adore him.  He’s very protective of them which lends itself to his chivalrous treatment of women, etc.

I’m only posting that to show that my style is more conversational, very informal, and that this may seem very generic or random, but after 10-20 pages of this, I really start seeing who they are.  I’m also exploring my antagonist and their relationship to my protagonist so that I can discover goals which leads me to conflict.  You get the idea.

I also do conversational interviews with my character.  I don’t actually write down my questions, because that would seem too formal, but I ask as a guide, and they answer.  I answer.  They answer.  You know what I mean.

Before I start writing one word of a first draft, I fill out my Goal-Motivation-Conflict (GMC) charts.  Just writing will lead me closer to who they are.  Dialogue is a great way for me to find them because they all seem to have their own way of speaking, but I never write without knowing the GMC.

Some really great ideas for developing your characters:

*When I use the word develop, in this post, I’m referring to creating, flesh out, discovering, etc.

EDIT 05.10.2012: When I originally wrote this post I linked to a good set of character development questions. They work very well for many people. That site was shut down recently, but I asked the author, Heather McCorkle, if I could repost those questions here and she gave me permission to do so. Those questions can be found here, and thank you to Heather for sharing those with us.

In my experience, which ordinarily involves a great deal of slapping myself on the forehead and muttering, “Why’d I do that?”, a writer who is serious about writing has to write everyday.  Did you see how  many times I use the word write or a variation thereof?  Yeah.  That’s because this is some serious writing info.

So, every day.

There’s a couple of reasons for this.  In the big picture, if you’re not doing it every day, if you’re, say, only writing when the inspiration hits you, it will take you approximately 874 days to finish a novel.  Know how long that is? For-freaking-ever.  And maybe if it’s your first novel, and you’re just learning, and you’re making mistakes and going back and fixing them, and just figuring this writing junk out, maybe that’s okay.  (It’s not really, and I’ll tell you why in a minute, but whatever).  Fine, first novel done.  And it only took you two years, four months, three weeks, and five days.  Give or take.

Except, you know, when you actually sell it and you want to sell another, the people who are publishing your novel, the agent who  is selling your next novel, they’re not okay with another 874 days of waiting.  Because you need to build on the momentum?  Sure.  Because it might mean you’re a one-hit-wonder?  Well, yes.  Because they like money and keeping the lights on, much as you do, and they can’t push an unfinished product?  That, too.  Because you also have to spend time on editing and, I don’t know–cover designing and marketing planning–whatever else goes into selling your lovingly crafted product? Yes and yes.

The Big Picture

Okay, so you see the big picture.  But it doesn’t apply to you, right?  I mean, who knows when you’ll sell a novel (depressing thought alert)?  When you finally sale one, or land an agent, or unicorns sprinkle glitter across the page–then you’ll get serious and start writing to a schedule.

Well, here’s the thing.  If you were hoping to compete in the Olympics, would you train when the urge hit you, and actually expect to land a spot?   If you wanted desperately to be an artist, would you paint one painting, then wait for some big gallery to book you for a show before you started getting serious?  Of course not.  Because those things, like writing, must be learned through practice and discipline.

They don't call it craft because it makes it sound important. Click To Tweet

Living in your story

Okay, so for reals, now I’ve convinced you of the big picture.  Now, let’s look at the tiny picture: your manuscript.

You know how, when you’re pregnant, you’ve got all this crazy stuff happening to your body, every day, preparing you for birth, nurturing the life inside of you? Well, writing a novel isn’t like that.  Writing a novel is a lot harder.  Because all of those details don’t just happen.  You have to make them happen.  You have to develop characters, and create a story arc, and delve into goals and motivations, and you have to grow conflict.  And about eleventy other things.

If you write every day, those acts are in your brain, 24/7.  You live in your story world, at least a little.  If you write a day, then take off a couple days, then spend six hours in a mad writing binge, and then forget it for two weeks you have to start all over every time.  Sure, you’ve taken notes.  Of course you took notes, because (and listen to me here) only an idiot would try to create a whole world and populate it with people and make up a story worth telling without writing notes.  But you have to review your notes just to find your way back to the story.  Instead of becoming places to jump off or dig in, they’re breadcrumbs.  You don’t want to find your way back to your story and hope the birds didn’t gobble up half of it.  You want to sleep and breathe and exist in your story.

Tips from people smarter than me:

I said earlier in the week I’d post my queries, before and after my workchop with CJ Redwine.  I’m not looking at my notes (from more than a year ago) to see why I did this–I’m just comparing the two because I don’t think that would be fair to those who have paid for and benefitted from the workshop.

Below, the very first query I ever sent out.

A very public flighty heiress and a TV exec with a past he’d rather keep private work against each other to create a talk show while falling crazy in love.  ON A BET is complete at 82,000 words and targeted as a single title contemporary novel with comedic elements.

Justine Montgomery is a tabloid baby, daughter of a television tycoon and a beauty queen.  She is compelled to ask her estranged father for help when her mother mortgages her grandmother’s home.  Her father proposes a bet: if she can produce a talk show, he’ll pay the mortgage and finally give her a job.  If not, she’ll marry the creepy ex she despises.

Once Justine agrees, her father offers Sawyer the promotion of a lifetime to just sit back and let Justine destroy his show.  Immediately at odds and deeply attracted to one another, Justine and Sawyer travel together to find an aging movie star to play co-host.

Can Justine and Sawyer’s growing feelings survive a controlling father, a drunken co-host, tabloid stories, a crazy ex-boyfriend, and enough emotional baggage to sink the Titanic?

This is my first novel and I am working on a new manuscript now.  In addition, I have two other novels connected to this one outlined.

I would be pleased to send you a partial or the full manuscript upon your request.  I appreciate your time and consideration.

Here, my basic if-they-don’t-ask-for-anything-else query.

Justine Montgomery is an infamous heiress, the daughter of a divorced beauty queen and TV magnate, and a tabloid disaster.

She’s never finished a thing she started, but now that her mother dumped the news in her lap that she mortgaged the family home and foreclosure is only a week away, Justine has little choice.  She must make a bet with her father to either produce a talk show without quitting or marry her creepy ex so that her father will pay off the mortgage.  Just Justine’s luck, her creepy ex is the son of her father’s late business partner, and Justine’s father wouldn’t believe the ex did wrong if he watched it happen.

Justine’s co-producer, Sawyer, is under strict orders to watch her fail so that Justine’s father can see Justine settled and out of the tabloids. Justine. however, grabs Sawyer’s interest like no other woman. Her life is messy, and she may just be crazy, but he can’t seem to stop thinking of her.

Justine must persevere beyond the disaster of a drunken co-host, the bitterness of a rejected ex, the controlling actions of her father, and the half-truths she and the man she may just love are telling one another. If she can’t stick it out and find a way to make her show a hit, she’ll forfeit her dreams, end up married to a man she despises, and lose the man who could make it all worth it.

I’m currently a social worker in West Virginia with a B.S. in Social and Behavioral Science.  I’ve always found people and relationships fascinating and witty banter sexy.  Romance has been a perfect fit and, at times, a wonderful respite for me.

On a Bet is a contemporary romance complete at 81,000 words.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

In the first paragraph (original), you’ll notice I moved the name and length to the last paragraph (final).  This brings my reader (the agent or editor, in this case) right into the story.  I see right off that  my original query shot straight out of the gate with a cliche (*shudder* “crazy in love”).  Beyond that, it isn’t deep enough.  Check out my the last query: she’s a person, with a name and parents and a past.

In the second paragraph of the original query, I introduced my heroine and her GMC.  I did the same thing in the last query, except I went deeper.  I explained why these things matter and are relevant to her.

The third paragraphs are, again, similar.  They both introduce my hero and his own dilemma.  But instead of glossing over it (original), I delved into exactly how he feels for her.  On comparing the two, I do see that I’ve removed his goal (promotion) but left the motivation and conflict.  Is this something I should slip back in there?  (She writes, as if slipping info into a query is not at all like adding a unicycle to an already stressful tightrope act.)

And paragraph four is where the change shines.  In the original I ask the hypothetical question, can their feelings survive?  In the last query, I detail exactly what’s in the way, what’s on the line, and, most importantly, what happens if she fails.  Now it matters.

Paragraph five is the obligatory “About Me” section–difficult when you’re unpubbed.  Difficult as in terrifying and intimidating.  Instead of focusing on my inexperience (in the original) I tell more about who I am and why I love writing romance.  If you’re grasping for something to put in there, it might as well sound like you’ve given it some thought instead of just sticking it in there and hoping they don’t notice.

And the final paragraph sticks those novel stats back in there instead of giving the original’s obvious info (naturally, I’d send them whatever they wanted–be it a partial or handwriting the whole thing on parchment and walking it to their office).

I found it really interesting, comparing the two, that they have the exact same number of paragraphs.  I guess I did figure out the basic set up, at least.  But I also see bare bones in my original and a lot more meat in the final draft.

Still, agents aren’t knocking down my door–I welcome any ideas, comments, whatever.  And feel free to share your experiences in the comments!

I don’t know how I ended up in my archives.  Something I read had me coming back to see if I’d written something on the same topic and, well.  Here we are.

About a year-and-a-half ago (oh-my-God: have I been here this long?), I wrote about my plans to send out my very first query.  I was nervous, of course.  I expected rejection, but in that way where you know it happens, but if the universe lines up just right, it won’t happen to you.

A few months later, I wrote this post about handling rejection and how to use it to figure out where to go from there.

I remember being excited when I got my first rejection letter.  A form rejection letter and I was happy because that meant I was a real writer.  A few months after the second post, feeling like I was still flailing about in the process of submission, I took a great query letter workshop from CJ Redwine (@cjredwine on twitter).  (I recommend it; registration is open and a new workshop begins April 4.)

In my next post, I’m going to compare my pre- and post- workshop query letters (which you should feel free to comment on!), but that’s not why we’re here.

What I saw, looking back, was a bit of naivety.  We all have it.  I still have it.  Just not about rejection.

I have now accrued 23 rejections.  I did manage to get one request for a full.  It didn’t happen.  I still don’t know what I’m doing wrong.

Maybe, it doesn’t even matter.  I knew, although I was hoping for that universe-lining-up thing, that I was very unlikely to sell a first manuscript.  Writing a novel is a learning experience.  I knew exponentially more when I finished than when I started.  Like… I went from first day of Kindergarten to rocket scientist kind of learning.  I’ve tried to take submission, and rejection, as an opportunity to learn as well.

And, wow, it’s taking me forever to get to my point.  The point is this: what happens after The End–from editing to synopsis to query to agent and beyond–it’s still The End.  And while you’re doing all of those other things, the absolute most important thing you can also do is keep writing.

Start another novel.  Write short stories or flash fiction.  Do something.  But keep writing.  It’s the only way to grow, it’s the only way to learn, and–I’m going to go out on a limb here–it’s the only way to stay sane.  It’s the only way to keep your dream close to you, it’s the only way to still love writing.

Rejection will sting.  But writing makes it better.

Dory: “Hey Mr. Grumpy Gills… When life gets you down do you wanna know what you gotta do?”

Marlin: “I don’t wanna know what you gotta do.”

Dory: “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.”

If I haven’t convinced you, read this Guest column by JM Tohline on How Do We Know When It’s Time To Quit Being A Writer?writersdigest.com.