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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Jump Start Your Writing Process by Åsa Maria Bradley

For me, the most difficult part about writing a book is not developing three dimensional characters, crafting a tight and properly paced plot, or perfecting the phrasing of my sentences. I do those things in my head all the time while I’m walking the dog, having a shower, or standing in line at the grocery store. No, the biggest challenge is to sit my derrière down and actually write. I have the butt-in-chair thing down, but am still working on fingers-writing-words-and-not-checking-Facebook-or-email.

Most of the time, I’m stalling because I don’t know where my story needs to go next or the scene I’m working on is not developing the way I need it to. This can happen during any stage of my project, before starting a novel, in the dreary sagging middle, or as I’m almost at the finish line. Although I’m a “pantser” by nature, I like my story to organically grow on the pages without working from an outline, I’ve found that in order to actually get a book written and not waste all my writing time on social media, I need some sort of guideline. I use the following three tools to keep my story on track and give myself an extra spark of writing energy when I sit down to work.

1) Write the Pitch Early in the Process
You may ask how on earth you would know what to pitch before you’ve written the book, but think about what the pitch actually contains. A good pitch or query highlights the goal, motivation, and conflict (GMT) of your characters and story. Things you should have at the forefront as you write your book. The best advice I ever got on pitching came from Mary Buckham at a conference in 2010. After I’d spent hours during “pitch fest” trying to perfect my blurb while practicing it on other writers, and still not getting it down, Mary pulled me aside and told me about the four W questions. She said a good pitch should answer the following questions:
-Who? (Who is your main character?)
-What? (What do they want? Goal)
-Why? (why do they want it? Motivation)
-Why not? (Why can’t they have it? Conflict)
Although I att first I concentrated on the external plot too much, now I can jot down answers to these questions very quickly and make sure my scenes enhance the GMT as I shape my story.  (If you’re interested, I have a worksheet that explains what Mary taught me in more detail on my website.)

2) Create a Revisable Synopsis Before You Write Chapter 4
Okay, so this sounds even crazier than doing your pitch before the book is finished, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had the synopsis almost all done by the time you finished your book? What if I told you that by spending an hour or two answering a few simple questions, you will nail down your turning points and how they reflect the internal and external conflict? No, I’m not blowing smoke up your behind, it can actually happen. Wonderful author Debra Hale made it possible when she created her What to Pack in Your Short Synopsis questionnaire. You may not have all the answers to her questions early on in your project, but you’ll know that you need to figure them out as you continue writing and your story will improve quickly, without additional drafts. You will of course have to tweak the synopsis as your details change, but the main scaffolding of your story construction is in place and all you’re doing late on is redecorating, changing curtains, or maybe even buying new furniture, okay fine, sometimes going as far as ripping out the carpet. Still, this saves a lot of time, I promise.

3) Write Scenes Out of Order
This may not seem like a big deal to most of you, but I don’t do well when I have to complete task number 4 before 1-3 are completed. I’m not sure how I can be a pantser and still be obsessed with the order of my scenes, but there it is. I used to stay stuck on a page because I didn’t know what was going to happen in the next scene. I usually knew where the scene needed to end up, I just didn’t know how to get there. The first time I allowed myself to skip a scene altogether, I hyperventilated because of how reckless I felt. (Yes, I may have OCD issues.) An amazing thing happened, as I wrote the next scene, the preceding scene  wrote itself in my subconscious and it was easy going back and putting it down on the page. Now that I write using the guidelines of my pitch and synopsis, skipping scenes is easy and my OCD doesn’t eve peak up from the dark place in which I’ve suppressed it.
These methods have helped me jump start novels, but they also help me focus during each writing session. Since I have mapped out where my story needs to go, without nailing down specific details, I can still be creative in shaping my story without meandering down paths that should never have been taken, or even worse, staring at a blank page for minutes before booting up Facebook and Twitter. It’s like heading out on a road trip where anything is possible, but I’ve been responsible enough to make sure I know where stop for meals and bio breaks. Because whether we are planners or pantsers when we write, we all need to eat and pee during our creative process.
I hope some of these methods help you jump start your writing. Do you have any other tips for how we can optimize our writing time?
Åsa Maria Bradley new paranormal series features Vikings and Valkyries and their struggle to keep the world safe from Ragnarök—the god’s final battle. She’s originally from Sweden, where Norse mythology and history is ever present in archeological finds and buildings around the village where she grew up. Her articles have appeared in several magazines and she had an essay included in FEMALE NOMAD AND FRIENDS: TALES OF BREAKING FREE AND BREAKING BREAD AROUND THE WORLD (Three River Press 2010). She lives in Washington State with her British husband and a used dog of indeterminate breed. Visit her at AsaMariaBradley.com.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Producing 5-10k words a day...by Virginia Nelson

I’m often asked, how do I manage to constantly produce 5-10K words a day? Do I live at the computer?  Of course not, no one can. I will admit I am a fast typist and I have a regiment I follow religiously but that isn’t where the secret lies. I’ll try to explain.

Back when I first started writing non-fiction, I took a lecture I developed for college students, adjusted it for my personal use. That lecture was on time management and utilizing it has saved me a lot of frustration. But this article isn’t on time management. Its primary focus is to get you, the writer to increase your daily word count. So let’s start at the beginning.

What is your typing speed? Don’t know- here is a simple way to find out.

Open a large print book. Set it up next to your computer where you can see it comfortably. Now set your timer for 5 minutes and type. When the timer goes off – stop. We are now going to figure out how many words you have written. A simple way is, if you’re in Microsoft word is to click on your tool button, then on word count. Now take that number and divide it by 5. Presto you have a rough estimate of what you can type in one minute.

Sadly, you are not going to be able to create a new story and hammer out that many words a minute but you can come pretty close if you follow my directions.

Now let’s establish your sprinting speed if you already know your typing speed.

Take the number of words you normally type per minute. Let’s say your last typing test was 50wpm. Knowing you won’t be reading off a sheet of paper nor will you have a Dictaphone plugged in.  You are creating your new piece of art. You can’t really create something new and type 50 words a minute no matter what you do. So take your WPM typing speed and divide it in half. This should be your average speed for sprinting if you follow my directions…. (Big if, I know but it is how I keep my word count up.)

Before you begin, there are a few rules that will help you make the most of your time.

Rule #1. DO NOT SIT DOWN AND OPEN UP A BLANK SCREEN and stare at it expecting something to transpire. It isn’t going to happen and it is one of the worst things you can do to yourself.

Rule #2. Make sure you are alone and going to be alone for some time. Constant interruptions will cause you to loose focus.

Rule #3. Get yourself situated. (Coffee, smokes, drinks – what ever makes you comfortable) and most importantly a kitchen timer or some similar device.

Rule #4. Do not, I repeat do not worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling or anything else. You are here to type. Once your 60k words are down and the story is on paper (yes it is rough – really rough) but it’s down and you have something to work with. We will worry about editing it later.

NOW formulate the scene (or chapter) in your mind. See it coming alive.

Sit, turn on the computer and open up a clean page or your document.

Now take a minute to make sure everything is arranged how you want it.

Now get up and go potty! You heard me – take that break now before you begin but keep that scene in your mind.

Ok. You’re back from the restroom, and reseated. Good.  Set your timer and start typing. I tend to do 30 minute sprints with a 15 minute break between them. This gives me time to stretch my legs, hit the bathroom again, refill my coffee, have that smoke and most importantly form the next scene in my mind. When I’m ready I go at it just like I did before.

So how long is it going to take you to type out 60K words you ask? That of course is going to depend on your dedication and your typing speed and how many sprints per day you do.

Let’s say you can do 4 sprints per day at 25 wpm actual sprinting speed. That works out to 750 words per 30 minutes or 3000 words per day. At this rate it will take you 80 –thirty minute sessions.

To figure out how long it is going to take you to type a 60,000 word story you can do it this way.

(1) You can take the 60,000 words and divide it by your daily average, 3k. 60,000/3000=20

Guess what? Your rough draft should be completed in 20 days.

Ok, so the editor gave you forty five days to get that story to him. You have taken twenty days to write out the story in a very rough form. That leaves you twenty five days to go back re-read your story and make adjustments. Since I write full time it is easy for me, but maybe not so easy for a working mom.

Again, you will need to set aside working time just like you did for your sprint sessions. You can work your edits exactly like you did your initial rough draft writing. Sit down with the first chapter, set your timer and read it through – yes through the mistakes. You are bound to see several mistakes but you are reading for FLOW the first time through. Ignore them! Yes, I said ignore the typos – they will be fixed soon enough.

Ask yourself is the flow right? Did you capture the essence of the scene? Good. If not highlight those areas.

Now take a quick break, do what ever it is you want to do… smoke, drink, potty. Come back when you’re ready and begin to re-read that chapter again. This time you are looking for typos and misspelled words – correct them.

A normal chapter takes me three sprinting sessions to correct – it may take you more or less depending on the number of mistakes you have made. Remember to take your breaks – it is important for you and your eyes.

When you are ready, go on to the next chapter and repeat the process. This process usually takes me a few days so allow your self enough sprinting time to get through it with time left over. Once you are finished, TAKE A DAY OFF, you have earned it!

With fresh eyes go back again and reread your manuscript. Again, you will probably find sections that need tweaking or correcting. Make those changes but don’t get bogged down with tiny little details. We all know we can edit something to death and still not have it “right.”

The original idea was to get something written and clean enough to send to the editor for their approval and you should have it. He/she of course is going to have his or her own ideas for the story and ask you to make more revisions. Worry about them after you have them.

So there you have it, my method for constantly typing out 5-10k words a day. I hope this simple method has helped you and you will at least give it a try to see if it works for you.

Virginia S. Nelson

Writing as V.S.Nelson

Virginia is a member of three RWA chapters. She is also the current VP for the FF&P chapter. She no longer writes non-fiction but devotes her time to writing paranormal and urban fantasies. She lives with the love of her life in Mesa, Arizona. You can find her around cyberspace at the following locations.

Cupid and Penelope and book one of her Sekhmet’s Guardian series, Eternal Lovers, were both released in January of this year. She is expected to release at least three more titles this year. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Straight from the Horse's Mouth - by Alexis Morgan

One of the hardest parts of embarking on a new series is getting to know the people who comprise the initial cast of characters. I’m talking about the folks who will play a major role in the story whether they appear in just one book or across several. It’s important that I get them right from the beginning because I’ll have to live with them for a long time. If I get it wrong, it can seriously impact my ability to tell their story.

I start off doing all the usual things. I make a list of possible names, testing them out to see if they not only feel right but also sound right. A name that fits a modern day warrior may be totally wrong for a U.S. Marshal in the 1880s. Personally, I like to use names that mean something appropriate for the character and doubly so when it comes to my heroes. In my Warriors of the Mist series, I chose Gideon as the name for their leader because the name means warrior. In an earlier series, I chose Devlin because it means fierce and valorous, both characteristics a leader needs to have. Even if my readers never know that about the names, I do. It was just one layer in building a believable hero.

It's also important to say the characters' names out loud to make sure that they don’t sound too much alike. They can look quite different in print, but still sound similar. For example, in the first book of Warriors of the Mist, I started off naming one knight Kane and another Cai. Those names are different enough in spelling to be easy for readers to keep them straight. However, when I started talking about the characters in a brainstorming session with a friend, I kept tripping over them because they sounded a little too much alike. I normally hate to change a name, but Cai became Averel because in the long run it made it easier to keep the characters straight.

Then there was the time I named my hero Cal and the heroine Lily. Again, on paper, those names are fine. It wasn’t until the book was actually out and I was giving a talk that I realized how they sound when said together. (Cal and Lilly=calla lily.)  Sheesh.

Once I’ve settled on names, I think about what style of clothing each character prefers. In the contemporary world, a guy who lives in flannel and denim is going to be a different personality than one who prefers Armani. A woman who only wears tailored styles is likely to act differently than one whose wardrobe is mainly sweats and t-shirts. Even in a fantasy world, there are differences in clothing. A wealthy man will wear richer fabrics. A warrior might wear leather and chainmail. A serf will wear homespun clothing in a simple style.

One of the best talks I’ve heard on choosing fashion for specific characters was given by the costume designer for the Lord of the Rings movies. It’s part of the extras in the extended boxed version. The woman talked at length about the thought processes behind the decisions they made for all the characters in the movies.  For example, she pointed out that because Frodo came from a wealthy family, his vest is made from velvet. Sam, who is a farmer, wears one that is not nearly as fancy. It’s all in the details. Although I might not have noticed all the specifics she pointed out on my own, I do know that those details all added to the richness of the film. 

When I was putting together the character descriptions for the five Warriors of the Mist, I used two techniques I hadn’t tried before. I knew each of them had an avatar, an animal that fights at their side over the centuries. Choosing the right one to fit the personality of each man took me hours. I chose a large raptor for Gideon, the leader. Duncan who is both a warrior and a scholar has a large owl. Murdoch, who is quiet and strong, has a reclusive feline companion. And Lord Kane, the man with the darkest past, has a gargoyle. They are both the last of their bloodlines.

But the avatars weren’t the only ones who taught me something about the warriors. In the world of Agathia, horses can select their own riders. I had a wonderful time figuring out what kind of horse would choose my warriors. Gideon bonded with the lead stallion. No surprise there. Murdoch, who towers over most men, was picked by a huge draft horse. A high stepping mare picked Sir Duncan, who is the most chivalrous of the warriors. Lord Kane, who is marked by the dark magic of his bloodline, bonded with a battle-scarred stallion that has never before accepted a rider on his back.

The modern day equivalent of those horses might be the kind of car or motorcycle that your character would choose. Does your heroine drive a pragmatic older sedan or does she zip around town in a red convertible?  Does your hero drive a heavy duty pickup truck or a sleek sports car?  Those details make a difference because they contribute to how your reader sees your characters.

And maybe the vehicle stands out in stark contrast to everything else in the character’s life. Maybe your heroine wears plain clothing and little makeup, but she does drive that red convertible. That anomaly makes her interesting to me. Why that one aberration and what does it mean?  It would sure signal to your readers that there’s something interesting going on in that woman’s head.

So as you plan your next story, think about the details that will reveal character to your readers. Try to come at it from a different angle than you have before and see where it takes you. After all, with my Warriors of the Mist, I really did get it straight from the horse’s mouth. 

They are cursed by the gods, and war is their salvation. Love is their deliverance.

 For centuries, five legendary warriors have braved their battles shoulder to shoulder. But now, they must divide and conquer as lone champions against evil.

Duncan, a scholar at heart, is drawn to an isolated abbey rumored to hold the answers to countering the terror unleashed by Duke Keirthan. Inside the cloistered walls lies the hidden collection of forbidden lore on dark magic. But the real key to the salvation Duncan seeks—both for the people of Agathia and his soul--is the abbess herself, Lady Lavinia.  Hunted by the duke who seeks to harvest her powers, Lavinia knows Duncan wants to help her. But can she trust the tortured warrior with her secrets?

 In the end, it is only by joining forces that they can save not only those they are sworn to protect, but each other.