Welcome to my blog,
VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
When I decided to go the Indie route, my first step was to do months of research. Using the information I gathered (and being an avid list-maker!) I wrote out a publishing timeline for myself – all the steps I would need to take, in order, to reach my goal of producing my first self-published book.
Now - only halfway through my journey - I’ve already revised my list a dozen times. And that’s okay - I’m working to get it right for next time. I’m sure there are more revisions to come, but just so you know I haven’t been goofing off this last month, I’ve decided to post my current timeline.
For anyone thinking of self-publishing a novel, feel free to copy it. Yours will almost certainly be different but it’s a starting point you can refine how you like.
For anyone who’s already been down the self-publishing path, I invite your comments on anything you think I could’ve done differently or that I left out. And for any interested readers, this will give you some idea of what authors go through to produce a novel without the support of a traditional publisher.
Once I reach the end of this process and have finished revising, I'll post a free download of my complete timeline with explanations of what each step is and why I made the choices I did. Until then, here’s how things stand at the moment:
Phase 1: Editing/Feedback (2-3 months)
_____ finish final draft of manuscript
_____ submit manuscript to editor
_____ give manuscript to beta readers
Phase 2: Product Preparation (to do while ms is with editor and beta readers)
_____ decide book title and subtitle
_____ select/design front cover image
_____ write shout line (or use editorial review quote)
_____ write back cover copy
_____ select back cover background (design back cover using InDesign)
_____ write book description for Amazon website (approx 500 words)
_____ set 5 book key words
_____ decide book category
_____ decide print and ebook prices
_____ choose my publisher name
_____ purchase ISBNs from Bowkers/MyIndentifiers
_____ create CreateSpace and KDP accounts
_____ create Createspace project file and enter all preliminaries (above items)
_____ write author bio for book interior and Author Central
_____ write acknowledgements
_____ create end-of-book sample of my next book (and its release date)
_____ create a page with cover and blurb for each previous book
_____ add new book to Goodreads website (cover and blurb but no ISBN)
_____ do a cover reveal via General Updates and/or GR blog
_____ schedule a Giveaway of my previous book
_____ announce giveaway on Status Updates and GR blog
_____ add giveaway widget to Welcome page of my website
_____ shelve books, join groups, engage with readers
_____ upload free ‘sneak preview’ excerpt from new book
_____ announce ‘sneak preview’ on GR blog/general updates
_____ announce upcoming release on Facebook (cover reveal)
_____ get new author photo taken
_____ prepare list of blog reviewers to send ARCs to
_____ create and start using new email signature (new book cover and release date)
_____ announce on Facebook ‘sneak preview’ available on GR
_____ editor returns edits
Phase 3: ARC Preparation (3 wks)
_____ revise manuscript as per editor and beta reader feedback (2 wks)
_____ format book interior (CreateSpace, Wordpress, Bookdesign, Vellum)
_____ upload completed interior template to CreateSpace by: _____________
_____ once you have book dimensions, design backcover and spine
_____ upload complete book file to CreateSpace (allow 24-48 hrs for approval)
_____ once approved, order proof copy
_____ in the meantime, proof read book via CS on-line proofing; make corrections
_____ once interior has been proof read, submit e-ARCs to reviewers (see list below)
_____ once proof copy arrives, check cover and make final changes on CS
_____ once approved, order copies for launch and Goodreads pre-release giveaway
_____ create e-book through Kindle Direct
_____ create pre-order link on Amazon
_____ ARCs complete and ready to submit for review by: ________
add 3 months to above date to get release date: ___________
Phase 4: Reviews/Pre-release Promotion (10-12 wks)
send e-ARCs for author endorsements
_____ submit ARC to Publishers Weekly
_____ submit ARC to Best Thrillers
_____ run a giveaway on Library Thing
_____ submit to Goddess Fish blog tour
send e-ARC to pre-selected blogger/reviewers:
_____ commence Goodreads Giveaway of ___ ARCs
_____ initiate Goodreads paid advertizing campaign for giveaway
_____ update author profile on Goodreads (new author photo and bio)
_____ update Welcome page with new release cover and blurb
_____ install new Goodreads Giveaway Widget
_____ create free-sample link to Amazon
_____ create pre-order link
_____ blog about new release (the story behind the story, interesting notes about the setting, things I learned researching the book, food recipes from the area, etc)
_____ announce Goodreads Giveaway of new release
_____ add Goodreads review widget
_____ post good editorial reviews
_____ announce launch date
_____ update Amazon Author Central page
_____ winners of Goodreads Giveaway selected on ____ – send out prizes
_____ commence 2nd Goodreads Giveaway
_____ organize author talks, signings, book tour (libraries, book clubs)
_____ order book marks
_____ organize launch
_____ contact local paper to announce book launch
_____ post good reviews on website as they come in
_____ add editorial reviews to Amazon book listing via Author Central dashboard
_____ add editorial reviews to Goodreads book listing
_____ winners of Goodreads 2nd Giveaway announced – send out ARCs
_____ write launch speech
_____ write author talk speechPhase 5: Release Promotion
_____ (change shout line on book cover to a quote from editorial review)
_____ release book for sale on Amazon
_____ announce Goodreads Launch Giveaway of ___ signed copies (week of launch)
_____ local book launch ______________________
_____ winners of Goodreads Launch Giveaways chosen – send out prizes
_____ answer ‘ask the author’ questions on Goodreads
_____ submit new-release title to writers groups I belong to
_____ announce/post schedule of book tour on website and Facebook
_____ continue to add good reviews to website pagePhase 6: Post-release
_____ enter book in any awards
_____ announce any nominations/wins on Facebook, website, Goodreads, Amazon
Other Branding/Platform Building Options
plan a workshop to present
write an article for a writers group newsletter
write guest blog for friends, contacts, writers groups I belong to
post a Utube video interview on my website, FB and Goodreads
I recently attended a writer event in which the topic of ‘formula’ writing came up. Though the mystery genre got a brief mention, it was mainly romance that came under criticism.
Among those present there was the usual shaking of heads at how limiting this approach is. Formula writing, it seems, is the comfort zone of the insecure and the fallback of limited creative minds.
Tell that to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart.
I have never had a problem with formulas. As both a musician and a writer, I see many parallels between these two arts and this is just another example.
There are literally dozens of musical forms (just another word for formula): You’ve got waltzes, sarabandes, hornpipes, chaconnes, sonatas, fugues, to name but a few. All have very specific elements to their structures. (If it’s not in three-four it’s not a waltz. If it’s not in six-eight with two, repeated 8-bar phrases, it’s not a gigue. And don’t even get me started on rondos!)
Within any one of these forms there is still enormous scope for originality. Nearly every classical composer wrote minuets. Yet you would never confuse a Bach minuet with one by Brahms because the composers’ styles are so unique, their voices so different. Why should it be less so for authors?
‘Formula’ exits in music for the same reason it exists in writing: to meet audience expectations. Patrons of an eighteenth century ball wanted music they could dance to. If a composer handed them a funeral march, however creative and artistically written, it wouldn’t have gone over as well.
‘Formula’ in writing is all about reader expectation and it’s not just the romance genre that has them. Mystery readers expect there to be a crime early on in the story, a protagonist who unravels the puzzle, a logical presentation of clues, a few red herrings and the crime to be solved at the end. How is that any less formulaic than a romance novel?
Within the confines of even the most restrictive formula I believe there’s always room for creative scope. And actually – unless they’re writing push-the-boundaries, stretch-the-envelope kind of prose – all novelists write to a formula.
Every morning before I start work on my current project I freewrite 2-3 pages in my journal. I write about anything that pops into my head using the basic rule of freewriting: write without thought to spelling, punctuation, grammar, or content; don’t stop to correct, cross out or edit, just keep your hand moving.
This practice helps me in so many ways:
1. Like a musician playing scales, journaling is a way of warming up both physically and mentally before starting work.
2. Because I’m hyperactive and prone to stress, journaling is a way of gently calming myself. Writing my thoughts forces me to slow them down and the simple act of putting words on the page is very soothing. (I believe there’s a scientific basis for this. In our everyday lives we spend most of our time in the beta mind state – alert and focused on the outside world. Journaling acts like meditation, drawing us into an alpha brain state in which we’re more reflective and conducive to insights.)
3. The practice of jotting down any old rubbish that comes into my head with no attempt to produce ‘good’ writing, helps me silence my inner critic. Because there are no expectations with journaling I have no fear of getting it wrong. This freedom tends to carry over to my ‘serious’ writing and helps especially with creating a first draft.
4. If something is bothering me I can vent my feelings on the pages of my journal and explore possible solutions. This helps get the problem out of the way so it doesn’t distract me from working on my project. It also gives me insights into my actions, feelings and motivations.
5. When I’m blocked I tend to procrastinate. When it’s time to sit down and write I suddenly find all sorts of things I need to be doing instead. (When I start doing housework instead of writing I know there’s a problem!) The trouble is, the more I procrastinate, the more stressed I become that I’m not writing. And the more stressed I get, the harder it is to sit down and write. Journaling interrupts this negative cycle.
6. Journaling is a refreshing change from editing. It exercises a different part of the brain and gives me a chance to indulge in creative play.
7. I often use journaling as a way to review the goals I’ve set myself and give myself a mental pep talk.
8. As an added bonus, I believe free-writing in any form, whether journaling or as an exercise on a given topic, helps to solidify an author's voice.
For more insights on the uses of journaling and freewriting:
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg
Becoming A Writer, Dorothea Brand
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron
Creative Journal Writing, Stephanie Dowrick
Following on from last time, this post deals with the inner dynamics of a successful crit group.
Once you’ve found partners you feel you can work with, your goal will be to keep everyone happy. Respect is the key and it’s a two-way street. Below are some things to consider when exchanging your work.
On presenting your work to others:
#1 Use correct formatting
If someone takes the time to critique your work you owe it to them to make it as easy to read as possible. Always use standard submission formatting: double-spaced, Times New Roman, 1.5-inch margins, pages numbered, title and author name in the header. Handwritten scrawl, single-spaced print, and work with no indents or punctuation is not only hard to read, it leaves little room for your partners to write their comments. If you aim to be published, it's good to get in the habit of formatting your work to industry standards.
#2 Present work as error-free as possible
No-one expects your work to be perfect but to get the most from your partners always give them your best efforts. At the very least spell-check and read through your work to catch whatever typos you can. Never hand over something you know has mistakes in it as you’ll just be wasting everyone’s time.
The one exception is if you’re having trouble with some element of the writing and want your partners’ thoughts on how to fix it. In this case it’s best to mention the problem when you give them the piece so they know what to focus on when reading it.
Similarly, don’t hand over work you know you’re about to make major revisions to. Nothing is more frustrating than to spend hours thoughtfully considering someone’s work only to have them say, ‘Oh, I changed all that,’ when you give them your comments.
#3 Specify what feedback you want
Wherever possible help your partners by giving them specific questions or points to focus on when reading your work. Examples might include:
Are my characters behaving believably in this scene?
Is my story’s main conflict enough to sustain it through 400 pages?
Does my dialogue sound realistic?
How is the pacing in this chapter? Did I slow things down with too much backstory?
Inexperienced critics and those less confident will find this helpful and you'll have a much better chance of getting what you need from them.
#4 Consider all feedback
If someone takes the time to review your work, show respect for their efforts by at least listening to their comments. If you instantly dismiss every point your partners make they could end up wondering why they bothered.
Even if you don’t agree with a point your partner is making, listen, nod and acknowledge you’ll think about. Ask questions certainly but don’t argue or feel you need to justify your way of doing it. And even if you disagree with everything a partner says, always thank them for their time.
Believing your partners are on your side and want only to help you improve your writing makes hearing negative feedback easier. However, sensing that someone is making a comment just to show they know more than you definitely puts a different slant on things.
If you find yourself growing defensive or consistently dismissing everything your partners say about your work, you need to consider one of two things: (a) they aren’t the right partners for you, or (b) you aren’t ready to be critiqued.
#5 Don’t feel you have to make changes suggested
On the flip side of the above, never feel you have to make all, or even any, of the changes your partners suggest. With early drafts of a work your partners might not have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say. Allow yourself the freedom to explore a certain path before abandoning it and never feel pressured by others to do so. In any case it’s your story and if a suggestion doesn’t feel right, just don’t do it.
On the other hand, if all your partners have the same criticism of the same point, you need to give some serious thought to why it isn’t working for them.
#6 Feedback on feedback
Every now and then, tell your partners which of their comments and areas of focus proved most helpful to you in revising your work. Knowing the kind of feedback you find most valuable will help them become more efficient at their job.
#7 Going elsewhere
When your story is reaching its final revisions it sometimes helps to give it to someone outside your critiquing group. Seek feedback from non-writers especially. Writers can get hung up on craft and miss the big picture. A reader, especially one who reads in your genre, can tell you simply if the story is working.
Notes on giving feedback to others:
#1: Know when to leave someone else’s work alone
This has to be one of the hardest things about critiquing! As Oscar Wilde put it: ‘There is no energy so great as the urge to rewrite someone else’s work.’
If you value your partners as creative individuals avoid the temptation to tinker with their work simply to rephrase it in your own words. Most new and developing writers are still struggling to find their voice. Part of your role as their crit partner should be to encourage them to discover it. (i.e. - their voice, not yours.)
#2: Find something good on every page.
This isn’t always easy and not because the writing’s awful, in fact it’s usually the opposite. Mistakes leap out at you and are easier to see, but when the writing’s good you simply become immersed in the story.
If you find the latter happening it’s important to try and determine exactly how the author accomplished it. Writers learn as much, if not more, from knowing what they’re doing right as from hearing their mistakes. Plus it helps you as a writer to clearly identify the elements of effective writing in use.
#3: Don’t overwhelm the author with comments.
When I first started writing I once gave a short story to a writer friend whose work I respected. A week later she returned my pages absolutely covered in red ink. All her comments were sincere and valid yet I ended up shoving the piece in a drawer and never went back to it. As a beginner I just couldn’t get past all that red!
No matter how encouraging you are and how positively you phrase your remarks, making too many corrections at once is discouraging for any writer. If you’re faced with a piece of writing that has so many things wrong with it you don’t know where to begin, the safest thing to do is a broad-strokes critique. At most choose one or two finer points to comment on and leave the rest for another time.
#4: Vary your feedback according to what stage the work is at.
This is mainly to save yourself time and effort. If someone hands you a rough first draft, stick to mainly broad-stroke comments: Is the conflict apparent? Are the characters well motivated? Is the point of view clear? There’s no point doing a detailed line edit on work that will likely be changed in revision.
#5 Trust your judgment
If you’re new to critiquing and haven't a clue what to say to someone about their work, try getting hold of a judge’s score sheet from one of the many writing organizations that hold annual competitions. These sheets contain basic questions on plot, craft and style (much like the questions contained in this post) that help judges evaluate entries.
But even if you don’t have a score sheet and know little about the craft of writing, if you read books you'll be able to give your partners valuable feedback purely from a reader's point of view: Does the story engage you? Do you like the characters? Were any parts confusing to you?
Next time - part 3: Other fun things to do with your crit group.
There comes a point in every suspense novel I write where I wonder if I truly have dementia. I’d be convinced of it actually, if not for the fact it occurs in the same place every time.
I start out fine. With a detailed outline and a clear vision of my opening scenes, I power through the first hundred pages. Then things slow down. Understandable. Lots going on, lots of character threads to keep track of.
But then comes that moment, deep in the third quarter, in the lead up to the climax scene, where those threads just get in such a tangle my progress falters or stops completely. As it is right now with my current story.
As it has been for the last five days!
I know what happens in the climax scene and I know the ending. With 280 pages written and the rest in detailed outline form I know where I’ve been and I know where I’m going. On this journey that has taken close to nine months I can see the finish line. So why can’t I get there?
The only thing that gives me hope is that I’ve been here before. This exact thing happened with the last book I wrote, and the one before that, and I always managed to work my way out of it. It takes time and it’s frustrating but I eventually get there.
So today, instead of trying to ram my way through, I’m going to do something that’s helped in the past. My goal for the day is to simply write out each character’s version of the story. I’m going to take each of my three main characters and each of my three secondary ones and summarize the story according to them. Six separate individual journeys.
The reason this works (and the reason my problem exists in the first place) is because I write from multiple points of view. If I wrote in only one character’s pov this wouldn’t happen. But because I’m in the head of several different characters I need to know what each one is thinking – what they know, what they don’t know and what their experience has been so far.
By the time you get near the end of a story that’s a lot of information to keep track of. (So I’ll cut myself some slack in the dementia department.) Because no single character knows everything that’s happened. Each one has had a different experience. Only by knowing and clearly identifying my threads can I hope to weave them all together.
I’ll let you know how things turn out. In the meantime I’d love to hear if others have this same problem and if you’ve found any other tricks that work for you.
Since 2005 I’ve kept notes on every novel I read. As a writer struggling to learn the craft I thought it would help to study the techniques of other authors. I made notes on the things I liked and wanted to emulate in my own work, and also what I didn’t like and wanted to avoid.
I’ve never posted these on Amazon or Goodreads as they’re not so much reviews as analysis purely for my own education. However since I’ve devoted this blog to the writing process it seems a good place to finally share them.
For starters, here are my notes on the book I just finished: Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay.
Barclay’s opening paragraph is subtly tantalizing, ending with the phrase, ‘…it turned out this was going to be the day.’
I much prefer this to the desperate attempts many suspense authors make to hook their reader with some shocking over-the-top opening scene. (The unnamed victim being stalked and/or murdered by the unnamed killer would have to be the most over used hook in the genre. I don’t know this person – why should I care?)
The rest of Barclay’s first chapter is simply a man walking down a street in NY taking in the sights. His slightly odd slant on what he’s seeing is enough to keep me interested. (That’s all it takes. No blood, no screaming, just an interesting character in an intriguing situation.)
It isn’t till near the end of the chapter, when the character looks up and sees someone being murdered in a window that the hook is set.
At it’s core Trust Your Eyes is basically the Witness plot (see blog post on Recycling Plots). Barclay gives the plot an original twist by having the protagonist’s mentally disabled brother as the witness – he sees something on the internet, the killers find out and come to silence them.
There are two main plot threads, one following protagonist Ray who’s trying to decide what to do with his brother Thomas after the death of their father who looked after him. The other following the criminals steps to eliminate all witnesses to their crime.
For most of the story the two brothers carry on oblivious to the danger they’re in and this works well to build tension. Through their interactions, both with each other and an old high school friend, Julie, we get to know and care about them. So when we see what the killers are doing to other witnesses and know the same fate awaits the brothers, it has much greater impact.
The story was good in itself but the twist at the end really made it something special. Just when I’d come to believe certain things about the characters, Barclay turned those beliefs on their head.
The ending also gave me an interesting insight into the book’s targeted readership. It seemed to me that if the story had ended without the final chapter it would target more readers of women’s fiction, perhaps even romantic suspense. But Barclay’s last chapter changes everything giving the story a much more disturbing resonant finish more suited to readers of hard core thrillers.
Interesting how that single chapter could change the whole market focus of the book.
When I first started writing novels I’d get a few months into a new project and find myself wondering, why can’t this job be like other jobs? Why can’t a writer go to work each day, sit in an office surrounded by other writers, all typing merrily away? Why can’t we hold board meetings to discuss various ‘department projects’ or gather around the water cooler and nut out individual problems?
This daydream came to me so often, after a while I began to wonder if at least some of those things weren’t possible. I began to experiment with different ways of writing with others and over time arrived at a pleasant and surprising conclusion: for nearly every stage of the writing process there is a group activity I can take part in that makes the process far less lonely, a lot more fun, yet every bit as, if not more, productive.
So if you’re looking for ways to help keep yourself and friends writing in 2015, here are some fun ways I’ve found:
Pack Writing. Two or more friends get together for a day, or even just an afternoon, sit around someone’s kitchen table and work on their individual projects. Provided you don’t lapse into talking, writing with others creates a wonderful group energy, the experience much like riding a wave. For more variety, every time your ‘pack’ gets together it can be at a different member’s home.
Café Writing. Meet your writing friends at a café and freewrite together over coffee. Describe the setting, the people going by, record snippets of overheard conversation or come armed with topics to write about.
Have Pen/Will Travel. Same as the above but you meet in a different place every time: a park, a garden, a gallery, at the beach, an old ruin, an interesting building, etc. Form a group and let a different member select the venue each time you meet.
Freewriting/Flash Fiction Marathons. These work best with 3 to 6 people (any more and the readings take too long). Everyone brings a topic or two (and their lunch) and you spend the day writing and reading to each other: someone gives a topic, you set a timer for ten minutes and people either freewrite (ala Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones) or try to create a short short story (ala Roberta Allen’s approach in Fast Fiction)
Brainstorming Sessions. Hit a snag in your current story? Got an idea but don’t know how to develop into a plot? Get together with three of four writing buddies (who bring any problems they might be having) and kick around solutions over coffee or lunch.
Writing Retreats. If you’ve got the time and a suitable venue, nothing beats a writing retreat for getting masses of work done in a short time. No exercises provided, participants simply bring their current work in progress and work independently in an environment free of the distractions they’d have at home. (For more on retreats see my post dated March 2014)
None of the above activities needs a co-coordinator. They can be organized by any group of friends and accommodate writers of all different levels. Most require little planning and work best with fewer numbers so they cater well to individual needs and schedules.
For a creative shot in the arm, write with others in all sorts of ways and for all different purposes – groups large and small, narrow-interest or broad-focus, meeting regularly or on the spur of the moment.
Getting together with other writers reinforces the sense that what we do is important and meaningful. It’s a way to keep each other writing and remind us to have fun in the process.
Happy New Year and may the muses be with you in 2015!
With the new year I have a fresh crop of quotes and reminders pinned to the board above my computer.
As I’m currently reworking the first draft of my latest novel, most of these relate to revising and self-editing.
Many come from the how-to books of James Scott Bell, one of my favorite writing gurus.
Write fearlessly, write with joy. Leave your heart on every page.
Just because we can all write doesn’t mean we all have the same thing to say.
Three big scenes and no weak ones. John Huston’s secret to a successful film[book]
True character is only revealed in crisis. J.S. Bell
Dramatic characters, inventive plotline, exciting and intense situations… Leonard Bishop
Give them SUES. Something Unexpected in Every Scene. J.S. Bell
Write at your peak. Take breaks when it’s drudgery. J.S. Bell
Success is the sum of small efforts repeated daily. Robert Collier
Be excited about your story. The secret to excitement is to go deeper into your characters. J.S. Bell
When you write books readers love, platform takes care of itself. J.S. Bell
Have an inspired year of writing!
I keep notebooks and journals for everything. One of the ones I've found most valuable is a companion to the novels I write.
My novel writing journal is different to the notebooks in which I develop my plot and characters for the story. My novel writing journal is a separate notebook where I record things not about the novels themselves, but about my personal experience in writing them.
These notes are a subjective analysis of my creative process, including how I feel about the story in its various stages. Things like:
How easy or difficult some sections of the book were to write.
What techniques worked to solve problems and which didn't.
Observations of my own fears and state of mind regarding the work.
My feelings about my writing in general and how they influenced my approach to this project.
To date I've kept notes on the creation of four different novels and in doing so have made some interesting discoveries.
I've learned for example that I'm very thorough in outlining the first half of my story, the climax scene and the ending. Once I've got this much sorted, however, the urge to begin writing the story usually overwhelms me.
I've learned that giving in to this urge is a mistake. Every time I do I've come to regret it! Because once I reach the point where my detailed scene-by-scene outline ends I always come to a grinding halt.
Another thing I've learned is that once I start a story, it's vital that I keep up my momentum, to write fast and never miss a day. To do this I have to stop myself editing as I write. I simply think of each word, each sentence as a place-holder for what will ultimately be there after I've revised them.
I've learned I always fly through the beginning of my story and then hit a wall when I reach the middle, but that I always manage to push through it.
I've learned I'm rarely excited by my characters during the first draft. It's only once I start fleshing them out and adding details in the subsequent 'layers' that the characters start to come alive for me. Only then do I start to get really excited about the story.
These are valuable things for me to know. If I didn't know them, each time they happened I'd probably panic, decide the story itself was no good and chuck it all in.
But because I have a record of my former experiences, when the going gets tough with my current one I can look back and see that the same thing happened last time. And - more importantly - that I successfully worked through the problem each time.
Writing a novel is a long winding road and it's difficult to remember all the steps I took along the way. It's a bit like childbirth - you tend to forget all the pain you went through bringing your baby into the world.
Recording those experiences helps me discover and refine my process.
For me nothing feels better than knowing I've put in a good day's work doing what I love. Just at the moment my writing is going well and I'm at peace with the world. (Not always the case!)
Naturally I have to ask why this is happening. So I'll know for the next time I'm not feeling as good about writing. Is it the weather? The changing season? What's giving me this sense of satisfaction? What makes me jump out of bed in the morning and rush to the computer?
Basically it comes down to two things.
First, I'm making a bit of visible progress every day - a new scene, a bit of new dialogue, a new idea to explore further, etc.
And secondly I like what I'm coming up with. I like my story, I like the characters, I like the moral questions I've raised. I'm excited because I can see that the finished product might just be worth all the effort it's taking me to create.
That's it really. That's all I need to gain a sense of satisfaction, to keep me coming back to the page. Not the knowledge the writing is perfect but that I have the skills to fix what's wrong.
So believing is what yields the largest measure of that satisfaction. Believing I can meet the challenges of creating a work. Believing in my imagination to furnish ideas and my abilities as a writer to express them.
So a note-to-self for those times when the writing isn't going so well: There's no downside to believing in yourself. If you can't, pretend you're a writer who does.
I’m a confirmed outliner. Before I start every new novel I outline as much of the plot as possible; the more the better. Because once I actually start writing the story my aim is to plow ahead and not lose momentum.
For that reason I write in layers, (see Writing In Layers, Feb 2014) starting with the elements of story I find easiest to write – dialogue and action – and adding later in subsequent layers the things that take me a little more time – description and internal monologue.
I’ve just returned from a writing retreat at which I discovered a new tool that helps me in the final stage of this process.
Normally once my first draft is written, I discard my outline. With my current novel however I kept it – just on a whim – inserting chapter numbers to give me a comprehensive index of the plot.
I wasn’t sure how, or even if, I would use this ‘chapter sequence’ but thought it might come in handy for writing my synopsis at least. Or I could refer to it when doing revision.
At the retreat, where I’d set myself the goal of adding more depth to my characters, I spent most of my time freewriting about their pasts and jotting down issues or questions I thought they might reflect about in the story.
I ended up with a number of passages worth including. The problem was, once I’d created these various snippets, I didn’t know exactly where to insert them.
That’s where my chapter sequence came in. By reading it through, I could easily spot appropriate places to sprinkle these bits of reflection and narrative. Far faster and easier than searching through the entire manuscript.
This is the first time I’ve done it this way but it seems a useful technique to remember. One I’ll certainly try with my next book.
When my progress stalls in writing a novel, I often find a bit of directed freewriting helps me get back on track.
This sort of freewriting differs slightly from the usual ‘anything goes’ variety. I still write whatever pops into my head but I try to gently focus those thoughts on identifying and solving my problem.
For me the process has three basic steps:
Step 1: START WHERE YOU ARE
When I hit a snag, I often experience fears about whether the story itself is any good. At the very least, I feel frustrated that the project isn’t moving ahead as quickly and smoothly as I’d envisioned.
These fears and frustrations can pull the knot tighter and get in the way of solving the problem. So when I sit down to do directed freewriting, I start by trying to clear away as many negative feelings as I can.
If that means complaining that I don’t know what’s wrong or venting fears that my story’s no good, my characters boring, then that’s what I do. I just write whatever’s ‘on top’ and then let it all go.
Step 2: DEFINE THE QUESTION
Once I’ve unloaded my negative feelings I’m in a better frame of mind to address the problem. As my freewrite continues I try to direct my thoughts toward pinpointing exactly what has gone wrong.
I do this by asking and answering a series of questions until I find the one at the heart of the issue. For me this is half the battle – I can’t solve the problem till I’ve asked the right question.
I start off with very general ones and gradually refine them down to more and more specific ones.
A typical question and answer progression might look like this:
Q: Why has my progress on this story slowed? A: I’m not excited about my main character.
Q: Why doesn’t this character excite me? A: He hasn’t shown any likeable traits in the last twenty pages.
Q: Where in the last twenty pages could my character exhibit some positive trait and what could it be?
Basically I carry on a conversation with myself. (Or perhaps it’s one part of my brain talking to another.) In any case I usually end up with a specific question that defines the essence of my problem.
Step 3: WRITE UNTIL THE ANSWERS COME
Once I have this specific question I can get to work on solutions. It usually takes me 20-30 minutes of freewriting about a problem before answers and ideas start to come to me. I just have to have faith and keep writing.
One thing I know from long experience is that the answers always come as I’m writing. For some reason thinking alone isn’t enough; I have to physically write out my thoughts before the ideas start to emerge.
The last thing that helps me get back on track when I’ve hit a snag is simply accepting that unraveling knots is all part of my writing process.
Some writers like to have music playing as they write. James Scott Bell speaks of listening to sound tracks from movies of the same genre as the story he’s working on – Hitchcock for suspense, Star Wars for sci fi, etc.
As a musician I find this extremely difficult. For me there’s no such thing as ‘background’ music – if music is playing anywhere near me it demands my undivided attention. I start analyzing the work, the artist’s skill, their stylistic interpretation, etc.
(If you’re a writer and think this strange, ask yourself: Didn’t the way you read books alter radically after you started writing them?)
So as much as I might like to have music playing while I write, I’ve had to forgo that option and look to another: My creative stimulus of choice is scent.
Every day when I sit down to write I either light a scented candle (currently burning: Yankee Candles’ Pumpkin Gingerbark) or fire up the essential oil burner (my favorite blend: orange, bergamot and rosewood.)
I believe that over time this simple ritual has created a functional association for me – a mental link between the act of setting match to wick and that of writing. An action that ‘primes the pump’ so to speak, the creative version of Pavlov’s dog.
(One reason it was a mistake to drink coffee when I write as that has now become fused to my process as well. Chocoholics beware!)
So this ritual of burning a scented candle helps me prepare to write. But could it actually help the writing itself?
As I’m currently reading in Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, our perceptions of both music and fragrance are functions of the temporal lobe, the same part of the brain that deals largely with the act of writing. By stimulating this area with scents am I firing up the writer part as well?
Like music, fragrance has an affect on mood. Some scents stimulate, others relax. Some particular scents I associate with different seasons and holidays (the very reason Yankee Candles has seasonal blends) and burning them conjures the feelings I have around those occasions.
So like Bell playing his Star Wars sound track, burning one of these seasonal candles might certainly help if I were writing a scene set at that time of year.
As to whether my ritual has any effect on the quality of my work I can’t really say. I only know that pausing to light a candle gets me in the mood to write and seems to enhance the overall experience.
And some days you need all the help you can get.
I'd love to hear from other authors what writing rituals you find helpful.
Following on from my last blog post…
I recently returned from one of my crit group’s writing retreats where I realized I have another writing ritual which I perform only while on retreat. I recorded it in my journal the second morning we were there:
I open my bedroom door slowly, quietly so as not to wake my sleeping friends in the other rooms. It’s only 4:30am and some were up late writing last night.
Stepping out on the dorm’s paved apron, I’m greeted by a swathe of stars overhead and moonlight shimmering on the ocean before me.
Like a lover, the sea breathed softly in my ear through the night but now seems restless. I can hear it tossing and churning, see flickers of white where it kisses the rocks.
Flashlight in hand I tip-toe past the other bedrooms, across a stretch of short-cropped lawn damp with dew, and on to the kitchen door.
I turn on no lights as I move inside. There’s something sacred in the pre-dawn stillness and I seek to disturb it as little as possible.
In the hall I creep to my desk, light the candles and the small reading lamp. My writing chair sits before the huge dark window, draped in a thick polar fleece quilt. I settle into it, pull the quilt around me, take up my journal and begin to write.
Outside the wind picks up, hissing through surrounding scrub. I hear the rain coming from far away and soon it’s pattering over the roof.
A moth flutters against the window, drawn by my light. He and I, the only two awake.
These hours until the sun comes up are my favorite time of any day. But here on retreat they are part of a ritual I’ve slowly evolved to honor writing, the craft I love.