Sunday, March 29, 2009


Since last complaining, I've outlined seven new chapters. Perhaps this is more efficient than actually writing them. I can see ahead of time where my plot will paint itself into a corner.

But one thing I can't do is estimate word count. What constantly runs through my mind is "how many more chapters until I have a whole book?". The only answer I know for sure is that I need way, way more than seven.

I've been more successful outlining longhand, as opposed to on my laptop. When I sit on my couch with my spiral notebook, I don't accidentally end up on Facebook or Twitter. There is no checking e-mail to see the latest things that need to be accomplished for the 5K/10K run I'm helping to organize. I don't end up surfing the internet to read my favorite blogs.

I won't name names, but my most favorite writer friend in the whole world (who I've recently learned is a Bob Dylan fan, if that helps any with identifying yourself) said we were going to start exchanging pages this spring. It's spring. Don't make me drive up there.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The hardest 250

In my opinion, the toughest thing to write is a short summary of your novel. As a general rule, this summary might be about two hundred and fifty words long, and it's the copy you might see on a book jacket. It's your book in a nutshell.


When I wrote my first book, I made a mistake. I wrote the summary after the book was finished. Never again. With the main plot, the subplots, the twists, the inner conflicts, the external conflicts... it was impossible to know how much to say and what to leave out. I promised myself that if I ever wrote another book I'd write the summary first.

But I am such a liar!

Well, sort of. I spent an entire flight from Houston to Washington, D.C. writing a two paragraph summary for my second book. I liked how it turned out. But later I re-started the same story with different characters (see I have a date with my WIP) and I never fixed that summary. Now it's all wrong for the new story.

I aim to fix this before the current book gets to the halfway point. After all, having a summary in hand might help keep the story on track. I've been working on it today and, even without a finished manuscript, these are still the hardest two-fifty. Incredible.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Outlining a novel

I'm not an outliner, but I'd like to be. It'd be nice to sit down at the keyboard, look at my outline, and know what is supposed to happen in a scene. Usually I write by the seat of my pants though. This time, I'm trying hard to plan ahead. A few days ago I found useful article by Alicia Rasley. My favorite part of her exercise was the kitchen timer approach. Thirty minutes, and I had a pretty good idea of my character's core motivations. What's funny is that I have sixteen chapters already written and still hate outlining them. If the scene exists, the outline should be a breeze, right? Still I tell myself, "Stay open." I'll stick with it a while and see how this whole thing shakes out.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Scoring Four

Every day, there are things we have to do and things we want to do. I won't dwell on what I have to do every day because what fun is in that? Instead I'll share what I want to do. These are my Big Four, ranked according to how I wish they were prioritized:
  1. Exercise
  2. Writing
  3. Guitar
  4. Reading
But if I'm honest about how I spend my time, it works out more like this:
  1. Exercise
  2. Reading
  3. Guitar
  4. Writing
And reading is only ranking #2 because I'm including time spent surfing the net, which is actually cheating. What I mean for that to be is reading books. Either way, reading is effortless and entertaining, no matter what it is or where I do it, so it's easy for me to slide that toward the top and not even notice what I've done.

Guitar outranks writing because it's easier to notice improvement in my guitar playing than my writing. With dogs and kids they call that positive reinforcement and I guess the same is true for a hack guitarist. I can make a song recognizable in a few tries, but might work on a story idea for months before it takes form. The story I'm working on now is a year old and still reads to me like it was written by a third grader.

I want to score 4/4 every day and seldom do. If I don't do everything on my list, I feel like a slacker. Somewhere there's a balance I haven't found. Maybe I'll aim for two a day. Also, I try to squeeze these things in between 5:00-6:30 a.m. and 8:00-11:00 p.m. because that's when my kids are sleeping but I can make myself be awake (see Mom Guilt). It's hard to fit in hobbies during the times when my body would rather be in bed, and it's asking a heck of a lot to produce a coherent narrative during those hours.

Today I was attacking the treadmill, sweat pouring down my face, ready for the run to be finished. I've been there a thousand times before. On the treadmill, on the bike, a few miles from a finish line, whatever. I tell myself, "You can rest when it's over but right now there's work to do." It works. I'm very practiced at talking myself through physical endurance.

It doesn't work for writing. For one thing, there's no finish line. Even after a bazillion drafts, there's still something to improve. Also, at least marathons and triathlons always start out fun. At some point during the race I expect to get tired and at that point it becomes mind over body. Writing's only fun when I know what's supposed to happen in the scene. If I don't know what's coming next (and I usually don't), it's supremely frustrating and very scary. Most days I sit down to write, I feel like I've jumped in at Mile 20. I missed the fun part and I'm just suffering through The Wall. Self-doubt creeps in. Who am I to think I can write a story? I get discouraged and pick up the guitar. Maybe I see what people are doing on Facebook. I often check e-mail. Whatever I do, usually popcorn is involved.

Somehow I'll slide writing up to the #2 slot, but it might be easier if I got a bunch of free stuff in my race packet and went home with a cool-looking t-shirt.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I love this guy

Never met Timothy Hallinan but enjoy his work and love to lurk on his blog. He's posted another kick-in-the-pants gem, this one by Sandra Rattan. I think she would be a great personal trainer if they made those for writers.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Querying non-fiction

My friend and I had identical Thai lunches together today. Yummy food. Great company. And we talked about books! She's tackling a cool idea for a non-fiction project. See what literary agent Jessica Faust has to say about querying non-fiction.

Monday, March 9, 2009

I have a date with my WIP

Not that kind of whip.

I have a complicated relationship with my work in progress. We haven't spoken for months, but tonight we have a date and I'm determined to make amends.

I was about 12,000 words into a draft when I made the decision to scratch the cast. After spending years with the characters in my first book, starting a new book with characters I didn't know felt kind of like sitting down to dinner with a group of strangers. Awkward and forced. So I decided to keep the premise of my new book but start over with characters I knew well.

I sailed through the early pages of a new draft at a pretty good clip, all the way to about 24,000 words. A novel is typically about 70-80,000 words, so I was glad to reach the 1/4 mark of a rough first draft. I showed the early chapters to a writer friend and asked for some big muscle comments. That is to say, I wasn't worried about tight sentences and snappy dialogue just yet, I only wanted to know if the story was working. My friend suggested dropping the first three chapters. I knew he was right, but since I measure my self-worth by my word count, I promised myself to keep the words for now and cut them later. That began the nagging feeling that all was not right with the story. Our time together started to feel a little bit stilted.

Then Hurricane Ike blew through town. For two weeks, there was no power--no A/C, refrigerator, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, or computer. Grocers shelves were bare. Nobody had fuel. Trees and power lines blocked the roads, and everyone had damage to their homes. It wasn't the time to write. It was time to haul debris and rebuild. For over a month, I was disconnected from my story and slowly it started to fade.

Soon afterward, right before Christmas, I received the revision letter for my first novel. This was huge! The revisions got my full attention. We went through two rounds of revisions, and I told myself that as soon as that book was settled, I'd refocus on Book 2.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, Christmas happened. I redecorated one room and repainted another. I trained for and ran two marathons. Started guitar lessons. Agreed to help plan a 5K/10K fundraiser. Entertained house guests for three weeks. Blah, blah, blah. My point is, a lot was going on. My manuscript and I grew apart.

Right now, sitting here, I can't even remember what is going on in that book. Why are my characters so stressed out? Who got murdered in this book anyway?

It happened exactly the way Timothy Hallinan said it would:

Why do I think you should write every day?

The more time you spend with your story, the more real its world will be to you. If you spend three days away, it will be three times as difficult to get going again. If you spend a month away, you're practically going to have to start over. You want the momentum and the familiarity with the world of your book that only comes when you enter that world regularly.

Well, I'm ready to enter regularly again. Fun starts tonight at our Big Date. I'll tumble back down the rabbit hole, where my characters are waiting for me with all their problems and worries. I hope my reunion date with my WIP will be the start of a long, committed relationship.

But not too long. My goal is a first draft by the end of the year.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer

Literary Agent Nathan Bransford recently posted some of the best writing advice I've read, including, "You don't have to quit your job to write. There is time in the day. You may have to sacrifice your relaxation time or sleep time or reality television habit, but there is time. You just have to do it." Well said, Nathan.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Mom guilt

Since the blog is geared to those of us who struggle to "fit it all in", it seems appropriate to share my personal show-stopper: Mom guilt.

You don't have to be a writer, or even a mom, to suffer this. It's loosely defined as the feeling that instead of writing (or insert your passion here) you should be off being a better mom (or insert your role here).

I like to do a lot of stuff, so I suffer Mom guilt almost all day long. I have it right this minute. I attribute it to my Type A personality that pulls me to accomplish every single thing to perfection on a completely unattainable schedule and still devote 100% of my energy to my kids. It's impossible.

Mom guilt will come up again and again on this blog, so I won't talk it to exhaustion here. I'll just mention a nugget I think about a lot. A writer acquaintance, who happens to be childless, was once struggling for her next blog post. I said, "I'd like to hear more about how you fit the writing life in with real life." Her answer surprised me: "Writing is real life." I'm pretty sure a woman with young kids wouldn't have given me that answer, but I've never stopped thinking about it nonetheless.

I go to a lot of effort to be finished with my daily work-outs before my kids wake up in the morning. It soothes the Mom guilt associated with exercise because I haven't lost any time with them that way. Then I go to a lot of effort not to start writing until they are asleep at night for the same reason. It never works perfectly. If I get on a roll and write until the wee hours, then I don't wake up for my work-out. Some days I get up so early for a work-out that I'm too tired to stay up at night and even crank out a paragraph.

Recently, my first book was accepted for publication. When the editor's revision letter arrived with a deadline, I wasn't working to my own clock anymore. I had to work on the manuscript sometimes when the kids were around. I even had to leave the house and go somewhere quiet to work once. It definitely cut into my family time. My writing had changed, overnight it seemed, from a personal hobby into something akin to a job. I welcome this, but it's like poking the hive of Mom guilt with a big ugly stick.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My blog is living out of boxes

My friend David said I needed a blog and, since I'm weak for the Internet and all its fun, and also because David is hard to refuse, here we are. I have a few things in mind for my new "home", but I'm not entirely sure when the place will be decorated and ready for a dinner party. In fact, I'm not even sure tonight's the right time for a first post.

But in the spirit of my blog, I'll write it anyway. I'll approach it like a manuscript and accept that early drafts generally suck, but one day my blog will kick ass.