On Being Stuck

The subtitle of this post should be: thoughts on how to regain forward motion.

Here’s the thing. In the last year, I’ve finished two books with my co-writer Irene Preston and a novella set in that same world. Before I edited this paragraph, the line read “I’ve only finished…” but I took the “only” out, because a novel and two novellas are definite accomplishments. In fact, you’re probably thinking I should be happy with three completed projects, and I am.

It’s just that I could have done more.

 

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In between the finished novel/novellas, I sliced and diced an old project, trying to make it work better, and began two other stories, only to stall out every time.

That’s a lot of crap, lemme check Facebook to see if I can shake something loose.

Those stories I fizzled out on? One is almost 200 pages long, and the other is just over 100 pages. (That’s double spaced, 12-font TNR, ~ 300 words a page.) The old project I fiddled with is even longer. My point is, I’ve invested a fair amount of time, creativity, and emotion into each of these and I don’t want to see all that energy go to waste.

Any time you’re doing something creative, false starts are part of the game. I’ll get an idea, slap it down on the page, and see what comes of it. I’ve got several of those; two or three thousand words sketching out a main character along with some bullet points regarding the plot, the kind of thing I can throw together in an afternoon, then set aside to see if anything roots.

But you figure if – at best – I write 5000 words a week, it probably took me 3 months to get to 200 pages. That’s too much for me to toss aside, and while I’m one of those writers who loves the process of editing, I can’t fix what isn’t on the page.

So now you know a couple of my dirty secrets. I give up too easily and then whine about it.

Oh, and to complicate matters, I’m doing Camp NaNo this month, the abbreviated spring version of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I committed to writing 20,000 words in the month of April. I’m at 17,600 words with three days left, which means I need to get one of these projects moving again.

 

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Basically I made this post in the hopes I’d find a way out of this pickle.  I did a google search for “how to get unstuck fiction writing”, and in the interest of helping others in the same situation, I want to share some of what I learned.

The author of an article on The Center for Fiction website said her blocks usually come from not knowing the characters well enough. She recommended doing some free writing from the main character’s point of view, asking them why they’re so pissed off. (That’s not as crazy as it might sound. Jump HERE for the full post.)

An article on the website thinkitcreative.com also recommended focusing on the characters to move the plot forward. The author here suggested working on the backstory to get insights into what could happen next. One of their ideas involved going to an online dating site to get a list of questions for the characters to answer, which kind of cracks me up, but just might work. (Jump HERE for the complete post.)

I also liked an article on the Writers Digest website, because it recommended brainstorming “what could happen next”, then choosing the option the reader is least likely to expect. The article’s second bullet point was even more succinct:

Kill someone.

Heh. Yeah. That’d definitely shake things up.

Finally, they suggested meditation, to let your mind go quiet and see what ideas wander in.  “Stillness is the native language of creativity, yet it’s astonishing how we try to avoid silence.” (Jump HERE for the full article.)

So yeah, maybe I’m not really stuck. Maybe I’m just giving my ideas more time to blossom.

Or maybe I should spend less time on Facebook, and more time exploring. I’m going to go walk the dogs and see what I can come up with. If you’ve got ideas for how to move through a block, share them in the comments. Would love to learn from you!

 

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Write With Your Nose

A fellow writer recently shared a pretty hilarious online word generator, called “What Does Your Hero Smell Like?” When you enter the name of a protagonist or love interest, it automatically generates a unique smell just for them. Some gems for my characters included Sunder, who smelled like “meat and luck” (ewwww), and Rogan, “clean sheets and wreckage” (I…kind of…like that one). The generator is obviously supposed to be humorous, but it got me thinking a little more critically about how I use the sense of smell in my writing.

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If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve probably heard advice about how to write with all five senses. But in my experience, not all senses get top billing. Sight is the obvious leader, with hearing, touch, taste and smell trailing somewhere behind. Every sense deserves to be explored to fully paint a picture of whatever story you’re trying to tell, but in my opinion, the olfactory senses hold a special place in a writer’s arsenal.

Due to the anatomy of the human brain, smell is actually closely linked to memory, more so than any other sense. (Here’s an interesting article in Psychology Today about the effect, if you’re interested to know more!) Smells are basically encoded onto our memories, so that revisiting certain smells can directly trigger those precise memories. “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” author, poet, and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes in her book, A Natural History of the Senses. And, for better or for worse, odors also elicit the emotions buried within those specific memories. A smell can just as easily bring back a happy memory as it can trigger something traumatic.

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So, how can you use this in your writing? The possibilities are endless, so be creative! On a  basic level–and in conjunction with the other four senses–observing ambient smells in a story can flesh out the setting. But go a little deeper. Smells can be a fantastic way to introduce flashbacks for character development–anything from the whiff of an old lover’s cologne to the scent of wood-smoke on the air to a grandmother’s dryer sheets can bring back important memories. Smells can also evoke different places and different times for POV characters, introducing the possibility of foreshadowing and/or parallel structure. When employing the objective correlative, the odors noticed by a character in a certain situation can reflect how they themselves are perceiving the world around them.

And finally, although most of us modern humans go out of our way to cover up our natural scents with deodorant, perfume, and cologne, individuals do have individual physical scents. And whatever that odor might be–nasty or nice, pungent or pleasant–finding a way to describe your fictional character’s personal smell can go a long way towards accentuating their personality, and defining their place in the world.

Please, just don’t let it be “meat and luck!”

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English Majors Unite!

The other day there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter. I know, quelle surprise!

A very successful writer was asked for a bit of advice from a young fan as a new English Major.

The writer’s response? English Major = “Do you want fries with that?”

I mean.

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She told the fan to get a degree in something that would get them a lucrative job and write on the side.

Yeah. Sure. Some people totally do that. But to completely belittle the fan’s already chosen path while also tearing down the service industry? REALLY?

You won’t be surprised to find out that I, myself, was an English Major. I have a loverly BA in English with a concentration on Creative Writing. A major I created myself because it didn’t exist at my school at the time. I was very lucky that my adviser was also the department chair at the time so getting it approved wasn’t quite the battle it could have been.

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I am damn proud of my degree. I have both dyslexia and dyscalculia. Believe me, getting dyslexia under control has been much easier than my dsycalculia–there was no way I was going to be a math or science or business major. But guess what? As a self-published writer, I am running my own business. My husband also runs his own business, but I also help with that. I run the office for both of us. And my degree helped me, believe it or not.

English degrees teach you critical thinking, creative solutions, and so much more.

Now, do you need an English Degree to be a writer? Of course not. I know many writers who are also something else. Writing isn’t paying the bills just yet for them. But it might some day.

Did I need an English Degree to be a writer? To be a good one, yes.

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I can say with a little confidence that I had “raw talent” when I was younger. When I got to be creative with my English assignments, I always did well. I actually remember my senior English AP teacher writing “I can’t wait to see what happens next!” on a paper I turned in. It was an amazing feeling. I really thought I could write. I thought I was a good story teller.

Then I went to college.

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I had professors who were published novelists and playwrights and poets.

And they let me know raw talent wasn’t enough then and it wouldn’t be enough in the future. They tore my papers apart. I had one professor (the aforementioned adviser) who knew I was turning in the first drafts of papers and would automatically deduct a full letter grade because of it. I went to him, demanding to know why I kept getting B’s on my papers and he told me. He told me even if the paper was an A on the first try, that just told him the second try would be that much better.

My poetry was ridiculous. It was flowery and vague, like I didn’t want my reader to know what I was talking about. My professor shredded my poems until I learned to paint a damn picture that he could see.

I am the writer I am today because of the lessons those professors gave me. It was well worth the time and money. Maybe I would have gotten to that point as an English Minor, or just taking a couple of classes for fun, who knows? But I know being an English Major changed my life and I am damn grateful for it.

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Do you need to be an English Major to be a successful writer? Of course not. Or maybe you do. None of us are the same. Some of us need the instruction, some of us don’t. Some of us will write a NYT bestseller in our 20s and others will do so in their golden years. You are special and different and need to decide what is right for you. Don’t let some random person–even if they are a NYT bestseller themselves–tell you what is the right path for you.

Oh, by the way, I was a waitress all through college. It was the most thankless, degrading job I’ve ever had and I worked in insurance after college. Never tear down the service industry. Customers are assholes and service industry people are overworked and treated like shit every day. Everyone should have to wait tables on Mother’s day, or run a cashier over the holidays. People would be far, far nicer and learn some damn manners.

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Now. Thanks to that English degree, I’m putting out my 16th novel (under this name), and it is up for pre-order now! If you were a fan of my Ash & Ruin Trilogy, this is a companion novel, maybe you’d like to take a peek?

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Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Kobo Smashwords | Barnes & Noble | ibooks

 

My Muse: New Orleans

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Last week we had an adventure. (“We” meaning me and the family.) We spent the week in New Orleans, and I’ll tell you what, I love that city. I love the history. I love the people. I love that there are so many layers and nooks and crannies and things to play with – especially when it comes to writing.

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Urn at Lafayette No. 1

Plot bunnies are easy, you know? I pretty regularly stumble over ideas that could make a decent story. Some you’ll get to read, but most never get off the dream list. The tricky part is figuring out the right setting, the one place that’ll make the story pop.

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Paddle wheeler on the Mighty Mississippi

I have to really know a place before I can write about it. (Ask me how much fun I had writing the swamp scenes in Bonfire since I’ve never spent any time in a swamp. Or maybe ask Irene how much fun she had *correcting* my misapprehensions in those scenes. There are no hills, or rocks, apparently.) I have to be able to capture the truth of a place, or some facet of that truth, to make the story believable. To do that, I tend to set my stories in one of three cities: Seattle, Los Angeles, or New Orleans.

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This house in the Garden District inspired Thaddeus Dupont’s First St. house.

Seattle’s a no-brainer because I’ve lived here for most of my life. Maybe because of that, I take the romance of the place for granted. That said, I have an upcoming super-secret project that’s set here. (More about that later!)

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Ready for a parade on St. Charles Avenue last week!

I choose Los Angles for stories because, like New Orleans, it has all kinds of angles I can work with. I don’t think anyone could capture all of L.A. in a single sentence, or even a single book. Because of that, it’s unfortunately possible to set a story there and turn it into Anytown, Anywhere, USA. It’s just so much better if you drop in a few details to bring the place alive.

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Staircase to choir loft at St. Mary’s Church – Ursuline Convent – NOLA. Imagine climbing those steps in a nun’s habit…

My sister lives in L.A., so when I need some nitty gritty factoid to get to the truth of a story, I’ll try and plan a visit. And if I don’t have the time or money for travel, she’s awesome about brainstorming-by-text. She works in The Industry, so she’s very understanding about my creative craziness.

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French Quarter courtyard.

FWIW, I didn’t have the same kind of connection with New Orleans when I started setting stories there. I’d never visited, didn’t know anyone who lived there, and tbh most of my experience with the place came via Ann Rice’s novels. That’s changed now! Last week was our second visit, and “subletting a French Quarter condo for six months” is now on my bucket list.

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You meet all kinds of people during Carnival!

Thank you for exploring NOLA with me. We had a blast last week, and if you’ve never been to New Orleans, you really must visit someday! Or, you know, you could check out my newest release, Change of Heart. It’s a historical romance set in the French Quarter in 1933, a distant prequel to the two Hours of the Night novels I co-wrote with Irene Preston. I’ll put the blurb and buy links below, just in case. Happy travels!!

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Preacher always said New Orleans was a den of sin, but of course Clarabelle had to see for herself…

A body reaps what they sow, and Clarabelle’s planted the seeds of trouble. The year is 1933, and not much else is growing in the Oklahoma dirt. Clarabelle’s gone and fallen in love with her best friend, so she figures it’s time to go out and see the world.

If she’s lucky, she’ll find the kind of girl who’ll kiss her back.

Clarabelle heads for New Orleans, and that’s where she meets Vaughn. Now, Vaughn’s as pretty as can be, but she’s hiding something. When she gets jumped by a pair of hoodlums, Clarabelle comes to her rescue and accidentally discovers her secret. She has to decide whether Vaughn is really the kind of girl for her, and though Clarabelle started out a dirt-farming Okie, Vaughn teaches her just what it means to be a lady.

Change of Heart is an Hours of the Night story, an early prequel to Vespers and Bonfire. It’s not a paranormal, but a certain vampire may have a role…

Find Change of Heart on Goodreads HERE

Available for a special pre-order price of $0.99!!

Amazon  /  Barnes & Noble  /  Kobo  /  iTunes  /  More Stores

AND, make sure you enter the giveaway to celebrate Change of Heart’s release!

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like a First Draft?

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

You’ve reached the “end” of your manuscript’s first draft. You look back over your shoulder at the smoldering wreckage of your plot, malformed narratives writhing about in a primordial soup of creativity. It’s a formless maelstrom of scenes and moments, but somewhere in all the chaos you can see the pieces for a coherent story coming together.

You smile wistfully, ready to take hold of those few shimmering pieces of plot stability and staring pulling this thing together.

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Now you’re ready to bring order to this book!

That’s about where I am right now, sifting through the first draft of my latest manuscript, THE BREWMANCER. I’m trying to find the best pieces of plot foundation to start laying down and building up the brick and mortar, wood and plaster to make a structurally sound story.

I don’t know about all of you, but I’m a pantser when I write. I basically just go with a barebones outline of the major plot points and kinda fill it in from there. That tactic, for me at least, leads to somewhat barebones first drafts that need to be beefed up in future drafts. For THE BREWMANCER, I envision the final product being about 90,000 words, and the first draft ended up at about 80,000.

That’s quite a bit more beef.

In the first draft, I did leave some scenes and chapters completely unwritten, either because they required some significant research or were difficult to write for some other reason. Fight scenes are tough for me, so on the first go I just sketch out a quick blow-by-blow of how the fight would go, then fill in the details later. A bunch of characters, places and fantastical things were left with just placeholder names, too.

Details.

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In first drafts, I usually keep details to a minimum. Details of what things looks like, details of what the characters are doing. I pretty much lay down basic settings and actions to move the plot along. I consider dialogue one of my strong points, so I try to get most of that stuff written in the first draft. I do worry too much of the plot is conveyed through dialogue, so I’ll pare some of the back in subsequent drafts and replace it with more descriptions or backstory. At the same time, I try to keep the info dumps to a minimum in each draft, but sometimes in the second or third drafts I’ll feel pressured to hit the final word count, go overboard with with backstory.

So basically first draft with too little stuff, second and third drafts with too much stuff.

The hope is to find that special sweet spot in drafts four and five.

I like to keep my drafts under five before sending it off to beta readers, and then a draft or two will come of out that feedback.

I feel like this is a strange way to draft, most people have a large and unwieldy first drafts, then pare it back – cutting scenes, side plot, or even full character POVs (I’ve done that once and it was BRUTAL)  But I’ve done my first drafts this way for my last couple of manuscripts to reasonable success. Like I said, I have the fear when I’m finished with one of these skeleton drafts I won’t be able to find enough words to get to the optimal word count, but I usually end up getting there without any superfluous plot additions and weird tangents.

Part of the reason I opt for the small structural first draft is because my first manuscript was so bloated. 180,000 words that wasn’t even really a complete story, even with that many words. I also edited each chapter as I finished it, which is something I’ll never do again. Cutting that book back by 60,000 words and still having it a gigantic mess, trying to make that first book into something remotely publishable took months just wasn’t worth it. It was good lesson because I obviously didn’t know what the hell I was doing when writing that first draft, but it also put the fear of overdrafting into me.

Now, I still have have a bunch of work to do after a first draft, but by adding in stuff I skipped over, I still feel like I’m making progress, instead of going backward. Sure, I’ll end up cutting a bunch of scenes and subplots and I’ve already had to rewrite the first few chapters because they no longer match up with the direction the story ultimately took, but it feels like progress.

It’s going to be another few more months of editing, but I think I’m in a good place with it right now.

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Welp. Better get back to work.

But before I go – how do all of you create your first drafts? Over or under draft? Edit as you go? Let me know!

 

Crutch words – Self editing

Crutch words, or phrases, plague all writers. It doesn’t matter how many books you write, you will always have words or phrases you abuse.The key to being a good writer is not being perfect, but recognizing your weaknesses and trying to fix them. And always remember, that is what editing is for.

I have published some 20+ titles between my two names and I’m still falling into the trap of crutches, so, I thought I would share a few with you. Maybe you’ll recognize some of these issues in your own writing and they’ll help.

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There are a couple that new writers will always fall into. One that’s very popular with beginner writers is having your characters releasing breaths they didn’t know they were holding. Yeah, we all hold our breath in a tense moment but it’s amazing how many fictional characters aren’t aware they’re doing it. I mean, you’d think a few would faint once in a while. An easy fix? “I released the breath I was holding.” Boom. No need to pretend you didn’t know that you weren’t breathing.

Another common crutch for new writers is “suddenly.” Suddenly often becomes redundant. “She suddenly screamed.” Right, as opposed to gradually screaming? “He suddenly burst into the room.” When is bursting ever not sudden? See how you can eliminate the word without hurting the action? Slice and dice that word from your MS.

Now, here are a few from my current WIP that I, and a few of my writing friends, all admit to using.

  • Just.

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This is an actual note from my editor after she line-edited this book. 350+ uses of “just”?! DUDE. The book isn’t even 350 pages in Word. Let’s just put one here, and just there. Okay, just one more. No, not just one more because I just need another. BAH! You pretty much never need this damn word. Slice and dice!

  • Stating the obvious, especially when describing actions.

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Yes, my character crumpled the paper in her hand. As opposed to crumpling it in her feet? You’ll find yourself “nodding heads” or “waving hands”. We know how the body works and how actions work. You can just nod. Or just wave. Look for these, again, it’s being redundant with action.

  • Still and not being concise.

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Here is a double-whammy edit. “Still” is another one of those “just” words. You very often don’t need it. See how the sentence works as well as it does with or without “still” in there? And the end of the sentence, see my editor’s change? Obviously they both work, but you do need to be aware of the economy of words, especially when writing an action scene. If you’re building tension you want to make sure you’re not dragging things out.

  • Adverbs.

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New or old-hat, we all love adverbs. Again, they are almost never helpful. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but if you have an abundance of adverbs you’ll need to take a critical eye to them and really decide which ones help and which ones are fluff. This one? Quickly? It’s fluff.

  • That.

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Oh, that. Just, still, that. That is a tough word because we do need it a lot in the English language but you’d be amazed how often we use it. When you’re editing, be mindful of “that”. If you’re not sure if you should slice and dice, read the sentence out loud, does it work with or without “that”? Then delete.

There are so many more crutches we need to be aware of, but sometimes they’re very specific to the writer. One that was mentioned to me was relying on metaphors. I remember the first time I wrote “his cheekbones were so sharp, I could cut my wrists on them.” Oof, I loved that line. I loved it so much I used it three or four more times in different books with different characters. Yep. Crutch. If you use the same metaphor more than once that first awesome impact gets muddied and loses its impact. Don’t fall victim to this.

Don’t fall victim to any of these!

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Have you come to recognize your crutches? Share them in the comments, you might just help out your fellow writers who are still looking for crutches to kill like ants on the page.

An Open Letter to the New York Times Book Review

I’m popping in for an unscheduled post to share this because I feel very passionate about it and wanted the audience of this blog to see it too. This originally appeared on my blog on Monday.
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Last week, the New York Times Book Review announced they are eliminating several of their bestseller lists. Here’s the original article from Publisher’s Weekly. This will have profound effects on many authors, especially indie and genre writers. I emailed the following letter to the editors this morning [January 30]. It not only expresses my opinions on this issue, but also voices my (possibly far-fetched) hope that they will someday add coverage of indie authors to their pages. 

As both a long-time reader of the New York Times Book Review and an author, I have to say I am dismayed at the recent move of the NYT Book Review to remove many of the bestseller lists, especially the ebook lists. As an indie author who, due to the nature of my mode of publishing, is not carried in big name book stores, that is my only hope for ever hitting your lists. And I do plan to be on them. I still hold the moniker of New York Times Bestselling Author in high regard.

Whether you mean to or not, this move alienates a lot of authors, both indie and traditionally published, who rely on ebook and mass market lists to “earn our letters.” You are hurting traditionally published authors who are in digital-first or digital-only contracts, an increasingly common practice at major publishers, especially in the romance and other genre markets. In the traditional publishing world, foreign rights, bonuses, movie rights, and the money an author can demand on his/her next contract are often determined by making your lists. By eliminating many options, you are hobbling the very people you should be supporting.

In addition, readers are increasingly choosing ebooks over hardbacks/trade paperbacks for convenience and cost reasons, so you are essentially saying their buying choices don’t matter. Not to mention that eliminating the ebook and mass market paperback lists smacks of elitism and of a digging in/siding with the old guard traditional publishing industry in an era when prestigious publications like the NYT should be opening up to new modes of publishing.

Here’s the thing. Indie publishing isn’t the free-for-all mess it used to be. I, and many other indie authors like me, apply the same levels of rigor and professionalism to the production of our books as traditional houses – at least in part due to the hopes of selling enough to make your lists. We spend thousands of dollars of our own money on professional proofreading, editing, cover design and marketing. Yes, there are still those who slap their books on Createspace/Amazon without a second thought, but there are also low quality books produced by traditional houses. There will always be outliers.

We are no longer the authors who “couldn’t make it” in the traditional industry. Many indie authors are former traditionally published authors who have grown frustrated with increasingly anti-author contract terms and/or the antiquated slowness of the industry in an age of print on demand. Some are “hybrid authors” who publish some things traditionally, and some independently. Others, like me, have never been traditionally published and made the choice to go indie in order to control our work – our covers, our editing, our marketing, how/where our books are published – so that we are free to write the books we choose, rather than struggle with an editorial/publishing house agenda or idea of what will sell.

If you need proof that indies are professionals, look to the SELF-e Select books endorsed by Library Journal as the best of independently published books, or to the Indie BRAG Medallion honorees, who are put through a rigorous quality process before being honored. (Full disclosure: all of my books are SELF-e Select and one has earned the Indie BRAG Medallion.) Groups like the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLI) and Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) promote best practices among indie authors and reward those who produce high quality work. We’re trying to make our corner of the publishing industry better. We may not have traditional gatekeepers, but we want our best work to shine at a national level and make the same lists as our traditional counterparts.

That is why I am asking you to not only reinstate the ebook and mass market lists, but to cover indie books as well as traditionally published in your pages. There is room. Readers have written in before expressing dismay with the seemingly random essay/editorial/opinion sections that don’t adhere to what this publication is about: reviewing books. And I agree. Perhaps you can replace those with an indie book section. I’m not even asking for a weekly section, though that would be ideal; it could be monthly like your column that faces the back page that covers debuts or other groupings of books.

To date, the only indie authors I have seen your publication cover are those who were later picked up by traditional publishers. I’m happy for them, but they are the exception, rather than the rule, in our community. It would send a strong message of support to ALL authors if the NYT Book Review were to recognize indie authors and show you understand the changing nature of the publishing industry by keeping lists that allow a wider range of authors to be honored for outstanding work.

Sincerely,

Nicole Evelina
St. Louis, MO

If you agree or have your own opinions on this issue, I urge you to contact the NYT Book Review at books@nytimes.com. I’d also love to hear your thoughts in the comments.