Mushy Middle: The Mid-Month NaNo Slump

I know you’ve probably read hundreds of NaNo blog posts, so, here’s another one! YAY!

So right now we’ve hit the middle of the month on this little experiment and you’ve been killing it. Hitting par every day, you’re watching those word counts go up and up. You’re feeling like a gotdamn writer. Right? And then BAM! You hit the middle wall.

The beginning of a book is exciting and fun, it’s something new with new characters and new worlds and new, made up words only you know the definitions to. It’s so pretty and shinning and new! And you totally know the end of the book, you know if the good guy or the bad guy wins. You know if the world ends or if your rag-tag bunch of misfits saves the world at the last minute. You know it so perfectly well that you can see it like the epic climax of a movie scene. It is seared into your brain. You just gotta get to that part of the book.

And what is between you and the exciting end? The middle. 

I promise you, whether this is your first book or your fiftieth, the middle is The Worst for everyone. The action seems to slow, you’re starting to wonder if it’s any good, and if you can’t get through the writing of the middle, who in the world is going to be able to read it.

I can make you another promise: it’s not as bad as you think. The middle always feels terrible when you’re in it and writing it but when you go back and read it later, you’ll wonder why you hated it so much. Oh, it’s gonna need some work, it’s gonna need some rewrites and some editing, there’s no doubt, but you’ll find that you wrote what needed to be written. You’ll find some exciting bits that make the action rise and fall naturally–after all, it can’t all be rise. You just gotta get through it.

If you find yourself slugging through you can do a few things to make it easier. You can outline if you haven’t. A lot of people new to NaNo tend to pants their writing but when you get to the middle you realize you’re not sure where to go. Take sometime to plot out the next few pages, or even a full chapter so you have something to guide you for the next couple of days. If you’re really stuck, just skip to the end and write scenes out of order. The only thing you need to do to win NaNo is submit a full 50,000 words–the website doesn’t know if those words are in order, just get the words down and in December you can go back and fill in the middle.

That second option is a little scary, I know. When I get to a scene I don’t feel like writing I’ll just change the font and do this: AWESOME LOVE/FIGHT/ESCAPE SCENE HERE and then, when I come to it in review I can just add the scene in. 

Just don’t give up. Remember, you’re not alone when you’re doing NaNo and you’re not the only one who totally believes the middle part of their book straight up sucks. It doesn’t, or at least, it won’t. Just put the words on the page and come back to it later.

Also, BACK UP YOUR WORK. I email myself at the end of every day so I don’t lose my work. Yesterday, I emailed myself twice because I had 2 large writing sessions. BACK UP YOUR WORK. I have lost work when my computer went into critical failure. I lost tens of thousands of words because it had been a couple of weeks since I emailed myself. NEVER AGAIN.

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In the Mood for a Holiday Read? Try a Christmas Anthology!

So, a Christmas anthology that I’m  part of, Tangled Lights and Silent Nights, was just published this past Sunday. I’m really excited because I’ve wanted to be part of an anthology since I was a teenager and read Return to Avalon, an Arthurian anthology. It always felt like it would be such an honor to be asked to write alongside others in your field, and it is! I don’t normally write short, but I challenged myself and managed it – hopefully well. You can be the judge.

There are several cool aspects to this anthology:

  1. All of the stories tie into previously published books by the authors. So, for example, mine is about Victoria Woodhull and crew, who are featured in Madame Presidentess.
  2. It is multi-genre, so there should be something in there for everyone. We have women’s fiction, crime thriller, fantasy (epic, urban and contemporary), historical, romance (contemporary and dark), mystery (cozy and general), humor and LGBT stories.
  3. All proceeds benefit Life After, a charity dedicated to educating about and helping those who suffer from suicide, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

My Story: A Vanderbilt Christmas
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull made history by becoming the first woman to run for president of the United States. But four years earlier she was still struggling to overcome her shameful past and establish herself in New York’s high society. She has finally secured an entre into that glittering world by way of an invitation to Christmas Eve dinner at the home of railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. But when her uncouth family crashes the party and threatens to send her social status spiraling, it will take a Christmas miracle to recover her reputation and keep her dreams on track.

My story is a tie-in to my biographical historical fiction novel Madame Presidentess. Victoria Woodhull may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas story, and I agree. Actually, she wasn’t my first choice. I had two drafts of stories involving Guinevere from my Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy Arthurian legend novels. But given our strict word limit, I was having problems explaining the Celtic winter solstice rituals and telling my story in the allotted space. Anything winter solstice or even early Christian Christmas is so different from what we know today that I didn’t want to risk not doing the stories justice. (For example, in fifth century Christianity, there was no Advent season yet and the Christmas celebration actually included three different Masses, each with their own symbolism and meaning.)

Then I remembered that one of the scenes I deleted from Madame Presidentess took place at Christmas. (It involved Cornelius Vanderbilt asking Victoria’s sister, Tennie, to marry him, which really did happen. She had to say no because she was already married to a gambler who abandoned her. Seriously, history is stranger than fiction.) This was a much better choice because the Victorian period is when some of our most beloved Christmas traditions became popular: Queen Victoria made Christmas trees a widespread thing, Christmas cards began being sent in the mail, and Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol.

As it turned out, the story I submitted was totally different from the scene I started with, but it got me on the right track. And I had a lot of fun researching what was served at Victorian Christmas dinners, what people wore and what the decor would have looked like. If you want a sneak peek into my brain, check out my Pinterest board on the story. (That hideous plaid dress is what Victoria’s mom wore to the party.)

I ended up placing the story right when Victoria and Tennie were starting to become comfortable in their life working with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria is ambitious as always and she sees her coveted invitation to Christmas Eve dinner at Mr. Vanderbilt’s mansion as a way for her to get a foot in the door with the New York elite, whom she longs to be a part of. But as happened so many times during her life, Victoria’s low-class family comes along and nearly ruins it by inviting themselves to the dinner. You’ll have to read the story to find out how, but it involves a brawl, a fire and some stolen Christmas gifts…

As usual, when Victoria’s family is around, trouble is sure to follow.

Order your copy today! But hurry, the paperback price goes up next week! Remember, all proceeds go to charity.

How to Fight Through Distractions

I joke that I have the attention span of a gerbil. I rarely finish one thought before another one jumps in. No, I take that back. I rarely finish one thought before I grab my cell phone for another game of Solitaire.

Huh. Actually, the little dude in the gif above might have the right idea.

HIDE MY CELL PHONE!!

I’m surrounded by blank white pages. I finished my Creepy Doll story – or at least have it well enough along for beta readers to have a crack at it – and I’m supposed to have a holiday story ready to go for an Advent Calendar promotion in just over a month.

Not to mention this here blog post…

Not getting much written, but my Solitaire winning percentage is awesome.

Now, the title of this post suggests I’m actually going to present well-reasoned strategies for coping with the danger presented by the cell phone and other electronic distractions. Hello, Facebook!

In fact, I…do not.

I mean, I did a search for, literally, “how to fight through distractions”, and picked up hits like “Ten Ways to Cut Internet Distractions So You Can Focus On What Really Matters“*.  Which had such helpful suggestions as figure out what you need to accomplish, along with several variations on turn off your damned cell phone.

Actually, I’m exaggerating. The authors do suggest turning off the email notifications on your cell phone, so those little pings don’t pull your attention away from what you’re working on. They also advise putting your more troublesome apps in a separate folder, to make them harder to get to.

I’m not sure that’d slow me down all that much, tbh, though I do kinda love their term “timebox”, as in limit your distracting activities to specific periods of time.

Yeah, that’ll work.

Some people find it useful to install one of the “internet blocker” apps, so they can’t kill a spare minute (or, you know, hours) by taking a “quick peek” at Twitter. There are also time-management apps, calendar apps, and focus apps with cute little “gamified” timers that add a layer of structure for those of us who are gerbils at heart.

There’s no telling how much time I could waste trying all these gizmos out!

The only thing that’s ever worked for me is the sprint timer on the MSWL webpage. The sprints are short – 10 – 20 minutes – which gives me time to check back in on Facebook in-between. I used it last year when I won NaNo. (Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Here’s a link to some resources that might help!)

When it comes down to it, what I really need to do is get over myself and get the words on the page. It’s possible I’m working through a teeny case of writer’s block – which I’ve always maintained isn’t a *thing* but here I am faffing about spinning my wheels and not actually writing.

On the other hand, an hour or so ago – and some dozen games of Solitaire – I didn’t have a blog post written, either, yet here we are. I’ve had some fifty-ish years to practice time-management skills, and from my advanced perspective, I can say that the best way to get something done is to do it.

And if that means hiding my cell phone in a box of cereal, so be it.

*I’m teasing about this article. It’s a useful piece, both thoughtful and well-written.

 

 

Amber & Dusk First Line + Giveaway

I can hardly believe it, but we’re only one month out from the release of my debut novel, Amber & Dusk! I’m so incredibly thrilled to be sharing this book with the world and I can’t wait for you all to read it.

(If you’re only here for the giveaway, scroll down to the bottom of the page. I promise I won’t be too mad.)

I’ve talked a lot about my publishing journey both here at Spellbound Scribes and elsewhere. I’ve talked a little about the inspiration for writing Amber & Dusk, and likely will write up a nice long post about all the research and media that inspired the book next month. But today, I want to talk about that one magical sentence on the first page of the first chapter. You got it–The First Line!

I think first lines are magical. I have a running list on my note app with my favorites, and I return to it often for inspiration (“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure in the windowpane;” Nabokov). I actually even have some first lines memorized from books I didn’t even read (like Pynchon’s epic “A screaming comes across the sky.”) Yes, yes, you could say I’m a little obsessed. So it will come as no surprise that my obsession extends to my own work.

I spend a lot of time crafting the first lines of all my books, and Amber & Dusk was no exception. But what was unique about this first line is that it stayed exactly the same from the very beginning. The name of the main character changed (twice), a ghost king appeared and then (thankfully) disappeared, countless scenes were cut and reworked and added and revised. But the first line–it stuck! And so, to celebrate the 1 month countdown (technically, 33 days) here is the first line!

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And because I’m feeling extra celebratory, here’s an exclusive opportunity to win a signed hardback copy of Amber & Dusk, with character artwork, a personalized note from me, and an amber pendant reminiscent of the one worn by my main character! To enter, follow the link for ways to enter, such as commenting on this post and following me and the Scribes on social media. Good luck!

Click here to enter via Rafflecopter!

The Benefit of the Exploratory Trip

One of the most important things a writer can do when writing a book, is to make the reader feel fully immersed in the world of the story. The reader should see the world as if they’ve been there; they should smell the city streets with its cars and restaurants, or country road with the sun-baked dirt and drying leaves, or the crisp, cool, lung-burning cold of snowy mountains; they should hear the languages, the voices, the animals, the hum of the world.

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If you’re writing a fantasy world, obviously, you just gotta make this all up and try to remember these precious little details and hope the reader can see what you’re trying to paint with your words. So often when books are made into TV and film you hear people say, “It’s exactly as I imagined it!” If so, then that means the writer did a great job conveying to multiple people to see the same thing in their heads.

But what if you’re writing about a real place?

If you’re writing about a place that people are familiar with, you gotta hit those notes and those notes tend to be different for everyone. Take Paris for example. For me, I have a scent memory of roasting chicken that evokes a neighborhood in Paris where I spent my honeymoon because one of the grocers from the neighborhood market always had roasting chickens in the windows. That’s pretty specific and might not work for everyone, but talk about warm rain in the summer, where the sun refuses to set until after dinner and almost late enough for bed? That’s more universal. But if you haven’t been there in the summer, you might not know that the sun doesn’t set until well into the night. If you don’t know a place well enough to describe it accurately, your world won’t be believable.

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Which is why a lot of writers will make sure they’ll set their books in places they’re familiar with. Like me, again, for example. I have one fantasy series set in the town I live in and one apocalyptic series mostly set in the county I live in. I know this area inside and out. So I can imagine it in an apocalyptic setting and what that might mean. I know what it’s like in summer and winter and I know what our beaches smell like and how long it takes to get from one side of town to the other. I can immerse a reader even if they’ve never heard of my town.

So what do you do if you want to set a book in a real place that you’ve never been?

I highly recommend an exploratory trip. Obviously, I’m talking about something that takes time and money and not everyone can do that, so if you can’t, try to reach out to locals, read travel blogs, check Insta posts, do whatever you can to familiarize yourself. But! If you can, then go.

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As writers we’re not always sure what we can and cannot claim as write-offs on our taxes, but an exploratory trip can be. Just make sure you’re actually going to do research and can back that up should you need to. (Also, do not take tax advice from me, go get a CPA or an accountant to help you make sure everything is on the up and up.)

Last year I was lucky enough to take an exploratory trip to Ireland. I’d studied many, many things about Ireland through my life, but nothing could give me the education that I got by actually being there. For example, I had no idea how many wild blackberry bushes grow all around. What a detail!

In a week I’m taking a road trip to Las Vegas. I know, Vegas, right, sure, it’s for work, wink-wink. But it is. I have a trilogy set in Vegas and I am on the verge of starting to write the last book (FINALLY) and I need some inspiration. I’ve been struggling all year to get back into writing after taking a much needed break, and I think immersing myself in the desert, reminding myself what that world feels, smells, sounds, and looks like will help me spark that inspiration. You behave differently when you’re some place different than home, you have new experiences even if you’ve been there before. You eat strange things and you meet new people. All fodder for a book and the world building of that book.

If you can do an exploratory trip, make sure you research ahead of time so you don’t forget things you wanted to see or do once you’re there. And take pictures, lots and lots of pictures. Notes are good and can help some people, but taking photos to remind yourself what something was like can be invaluable. Especially if you want to remember the details of something you might not write down.

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Piracy and the Value of Art

The day after my latest novel published, I awoke to two emails that put me in a bad mood for a while. They weren’t negative reviews, but rather readers asking me to either give them my book for free or at an internationally adjusted price that would have caused me to lose money. One of them was even asking for my trilogy compendium for free – so three books for nothing. While this may have been done out of ignorance, it is still not right.

When did expecting something for nothing become permissible? I wanted to write back and ask if they would walk into a museum, take a painting off the wall, and walk out with it. Because that is exactly what they are asking to do with my book. The book that took me over two years of hard work to write, or in the case of the trilogy, 19 years. Apparently my time, blood, sweat and tears are not valuable – at least to them.

And this doesn’t even take into consideration pirate websites. Every day I see my books show up on new sites that I didn’t authorize. There are tools like Blasty that can help – and I have tried it – but even it is of limited use, especially if you don’t want to pay for the premium version (which is yet another cost for an author shoulder) and/or don’t have the time to monitor/blast the sites. Perhaps if I wrote full-time or had an assistant it would be a reasonable way to fight piracy. But for now, all I can do is ignore it. I’m trying to take the Neil Gaiman approach and think of it as free advertising because people looking for a free book wouldn’t have paid for it even if these sites weren’t there. I don’t really have another choice.

I’m an indie author. Most months that I don’t have a new release or do any marketing (which costs money), I’m lucky to make three figures. Even on my best months, I’ve never made more than mid-three figures. Overall, what I make from my writing is about 5% of my annual income. (Thank God for my day job, as much as I complain about it and wish I didn’t need it.) I can’t afford to give my art away for free.

There are times that I do giveaways, but I don’t do them out of the goodness of my heart. They are strategic. I give free copies to my Street Team to help get reviews, which drive sales. (Which I may stop doing depending on how that strategy pans out, even if it is considered a best practice in the industry.) Occasionally, I do contests to bring in readers or increase my mailing list. Sometimes I put the books on sale for $0.99, but that is done to help entice people to read them.

If I am to continue writing, I can’t afford to give away my book for free just because people don’t want to pay for it. It costs me hundreds of dollars to produce a book, sometimes over a thousand, depending on the marketing I do, or several thousand if an audio book is involved. Because I don’t have a traditional house marketing me, it is hard to find an audience. As a result, I have never turned a profit on any of my books.

Mind you, I’m not complaining. I knew what I signed up for when I became an indie author. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be paid fairly for my work. You wouldn’t go into a clothing shop and walk out with an item without paying or go to dinner at a restaurant and leave without paying the check. (Okay, maybe some people would, but they are another story.) Why? Because there are prices attached, just like there are on books. That is because there are people (designers, tailors, chefs, wait staff, etc.) behind the products you buy or food that you consume who need to be paid for the work they put into what you purchase or eat.

The same thing goes for books. They don’t appear by magic. There is an author who writes them, and a team of editors, proofreaders, cover designers, layout people, etc. who help make it ready for production. As an indie author, I not only foot the production costs, but I pay for their services. I don’t have a publisher to do that for me. I have to make that money back before I can even think about making money on a book. And given how cheap we have to sell them in order to compete nowadays, that is not easy.

I am not by far the first person to have this happen or even to speak about it. But we have to do something about it. I wish I knew what. How do you teach people the value of art when corporations (including Amazon and the publishing industry) are constantly devaluing it by either pricing books ridiculously low or paying the author a pittance – and last? Add to that how much (at least in the US) things like sports are valued over arts and the constant government cuts to arts funding, and I wonder if we have a prayer.

All I’m saying is please, at least try to see our books for what they are – art, not a mass-produced product to be devalued. I know money can be tight, but please don’t ask for our work for free or download it from a piracy site. If you can’t afford to buy a book, borrow it from a friend or from the library. If they don’t have it, ask them to purchase it – most are pretty open to reader’s suggestions. Author’s don’t care how you come to our books, as long as the means is legal.

Oh, and if you want to help an author, the other thing you can do is leave reviews – especially on Amazon (even if you didn’t purchase the book there – and Goodreads. Even short reviews are more precious than gold these days.

Ready for NaNo? Ten Great Writing Resources

A quick note: Yes, you’re getting a Spellbound Scribes email on Monday instead of  last Thursday. Life intervened. Sorry for the delay!

Recently a friend of mine tweeted a request for “favorite craft books”, which had me pawing through my kindle, looking for good books on writing. I came up with a couple, but her request made me realize I get as much writing-craft-related information from blogs and classes as I do from books.

*so many sources, so little time*

Since this is coming to you on 10/1/18, exactly one month before NaNoWriMo starts, I thought it might be helpful to make a post listing my favorite resources. Half of them are books, and the rest – with the exception of Margie Lawson’s classes – are blogs, so they’re free!

  1. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder – This is sort of my bible, a concise strategy for building a plot. The author is a screenwriter, and the book focuses on developing a 110-page screenplay, but the principals absolutely apply to writing fiction. I love how he pulls from familiar books and movies to illustrate his points.
  2. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon – I need to re-read this one. And then maybe read it again. On the most basic level, Debra teaches how keep from writing scenes where nothing happens. She also – and this is where I still have trouble – gets into how to ground action in a character’s motivations. (True confessions: I’m forever solving plot problems with the equivalent of “let’s throw in a unicorn!” Yeah, that technique works about as well as you’d think.)
  3. Terrible Minds/ Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative – Here’s a one-two punch from Chuck Wendig. Terrible Minds is his blog where he addresses the issues of the day, along with occasional writing craft posts, all with a heavy helping of eff-bombs. His new book on writing craft, Damn Fine Story, does a great job of teaching how to create characters that readers will care about, along with useful thoughts about how to use story structure to draw the readers in. And without the eff-bombs.
  4. Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes – Gwen is an experienced editor, and in this book she gives an overview of how to put together a romance novel. Now, the idea might make you bristle, because romance gets bashed for being “cookbook”, but I think there can be a lot of freedom in a set structure – jump here for my post on tropes. If you want to write romance, this book is a great starting point.
  5. Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward – This is a timely, thought-provoking set of essays and exercises drawn from a workshop by the same name. (Here’s a link to their website, where you can find a list of current classes.) If your work reflects the real world, either contemporary or historic, you’ll write characters who are “other”, and it’s worthwhile to do some homework before you do.
  6. Marge Lawson Academy – Margie’s a great teacher who focuses on the “micro” end of writing – how to use words, sentences, and paragraphs to keep readers engaged and entertained. Her instructors are all experienced, accomplished writers – I especially love classes by Rhay Christou – and I’ve learned a lot from them. Margie’s Immersion retreats are well worth the money, and a whole lot of fun!
  7. Fiction University –  This blog by Janice Hardy is my go-to for writing craft questions. Seriously, you can search her site for just about any keyword – query, plot, editing, whatever – and you’ll find a bunch of posts on the subject. The posts are meaty, so you don’t waste time with stuff you don’t necessarily need.
  8. Real + Good Writing – This website and blog is a new discovery for me. Created by literary fiction writer Rachel Giesel, the site is full of good information. I especially liked her blog post Three Big Things to Know About Your Characters. I’ve signed up for her mailing list, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to offer.
  9. Writers in the Storm – This blog is run by an accomplished group of authors and it frequently turns up on lists of the top websites for writers. They post daily, sometimes have guests, and they address a range of topics, from craft to promotion to writing life.
  10. The Fussy Librarian – I mostly Fussy Librarian mostly as a site for book promotion, but they also have a weekly email for authors and boy howdy are they awesome. Whoever’s putting the newsletter together scans the web for writing-related posts and groups them by subject: writing, law, grammer, career, marketing, and industry. This has been a fairly recent change – I think – but now they’re near the top of my “most anticipated” lists of weekly emails.

So there you have it! Are you ready for NaNo now? If you don’t see *your* favorite writing resource on the list, feel free to post it in the comments. I’m always up for learning something new…