Category Archives: writing advice

The Outline is more a suggestion than a set of rules.

My second novel The Choices we make, is three chapters away from being done, at least in its first draft form, so now I can speak with the experience of having completed two full novels. And I’m saying to you that outlines are not set in stone. They are just a suggestion, a few road markers on the way from the beginning to the end of your story. Or, like Captain Barbossa would say:

Guidelines
The Pirates of the Caribbean are property of Walt Disney.

 Now the pantsers in the audience will probably yell at me, “I told you so!” while the plotters will grumble, so let me explain what I mean by that. I am a plotter. I find out the hard way that I simple cannot finish a story without having written down at least some kind of outline beforehand. All the novels I tried to “pants” lay abandoned somewhere in the 1/3 to 1/2 of the story, because I either wrote myself into a corner, or had no idea where my story was going. So I outline everything, from short stories, to novels. And with Choices, I went even further and did an in-depth chapter by chapter outline.

 

But I have noticed something interesting while I was plodding through my first draft. While I followed that outline pretty closely in the beginning of the book, I started deviating even before the end of Part 1, I only glanced at it during Part 2, and threw it out of the window completely in Part 3 because my book had very little to do with the original story idea by that point.

good-luck-road-sign

 

If it had only happened with Choices, I would have called it a fluke and found another topic for a blog post, but when I looked back at EVERYTHING I wrote in the past year, I noticed a trend. It seems that I always throw my map away after the first leg of the journey and set off running happily towards the end of the story.

 

I don’t think it’s a bad thing (hence the title of this blog post), because when the time comes to deviate from the outline, I have spent some time with my characters already and I know how they will react and act, so I’m more comfortable with taking the back sit and letting them lead the story. But if I ever feel stuck or lost, I still have that map with the nearest road marker circled in red, so that I know where to stir my unruly crew towards.

 

Some of you might say that doing an extensive outline before sitting down to write the story seems like a waste of time if I throw two thirds of it away in the process. I disagree. By doing this outline, I already “write” this story once from the beginning to the end, and I can tell which parts don’t exactly work and need tweaking. So when I sit down and write my first draft, I usually manage to find a better way to tell that story: a better plot twist, a new and exciting way for my hero to get out of a dangerous situation, a more satisfying ending. This in turn makes the editing phase a lot less painful.

 

So what’s the conclusion of all this? I will still write extensive outlines for my projects, but I will never feel bad about deviated from them. In fact, if I manage to write a whole story that follows the outline to the letter, I will be extremely worried about its quality and probably spend longer on the editing stage.

 

And what about you guys? Are you a plotter or a pantser? How detailed are your outlines and how closely do you stick to them when you write your first draft?

Writing woes – the dreaded middle.

snoopy-writing

I have been diligently plugging away at the first draft of my new fantasy novel The Choices we make. I had started it as a NaNoWriMo 2014 project, but 50k words only took it to the middle of part 2, so I have been slowly adding words to it all December long. My goals is to finish it by January 15.

A week ago I have hit what I call the dreaded middle. It’s that state when you are already a long way away from the beginning of your story, where the idea was shiny and exciting and the characters spoke to you. But you are also equally away from the final resolution and those two wonderful words – THE END. You are in the middle, drudging through the mire of words with your final destination still miles away. That’s when I feel my motivation faltering.

When it happened for the first time while I was writing Of Broken Things, I panicked. I almost abandoned the story altogether. It felt like there was no point going on: my characters were flat and uninteresting, my story had plot holes so big you could fly a spaceship through, and I absolutely hated all the words I put on the page.

Good thing that I turned to the internet writing community before I tossed my unfinished draft out of the window. Because I discovered something both scary and reassuring. Yep, both at the same time.

Lack of Motivation
Lack of Motivation

I have discovered that everyone experiences something similar somewhere during their first draft. Not exactly at the same place in the draft as I am though. Some stress out about the beginning, while their story is not yet fully formed and the characters not yet defined. Others hit that mire closer to the end when the story is almost done and the thought of wrapping it up neatly because daunting.

It’s scary because it means that no matter how many books you write or how successful you are, there will still be days, weeks, or even months, when you will absolutely hate your draft. Even if it goes to become a best-seller, there would have been a period when you felt like putting words on the page was equivalent to shoveling crap. And then it will happen again with the first draft of the next book, and the next, and the next…

But it’s also reassuring because Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, of John Scalzi go through the same pains and doubts time after time. That means that the draft you feel like tearing into tiny scraps might not be as horrible as you think, that this feeling is probably inherent to the creative process. I don’t know about you, but discovering that even successful writers have those doubts motivates me to keep going.

I hit exactly the same roadblock in the middle of The Choices we make, but this time I knew it would happen, so I didn’t panic and I didn’t let it deter me from writing. So even when the fatigue sets in, when the motivation hits the lowest mark ever, and I can suddenly come up with a thousand things I can do instead of writing, I force myself to put my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. I put words on the page. Maybe 400, maybe 600, or 1000 on a good day. I don’t look back, I don’t re-read. I press on.

As a result, I’m one chapter away from finishing Part 2, and I’m glad to say that the fog is finally lifting! I left the dreaded middle behind. I can see the road to the finish line. I feel excited and motivated about my book again!

Finish what you start!
Finish what you start!

So here is a question for my fellow writers. Do you experience the same symptoms during your first draft? When does it occur? The beginning? The middle? Closer to the end? Or more than once during the creative process? I want to hear from you!

WIP roundup – What I have in the Pipeline for 2015.

hourglass_parchment_quill_cover

Since December seems to be flying by at Mach 3 speed and 2015 is almost upon us (already??? *panics*), I decided to roundup all my ongoing works in progress and decide what I want to accomplish in 2015. That way it will hold me accountable, but also let you know what (hopefully interesting) new things to expect from me next year.

When I look back at where I was in December 2013 compared to today, it’s easy to see the progress I have made. Last year, all I had to show up for my writing efforts was a half-finished first draft of my NaNoWriMo novel Of Broken Things.

I have been a busy little pen monkey since then. So here is the list of WIPs I have in the pipeline for 2015:

Mists of the Crossworlds (a novella)

Lori has the very rare ability to shift into the crossworlds, the strange plane that connects different words together. She guides merchant caravans for the Guild who has absolute monopoly on crossworld travel. But one day the mists start calling Lori’s name, and her best friend has gone missing. Lori is faced with a though choice:  will she hide from those voices in the safety of the Guild Tower, or will she dare step off the beaten path in order to save the person that matters to her the most?

Mists started as a short story that grew a little longer, than even longer, until it became a 20k words novella. The first draft is finally done (unless it decides to grow some more on me). From all my WIPs, this one is the closest to be finished. My plan is to rewrite / edit it this January, then find a professional editor and cover artist. The end result will be self-published around April 2015. I am in equal parts trilled and terrified by that prospect.

Of Dragons and Magic

The Eye of the Norns Cycle (collection of inter-related short stories)

As an Eye of the Norns, it’s Ryssa’s duty to right wrongs that would threaten the balance of the great Tapestry of the world. The problem is, she doesn’t choose the wrongs to right. She has to accept to be led by the Norns and has to discover the right way to resolve each problem. Her powers help in that, but are killing her in the process. And she can’t ever stop. And she doesn’t know if she is making a difference, of if her actions have a deeper meaning. But that won’t stop her from searching for one.

The first story of this cycle, A Small Detour, had been published in this anthology. But I felt that Ryssa’s story wasn’t finished with just one little short story. That’s when I had the idea for a collection of short stories relating Ryssa’s adventures and sorted in chronological order. The first draft of the second story, The Price of a Mistake, is finished and awaiting editing. The next two short stories are in the rough planning stages. My goal is to publish several volumes of 4-5 stories each. The goal is to publish the first volume around fall 2015. I don’t know yet how many volumes it will take to finish Ryssa’s story, so that’s a long term WIP.

Of Broken things (a science-fiction mystery novel).

When Aiden Stapleton, a successful private investigator, accepts to look into the murder of a seemingly ordinary college professor, he unwillingly crosses the paths of a government official eager to cover up traces of some shady research and a mysterious killer bound on revenge.  Now five seemingly unrelated professors around the country are dead, an illegal “snow” lab had been burned to the ground, there is a crater in the Arizona desert where a secret experimental complex was located, and Aiden’s life is in danger. And all of those seemingly unrelated events have something to do with Project Cassandra.

This is the first novel I ever finished. Right now it’s in the editing stage and I’m about halfway done with pass one. Since it’s my very first novel, there are A LOT of changes to make for this to be even remotely readable. So my goal for 2015 is to finish at least the first major edit and find beta readers for it. Long term goal – self-publication in 2016.

Blue blood on the page!
Blue blood on the page!

The Choices We Make (a fantasy novel).

It was supposed to be a routine escort mission for battle mage Sky and his partner: escort a runemaster, wait for him to poke at the wardstones for a few hours, then portal back. Only the mission turned out to be a death trap. Now his partner is dead, the runemaster has had his brain fried, and Sky owes a life debt to a half-blood. But Sky has no time to deal with his guilt and hurt, because breaches open everywhere in the Kingdom and people start disappearing. The Order of Battle Mages needs to discover what or who is behind this before their Kingdom plunges back into the horrors of the Half-Blood war from the ashes of which it had risen three hundred years ago. Sky and his new partner will be in the thick of the events, whether they want it or not.

This is the WIP I’m working on at the moment. The first draft is a little over halfway done. My plan is to finish it by January 15, 2015, then pick it up somewhere around May – June and start the editing process. No publication dates yet, but the goal is to shoot for 2017.

And then, of course, let’s not forget NaNoWriMo 2015, when I will probably start a brand new novel.

So these are my projects for next year. Looks like I will be very very busy, but it’s rather exciting! And I’m looking forward to launching into this whole self-publishing adventure as well.

WordCount

From Reader to Writer – a change in perspective.

I have always been an avid reader. The very first book I read on my own had been The 15 year old captain by Jules Verne, and I was 7 when I finished it. So I can pretty much says that I’ve been ready pretty much all my life. If I don’t have at least one book started at any given time, something is really wrong.

This would be my living room if we didn't have ebooks.
This would be my living room if we didn’t have ebooks.

I have also been a writer for over a year. I won two NaNoWriMos and finished several short stories and a novella between those as well. And I have been slowly learning more and more about the craft.

So being both a reader and a writer, I have noticed a change in the way I read books.

Before I started writing myself, I would pick up a book and either stick with it to the end, or abandon it somewhere in the middle (or after the first 50 pages, if the book was absolutely dreadful). I would then move on to the next book and forget about it, if I didn’t like it. Or recommend it to my friends and move on to the next book if I loved it. I didn’t waste much time pondering why I like or hated something.

Those days of blissful ignorance are now gone forever. I can’t just close a book and move on. My mind keeps coming back to it and analyzing WHY I liked it or didn’t like it. It’s especially true with books that I don’t like for some reason. As soon as I feel that my attention is slipping; that the book is losing my interest, I feel obliged to discover why. Does the author abuse infodumps? Are the characters flat or not interesting enough? Does the author tell more than she or he shows? Is the plot lacking conflict?

I can’t stop analyzing what I read, especially since I started posting book reviews on my blog. I must admit that it makes for some rather frustrating reads, when my mind starts picking a book apart instead of enjoying it. And I can’t switch it off, even if I try! In fact, if I get so lost in a story that I forget to pick it apart, it’s a sign that it’s a very VERY good book indeed. And those are the books that usually get a glowing 5 stars review on my blog once I resurface and gather my thoughts enough to actually write one.

I have also noticed that I pay particular attention to the ending. To me, it’s the most important part of the whole book. A badly written ending can ruin the whole story, no matter how wonderful and interesting it was.

I’ve heard my other writer friends talk about this shift of perception before, but until recently, I had thought that they were exaggerating.  Now I can confirm that they were right. I guess, the more you practice your craft, the more you think about it, the more you edit your own works, the more accustomed you get to critical reading. And after a certain point, you undergo the shift in perception I described above.

This shift in perspective means that I read slower than I used to, but I’m not too worried about that. Because I think that every book I read and analyze helps me improve my own craft as well. I learn what works and what doesn’t, what to do in a story and what to avoid at all cost.

There is no such thing as too many books.
There is no such thing as too many books.

I think that as writers we are very lucky in this respect. After all, who else can say that they are learning their profession AND having a good time in the process?

NaNoWriMo – we are halfway done!

pen-and-paper

We have officially rounded the bend on this year’s NaNo challenge. It’s all downhill from now on. Some of you might be doing great and rushing through that word count with the finish line getting closer and closer at NASCAR speed. But for some, this is the most treacherous part of the journey, when the fatigue sets up and motivation flags down.

You have been plodding along, struggling to meet your word count for over two weeks now. Sometimes you were successful, sometimes not so much. And if you are behind on your word count for some reason, the realization that the number of days you have to catch up is limited can be extremely demotivating.

Or you could be experiencing another symptom: you suddenly feel like what you wrote is utter useless crap. Your writing is flat, your characters are not interesting, or worse, your story is not worth telling. I know that feeling. I’ve experienced it last year. I even wrote a panicked post about it.  It got so bad that I was about to toss everything into the trash and call it quits.

PanicAttack

My NaNo novel and my writing career was saved by one of my writing buddies who told me that this feeling was totally normal, and that all writers experience it at one point or another of their first draft. She also send me the link to a pep talk Neil Gaiman wrote for NaNoWriMo back in 2007 and told me to read it before I did anything drastic like pressing DELETE on my computer and tossing my writing dreams out of the window.

I read Neil’s pep talk and I found it very motivating. The words that resonated with me the most were these:

That’s how novels get written.

You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

So I gritted my teeth and kept on writing, no matter how much I hated my manuscript by that point. And you know what? It got better. I wrote a few scenes I thought were rather good; I got excited about my story; the characters started speaking to me again; and I managed to get to the finish line. The result  was the first draft Of Broken Things, which is far from being perfect and still needs a ton of editing, but at least it’s finished.

Hemingway

So I want to do the same thing my writing buddy did for me last year and motivate you today. If you feel like tossing your novel into the trash and giving up – don’t. Go read through the wonderful pep talks we have on the NaNoWriMo site. Talk to your writing buddies and ask for support. Stop by the forums and share your doubts. But more importantly, stick around for a day or two more, write a few more words, start that scene you had been looking forward to write, even if it doesn’t happen until several chapters later. Or introduce a brand new character, or lead your story in a completely different direction.

I am convinced that you will get your mojo back and actually looking forward to the few days we have left before the end of November and NaNoWriMo.

And finally, let me leave you with this post by Chuck Wendig called On the Detestation of your Manuscript: an Expedition into the Dark, Tumultuous Heart of Authorial Self-Hatred. Be warned that Chuck uses a lot of naughty language, but his stuff is usually very funny and motivating.

And with that, write on, wrimos!

NaNoWriMo – things I’ve learned after week one.

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

We have officially survived the first week of NaNoWrimo and (hopefully) even managed to put some words on paper! This is a big first step and if you are still hanging on (and still writing), a small celebration is definitely in order. This is the first important milestone in our NaNo journey.

For me, this NaNoWriMo is not really about discovering whether I can write 50k words in a month. I know I can, because I have already done that last year.

NaNo 2013 was all about  nervous excitement at the challenge laced with a lot of doubts and “oh my god, what was I thinking when I decided to do that, and 1667 words per day is impossible!” moments. NaNo 2014 is more about refining my writing process and discovering what methods allow me to be more efficient when writing my first draft. So, this year I try to pay attention not only to what I write, but also how I write it, and note things that help me write faster and those that hinder me.

So here are a few conclusions I came up with after week one.

  1. Detailed outlines are a lifesaver.

During NaNo 2013, I had a general outline of my novel, arbitrarily separated into 3 parts. I had only put down some major points and decided to fill out the blanks as I went. As a result, my first draft contained a lot of backstory, side stories, and meaningless wanderings. I never got stuck per se, but there were days when I meandered through the story with no clear idea how to get to the next big plot point on my list.

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr

I can tell you that editing that first draft is an absolute nightmare. I have only managed to wade through Part 1 and started on Part 2, and I have rewritten 90% of the draft.

This year, I spent the whole month of October writing several outlines for my NaNo 2014 project. I had a general plot outline, I had my characters bios and backstories and I had a chapter by chapter outline. Yup, I have written a 15k words, very detailed outline of my whole book.

The result is rather impressive – my WIP is has broken the 20k milestone today, and I haven’t been stuck even once so far. I also find it easier to get into the writing mood each day when I know exactly what scenes I will have to write.

2. Practice might not make everything perfect, but it certainly makes things better.

When I foolishly decided to participate in NaNo 2013, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I had never tried to write consistently for any prolonged period of time. So of course I struggled! Some days coming up with that daily 1667 word goal seemed almost impossible. The most I could manage in one sitting was between 500-600 words, after which my brain would go into meltdown and need a few hours to recuperate.

WordCount

I have been writing every day for the past year and building up my “literary” muscles, so to speak. So now my brain can produce 1000-1400 words in one session before the critical meltdown, which makes meeting the daily goal suddenly so much easier.

Plus whenever I feel like slaking off, this annoying little voice in my head starts nagging at me, “You managed to meet your word count last year, even if you had to struggle for it. You can do better than that this year!” Maybe I should try to lock her in the basement along with my inner editor next time?

And I saw another aspect of my writing in which practice really makes a difference. Not only do I write faster now, but I also write cleaner. I have a clearer idea of what I want to put on the page, and I manage to come up with the words I need much quicker than a year ago. So hopefully, this will make the editing process much less painful later on.

  1. Planning ahead is essential.

NaNo 2013 was a success for my writing life, but a bit of a disaster in my everyday life. I was so absorbed in the writing process, that I didn’t have time for anything else. Between my day job and NaNo, the month of November 2013 went by in a blur. I think my family had started to forget how I looked like by the end of it, because I would come home from work, grunt an unintelligible greeting, and disappear behind my monitor, dead to the world.

This year, not only do I have a lot more responsibilities at work, which require more of my time and attention, but I also have to update this blog, providing new interesting content every week, and I have a novel to write.

So I have to plan ahead, use every free minute of my time to keep up with everything. I have succeeded so far, and I’m not even too frazzled yet. But it’s only been a week, so we will see if I’m still as organized and optimistic by the time Thanksgiving comes knocking at my door.

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Conclusion:

One week down, three more to go. Keep on writing, wrimos and remember that it doesn’t matter if you are ahead on our word count, just on the money, or desperately behind. You are here, you are making an effort to put words on the page and to create something beautiful out of nothing. That in itself is already an accomplishment!

NaNoWriMo – lock your inner editor in the basement.

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

Well, NaNoWriMo 2014 has now officially started. How did everyone do during their first full weekend of furious writing? Did the words flow out of your head and into the blank page or computer screen? Did you write until you felt like your head was on fire, your brain had turned to mush, and your fingers were bleeding? Or perhaps you stared at that blank page and felt overwhelmed by all the whiteness?

No matter what you have achieved this weekend, I’m sure you have realized something very important. Something that all the seasoned writers know, but that comes as an unpleasant surprise for all of us who decide to put our stories on paper for the first time.  I am speaking about the huge difference between the story that exists in our head and the result that gets put on paper.

I remember the first time I came face to face with this dichotomy. I had this important scene to write, and in my mind it was witty, well-written, full of good dialogue and tension – in other words, absolutely perfect. What I vomited on the page was absolute and utter crap… I was heartbroken. I was horrified. I was ready to press the delete button on the whole sorry excuse for a novel and go back to my day job.

But I did no such thing, and do you know why? Because first drafts are supposed to be bad. They are supposed to be full of typos, and ramblings, purple prose, and bad dialogue. In other words, like Ernest Hemingway said:

Hemingway

Yes, you heard it. Even the great masters of the written word have to struggle through a horrible first draft before they create a masterpiece. The trick to accomplishing that is to accept that your first draft will suck. In other words, you need to bind, gag, and lock your inner editor in the basement for the whole month of November (and maybe December and January as well) until your first draft is done.

That means every time you hear that little voice in the back of your mind telling you that your description sucks, that your dialogue is weak, that your plot is boring… tune it out, crank the music up, put earplugs in your ears, or shout, “La-la-la, can’t hear you!!!!” And keep writing.

Powering through your doubts and writer’s block is the only way you will get a finished draft to show for your efforts. It doesn’t matter if your first 3-4 chapters are a polished work of art if your story isn’t finished. As Kristen Lamb says, the world rewards finishers, not perfectionists.

Inner Editor

And if your inner editor is having a mental breakdown and sobbing uncontrollably in a dark corner of that basement, you can always tell her that she will have free reign over your work once the editing process starts. She will be free to take a chainsaw to your first draft and dismantle it at her heart’s desire. If you hate the scene you just wrote, keep a notebook handy and jot down the chapter and page number and a few words about what doesn’t work for you. Once you are done with your draft, you can use those notes during the editing process.

But for now, shhh, don’t listen to her, just write. Put one word on the page after another, no matter how bad does words seem. You can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.

So go on, wrimos, write your novels!