Friday, February 27, 2015

A Room with a View

Do you pull down your shades and shut out the world when you write? Or are you motivated by a city view? A view of nature? What is the ideal landscape for your creativity?

by Paul D. Marks

I don’t think I have an “ideal” landscape, but I do like to see something appealing and engaging outside the window, whether a busy cityscape from a high-rise or a view of the hills or a country scene.

That said, I’ve written in places where there wasn’t much of a view.  Just the stucco wall of the apartment next door or even worse the inside wall of my apartment and no view of anything. But I didn’t like that much. Don’t like having nothing to look at, and when that was the case I would put pictures on the walls that would “inspire” me. In our last house, we had a pretty nice view...but it was on the back side of the house and my office was on the front side, looking out at the street. So the walls there were decorated largely with Edward Hopper prints – good for writing mysteries and noir. But some of the time I’d write on the laptop in the kitchen or family room where I could look out at the view. Which was nice...except for the time the hills across the way were blazing and smoke was furling up. And then hoping the fire wouldn’t jump over to us.

In our current house, I can see the canyon and hills in the distance from my office. It’s quiet and peaceful most of the time. Sometimes I just look out the window, especially at night when I can see lights dancing in the distance, across the canyon. And on the walls here are mostly rock and movie posters, lobby cards, album covers. But what happens with them much of the time is that they just blend into the background and I don’t really see them. Other times they stand out and I can enjoy them and get inspiration from them. But mostly I just look out the windows.

My office might be a cluttered mess, but I can block that out. Having something serene outside to look at calms me and gives me the peace of mind I need to get into that Zen writing state (he said with only a hint of sarcasm, at least about the Zen).

I do like our view here, but Robin’s view is to die for. Can’t compete with that. Very nice!

And, while I do like something to look at out the window, I also like to “shut the world out” when I write, not in a visual sense. But in a sense of quiet. I need quiet, for reasons I won’t bore you with. I’ve lived in places where there was construction going on next door or across the alley. Sometimes eighteen hours a day. Once the vibrations from the construction were so bad that when I tried to play a record the needle would skip across it, making a sound as irritating as fingers on a blackboard.

When I haven’t had quiet, I would play music to mask the background sounds. Mostly the music turned to white noise.

And unlike Susan, who thrives on external stimulation, I can’t write well or at all in public places. I’m just too distracted by everything going on around me. I want to drink and chat and have fun. So I like retreating to my clean, well-lighted place, to borrow a phrase.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Me and Mrs Woolf

I have a room of my own.

As you see, it's tricked out in my habitual sleek minimalism, plus a few essential photos of Charlie's Angels and the like. It's the second room I've had since I started writing (same desk, different continental mass) and most of the time it works pretty well. I'm side on to the window and it faces the front so there's traffic. Larry next door goes to get hay for the horses twice a week, for a start. But being the last but one house up a dirt road doesn't lead to much in the way of distraction.
There's a cat:
but I've filed her. Occasionally there are woodpeckers trying to get into the eaves or wild turkeys blatantly scratching up seedlings. And one time - well, two times - a snake came in off the porch. Then there was the day of the frog in the waterbutt, the mouse in the cat dish (worried but too full to climb out) and the possum in the cow trough (very dead), but mostly it's just me.
There's no music except for about two hours a year, when I finish a book and print it. Then I put on either ELO's Mr Blue Sky or (recently) Pharrell's Happy (judge away; I don't care) as loud as it'll go and dance around as the inkjet whirrs and the warm pages curl out.
This is why I'll never go on a writers' retreat. Every one I've ever heard of is less retreaty than my real life. Sometimes there are other people.  Brrrr.
And yet sometimes, for no reason I've ever been able to identify, I need to go to Mishka's instead.
It can be at any stage of any draft, any time of any day - suddenly the quiet room with everything I need and the low keyboard for wrist comfort becomes unbearable and what's required is a crowded coffeeshop full of students ordering nonsensical drinks very slowly (liquorice soy chai latte, people? Seriously?) where I can hunch over a laptop with my wrists like hairpins, no reference books and Mariachi classics playing.
I have good and bad writing days at home but the words always pour out at Mishka's.  If anyone knows why, I'd love to hear.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Squirrel and Zombies

by Clare O'Donohue

Q: Do you pull down your shades and shut out the world when you write? Or are you motivated by a city view? A view of nature? What is the ideal landscape for your creativity?

I don't have a dedicated office space in my house (though a girl can dream). I have a kitchen table, and I have living room couch. I have a nearby Starbucks. I have whatever hotel I'm in because my job keeps me on the road. But I've found that the writing mojo isn't so much based on what I'm looking at as what mood I'm in.

I have two writing personalities. "Squirrel" appears faithfully every time I sit down to write. Anyone who has seen the movie "Up" knows what I'm talking about. In the movie the dog gets easily distracted by anything resembling a squirrel, running off mid-sentence sometimes. In real life it's me who gets distracted by anything resembling... anything. 

I fidget, spend a lot of time reading the articles on, get up for my fourth cup of tea in an hour, realize I need to return an email, and remember that I haven't cleaned the refrigerator in a while. I don't mind a little squirrel in my life, it's when he overstays his welcome - wasting whole days - that I really get annoyed.

The second personality comes later, when I've found the words again. I start writing and writing and forget the world, the internet, and household chores. My half finished cup of tea gets cold on the desk. When I'm really in a book, the world outside could turn into a scene from The Walking Dead. Zombies could roam by my window, break into my house, take a chunk out of my leg, and I'd keep typing. "Just let me finish this chapter," I'd say to the undead creature making me his lunch, "and then I'll go zombie-ing with you." 

It doesn't matter to me whether I'm hidden away in an undecorated room, or sitting on the floor in a crowded, flight-delayed airport gate. If I'm in zombie-mode, the only view I care about is the one on my laptop. 


I have found that it's easier for me to get into zombie-mode when I write in the same place every day. Maybe my squirrel personality is bored by the same-old scenery so I get down to business sooner, or maybe my brain just knows this is where the writing happens. I find it's easier when I don't have music playing, so that goes off. I don't close the blinds because scenery is not a distraction, but I do avoid the internet because it's not just a distraction it's a time-suck. 

So when I find I'm spending too much time in squirrel mode, I force the routine of being in the same place, at the same time, in relative quiet, until I'm so far zombie that I don't care. Two or three good zombie days and I can venture back out into the distracting world. I've not just written a fair amount, but I'm filled with ideas for the next chapter or two - something that can keep me writing just in case squirrel pops up again.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A View of One's Own

by Robin Spano

Question of the Week: Do you pull down your shades and shut out the world when you write? Or are you motivated by a city view? A view of nature? What is the ideal landscape for your creativity?

When we first looked at buying this home, a neglected old house that was literally in danger of slipping down the cliff it's built into, there was a room on the lower level that I had pegged as the one I wanted for my office. It was private, away from the bustle of bedrooms and kitchens and potential house guests who I thought might get in my way and break my creative trance.

My husband, Keith, begged to differ.

“You can't see from down there. You just see trees. Come look at the view from this room on the second floor.”

So I grudgingly followed him up to see what I knew would be a subpar office option. I figured he must have a different plan for that awesome perfect room down below with all that privacy, and he was clearly trying to sell me on this other room so the one I liked could be his for something else.

“Ta-da!” Keith opened the door into the tiniest, most junk-cluttered room in the house. The carpet was stained and the room was too small to be anything other than a closet.

“Very funny,” I said. “The view is great. But I like that other room better.”

We bought the house and agreed to decide on my office later. When we took possession, and the previous owner's junk had been cleared out, I looked at the tiny upstairs room again. The view was stellar. The carpet was disgusting.

“I figure I can build in an L-shaped desk,” Keith said. He showed me where he'd put the shelves. “We can strip off the carpet and you can have whatever floor you like. And you know the biggest advantage? This is too small to convert to a guest room, even if we have a full house.”

My brain perked up on that point. It was true. A blow-up mattress wouldn't even fit onto the floor space. Until then, every office space I'd had would double as a guest room in a pinch.

“Okay,” I said. “Let's take out the carpet and see.”

Now, nearly four years later, I cannot imagine what I was thinking to turn this little space down. I love my tiny office that will never be a guest room, but more than that: it doesn't feel tiny at all. It feels massive and expansive every time I look outside.

The view from my desk is a fjord called Howe Sound, about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Vancouver and an hour south of Whistler. I see mountains, islands, old growth forest. I see fishing boats, kayakers, pleasure crafts, dolphins hunting schools of herring. I see crows chasing eagles, eagles swooping down for prey. Right now as I type there's a mean looking gray boat that might be a shrimper...or maybe it's a government spy.

The view changes with the weather, the season, the time of day. I could stare outside for hours and never get bored. It helps me focus on what matters, which helps me focus on my writing.

I don't like to say these words often, and I think I'm safe now because he doesn't read these blog posts, but Keith was right and I was wrong.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Why I May Have to Live on an Airplane

"Do you pull down your shades and shut out the world when you write? Or are you motivated by a city view? A view of nature? What is the ideal landscape for your creativity?"

- from Susan

It is a good question. I’ll share what I’ve learned about what doesn’t work. What does work is an evolving solution.

Looking at anything that I could or should do or dream about doing instead of writing is not a great idea: laundry, cookie jar, iPhone, stack of bills, photos of Hawaii…not smart.

The spines of 800 crime fiction books by some of the best authors in the world, thoughtfully arranged so that I can be reminded every time I raise my eyes how far inferior what I’m typing at this moment is from their worst sentences…not the best spur to creativity.

Any view of any piece of outdoors under my control and that, therefore, needs my attention before it is ruined by rain, drought, sun, shade, or mealy bugs…my fingers itch just typing this.

A beach out my window?…Forget it. I’m miles away in my head instantly and will be out the door in five.

All of this is to say, obviously, that I’m easily distracted. It’s odd, really, because I’m a spectacularly bad typist, must look at the keys to have any hope of hitting the right ones, then look at the screen to see what my free throw percentage was for that paragraph. (So far, I’m only about 60% on this essay.) My eyes are constantly in use, so how do I see all those distractions?

When I moved to my wonderful house, I finally had a room just for work. I set it up so I face a whiteboard, bookshelves behind and to the sides, window to the right, a whole floor away from food. The best outcome so far is that I’m burning more calories running up and down stairs.

So what works? Two places really work wonderfully, and from what I’ve heard other writers say, they’re not surprises: airplanes and coffee cafes. Something about the quality of the noise, the lack of potential delight by interacting, and the tight radius of my space has an effect on my powers of concentration. Since I have a deadline coming up, I’m thinking about installing chairs around me, finding a tape loop of 50 voices talking at once, and maybe tilting the whiteboard so I can barely operate the keyboard. If that’s too hard, I’ll head to Peet’s!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Pantser? Plotter? Agatha Short Story Finalists Weigh In On This Week's Question

By Art Taylor

I'm pleased to welcome a distinguished group of writers to help round out this week's discussion on the question "Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?" Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, Kathy Lynn Emerson, and I all have stories which have been named finalists for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story, to be presented at Malice Domestic the first weekend in May. Soon after the finalists were announced, Edith invited us all to join in a big group post at Wicked Cozy Authors, which will appear on Friday, March 6— and Kathy also offered to host another post at Maine Crime Writers in April as well. Stay tuned for all of that!

In the meantime, I thought that this week's question here at Criminal Minds offered a good chance for each of us to talk about our nominated stories, what method we used in writing them, and whether that was the approach we normally took—or a step in a new direction. I'll kick things off, and then include each author's response below—along with a link to each story (embedded in the story's title in the heading for each section). Thanks again to Edith for suggesting this blog hop in general!

Art Taylor on "The Odds Are Against Us" and "Premonition"

I'm fortunate to have two stories named as finalists for the Agatha this year: "The Odds Are Against Us," which was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (cover right), and "Premonition," which appeared in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, published by Wildside Press in conjunction with the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. What's funny is that the two stories couldn't be more different in my mind, both in the final product and in the process behind them. "Premonition" was a story that I started several years ago almost purely as an exercise in style: writing from the "you" perspective like in those old Choose Your Own Adventure Books and trying to layer dreams, imagination, and reality in such a way that it was tough for the "you" to see where one began and the other ended. While the story was sparked by one of my own nightmares, and I soon had a sense of where the story should end, the rest of it was written just to see where it went—and then revised with an extra layer of menace, thanks to a Halloween theme for the anthology submission.

"The Odds Are Against Us," on the other hand, was pretty carefully plotted from start to finish before I started writing it—all of it focused around a choice that the narrator needs to make, the consequences that follow that choice, and the way that the past both determines and then complicates both the choice and the aftermath. Because of what I saw as the greater thematic heft of this story, I felt like it really needed to be calibrated pretty carefully each step of the way, and I'd laid out each of the scenes and their purpose in advance to determine the movement of all the parts.

So which do I usually do? My writing generally follows a wide range of approaches. Some stories build in unexpected directions, some are planned out firmly, and sometimes it's a combination of approaches—surprises for me that I hope surprise the reader too. 

Barb Goffman on "The Shadow Knows" 

I’m a plantser. I plot at a high level before I start writing (I know the beginning and generally where I’m going), but I don’t know the exact route I’ll take to get to the end.

For “The Shadow Knows,” I wanted to write about a superstitious man, Gus, who believes his town groundhog, Moe, actually controls the weather. Gus decides to get rid of Moe so his town could finally have an early spring. I wanted Gus to be injured while trying to nab Moe, but it took a while to figure out how to make that funny, which was my goal. (In the end, it’s all in the voice. If the same scenario had happened to a less grouchy person, it wouldn’t have been funny.)

I tried to write a story by the seat of my pants once. In the end, that was way too much work. I ended up writing a lot of things that ultimately didn’t serve the story’s purpose and had to be deleted, and I still haven’t sold that story. So while I tip my hat at pantsers, I am firmly and happily a plantser.

Edith Maxwell on "Just Desserts for Johnny"

I am by nature a pantser, and I particularly am with short stories. For "Just Desserts for Johnny," the first sentence popped into my head: She hadn’t planned on killing Johnny Sorbetto that winter. He had promised her so much. And I went from there. All I had to do was keep writing, follow the story, and figure out how to make it end.

Sometimes an entire story will pop up while I'm out walking, and all I have to do is fill in the details, but it’s not like I plotted it. It just appeared in my brain, and those are the stories that seem to write themselves.

Novels are a bit different, especially since my publisher at Kensington asks for a three-to-four page synopsis before I write the book. But I still pretty much pantser it, as long as I update the synopsis when the book is finished. The most plotting I do is three or four scenes ahead.

Kathy Lynn Emerson on "The Blessing Witch"

I write by applying fingers to keyboard and hoping that whatever oozes down from my brain is still intelligible when it shows up on the screen. I can’t visualize far enough ahead to outline anything, whether it’s a short story or a novel. In fact, I don’t always know which length will ultimately work for an idea. I’ve written more than one short story only to discover that it needed to be a novel and “The Blessing Witch” and another short story titled “The Cunning Woman” (in AHMM later this year) started life as scenes in a novel I’ve since abandoned as unworkable. This is not the most efficient way to write. I wish I could outline. On the other hand, whatever it is I’m doing has led to over fifty traditionally published books and more than twenty short stories in anthologies and magazines, so I must be doing something right.     

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Which Way Did I Go?

by Alan

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?

I graduated college with a degree in mechanical engineering. I like plans, schematics, and spreadsheets. Formulae, laws of physics, straight lines, sharp corners, curves described by elegant mathematics. I believe in ORDER.

My name is Alan, and I’m an outliner.point a to point b

If I tried to write something without an outline, I have full confidence it would devolve rapidly. I’d start writing a scene, and everything would be fine for a few  minutes, but before too long it would go flying off the rails. For instance, have you ever had an argument with someone, but ten minutes later, you’ve miraculously switched positions? Which reminds me of a book I read once, where the characters’ back stories kept shifting, making following the chain of events difficult, at best. Not as difficult as rocket science, but still hard. Did you ever wonder how these advanced 3-D rendering technologies have changed the way engineers design rockets? And rockets are way, way cool. Maybe I should write a book about people hijacking a rocket and settling on Mars. Mmmm, Mars. I do like their chocolate. And if anyone is interested, I prefer dark chocolate. I understand it’s actually healthy for you. And I’m all about the health. Hey! Squirrel!

But I digress. (If you couldn’t tell, I often write these blog posts by the seat of my pants.)

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes. Outlining. I outline, but when I say I “outline,” it’s not like how we were taught in third grade. Nothing formal whatsoever—no Roman numerals, no subsection 12-G-IV-c, no indenting. First, I map out how the story begins. Then I plot out how the story ends. I also like to pencil in some of the major turning points along the way. Then I fill in the scenes that connect these “tent poles.”

Sometimes I have a good idea what a scene should contain, but often my outline consists of little more than: “Scene 14: Joe and Sue meet in the old chemical plant. Joe tells her something shocking, and Sue runs off, slips, and falls into a vat of hydrochloric acid.”

I should make it clear that I’m not a slave to my outline. I view it as a living, almost-breathing entity. When things change (and boy, do they ever), I change right along with them (or should I say, I change my outline right along with them). In my writing workshops, I tell outliners that if things aren’t working, consider changing your outline. (Similarly, I tell pantsers they need to change their pants (ba-da-bing!).)

Sometimes I wish I had the ability to just sit down and start writing (with the reasonable expectation of producing something decent). That’s right, on some level, I envy the pantsers. So carefree. So happy-go-lucky. So…Bohemian.

But even if I did write more by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I don’t think anyone would ever confuse me with a free-wheeling, spontaneous artiste. And that’s something I’ll just have to learn to live with.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

No Surprises For Me

By Tracy Kiely

I tend to be a list maker. I will scribble various versions of “Do This” and “Pack This” and “Buy This” on anything I can find. I will even write down a task that I have already completed, just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing it off my list. Sadly, none of this makes me organized. Half the time I can’t find the list within minutes of making it, and I never actually complete all the tasks. But, I keep making them, if for no other reason than the brief moment of order it affords me. 
So, yes, I plot out my books ahead of time. The idea of writing without an outline makes me want to lie down and put my head between my knees. It’s the same sensation I get when I have to speak in public, do long division, or try on a bathing suit. (As a side note, I’ve been told that in these situations, alcohol can help. THIS IS A LIE.)
Anyway, back to the topic.
Years ago, I took a mystery writing class in which we all took turns reading our opening paragraph. One woman had an opening I’ll never forget. Her omnipresent narrative told of a small kitten wandering into a bathroom where a man was taking a shower. The man in the shower was singing. The kitten sees another set of feet enter the bathroom. The man in the shower suddenly stops singing and collapses into a pool of his own blood. The wife of the dead man calls out that breakfast is ready. The killer picks up the kitten (!) and then puts it back down. The kitten traipses through the dead man’s blood before heading downstairs. The scene ended with the sounds of the wife’s screams at the sight of the kitten covered in blood.
I’m not doing it justice, but we were spellbound. It was a great opening.   Someone in the class asked the writer a question about the kitten, and she kind of shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know who is in the shower, let alone who killed him.” I was in shock. The idea of not knowing SO MUCH made my head hurt.
Then, to make matters worse, the WOMAN NEVER CAME TO ANOTHER CLASS!!!
I still think of that bloody kitten and that maddening woman. That kind of off-the-cuff writing is alien to me. I have to know who did it and why. I have to know what clues the protagonist picks up that leads to the discovery of the murderer. I kind of use what I call the Colombo method of writing. I start with the murderer and how he or she commits the murder and, more importantly, how they get caught. Once I know that, I work backwards to fill in the rest. I know there are some authors who can just sit down and write and see where it goes. But, then I know there are some people who grow their own tomatoes and bake their own bread. (No judging here, all God’s Children and all, that but COME ON!)
Of course, even the best plans go awry, and despite my outline, I’ll find myself with a plot point that simply won’t work. When that happens, a loud expletive can relieve some stress, but it doesn’t solve the problem. I find that if I focus on something else for a while, my mind will clear (well, as best it can) and the solution will slowly rise to its murky surface. Over the years, I’ve found that I don’t need to create as detailed an outline as I used to, but I am far from writing by the seat of my pants. I doubt that I ever will be, just as I doubt that there will never be tomatoes in my garden or bread in my oven.
And that’s probably a good thing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I like surprises

By R.J. Harlick

"Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?"

I slipped my gloves on with a snap, pulled my toque down tightly over my ears and headed out into the blizzard. No wait a minute, my outline said it was supposed to be a sunny day. But a storm creates more suspense, so I’ll go with it. The wind had knocked my skis over, half-burying them in the snow.  I cleaned them off and clicked my boots into the bindings. Though drifts had almost obliterated the trail, I had no choice. I had to take it. It was the only route to the cemetery and to Ivan. I know, the outline said it was supposed to be a cabin, but a cemetery has more possibilities and who knows, maybe Ivan is no longer alive when I get there.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating, but I imagine you have probably guessed by now that I am a pantser. I tried doing an outline for my second book and it lasted for two chapters without any detours. By the time I reached the fifth chapter the story bore no relation to the outline.

I don’t completely start cold. I always know what the setting and the underlying theme of my upcoming book will be. I also have a fairly good idea of the opening scene and the main characters in addition to Meg and a rough idea of where the story is going. But that is about it. I more or less let the story and Meg take me where they feel it needs to go. I never know whodunit. Sometimes I don’t even know who the victims will be.

But it can be a painful and slow process. I throw balls into the air not sure where they will land or even if they will land.  I invariably hit the proverbial brick wall and end up slowing to a crawl with my writing. I take a lot of long walks with my dogs trying to figure out how to smash the brick wall. 

But you know what, I enjoy the uncertainty, the not knowing. I like the surprises, the twists that suddenly materialize. They keep me interested in my story, in wanting to know what will happen. I love taking this unknown journey with Meg. I worry an outline will make the story too predictable and I’ll get bored. And if I get bored, so will my readers.

But that’s not to say that I won’t completely give up on outlining. With the latest and seventh Meg Harris mystery about to be sent off to my publisher, maybe for the next book, I’ll try my hand at outlining. It might help to reduce the timing of its publication to one year rather than the usual 1.5-2 year interval.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mapping out a story before starting my journey

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?

by Meredith Cole

Plan ahead, that's my motto. I like lists. I like maps. I like to use a recipe. And I like to have a plan before I begin anything.

But I'm not inflexible. If a plan doesn't work, if there's something interesting by the side of the road, I'm fully in favor of taking a detour. I add spices that are not listed in the recipe or substitute ingredients when I don't have something on hand. I get a great new idea while I'm writing, or realize a character would be better if they were twenty years older or a man or something, then I change my story. But I like to start with a master plan to deviate from.

I wasn't always an outliner. I was a seat-of-the-pantser for years and years. And I found that I never actually finished anything. At some point in almost every story I realized that I had no idea what came next and I gave up. I have lots of terrible unfinished stories in boxes somewhere. Or in a landfill. And believe me, there's no need to dig any of them up.

So I began to make myself daydream for a little while and scribble down some ideas about my story before I was allowed to begin. I consider it part of the creative process. I try out different ideas and try to imagine different scenarios and outcomes. I scribble down the end, if I know it. I try to flesh out the middle, too. And if I feel like I've got enough for a novel, I begin.

The more books I write, though, the more flexible I've noticed that I've become about having what I would consider an outline. I get a kernel of an idea and write a few pages, testing out the voice. Then I let the story percolate. A few days later, I get some more ideas about where the story could go and I write those new ideas down. I definitely trust myself not to get stuck in dark alleys quite as often as I used to, with or without a map.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.*

How do you hammer out your first drafts? Have you ever used NaNoWriMo or the 3-Day Novel Contest, or a similar group motivation effort, to get your first draft done?

by Paul D. Marks



And no.

Should I quit while I’m ahead and just leave it at that? No, why not put my foot in it more:

I’m too much of a hermit and an individualist to do the group thing. I like to sit in my cave and just write. And I’m pretty disciplined, so I don’t need those things to motivate me. But whatever works for any particular writer is what they should do.

As to how I hammer out my first drafts – I sit myself in a chair, usually at my desk, and write. I’m a pantster, so I write by the seat of my pants. Early drafts are just sort of stream of consciousness...but with some purpose in mind ‘cause I do have a story idea and some characters I’m working with. And I tend to do a lot of drafts because the early ones are so all over the place. But with each I see the story and characters developing. And often the characters change the nature of the story or at least the direction it’s going in.
I usually spend time goofing on the internet before I actually get down to the business of writing. A better procrastination tool has never been invented. It makes you feel like you’re working when you’re really just looking up the lyrics to that song you heard the other day. Or if you really want to feel like you’re working you can actually do some research that might make it into your story. Or, you can go on Facebook and post clever memes or watch silly cat videos. Then you know you’ve done a good day’s work. Of course, with two cats I can watch my own cat videos, live every day.

When I teach on occasion, the thing I find with students is that they’re all gung ho...until it comes time to actually do the work. Everybody, it seems, thinks they’re a writer or at least wants to be. The difference between people who are writers and the wanna-bes is usually no more than sitting oneself down and doing it, improving your writing over time, and then having the persistence to keep doing it in the face of rejection, which can be devastating.

Maybe NaNoWriMo or other things like it are useful to some people, help them get motivated and give them word counts to reach for. But ultimately, whether you just sit your ass in a chair or use NaNoWriMo or one of the other methods to motivate you, it still comes down to just sitting your ass in the chair and doing it.

Okay, ‘nuff said. Now I’m off to watch cute cat videos.

*attributed to Red Smith, Hemingway and others, but I think Red Smith is the one who said it

* * *

Well, a little bit o’ personal news. We have a new family member. He weighs in at about 85 or 90 pounds. And is one big guy. He makes our other dog look smallish, and she isn’t. No name for him yet. Got him from Westside German Shepherd Rescue in LA, a no-kill shelter, last Sunday. He’s about three years old. So now we’re back up to our full contingent of two cats, two dogs. The cats are still getting used to him... And, unfortunately, our other dog, Pepper, hurt her knee ligament on Monday and had an operation Wed. Her injury had nothing to do with the New Guy. He was in the house with me and she was running in the yard. She’s home now and recuperating. Here’s the New Guy’s debut pic. You can’t really tell how big he is in this pic, but I think of him as Gigantor.

New Dog - Buster von Basall -- picked up 2-8-15

Thursday, February 12, 2015

typing and weeping

How do you hammer out the first draft and have you ever participated in Nanowrimo?

I was a few books in before I heard of Nanowrimo and I was already superstitious about changing things in case the whole soufflé collapsed, so the answer to the second bit is "no".

About the first bit, though . . .

The ideal is 2000 words a day, 5 days a week, for 10 weeks, giving a 100K first draft in under a season. It doesn't always work out. More likely is 3000 confident words a day to start with, typed with brio and a song in the heart, then what my husband calls the Big Early Wobble, when I select four or more of the following remarks and combine them in any order:
  • I can't do this
  • This time it's real
  • I've never understood less about a story
  • I don't know who these characters are
  • There's no colour
  • It's too thin
  • This isn't a world
  • This has never happened before
  • I have never felt like this before
  • Why do you always tell me I always do this?
Neil counters with a handful chosen from among these rejoinders:
  • Yes, you have
  • Yes, pretty much word for word
  • Not just last time, every time
  • I bet it'll be okay
  • Why not write it and see if maybe it's okay
  • I honestly believe it might be okay
  • Yes, but I really think you have
  • Yes, you totally have, you crazy lunatic
But here's the thing. The book I'm writing right now is 57K words long after [trots over to calendar to count] 24 working days. Hey!

So now I have to decide between a. faking a late Big Early Wobble and b. doing without one altogether. Truth be told I'm worried that without the BEW the book won't be any good. I'm having a Midway Meta-Wobble.

But I think, all things considered, I'll just bash on, typing and weeping. I'm quite fond of some of the characters in this one - they make me laugh - and as well as that I'm not sure what's going to happen next and I'm interested to find out. In fact I stopped typing today at the end of a pretty torrid scene with the words [trots over to other computer to remind self]:

"The colour drained from D----'s face until she was candle-white and her lips were almost blue.
'What is it?' I asked her."

Right now, I have no idea and that's why I love being a pantser. I'd bet my morning coffee that when I sit down and start typing tomorrow I'll realise what it is and it'll be something hidden away in what I've already written, like an Easter egg, waiting to pop up in the story. It feels like magic.

Once I've written another three drafts, fixed the glitches, killed the stinky bits, smashed the Easter eggs and sprinkled the crumbs from beginning to end of the story, maybe some of it'll look a wee bit like magic too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Slow and Steady, Fast and Furious

by Clare O'Donohue

Q: How do you hammer out your first drafts? Have you ever used NaNoWriMo or the 3-Day Novel Contest, or a similar group motivation effort, to get your first draft done?

I wish I had a formula for getting first drafts done. Some have sputtered out in fits and starts, others have poured out quickly. I've described before writing the first draft of Missing Persons in a 10 week marathon. It's about 80,000 words and most of the first draft actually made it into the finished novel.

Like Susan, I saw the benefit of that kind of writing - the characters stayed with me always. In fact the real world felt less real in those ten weeks than the one I was putting on the page. I wrote and wrote and wrote, 10, 20, and in one case, 30 pages in a day. I'd turn off the computer feeling dizzy and exhausted only to turn it on again because the words would just not stop coming out of me. It was wonderful and painful at the same time. And I wish I could do it again.

That book had a particular set of circumstances, though, I've not yet been able to duplicate. I wasn't working. If I wrote full time would that happen again? I don't know.

When I'm writing a first draft my must do is 1000 words a day, five days a week. For me that means a first draft in four reasonably painless months. That is a commitment I can usually stick with. For all those days when I sneak ahead, getting in 1500 words, there are days when I manage only 500, so it all works out. But 1000 is my goal every time I sit down to write.

I've never done NaNoWiMo, though after Robin's experience I may give it a go, but I have try. I like the idea of seeing my progress in a chart, and being part of a community of people all heading toward the same goal. And though the word count is higher than the one I usually set, that's part of the fun, I imagine. The challenge of pushing yourself a little bit more than normal and of seeing what can happen when you don't give up.

But between now and November, I'm sticking with my 1000 word goal. I'm a firm believer that in anything - from exercise to saving for retirement, learning a new language, or writing a novel, consistency is the key. (Except when it's not, see Missing Persons.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Top 5 Reasons to Participate in NaNoWriMo

by Robin Spano

Question of the Week: How do you hammer out your first drafts? Have you ever used NaNoWriMo or the 3-Day Novel Contest, or a similar group motivation effort, to get your first draft done?

I did NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2014. I think I'm in love. Here's why:

1. The daily word count goal is challenging but doable.

NaNo asks participants to write 50,000 words in a month. The idea is that if you can get that far, you have the skeleton of a first draft and you'll probably continue. This means you need a daily word count of 1667 words per day. It includes weekends and holidays, so if you want to take a rest day, you have to pad your count on other days.

I used it slightly differently. I had 40,000 words of a work in progress, so I used November to hammer out an additional 50,000. This way, I reasoned, even if the words were a mess (and they were!) I'd have a good chunk of material to shape into a readable story.

2. They have graphs and progress bars and stats. Addictive. 

Every day, I would update my word count about forty times. (You know, during those thirty second lulls when I would ordinarily drift over to Twitter...) Each time I'd update, the graph would be reset and I'd see how well I was doing compared with my daily goal, overall goal, and daily average.

So let's say it was Day 3 and I'd written 1200 words to reach the project goal for that day of 5001 words in total. I would be rewarded with a green bar for my project goal, BUT my daily word count would not turn green until I hit 1667 new words that day. So I'd write 467 more words until I got that second green bar. But what if I reached both my daily goal and the project goal, but I was still under my daily average? Unless I really had to be somewhere, there was no way was I going to let the day bring my average down. So I'd keep at it for another few hundred words.

3. You can compete with your friends.

I had a few “writing buddies” on the site. I couldn't let them get ahead of me. (OK, I'm not THAT competitive; I wanted us all to win.) But my friend Christopher (he's @blackcanoecafe on Twitter) became my worthy adversary. If one of us was slipping, we would nag the other until they got back on track. But when we were both on track, oh the trash talk flew.

I haven't been allowed to read his book yet, but we both have a special interest in the other person's NaNo project because we were so much a part of each other's process.

4. You learn time management.

Writing was not the only thing I had to accomplish in November. I was also being paid to edit two manuscripts, I had readings and author events to prep for, and my husband still wanted dinner every night. (Though I admit we ate leftovers way more often than we normally do.)

At the beginning of the month, I took all my long term tasks, broke them up into daily tasks, and set a checklist for each day in my Google Calendar. (I even included “work out” to make sure I didn't skip it.) I'd never used a checklist system before that, but I've been using it ever since, and I feel much more productive these past few months as a result.

5. You end all this fun having written a book.

Okay, so it's a shitty first draft. But I've never written one in such a short time before. My goal: to take the rest of the year to turn this into a solid novel, then take my next new idea and write a whole new first draft again in November.

Come join me! I love adversaries...I mean writing buddies.