Writing Faster

A couple of weeks ago when I posted my lament about not finishing my work in progress any time soon at the rate of one hundred (or even three hundred) words a day, several friends recommended that I download an ebook by Rachel Aaron called 2,000 to 10,000. As it happened, I found the book waiting on my own Kindle, where it had been sitting unread for over a year. I have a lot of books on my Kindle.

2K to 10KAaron includes a number of excellent suggestions in her short (65 pages or so) book (long essay?) based on blog posts and articles. Quite a bit of what she says rings bells for me, but perhaps the most important was If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you’re writing before you write it. When she sits down to write, she spends at least the first five minutes planning what she’s going to write that day, sketching it out on paper or computer, phrases, lists, bits of dialog, whatever helps her formulate the day’s writing in her mind.

I, on the other hand, usually sit at my computer and squeeze out one sentence at a time. My road map of late has been very limited, and I’ve been leaning too heavily on the one hundred words a day mantra. Clearly I need headlights with a longer reach if I’m going to stay on the road. So I thought I would adopt Aaron’s practice and see if it helps.

I think it will, but what really helped this month—and numerous times in the past—was a deadline.

A contest I did not enter because I did not have a synopsis at the end of August extended its deadline to September 15. I had used the same contest back in 2011 to kick myself into plotting the second half of Bathtub Jinn and writing a synopsis. The manuscript was not only a finalist in that contest, but the plotting and synopsis enabled me to finish the book in time (barely) for the Golden Heart deadline, and it was a finalist there, too.

So I adopted the contest deadline to plot the second half of the story I’m working on, and it worked. I wrote the synopsis yesterday and sent the entry off this morning. Whether or not the manuscript makes the cut in this contest, I now have a seven-page road map for the rest of the story, and whatever publishing path I decide to follow, I should have this tale finished by the end of the year. Three months or so doesn’t seem unreasonable now that I know where the story is going. I hate to say how long it has taken me to write the first half—I’m not sure I even know.

I still don’t think I could sit down and plot an entire book before I write it. It takes me quite a bit of writing to discover my characters and see where they want to go. Maybe that will come some day. Right now I’m balancing somewhere around the middle of the panster/plotter continuum. If I’m ever going to write more than one book a year, I may have to drag myself, kicking and screaming, further toward the plotter end of the scale.

The subtitle of 2,000 to 10,000 is How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love. Sounds good to me, especially the “what you love” part. If you’ve really having trouble writing, Aaron suggests, you may be writing the wrong story.

Bell: Write Your Novel From the Middle

James Scott Bell has been my favorite writer-on-writing for some time now, and I have his full-length books from Writers Digest (Plot & Structure, Conflict & Suspense, and Revision & Self-Editing) on my shelf. I recommend them all (and should re-read them myself). Bell has also Write Your Novel From the Middleself-published several shorter works, including collections of online articles and blog posts.

The latest of these is Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers, and Everyone in Between (available for Kindle and Nook). Bell begins with a quick look at Plotters, Pantsers, and Tweeners, at the “Death Stakes” for characters (which may be physical, professional or psychological), and at the three-act structure we’ve all tried to wrap our brains around (Bell adds two helpful “pillars” to the structure, which he also calls “doorways of no return”).

Bell doesn’t really recommend starting your novel at the mid-point (although I suppose you could if you are a far better plotter/outliner than I am). But he has come to the conclusion, based on a wide assortment of well-constructed books and movies, that each contains what he calls the “look in the mirror” moment, the point at which the protagonist takes stock of herself, and considers who she is becoming and/or what she must do. Call it the pivot point in the character arc. This moment at or near the middle of the story can pull the entire novel together and tell you what it’s really about. And once you have it, you can write/plot/outline in either direction. The Mirror Moment is the halfway point between pre-story psychology and transformation.

There’s more to it, of course: details, explanations, and lots of examples. And Bell has added some extra essays, including his views on Showing versus Telling, and an analysis of what makes a page turner, based on a 1953 paperback original suspense novel.

Writing Your Novel from the Middle is short, but it’s packed with information and ideas. It is available for Kindle or Nook, and Amazon also offers a paperback version.  James Scott Bell blogs regularly at The Kill Zone.

Recent Reading

I continue to buy books faster than I can read them (that’s material for another post), but I’ve managed to finish a few in the last month or so.  About ten days ago my ancient air conditioning system died, resulting in an unexpected day off (and a very large replacement bill).  While men crawled around my attic with power tools, I sat on the couch and read Sally Bedell Smith’s Elizabeth the Queen, a fascinating and thoroughly readable book.  I finished it with a new respect for the quiet, dedicated and very competent way Elizabeth II has played the hand she was dealt, and more than a glimpse of the woman under the crown.

Also in non-fiction, I enjoyed Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York’s Greatest Hoarders, An Urban Historical, by Franz Lidz, which I downloaded one day when it was the Amazon special.  Lidz mixes the story of the famous Collyer Brothers with that of his own Uncle Arthur in a short book with a long title.

My craft-of-writing read this month was also on my Kindle, Holly Lisle’s Mugging the Muse.  I reviewed it for the Houston Bay Area RWA newsletter here.

I’m delighted to report that Amanda Stevens’ The Kingdom is every bit as good as the first Graveyard Queen novel, The Restorer.  This one takes Amelia to the dying town of Asher Falls and a whole new cast of characters, and away from Charleston and John Devlin, but she returns to both in the next installment, The Prophet, which is waiting near the top of my To Be Read pile.

On a much lighter note, I thoroughly enjoyed Elaine Viets’ latest Dead End Jobs mystery, Final Sail.  I’ve followed Helen Hawthorne’s adventures since she first went on the run from her greedy ex-husband in Shop Til You Drop (2003), so she and the other denizens of the Coronado apartments are old friends.  In this outing Helen works for an exhausting week as a stewardess on a private yacht, while her husband and detecting partner Phil poses as several different people to investigate a possible murder.

Last night I finished reading Zoe Archer’s Skies of Fire, the first in a new Steampunk series, The Ether Chronicles.  Airships, big explosions, the fate of the British Empire at stake, and a hot romance.  What more could a lover of action, adventure, and alternate history ask for?  This was the first recent Steampunk novel I’ve read, although I still have a copy of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) on my keeper shelf.  I also have several new Steampunk volumes on my TBR shelves, and on the coffee table (you definitely want this one on paper!) Jeff Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible, a gorgeously illustrated book in which literature seems to be something of an afterthought.   This is a subgenre that interests me as a reader, and perhaps as a writer, but that needs more exploration.

What have you been reading lately?

One Hundred Days and (Not) Counting

Yesterday was Day 100 on the hundred words/hundred days trail, and I’m going to stop counting for a while.  I won’t stop writing–if I could do that, I would have done it long ago–but I want a day off now and then.  I’ve mostly been editing, anyway, getting Bathtub Jinn into shape, and how do I measure that?  So much time with the manuscript on my lap?  So many pages marked up?  It’s all on the honor system, anyway.

The cast of Bathtub Jinn includes a cat, a wise-cracking pooka and witch’s familiar who plays an important supporting role.  His name is Porthos, although the hero insists on calling him Porky, and he’s black with golden eyes, in the tradition of the pooka, battle-scarred from several years of living among feral cats.  One of my critique partners, Carl Miller, however, is convinced that Porthos is an orange tabby, and last night he sent me this (uncredited) picture, saying: “Spotted one of your lead characters, in repose.”  It’s not Porthos, but it’s a great cat.

This morning when I spent $36 on slightly more than 9 gallons of gas, I thought of this list that I clipped out of a local paper recently.  No attribution, but I must  admit that I remember at least some of these numbers from fifty years ago:

  • average cost of a house: $13,500
  • average annual wages: $6,450
  • average cost of a gallon of gas: 31 cents
  • average monthly cost to rent a house: $118
  • average cost of a loaf of bread: 21 cents
  • average cost of a new car: $2,650
  • Dow Jones Industrial Average: 969

I’ve been pretty good about not buying actual paper books lately, but I’ve downloaded a few to the Kindle:  His Lordship’s Vow, a short Regency romance by my buddy Cheryl Bolen, Skies of Fire, a steampunk romance by Zoe Archer, and two books about writing by Holly Lisle, Professional Plot Outline Mini-Course and Mugging the Muse.  Sigh.  I now have 98 books on my Kindle.  I’ll never catch up.

Reading About The Craft Of Writing

was something I avoided for quite a while after I started trying to write fiction (mumble-mumble) years ago.  I suppose I was afraid the authors of such books would tell me I was doing it all wrong.  And I probably was, but at least I was trying.

In the mid 90s I joined a local multi-genre writers group, the Bay Area Writers League, but I knew I wanted to write novels.  I didn’t know I wanted to write romance novels until I discovered what was then called “futuristic romance,” the infant subgenre that eventually led writers to science fiction romance, urban fantasy, and various other branches of paranormal romance.  So I joined Romance Writers of America® and the local Houston Bay Area chapter.  Through those groups I attended workshops and conferences, and met the wonderful BK Reeves.  Her encouragement (and classes) gave me confidence, and showed me that books on writing could be both entertaining and helpful.

Since then I’ve read a lot of craft books.  Some I agreed with, some I did not, but I learned something from every one of them.  I certainly learned that you can read the same idea over and over again and barely notice it until one day that idea is exactly what you need.  I’ve given some away over the years, but I still have several bookshelf feet of craft books that I want to reread, or at least refer to from time to time.

My current favorite craft of writing author is James Scott Bell.  I have not read his fiction (he’s known for legal thrillers), but I have his books on Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing on that bookshelf, and The Art of War for Writers, a collection of essays and blog posts, on my Kindle.  When Amazon informed me (they know me all too well) that Bell had a new book out on Conflict & Suspense, I downloaded that, too.

I don’t really like reading craft books on my Kindle.  I don’t know what page I’m on, or where to go when an author says “more about that on page 165.”  I can’t flip back and forth to find some neat idea I want to reread.  On the other hand, I can pull the Kindle out of my bag and read through lunch, as I did this afternoon, or while waiting for the oil in my car to be changed.

So I can’t tell you what page to look at, but somewhere around the 65% mark, in Chapter 14, “Tools for Conflict,” I found a Really Neat Idea, one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-that ideas (for which Bell credits Sue Grafton, one of my favorite mystery authors–I’ve been a fan since A Is for Alibi was published).  Bell calls this the Novel Journal–a notebook (or computer file) used as a preface to the day’s writing, for recording bits of the writer’s life, stray thoughts from the middle of the night, ideas for the next scene or anything else that comes up, a place to gather all those loose ends that don’t fit into an outline or synopsis.  Grafton calls this an “interchange between Left Brain and Right.”  Bell recommends it for both OPs (Outline People, or Plotters) and NOPs (No Outline People, or Pantsers). 

The Novel Journal certainly ought to work for someone like me, who falls somewhere in the middle.  I’m going to pull out a fresh  spiral-bound notebook and try it.


Michael Hauge’s Story Mastery Workshop

kept the West Houston chapter of Romance Writers of America® entranced yesterday.  Hauge is primarily a screen writing consultant and teacher, but he has become very popular with RWA chapters and his workshop at the RWA National Conference in June was a big hit.  I skipped that two-hour session because I knew I’d have the chance to see him here, and for a full day at that.

Only one or two people in our group of more than sixty raised their hands to say that they were actually interested in writing screenplays, but Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure, Key Components of Story, Story Concept Template, and Four Categories of Primary Character are thoroughly applicable to novel writing.

It was a long day.  When Michael Hauge gives a presentation, he gives it his all, and yesterday that covered seven hours (not including breaks) packed with information.   I’m not usually a note taker, but I filled up five sheets of paper (both sides) with truly useful ideas.

As you would expect, Hauge uses films as examples for his theories of story structure.  He sent ahead a list we might want to brush up on, and as a result I watched one movie that was already on my DVD shelf (The King’s Speech) and two that I might otherwise never have seen, Shrek and HitchThe King’s Speech deserved every one of those awards and nominations it racked up, Shrek is delightful (and Donkey is a stitch), and I found Hitch perfectly charming.   One of these days I’ll rewatch all three, with Hauge’s comments in mind.

If you have a chance to see Michael Hauge in person, I urge you to do so.  If that’s not possible, check out his Story Mastery web site.  It’s full of free-for-the-reading articles, Q&As, and writing misdemeanors, along with a variety of books, cds and dvds for sale. (Selling Your Story in Sixty Seconds was the most popular yesterday.)

Needless to say, I barely kept my eyes open long enough to add a couple of hundred words to my WIP last night.  Today I had to do my grocery shopping, laundry, bookkeeping, etc.  I read and judged another contest entry and returned two of them to the coordinator (I have two left to do), and I still need to do at least a little bit of writing, if ony to keep up my current hundred-words/hundred-days streak (today is 127).  60,751 words and counting.

The invisible To Be Read pile on my Kindle

grows almost as fast as the rows of  paper books on my shelves.  It’s so darn easy to hit that one-click button, so many of the books are inexpensive (or even free) and while there is technically a limit on what the Kindle can store, I doubt I will ever reach it.  Carrying a library in my purse is a very cool idea, but I’m already wondering how I will ever catch up with what I’ve already downloaded.  But then I also have several shelves of paper books that I really want to read.  She who dies with the most books wins.

In the last month or so I have downloaded the usual variety of books, starting with Entangled, a paranormal anthology benefitting the Breast Cancer Foundation, featuring ten authors, several of whom I have not read.  Here’s a good chance to sample their work.

Next came The Earl’s Bargain, another regency romance by my friend Cheryl Bolen, whose books, both new and previously published, are proving very popular as ebooks (for good reason), and The Lady’s Scandalous Night, a Tang Dynasty novella by Jeannie Lin, who has so far released two novellas to accompany her 8th century China-set romances.  A few days later Lin’s second novel, The Dragon and the Pearl, which I had preordered, arrived.

My latest foray (as yet unread) into understanding social media is Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer, by Kristen Lamb.  I will follow up on this stuff, but not until I’ve met my self-imposed deadline for finishing the work-in-progress.  I have twelve books in my Craft of Writing collection; I’ve read five of them, not including the Vanity Fair article on How a Book Is Born (expanded from the print version).  Also writing related is Oxygen, a science fiction novel by Randy Ingermanson (known to writers for his Snowflake Method) and John Olson, with added material on their writing process.

Other recent downloads include Gregory Maquire’s Wicked, a novel I’ve been meaning to read (but, as a life-long Oz fan, I’m a little cautious about it), and Wickedly Charming by Kristine Grayson (a freebie to promote the next book in her fairy tale series).

Just now I fired up the wireless connection on my Kindle to download my latest purchases, both local (Houston) authors.  Heather MacAllister has published at least forty romance novels since her Picture Perfect won the Golden Heart for Young Adult manuscripts in 1989.  Joni Rodgers has reissued her first novel, Crazy For Trying, as an ebook.  One more plug for a Houston author:  Deeanne Gist’s Maid to Match is available right now for free, to promote her next book, Love on the Line.  If you haven’t read Dee’s work, this is a good chance to try it.

I’ve had my Kindle since April.  Right now I have at least thirty novels on it (there are a couple of multi-book files in there), twelve books and articles on the craft of writing, and ten short stories and novellas.  All in that little package, at my instant command.  Now if I only had more time to read them.

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