Posts about The Writing Life


Nano Prep #6: Begin With The End in Mind

Happy Sunday,

Today’s post is a continuation of last year’s Nanowrimo Prep series. Today, I’ll write about a technique that I’ve found helpful for preparing my story. And if you’re brand new to writing, skip this one! Today’s post is aimed at those who already have NanoPrep steps 1-5 handled.

In business, a common maxim is to “begin with the end in mind.” Stephen Covey may have coined that phrase, but the concept of aiming at a target is a very old one. And if you intend to write fiction for profit, it helps to have a target in mind. A sense of what you’ll be offering to readers at the end of the process. And that’s why it’s helpful to draft your back-of-the-book blurb before you ever put pen to paper.

Now, blurbs are hard to write! A blurb is a teaser. It says: “This is what my book is about. This is what the central challenge is. And here are some of the emotions you might feel.” Along with the cover art, the blurb is what will get your reader to hit the buy button.

A blurb is also a good test for you, the writer, because by the time you’re done writing it, you should feel a tingle in your body, and the tingle should say “Yeah! I’d want to read that story.” The first draft of your blurb won’t be as concise and snappy as your final version, but writing it out early is helpful. Why? if your blurb doesn’t excite you, and more importantly, if your story doesn’t excite you, you might not be ready to start writing.

In the spirit of showing my work, here’s my rough-draft blurb for Kat Voyzey #4, the book I’m prepping for November.

Kat Voyzey is chasing her dream. But is it about to become a nightmare?

When Kat left her cushy corporate job behind to start her own private investigation firm, she expected to encounter some bumps in the road. And if she’s spending her nights taking photos of philanderers at Seattle’s top ten seediest motels, well, perhaps that’s what it takes to learn the ropes. PI work might rough and tumble, but she’s determined to make a go of it. In time, she’ll find a more inspiring clientele. That is, if she doesn’t go out of business first.

When her friend Akiko tells her about a troubled college student who has gone missing, Kat agrees to track the woman down on behalf of her friends and family. And when the clues lead right back to the young woman’s Roller Derby league, Kat accepts an invitation to gear up and get her skate on. Sporting some killer spandex outfits, a feisty new persona, and too many bruises to count, Kat’s about to get a lesson in fighting hard for what she wants. And the closer to she gets to the truth, the more disturbed she is by what she finds. What started out as a simple track and trace is becoming something far more dangerous.

Worth noting: Whenever I write a blurb for the first time, I hate it. My blurb always feels overly wordy, clunky, and obvious. It doesn’t flow. (this draft isn’t too bad – I’ve been over it a few times – although the ending needs more zing) But  I can read my blurb, and I can feel the tone of it and say, Yeah, that there is the book I want to write. And it’s easier to hit something when you aim at it. 😉 So that’s my advice of the day, Nanowrimo preppers. Begin with the end in mind.

PS: If you want some step-by-step guidance on how to write your end matter (or blurb) I found this book helpful.

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Why I Wrote the Kat Voyzey Mysteries

We writers often talk about steps like “outlining, drafting, editing” and so on, but for me there’s a longish phase where I’m thinking about a story before I ever put my fingers to the keyboard. I’ve been thinking about my next Kat Voyzey mystery, and that got me thinking about what gave me the idea to write my first novel in the first place.

I began writing Involuntary Turnover right around the time I quit my HR Manager job. And I had a love/hate relationship with my work. I enjoyed the work of helping managers succeed, and I thought the conflict resolution aspects were meaningful. But I hated enforcing ill-conceived policies. In particular, I remember being cheesed about all the double standards where I worked. Like, management made a big point about forbidding open toed shoes, then they’d go around wearing open toed shoes. Then I’d be expected to enforce that rule while making excuses for the exceptions. There were tons of tiny inequities like that. Individually, they didn’t matter much, these were petty issues. But taken in bulk, all the small indignities added up and made me want to climb the walls and sprint for freedom. (Note: open toed shoes are not great for sprinting. Wear flats.)

Because my job so often required me to bite my tongue, I developed this running inner monologue to blow off steam. I joked to myself that HR people spoke in code, because if we said what we really thought, we’d no doubt be fired on the spot.

HR Speak: That’s interesting.
Truth: That’s fucked up.

HR Speak: I know this feels unfair.
Truth: This is unfair. You’re being screwed. But legally it’s allowed, so I’ll talk about your feelings because the facts aren’t on our side.

HR Speak: I wish it were that simple, but…
Truth: Hark! We are prisoners inside an irrational corporate bureaucracy.

HR Speak: What did your boss say?
Truth: Look, we both know your boss is the devil. And I can’t overrule the devil. I barely have the authority to order office supplies. But I’ll help you negotiate without getting fired. Well, I’ll try.

Working in human resources, I had a growing disconnect between my professional outer self and my inner monologue. And sometimes my suppressed feelings would leak out. For example, I used to post “A Word a Day” outside my office for fun, and sometimes the words I chose were wildly passive aggressive. I’d come out of a disappointing meeting, and the next day, I’d post my vocabulary word for all to see.

Word of the Day: Hypocrisy Definition: (Noun) The practice of stating beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not possess.

HR Cheri in her office.
A photo from my HR days. Note the “Novelist Fuel” mug I bought during my first Nanowrimo.

Write What You Know?

When I decided to try my hand at writing a novel I thought it would be fun to  have an HR heroine who found a dead body at the office. Write what you know, right? I’d read hundreds of murder mysteries, and I had a feel for office drama. And to round out the story, I borrowed from the funny things that had happened at work. Like the time we accidentally hired an arsonist, and she was super nice. You don’t work in HR for long without accumulating some amusing anecdotes.

Many first-time writers start with with material that’s quasi autobiographical. I was no different. I was once a snarky HR manager who craved integrity in a world that wanted me to stay in my lane. I kept my f-bombs on the inside, toed the line, and wished that my days were more interesting. And if I ran my workplace harassment investigations with the solemn determination usually reserved for hardboiled detectives on the BBC, well, that was just me taking my job seriously. I learned to ask the right questions to solicit the facts, whether that be in a job interview or to untangle an argument between coworkers. And I walked the dark hallways outside the medical records department and delighted in the spooky way my footsteps echoed out in front of me. All of those emotions and images were in my bones long before I ever put my fingers to the keyboard.

Why I Wrote the Kat Voyzey Mysteries

I wrote my first mystery novel for several reasons. The winter I started writing Involuntary Turnover , I was stressed out, struggling with my Masters thesis, and a big storm had knocked out our power for days. Writing gave me an escape when I needed one. And beneath all that, I had some things I wanted to say about corporate life, about the ways it can be unfair, and about how we need to stick up for one another and not let the desire for easy answers sweep the truth to one side.

I had a chip on my shoulder, you might say.

But what the writer feels inside, what motivates them, those things aren’t necessarily what the reader will take away. That’s one of the beautiful things about art, I think. We each mix our perspective with what we read and no two people will ever have the same experience of a story or a painting or a piece of music.

Time has a way of mellowing us out, and I no longer feel salty about the time I spent in human resources. I look upon those years fondly, and my frustration back then drove me to start a business where I helped managers make better choices. It all worked out. And I even got a few good mystery novels out of it, and a writing hobby that would eventually become something more.

I’m looking forward to Kat’s next case. Without getting into spoilers, she took a big step at the end of book three, and I want to see how that shakes out for her. And while the “things I want to say about work” have changed a great deal since book one, there’s one thing that remains the same. I believe all good stories should contain a core of emotional truth. No matter if you’re writing something realistic or fanciful, fiction is all about using lies to tell the truth, and it helps to start a story with a sense of what that truth might be. And perhaps that truth is just something you hold in your heart while you write. And as for what others make of it, well, that’s up to them.

I enjoy the thinking part of the writing process. It’s mysterious. A story so often arrives in pieces. And where do these pieces come from? Some of them come from me, and some of them come from the universe. It’s a strange and beautiful alchemy, and I felt it for the first time when writing Involuntary Turnover .

A Last Chance for a Free Copy of Involuntary Turnover

If you’ve followed me this far, book buddies, I have a tip for you. Involuntary Turnover has been free for a while, that’s something we authors call a permafree marketing strategy, kind of like a free sample. The whole series is going back up to full price in July, so if you’d like to snag a free copy of my first book, now is a good time to do that.

Download Involuntary Turnover

Beginnings Always Feel This Way

Good morning, world.

Today’s post comes to you live from the land of I finished my next novel and I’m full of emotions. That’s right. The Case of the Floating Funeral is written and it’s time to switch over to copyediting and proofreading mode. And I’ll probably end up rewriting the final scene a few more times in the process. Gotta stick that landing, you know?

Finishing a novel is such a strange feeling. On the one hand, you feel proud and happy. Yet at the exact same time you want to nudge your manuscript under a rug with your foot while pointing to your left and shouting “look, a bunny!” At least that’s how it goes for me. Preparing a creative work for sale always results in conflicted emotions:

I AM AMAZING AND THE WORLD MUST KNOW

I TOTALLY SUCK AND I SHOULD HIDE

Strange, right? Pride and fear manage to live side-by-side on days like today.  And they’re both poking me with their bony little fingers. So I try to slap them away. STAAAAAHP IT! 😆

There’s a trick I used back when I did a lot of public speaking. Even though I enjoyed giving talks, my body refused to believe that I liked it.  My heart would race and my palms would sweat. My smile felt like a fakey-fake sticker affixed to my face. I could even hear my pulse in my ears. And let me tell you, when your logic-circuits tell you that you’re going to do just fine but your body insists that you’re about to be eaten by a rabid grizzly bear, it’s extremely annoying. So I had a trick I borrowed from another consultant: I’d notice my body freaking out (like it always did) and I’d say to myself: It’s fine! I’m just revving my engine at the starting line.

When emotions won’t listen to reason, you can reframe them a little. Sometimes it even helps to mock them. Ah, yes. Here come my emotions! Those drama queens. Flipping out right on schedule.

So that’s where I’m at today, blog buddies. I finished another manuscript. The Case of the Floating Funeral will be my seventh novel.  Woot! And my emotions are going haywire. So I’ll take a breath here and say: It’s fine. I’m just revving my engine at the starting line. There’s nothing wrong. Beginnings always feel this way.

And it works!

It works because it’s true.

 

PS: You can get notified when my book goes live.

Nano Prep #5: Mindset

Hey, Nano preppers! We’re just a few days away from the big event, so I’ll wrap up this Nanowrimo prep series with some tips about mindset. How should we think about our writing? And what attitudes should we adopt in order to complete our projects well? I’ve got a few suggestions, which I’ve listed below in the form of beliefs.  Do you agree with these beliefs, and if so, are you ready to adopt them?

Belief #1: Writing requires time and effort, so I’ve made space in my life to do it.

Writing is work, right? It’s work in the same way that going to your day job is work. If you put in the time and make an effort, you’ll make it through and you’ll improve your skills over time. And because we learn by writing, not by worrying about our writing, action is what matters.

That begins by making time, space, and energy available for your November writing project.

Belief #2: I’m writing a first draft. Later, I’ll improve it.

Writing a first draft is about telling the story to yourself. You can trust your future-self to edit your story, and focus now on the first task which is getting the whole story down so you can look at it. Nanowrimo isn’t the time to perfect your “first page hook” or obsess about comma placement.

That being said, you’re not required to write a shitty first draft!  I’d rather see you produce the best work you can, right now, given your current skill level. Let’s talk for a moment about the notion of the happy medium, when it comes to the quality of your first draft.

Finding the Happy Medium

I’ll just write shit because that’s what a first draft is.”  Nah. Why on Earth would you intentionally write shit?

I won’t start chapter two until chapter one is AMAZING.”  Nope! You’re being too rigid. First drafts aren’t amazing. You’ll be stuck in a perfectionist loop!

I’ll write this scene to the best of my current ability. Then I’ll move on to the next, because this is FIRST DRAFT TIME, baby!”  Perfect! You’ve found the happy medium.

Seek out that happy medium, okay?

Belief #3: It’s time to listen to my gut and heart. Not the experts.

You’ve probably internalized a lot of advice from other writers, right? Stephen King hates adverbs. Others advise against prologues. Your high school English teacher yelled at you for using sentence fragments, or starting a sentence with and. Yadda Yadda_._ Taken in context, writing advice can be useful. But for a beginner, all this advice becomes an extra voice of criticism, making you second-guess your natural style as you start writing.

Tip: You’re fine. Just write! Use the voice that comes naturally to you. Fix any excesses in editing, and stop worrying about what the experts think. It’s not their story. It’s yours!

Belief #4: Progress matters, but progress is not linear.

You might have this idealized notion that you’ll write X words per day during Nanowrimo. And goals can be motivating sometimes. But in reality, writing is far more… lumpy than you might expect. You might have a day where you squeak out 200 words during lunch, and another day when you write four chapters because the words won’t stop flowing. It’s okay to have general targets in mind, but don’t flip out if you’re not producing equal numbers of words.

Keep it simple. Every time you write, move your story forward. And try to set aside enough hours in the month to reach your overall goal. That’s really all you can do.

Belief #5: No one is forcing me to do this.

Write because you love it. Or because it challenges you. Or because you’re curious to see if you can. Write because you’ve got a story to tell, or because you’ve admired authors forever and books still feel like magic.

But if writing is making you miserable, or if you hate it, it’s okay to stop. Don’t turn a story into an ego contest with yourself. Remember, no one is forcing you to do it. Proceed with the intention that you’ll enjoy yourself, and see how it goes.

Belief #6: I’ll decide what to do with this story later.

You might publish your story, or not. You might give it to friends to read, or not. But my point is, you don’t need to worry about any of that now. Get the draft down, edit it later, and then you can decide what to do.

Your story is a squalling little baby made of words. It’s red-faced and shouty and it has no career plans or life goals. So put away the college pamphlets and let it grow up a little. Let your story exist for its own sake! Don’t squash it under all your bossy expectations.

And that leads me to my most important belief, which is this:

Belief #7: I’m a writer.

If you write, you’re a writer. There’s no secret-handshake, certification, or permission slip required. Drop the word “aspiring” from your vocabulary and flush your impostor syndrome down the toilet. Once you accept the reality that you’re a writer, you can stop being all angsty about labels and do your damn job.

You can write.

Nanowrimo might be the start of something lasting, or perhaps just a fun month to try something new. Either answer is fine, but time spent worrying about labels is wasted time. Imagine me smacking you upside the head with THE OFFICIAL SCEPTER OF ALL WRITERS. Boom. You’re a writer! Now get to work.

This concludes my Nanowrimo prep series, and I hope you’ve found it helpful. Good luck with your story, and feel free to drop me a comment during the month of November to tell me how your project is going. And if you’d like some in-person camaraderie during the month of November, there are plenty of local meetup groups being organized on the official Nanowrimo website right now.

Happy writing!

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Nano Prep #4: Beat Sheets

Welcome back to my Preparing for Nanowrimo series! We’re just a few weeks away now and shit’s about to get real. But no worries! If you’ve been prepping along with me you have your story idea plus a bit of structure, also known as your story arc. Perhaps you’ve jotted down some notes about your characters and chosen a point of view to write from. If so, you’re already well ahead of the game. For me, this stage in the writing process feels exciting but messy. Today we’ll add some specificity to our writing plan to help us hit the ground running on November 1st.

This week I recommend you create something called a beat sheet for your story. A beat sheet is a bullet point list of the major events in your story. I used to call this step outlining, but in all honesty I hate the concept of outlining because it feels too rigid. So I think of my beat sheet as pre-writing. I’m smoothing the path by laying down some ideas I can expand upon.

A story “beat” is a small piece of action that moves your story forward. Think of it like a note of music, leading to another note, and another.

Here’s a sample of two beats from a cruise ship mystery I just drafted: The Case of the Missing Finger

DAY ONE: MID-DAY BOARDING – SUNDAY – MIAMI

  • Ellie admires the cruise ship. The S/V Adventurous Spirit is far bigger than she’d imagined and she compares it against what she read in the brochure two years prior. It’s very white and has tropical birds painted on the hull. She wishes Ronnie were there with her, but reminds herself that he wouldn’t want her feeling sorry for herself.
  • Her daughter in law comes up beside her, making noise. She loves her DIL, but her concern-trolling is a bit much. Does Ellie have X, does she have Y? DIL hates the thought of Ellie being alone on the ship. It’s too bad she couldn’t wait for all of them to go. Ellie remarks that she won’t be alone, she has 1,XXX new friends. She says this, but inside she’s feeling nervous. Mostly she sees couples and families. Was taking this cruise alone a mistake? She hopes she won’t be lonely. But it can’t be worse than moping around at home. She’s tired of feeling sad.

Earlier, when we talked about structure , I mentioned that your character will likely start out in a zone of comfort (or a status quo) but they want something. My opening beats establish who Ellie is, what she wants, and what she’s leaving behind. Over the early chapters we learn that she’s widowed and that she loves her family, but she’s also craving more adventure in her life. From there I move into the plot of the murder mystery.

Your “beats” might be a single sentence, a paragraph, or something longer. It’s up to you! What we’re doing here is taking our prior prep work (structure, character, setting) and fluffing them out into a list of events.

Tip: I’ve never been able to define the final few beats of my story. I leave those blank, because I know I won’t know what the final scenes look like until I arrive there. So don’t worry if that happens to you too. This isn’t a school assignment and you aren’t being graded. Do it your own way.

Tips for Building Your Beat Sheet

Beat sheets are optional. You might prefer to sit down without one and just crank the words. But I find having a beat sheet helpful because I can take a beat and paste it into a document for the day, then expand it out to a full scene. This is far easier (for me) than generating every single scene on the fly.

Here are some things that might happen when you try to make a beat sheet:

  1. You write some beats, then you read them, then you think BOY THIS IS BORING. That’s helpful! It’s your signal to come up with some exciting events to spice up your story.

  2. You write five or ten beats, then you’re not sure what happens next. That’s fine! You might come back tomorrow with more ideas, or you might want to start with those initial ideas and take it from there. There’s no wrong way to do this.

  3. You make a beat-sheet for your full novel, but it seems a bit sparse in sections. No biggie! You’ll find yourself adding more depth and detail in the moment as you write. Some of us write “thin” beat sheets then thicken up the story considerably as we write.

  4. You make a beat sheet and use it, but then you find your story is diverting off the path you set. That’s cool! You can adjust your beat sheet as you go, because we don’t always see the story in full until we start writing it. That’s normal and pretty darn fun. A surprised writer can mean surprised readers too.

  5. You start making a beat sheet, but you get all jazzed and some of your “beats” are getting really long and detailed like scenes. Awesome! You might be doing some early writing before Nano starts, but I’m not going to rat you out.

For this week’s nano prep, my suggestion is that you try to write a beat sheet for your novel, or at least for the first part of your story. Can you make Nanowrimo easier by laying down some beats before you start writing? If so, go for it.

Future-you might be very glad you did. 🙂

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Nano Prep #3: Character, POV, and Setting


Welcome back to our month-long prep for national novel writing month in which I invite you to half-ass NaNoWriMo with me. In week one we talked about coming up with a story idea , and last week we discussed structure . This week’s prep covers three more elements of story building: Character, Point of View, and Setting. The prep work we do this week will help us write more quickly when we begin drafting our stories in November.

Decision #1: Which Point of View Will You Use?

Think of point of view (POV) as the camera you use when telling a story. You might tell your story from inside one character’s head, using sentences like “I raced down the hall.” If so, that’s called first-person perspective. It’s a fun way to tell a story because the tale unfolds like you are reading someone’s diary. But there’s a big limiting factor. You can’t tell the reader things that your main character doesn’t know! We can only see what the POV character sees, which is why it’s a popular choice for murder mysteries.

So perhaps you’d like to describe events from outside your main character’s head? Your sentences will read more like this: “Erin raced down the hall.” This is third-person perspective. We’re not inside Erin’s head the whole time, but we’re able to follow her closely. If we tell the story from Erin’s perspective, using a third-person POV, that’s called third-person limited. But that’s not our only option here. If we’re careful not to confuse our readers, we can also switch our camera between different characters in third-person. We could write one chapter from Erin’s point of view, then another chapter from her adversary’s point of view, for example. This is helpful when we’re following different groups of people, or when we want to build suspense by showing what the bad guys are up to.

Tip: If you’re using third person to tell the story through the eyes of multiple characters, keep the number of POV characters limited. Juggling a bunch of POV characters is difficult to do, and too many camera angles may alienate readers who get invested in one character only to have you hop into someone else’s head.

Lastly, we have Omniscient point of view. Common in epic fantasy, omniscient POV is where there is a narrator who knows all things, and they are telling us the story. Omniscient point of view pulls the camera way out and provides a panoramic view of events across different groups of people, places, and even different points in time.

A quick note about tense: We also get to choose whether we will write our story in past tense or present tense. Present tense is less common, but it’s become more prevalent in YA novels and some thrillers. Most novels will be written in past tense, telling us what happened, not what is happening. If you’re curious about what effective present tense looks like, check out The Hunger Games trilogy.

So your first decision for the week is this: what POV will you write in? If you aren’t sure, it’s smart to follow the conventions of your chosen genre. Murder mysteries are all past tense, for example, and can be told in either first person or third. If it helps, pull a few books from your preferred genre off the shelf and flip through the pages. What point of view do they use? Emulating others is a fine place to start.

Decision #2: Who Are My Characters?

For each of your primary characters, I’ll suggest that you fill out a quick character sheet that summarizes important facts about them. Here’s an example of what goes into a character sheet, but you can include any categories you like:

Name:
Age:
Appearance:
Clothing/Style:
Mannerisms:
Family Situation/Important Relationships:
Education:
Nationality/Group Membership:
Positive Traits:
Quirks:
Flaws:
How they Respond to Stress:
Goals:

Tip: Don’t worry if your characters feel “flat on the page” at this point, because if you are anything like me, you’ll get to know your characters as you write them. You’ll be writing a scene and their personalities will come busting out, surprising you. But it definitely helps to have some of the basics ironed out, like names, appearance, and a few personality traits. This will keep your words flowing instead of stopping you up every time you need to come up with a name. This also helps when you need to remember a fact mid-story. Checking a character sheet is easier than paging through a hundred pages of text to make sure you didn’t change someone’s name or hair color mid-book.

Some writers also add a stock photo or celebrity photo to their character sheets, “casting the character” to make it easier to describe them when the moment comes. If that helps you out, go for it! Also, some writers “get into the zone” by doing some freewriting (journaling) from the perspective of their main character. I’ve done that a time or two, but usually I just dive into the story itself and let the characters show up.

Tip: Need help coming up with character names? Check out this generator and popular names in the USA by decade. The latter is helpful when you want to name characters via their age. A 30 year old might be a Jessica, and a 50 year old might be a Heather, for example.

Decision #3: What are my Major Settings?

Lastly, it can help things along during NaNoWriMo if you know what your major settings are. Will your scenes take place in an office? A mall? A spaceship? I like to pull photographs and illustrations of settings I might use off the web and stick them in a research folder. I don’t spend a lot of time on this, but that way when I want to describe a room or setting I can pull up a photo and use it as a reference. Wikipedia is a good resource for snagging details about different cities.

That’s it! This week’s work will help you hit the ground running once Nano begins. We’ve got two more posts in this Nano prep series. Next week I’ll cover outlining, an optional step, and in our final week we’ll discuss workspace, time management, and mindset.

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