The Heartbreaking Timeline of a Normal Writing Session

10:00 PM (the night before) – I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. I will write tomorrow. No matter what.

1:01 a.m. – I wake in a panic. Did I oversleep? Did I set my alarm correctly? What about my first chapter, will it grab people?

3:15 a.m. - I remind myself it's not time to plot my epic fantasy trilogy or fret about my puke-inducing Amazon ranking.

5:30 a.m. - Alarm goes off. But I didn’t sleep well I need to sleep, because they've done studies, and lack of sleep can lead to obesity, and I need to look my best for the Today Show. And yeah, I'll be first author to host Saturday Night Live. If I only I could sell more books.

5:33 a.m. - Thinking about my dismal sales makes me want to go back to sleep--sleep, perchance to dream of a better world where I sell E.L. James amounts of books.

5:45 a.m. – It’s too late to write. I need at least two hours, and I won’t get them because I didn’t get out of bed in time.

5:55 a.m. - My jaws hurt from clenching my teeth. My mind is racing. I'm sweating. E.L. James. She's a zillionaire, and what am I? Dang it, I swore I would write. I swore on my mother's grave, though she is alive, reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and the thought of Moms reading about bondage finally gets me up and away from the chatter in my head.

6:15 a.m. – At Starbucks, I order my drip coffee with steamed soy because I'm trying to stay lean for the Today Show interview. I then order a donut because...because...because...donuts.

6:26 a.m. - I've eaten the donut and worked through the guilt. I’m halfway done with my coffee. My laptop has booted up, and I'm ready for magic.

6:48 a.m. - Facebook is magic, right? I needed a cat video. I've had a rough morning.

6:49 a.m. - I open my novel. I read the first sentence. I shudder and reach for a cat video. Just one more cat video, then we'll talk.

7:01 a.m. - I read the rest of the chapter. Hey, this isn't bad. Actually, this is pretty good. Dang, I just might be a freakin' genius. I am swept along by the characters, and oh, that one line, I'm so witty. I titter. People look at me. Okay, fifty-nine minutes left. I start on the next chapter.

7:45 a.m. – Oh, I’m so loving this. Why did I wait so long to sit down? The words are flowing, and in this chapter, my hero’s dog dies. Oh, it’s so sad. I’m weeping. People look at me. I want to tell them that life is short, they should love their dog, even when it barks at people, because soon, soon, poor Fluffy will be dead and gone  in her cold, cold grave.

7:48 a.m. – I get up to get a napkin because snot if sprinkling my keyboard. It’s just so beautiful. However, I have to stop. I promised my wife I’d be home at 8:00 a.m. I can’t be late.

7:55 a.m. – I’m late. It’s official. Even if I packed up my laptop, it’s still a five minute drive home. Maybe she’ ll understand. Maybe I can write something extra nice in the acknowledgements thanking her for her patience.

7:56 a.m. – Uh oh, I realized I accidently changed the dog’s name. How could I do that? But I like the dog’s new name. I’ll change it really quick. Find/replace.

7:57 a.m. – I need to make sure I changed all the nicknames for the dog as well. Back to chapter two, I know the dog had a nickname there. Oh, chapter two, it’s such a great chapter. I love the dialogue near the end. Dang, but let me read that section really quick.

8:07 a.m. – Chapter three is good too. Maybe I used the dog’s nickname there as well. I better check. I know I’m late, but this will be quick.

8:17 a.m. – Text the wife. I’ll on my way. She’ll understand, right? Right? I just had a great idea on how to end the dead dog chapter. It’s so poetic.

8:31 a.m. – The wife is calling. I’ll call her back once I’m in the car. If I end the dead dog chapter like that, I really should set it up in chapter four. I’ll do that really quick, while it’s fresh in my head. Then I’ll leave. I promise.

8:49 a.m. – Okay, I’m really leaving this time. I wrote for two hours, as promised, only it took me a bit, to um, start. And the wife is gonna be mad. But dang, did I do some good work today. I save, backup, do another backup, save to Dropbox, and while it’s saving, another great idea hits me and I open a notepad and write the very cryptic – dogs are just bats without wings and you should work that in as a metaphor. Plus? Superheroes.

8:54 a.m. – All saved, out the door, in the car, driving home. Had a great time. I’ll have, um, domestic issues to handle, but I did some really good work.

Why did I drag my feet? Why did I have such a hard time starting?

I don't remember. But tomorrow, I'll get up a five a.m. and really get some work done.

Denver Free Program – January 2016

Denver-area monthly programs are free to both members and non-members. They are typically two hours long on a Saturday morning or afternoon. Topics vary. Check our website for up-to-date information. Email questions to

January Workshop

ColleenOakesExploring YA: Trends, High Concept and You
Presented by Colleen Oakes
Saturday, January 9, 1:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.
Anythink Wright Farms Library
5877 E. 120th Ave., Thornton, CO 80602
No RSVP Required

In this class, we will take a look at the current most popular YA books, the upcoming new releases that are garnering interest, and dissect what about these "high concepts" that makes these books so appealing to teens. We will also take a look at how to make your own novel high-concept.

Colleen Oakes is the author of books for both teens and adults, including The Elly in Bloom Series, The Queen of Hearts Saga (Harper Collins 2016) and The Wendy Darling Saga. She lives in North Denver with her husband and son and surrounds herself with the most lovely family and friends imaginable. When not writing or plotting new books, Colleen can be found swimming, traveling, blogging, or totally immersing herself in nerdy pop culture. She currently at work on the final Elly novel and another YA fantasy series.

To Contest or Not To Contest…that is the question

Do you enter contests for your writing?

Over the last couple decades, I’ve entered many contests, both for full-length novels and short stories. I belong to RWA (Romance Writers of America), which includes multiple chapter contests in their monthly magazine, both for unpublished and published authors. I think most genres have something similar, or you can easily find them on-line. RMFW has an annual contest for unpublished authors. Writer’s Digest and other publications and on-line sites have contests for short stories. There are a couple different reasons for entering contests, and your decision may hinge on where you are in your writing career.

If you’re unpublished, contests can:

  • Help you identify problems with your writing that you’ve become “word blind” to.
  • Educate you on craft (one judge highlighted each point of view in a different color, which really helped me to understand why I kept getting comments on staying in POV).
  • Get your work in front of published author judges and, if you final, agents and editors who are actively looking for books in the genre they’re judging.
  • Give you a low cost way to get more input on your writing.
  • Generally you’ll get 3 preliminary judges so you get 3 different points of view on your writing; usually they’ll post comments on the judging form, as well as on the manuscript.
  • Some contests will send you graphics you can use on your website/social media if you final/win.
  • Finaling or winning is great to include on your query letters or during your pitch appointments; it might be the final push to get someone to request pages or a full read.
  • Most contests post their winners in multiple places, getting your name, and your book title, out into the world – priceless publicity.



Contests are great for Published Authors as well because:

  • Winning a contest looks great on query letters and in pitches, as well as on your website and author platform.
  • Finalists and winners get free publicity in genre newsletters, writing group social media, etc.

Contest negatives:

  • Some judges may not read, or even like, the genre they’re judging – resulting in unhelpful comments.
  • Judges have varying degrees of expertise, and may give you poor or incorrect feedback.
  • There is some cost involved (usually $10-$30, with from 1 to 50 pages judged).

No matter if you’re unpublished or multi-published (Nora Roberts STILL enters RWA contests), you can get something out of contests. But as always, it’s YOUR story. Don’t make changes just to please a judge. However, to get the most from judge notes:

  • If you get more than one judge commenting on the same issue, pay attention, especially if those comments are similar to ones your critique group have mentioned.
  • Read the comments, but if you don’t agree with them, give it a day or two. Don’t be hasty to toss the judging sheets out, or make a lot of changes.
  • If more than one judge is saying the same thing, and/or echoing critique comments, copy the pages into a new document and see what happens if you make the changes/start in a new place, etc. Sometimes what seemed like an impossible job, or a horrible idea, ends up making a much better manuscript. Don’t discount the comments just because you don’t like them at first blush.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking everything the judges say must be correct. One of my first contests had a judge telling me all my chapters had to be 12-13 pages long. Because I didn’t yet belong to a writer’s group like RMFW, and didn’t have anywhere else to go for information, I turned that manuscript inside out trying to make all the chapters come out at that length. I later found out the judge had one self-published family memoir as their sum total of writing experience. That doesn’t mean the judge couldn’t contribute good suggestions to help me improve my work, but they weren’t familiar with my genre, and probably didn’t read enough fiction to know chapter length is one of the most variable parts of books these days.

Whether or not you want to enter contests, consider volunteering to judge. You’ll get educated on the judging process, and you’re likely to make great contacts, as well as networking with other writers/judges interested in your genre. Judging can help you find your herd/tribe and possibly friendships that will last forever.

So, happy contesting, and Write On!

How Writers are Like Turkeys: A Thanks for Nothing Post

Toon Thanksgiving Turkey. Isolated on a white background.

What? Are you seriously comparing me to a turkey?

Why, yes. Yes I am. But don’t take it personally. I’m comparing all writers to the Thanksgiving bird (or Thursday bird as people outside the US call it).

You suck.

Valid point. But I wasn’t commenting on your smell as in you stink like a turkey (which honestly isn’t that bad). I was referring to a turkey’s ability to see at least a 1000 feet in front of it. Now, I don’t literally (used correctly in this case so no emails) mean a writer has the power of supersight, but rather a writer has the ability to ‘see’ where their character will go and eventually end up. Some of us choose not to use this power, rather we pants it to the finish line, but the ability is still there.

What else you got?

Male turkeys are call gobblers as they announce themselves to the females using a similar sound.

I didn’t come to the RMFW blog for this crap. I’m leaving…

No wait! I have a point (not a great one, but still a point). Writers often announce themselves, not with a gobble, but with a million questions about everything or telling everyone around about their book, and/or my personal favorite, straining to eavesdropping on the couple out on their first Tinder date. Not that I’m admitting to anything, but I’ve fallen off my chair trying to listen to a conversations a few tables away.

You are such a weirdo.

Thank you, but I can’t take all the credit. The voices in my head help a lot. Now back to the turkey. According to the Smithsonian, “Studies have shown that snood (that hanging red thing on their throats) length is associated with male turkey health.” You are probably asking yourself, what this has to do with me as a writer?


The length of your manuscript is directly related to your health. No, really. I’ve heard from a few writers about physical or mental health and its effects on their ability to write. Menopause is a bitch, apparently. For the men, I’m sure Manopause sucks too.

That was a reach.

Give me a break. Do you know how hard it is to relate writing to turkey droppings?

Speaking of turkey droppings, apparently you can tell the gender of a turkey by what it drops. Males produce spiral-shaped poop and females’ poop is shaped like the letter J. Now I could say something about writers using the letter J, thereby relating the two. But that is a reach, so I’m going to talk about how you cannot tell a writer’s gender by their book. Often people make assumptions based on the narrator as to the gender of the writer. They shouldn’t. We are writers. Good at faking stuff.

Yawn. Are you done yet?

Yes. Except for one final fact, that you as a writer will obviously understand my point:

Benjamin Franklin praised the turkey as being “a much more respectable bird” than the bald eagle.

We ARE turkeys. Each and every one of us. Better than those bald eagles. Now go strut your stuff as turkeys can only fly about 25 feet in the air.

Do you have Turkey Day plans? Does it include eating this respectable bird? Kind of cannibalistic, don’t you think?

Medieval Viagra and the Curtain of Time

When writing historical novels I find myself as immersed in research books as I am with the writing. Research is one of life’s joys to me. It’s like stepping through a sparkling curtain into the past, and suddenly I’m in another time. If it’s during the nineteenth century, it’s a world in sepia, that soft brown tone of antique photographs, a world of fresh air and horses and carriages, of genteel life and graceful courtesies, a time unencumbered by the dizzying pace and choices we must constantly make with our careers, our life styles, our leisure time.

If it’s the fifteenth century, in which my Gypsy series is set, it’s the verdant world of England, lush with vegetation, dotted with romantic castles, peopled with strong characters and strict religious and social orders. At the same time, the lack of technical sophistication in communication and law enforcement allowed more freedoms for those who chose the path of adventure. And who is more adventurous than the Gypsies (now known as Roma)?

Herbs for food, medicine, perfume ... and libido? Photo courtesy
Herbs for food, medicine, perfume ... and libido? Photo courtesy

I’m researching herbs for chapter 17 of THE RED BRIDGE, book four in my Coin Forest series. I hoard notes from past studies, and I’m enjoying revisiting the fascinating information about the role herbs played in daily life. Like over-the-counter meds today, they provided relief from daily ailments like headaches and upset stomach. The Gypsies were known for their resourcefulness with herbs, but they weren’t the only ones in tune with the secrets and benefits of various plants. One could find sophisticated herbalists and physicians at England’s monasteries.

Rhubarb, for example, was used by the monks as a laxative, in place of the more expensive imported rhubarb root. Sea holly was a favorite medieval flavoring. The root of sea holly was used as an aromatic “chewing gum” recommended against plague infection.

And how about a medieval version of Viagra? This was likely of more interest at Henry VIII’s court than in the monasteries he destroyed. The mandrake root was thought to be a masculine tonic, capable of enhancing potency. The information becomes more and more interesting: it’s said that the mandrake root screams when pulled from the earth; it was advised to have the root dragged out by a black dog.

Ah, but it’s time for me to step back through the curtain of time and return to my chapter seventeen.

Do you have fun research facts to share? If so, please do, and I’m wishing you a pleasant, productive week.

Naming Your Characters

I'm sure every writer has stories about this. For some, naming characters aren't important, for others, it's vital. I'm in the latter category.

I write fantasy and fantasy romance and have wended my way (so far) through four series, two are finished, two are continuing.

In the "Heart" series (the "Heart" books because they all have "Heart" in the title – and, yes, I'll talk about the joys of that some other time), I have a rigid naming system. Those books are fantasy romance set on a planet colonized by psychic Earth people who formed a Celtic society. Most of them are based on plant names, either common names or scientific. The favorite Familiar animal companion, Zanth, is short for Zanthoxyl, for instance. I will throw in the occasional Gaelic and Welsh names for things other than people (and have real fun with geographical place names), but I stick close to my rules, and some of my readers would be horrified if I diverged from that.

In my other current series, the Ghost Seer series, I am writing about contemporary Denver and ghosts of the Old West. My heroine is Clare – spelled Clare instead of Claire deliberately. She's a rational accountant and does see clearly. But she inherits a fortune and a psychic gift for seeing ghosts and helping them pass on. So she sees clearly in that way, too. As for my hero, Zach, well, I wanted a name sounding close to "Jack" for the set up of the first meeting of the hero and heroine. And I like the name, it was time to have a Zach hero. As for his surname – Slade – it's the same as the gunslinger ghost in my first book, deliberately.

So I spend time, perhaps too much time, thinking about my character names, and there are considerations you, as a writer, should take into account.

For instance, I once had a hero named Race, then realized that a previous hero would have a large secondary role, Raz. Race and Raz. No.

Because no matter how interesting it is for you to have, say, identical twins with close names (Rica and Rona), you do NOT want to confuse your reader. The minute you have the reader thinking, wait, is that the medical doctor or the physical therapist? you've pulled your reader from the story. And when you pull the reader away from your story, it's easier for them to close the book.

About Race, as I recall, Race was the second or third name I'd tried for this guy. He's an adventurer and I wanted something that sounded "slick" and easy to the ear, and felt the ace sound did this (the standard advice for a romance hero is a short name with a hard consonant – like Zach). Race became Jace, and I was finally happy with the name, it fit the character.

I'm sure we've all run across the character who insists on a name, and that can be tough if it doesn't match reader expectations (like Wendell for a romance hero). The only advice I can give you on this is to put the story away (if you can) for a while until you detach from the character. That might work.

As for me, I wanted a heroine named Brandy, and was nixed by my editor on that one (this was the Summoning series), and after long thought she became Marian. But I think she'd have been a little more daring if she'd had the name Brandy.

So names do matter. To you, your readers, and, yes, they can hint at attributes of your characters.

May all your writing dreams come true,


Never Give Up

Whatever you're writing, wherever you are in the writing process or in your career, I have two pieces of advice for you:

  1. Finish the book
  2. Don't ever give up.

Nobody said this writing life was going to be easy. I don't need to tell you about the obstacles – you already know what they are. Only you know how strong your personal demons are and how much energy it takes to overcome them every time you sit down to write. Only you know how hard it is to summon up enough faith to send out one more query. Only you know how deep and dark your doubts are when you're wide awake in the middle of the night.

Don't let any of this stop you. If you have the passion, if writing is the one thing that makes you feel fully alive and present in this world, then you must keep on.

Write on the days when the words flow as easily as water. Write on the days when it feels like every word has to be dredged up from your toenails. Write on the days when you feel like the painted ship upon a painted sea, when words are sludge and hope is gone and you know for certain that nobody in their right mind will ever read this tripe you're smearing on the page.

Some of you are doing Nanowrimo this month. Maybe you're blazing trails and have left that 50k word count goal in the dust. Maybe what you're writing is sheer brilliance and you are riding a writing high. But if you happen to be three weeks into Nanowrimo and your word count is falling behind, don't give up. Keep writing. If you can't quite make the word count, focus on making a word count.  If the end of November comes along and you've only got twenty-thousand words, or ten, that's more than you had at the beginning of the month. Keep going. Don't let some airy-fairy idea of failure make you stop.

If you're above ground, if you're still writing, you haven't failed.

And when you finally finish your draft and you read it and you're sure it totally sucks, see if you can make it better. Then move on and write another book. And then another and another. Focus on making every new book better than the last.

I'm not saying you shouldn't revise the sucky draft. You probably should. Most first drafts are wormwood and despair. They need a lot of work to turn them into masterpieces. By the time I'm done revising and rewriting, I generally have as many words in what I call my "Darlings" file as there are in the finished novel.

But there is a danger in getting fixated and stuck on one novel. I see writers working on the same book forever and ever, like they're Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill, day after day after day. The energy leaks out of the book, or it becomes a convoluted mess. The writer lives in a state of desperation and despair. This is not good for either book or writer.

Sometimes you have to step away for a bit. Find a new idea. Write another book. And then another one. Every book will teach you something new about your craft and lead you closer to mastery. And then, maybe, one day, you'll go back to that sucky Nanowrimo draft and realize you now have the skills you need to fix it.

Look what I ran across the other day:



Notice the date. Yep. Dead Before Dying was written five years ago, and is just now on its way to publication. Since the time that draft was completed I've written four other books and three novellas. Dead Before Dying had to wait its turn until I'd figured out what it needed. That first draft was a mess. The POV was all wrong. It didn't fit any genre category known to humanity. And Maureen, my feisty lead character, wasn't even in it.

I didn't know any of that. All I knew was that something was wrong with it. I never abandoned it - I always knew I would come back to finish it. But I had to go build some writing chops on other projects.

My point with all of this is exactly what I said at the beginning. Whatever you're writing now? Finish it. And then write something else.

Don't stop.

Don't give up.

Writers write. You are a writer. So go do the thing you're here in this world to do, and don't let anything or anybody stop you.


Still Learning

I'm on a borrowed computer at the moment because yesterday I tried to update my system software and it failed. Now the darn thing won't even boot. Computers are such a pain. So it means a trip to the repair shop later this morning.

This post is a continuation of my last post about the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop called How Writers Write Fiction. I'm currently taking this free workshop online and it's incredible. Last month, the program had just started and I believe we hadn't even turned in our first assignment yet. It's an 8 week  program and we just completed Lesson 6. I'm really going to miss this class when it's over.

So what makes this course so special compared to the hundreds of other writing courses available online? Aside from the price being right (can't beat free), this workshop teaches from a perspective I rarely see in fiction writing classes. It's focused on creative writing. Isn't all fiction writing creative? It is, of course, but most of us, at least those of us in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, are writing commercial genre fiction. There's a slight difference.

The session we just finished is on description. Most people don't think description is a big deal, that it's basically exposition used for setting a scene, less is better than more, and that's partially true. Too much and you can bore your reader, not enough and your narrative becomes thin and underwhelming. So when it comes to description it's important to have balance.

I learned about a new sense in this class, a sixth one to include in my "sensorium." We all know to use sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, but the sixth one is called proprioception. This last sense is the sense of our bodies as we move through space. I'd always taken this sense for granted, but after this last week's session, I'll never forget it. Did you know that we go through life filtering out our sense impressions because they can be too overwhelming for us to get through a typical day? But when we write, we want to hone in on all these senses to help our readers live through our characters and experience the story from a wholly new and different place. Realizing this has made a significant impact on my approach to writing description.

Description needs to create a vividly experienced world for the reader, reveal a characters' psychology and development, and influence the progression of plot. This week's class on writing immersive fiction fired up hundreds of discussions among my classmates and was explored in a video with lectures by 3 award winning literary authors. It was a very enriching experience for me as a writer.

So for this week's assignment, we had to write a thousand-word scene using description that had all the elements a scene needs to propel a plot forward, like tension and conflict. It would seem impossible, but it really isn't. To share an example, here's three paragraphs from the assignment I turned in a couple of days ago:

The door looked like a jaw that creaked open on rusty hinges and it groaned with a widening yawn. I stepped onto the ladder--the attic's tongue--and entered its dark throat that filled my nostrils with a dank scent of mildew. The wooden joists and bare frame of the walls were its teeth. They appeared rotted with decay, but when I tugged the chain attached to a bulb on the ceiling, light chased back the shadows so that I could see the wood wasn't rotten, just discolored with age.

I blinked through a rain of fluttering dust motes that swirled around cardboard boxes of all shapes and colors and sizes. Some boxes were labeled, some were not, some had rips and smashed corners, others appeared almost new. Wide strips of shiny tape sealed them from the elements and I suddenly felt eager to rip them all open, like a child stumbling upon unexpected presents on Christmas morning.

I slid a dusty box out from the center and spun it around so I could read what was etched onto its side with a thick black marker. In capital letters was my dead brother's name: NATHAN.

You can still sign up for this class that has about 2 weeks left. It's free, and though you can't participate in the earlier lessons, you can still read the discussions and view the teaching videos. You can find information about it here.

Do you struggle at writing description? Do you usually skim over passages of description while reading? What makes description interesting and what makes it boring?


Immortality – would you really want it?

I first published this post two years ago on another blog, but recently, I got into a discussion about immortality and it made me revisit the subject.

I write about immortal characters –vampires and more recently, a siren.

If you write about vampires, immortality is a subject you give a lot of thought. It goes with the territory. Besides needing to drink blood to survive, the one constant in all vampire mythos is eternal life. In fact, it’s what distinguishes vampires from other supernatural creatures—while a werewolf, for instance, emphasizes what is mortal in us—primal urges—a vampire emphasizes what is immortal—never ending life.

As I get older, the thought of immortality sounds better and better. For the first time in my life, I may have more years behind me than ahead of me. It’s scary. I think back on all that’s happened in my lifetime. Wonders of space and technology, both for good and bad, are opening up new frontiers.

Who wouldn’t want to be around for a hundred or a thousand more years to see what will be accomplished?

But at what cost?

My protagonist, Anna Strong, a newly turned vampire, has a human family and she deals with the ramifications on a daily basis. She knows she will have to face the loss of everyone she has ever known and loved. Can she ever regain the warmth of a family? Or will her existence be reduced to mere survival?

Can vampires fall in love? Can they really care for each other? Power and control are part of the makeup of a vampire. Does being forced to associate with such beings make eternal life more of a curse than a blessing? In literature, vampires often seek relationships with humans and not just as a convenient food source. Perhaps vampires recognize that having a finite life span enables mortals to have deeper, more meaningful relationships than immortals with unbounded lives.

In the case of Emma Monroe, the siren in The Fallen Siren series, while she is not a predator, she, too, is a cursed character who has been sentenced to live as a mortal until she can redeem herself in the eyes of the vindictive goddess, Demeter.

Her crime? Allowing Demeter’s daughter to be kidnapped by Hades. No matter that she and her sisters were tricked by Hades. No matter that the loss of their friend Persephone was as devastating to them as it was to her mother. No matter that Demeter got her daughter back. Emma roams from one mortal life to another, prohibited from finding love, alone, separated even from her sisters. Redemption is her only hope and in this life, the way she tries to accomplish this is by rescuing women in peril with the FBI’s Kidnapped and Missing Persons Division.

A high price to pay for immortality.

So the question I put to you today, is would you accept the “gift” of immortality? How much would you be willing to give up to live forever?

I look forward to your comments.

PS. If you’re curious about the Fallen Siren series, there is a free prequel novella, Captured, available on Amazon. Hope you enjoy it!