Tag Archives: writing tips

Scrub Your Mindscape Clean … by Mark Stevens

This post was previously published on August 6, 2013

Skip the tips.

Forget everything you’ve learned.

Put down your copy of 100 Fabulous Secrets to Better Writing Now!

Move away from the stack of books you slowly acquired ever since you first had the thought that you might want to write fiction. (Spoiler alert: all those books pretty much all say the same thing. They are as repetitive as magazines about how to swing a golf club. Or how to diet.)

That’s right.

Forget it all.

Put it aside, shove it to the back of your brain or, even better, scrub the whole mindscape clean. Lesson-free, worry-free, anxiety-proofed. Silence the inner coach.

Oh yeah, one more thing: don’t even think about your favorite author or some writing style you’d like to emulate.

There. Got it?

Now, tell me a story. Only, pretend I’m in a soundproof room and you’re going to have to slide me pages under the door as the story unfolds—as you write it down. In your writing voice. With your words.

Okay, there you go.

Here’s what I want: I want to know your character—inside and out. And, well, it would be pretty cool if something actually, you know, happened.

There must be a reason this is a story and not just an account of some random, meaningless day. Or week. Or series of connected events.

My point? My point is sometimes you have to get back to basics. And those basics are:

1. See clearly.
2. Describe honestly.
3. Keep things moving.

Sometimes (drum roll, please) you just have to write.

And write some more.

(Of ALL the writing advice you’ve received over the years, isn’t that the most common refrain? “Write every day.” “Keep on writing.” “Write, write, write.” “Write a million words.” Or some such variation. Has one writing coach or respected elder of the writing community ever suggested that you think more or suck your thumb harder? Didn’t think so.)

And after you’ve written, have some other readers check what you’ve written, to see if they get the story you’re trying to tell.

That’s it.

Your voice, your words, your damn story.

It’s bound to be one of a kind.

But if you do need a jump-start or if you’re looking for that one magical moment of inspiration, come to Colorado Gold, RMFW’s massively brilliant three-day conference in September in Denver.

For more information about the conference, visit the RMFW website.

I can promise you one thing: you won’t starve for advice.

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Mark Stevens is the President of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Getting Physical: Ways to Make Your Characters Come Alive … by Lori DeBoer

This post was originally published on September 12, 2013

Whether you write genre or literary fiction, you must be able to bring your characters to life. When characters are first conceived, they invariably seem a little wooden, too recognizable as constructs of the author’s imagination. The people that populate your stories need room to grow; they do so by going out into the material world and inhabiting it.

Here’s some strategies:

Ditch the Headtrip
Interiority—revealing the inner life and thoughts of a character—is what sets novels apart from screenplays, but don’t overdo it. If you spend too many pages inside a character’s head, you’ll give your writing a case of claustrophobia. You want your readers to fall into the dream of your story, not want to claw their way out of it. Do so by giving readers recognizable physical anchors: bake some literary brownies and readers will buy into the fictional house.

Buddy Up
Scenes that feature a character going it alone—driving, drinking, lounging, brooding—quickly go flat. Introduce another character into the mix. Having two actors on a story’s stage provides a physical and emotional interplay that increases drama, conflict and unpredictability.

Do or Die
The most memorable scenes occur when the task at hand is active and unusual; even better if it’s uncomfortable for at least one of the story’s players. In the short story “Emergency” by Denis Johnson, the action opens with one of the characters mopping up blood in a hospital operating room, while the point-of-view character rifles through his pockets for drugs. In the short story “The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link, the main character peruses thrift stories, hoping to find her grandmother’s (metaphorical?) magical purse and, in it, her missing friend.

Make Meaningful Gestures
Are your characters all talk and no action? Break up blocks of dialogue with expressive body language and movement. Since 80 percent of communication is nonverbal, every shrug, twitch, nod, wave, grimace and clenched fist adds depth. Summer Knight by Jim Butcher opens with the wizard Harry investigating a rain of toads. While he is collecting specimens, he is confronted by a friend for isolating himself after his girlfriend was harmed. Though his words are terse, Harry reveals his grief: “I closed my eyes and tried to remember not to crush the toad in my hand to death. ‘Drop the subject.’“

Set the Stage
One of the first things theater directors learn is stage blocking—the choreography of the character. This applies to fiction as well. Where do your characters enter and exit your scenes? How close are they are to each other at any given time? Determine how large a space your scene occupies and write accordingly. If you have one character rapidly approaching another, but you draw this action over several paragraphs, that person better not be crossing a tiny room. Author Elizabeth Strout moves characters deftly, as you can see from this excerpt from The Burgess Boys. “Turning his head, Bob saw through the grated windows his brother walking up the sidewalk, and a small rush of anxiety came to him at the sight of this: his older brother’s quick gait, his long coat, the thick leather briefcase. There was the sound of the key in the door.”

Use Your Props
Author Anton Chekhov famously wrote: “If a gun is on the mantle in the first act, it must fire in the last.” Actually, there are various versions of this quotation floating around, but they all advise writers to use their props. Let’s extend this to mean that fictional characters have a relationship with the physical objects around them. If you have a prop in your scene, how do your characters respond to it? In Flannery O’ Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” guns are central to the tale of family with children that encounters criminals. All three men have guns, which the young boy notices and asks about. A few paragraphs later, one of the criminals “drew a little circle in the ground with the butt of his gun.” Spoiler: O’ Connor follows Chekhov’s advice.

Simulate the Senses
If you want to ground your characters in the scene, have them respond viscerally, emotionally and intellectually to the sensory information around them. In “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, the main character wants to avoid facing his father one night: “Meanwhile, he was wet and cold. He went around to the back of the house and tried one of the basement windows, found it open, raised it cautiously, and scrambled down the cellar wall to the floor. There he stood, holding his breath, terrified by the noise he had made, but the floor above him was silent, and there was no creak on the stairs. He found a soapbox, and carried it over to the soft ring of light that streamed from the furnace door, and sat down. He was horribly afraid of rats, so he did not try to sleep, but sat looking distrustfully at the dark, still terrified lest he might have awakened his father.”

I’d love to hear more ideas on how to get physical with your characters.

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.

Down The Rabbit Hole of Research

by Terri Benson

This post was originally published on September 9, 2013

Just about any form of writing requires research, some more than others. Being a historic romance and cozy mystery writer, I do my fair share of research on a wide variety of topics. And that’s a lot of the reason I write – I love history and digging out tidbits of fact I can use in my fiction.

When I wrote An Unsinkable Love, I found literally hundreds of websites dedicated to the Titanic. I was like a kid in a candy store, flitting from one brightly colored jar to another. And that brings me to the Rabbit Hole.

It’s really easy to get caught up in research. With the WWW at our fingertips, everything is within reach from the comfort of our own homes, the local coffee shop, or a smart phone sitting on a park bench. The problem is, all that time spent researching, you’re not writing.

And almost as bad (or possibly worse), is there’s an awfully good chance those “facts” you’re gleaning, aren’t really. Facts, that is. Any Tom, Dick and Harriet can set up a website and populate it with keywords and whatever they want, and sit back knowing that someone, somewhere, will read it and take it as gospel.

Even with the Titanic, which has been written about adinfinitum for a hundred years, there is a huge amount of conflicting data.  What time the ship sank, even how many died. You can avoid that by finding multiple sources of the same information, taking even more time. Better yet, get around it by not using a specific – i.e. “in the dark moments before midnight” instead of at exactly 11:54 p.m. Readers won’t quibble. They’re reading a (hopefully) compelling story, not a dry press release. This issue leads into another quagmire:  too much research ending up in the story.

Research is a means to an end, not the end. While some of us are fascinated by Victorian architecture, our readers don’t care about every corbel, pilaster, Palladian detail, or intricate pattern in that Rocco furniture. So, unless your hero is a Victorian architect who is being pursued by a villainous building inspector, less is probably more.

I also have to fight the tendency to just keep gobbling more and more research.  Invariably the information I really need for my story is muddled with unnecessary stuff, and if I didn’t make notes of where I found it, I spend more time trying to find it again. Note to self:  start making a note of the sites you visit!

In a recent workshop put on by Cindi Myers, she talked about how she avoids getting sucked in to the Rabbit Hole.  She writes from start to finish before editing—which clearly works for her since she has more than 55 published books under her belt. When she finds a place that needs researched, she puts in a series of asterisks. I use a long blank line. This works wonderfully to remind you to check a date, or maybe include a description of clothing, a vehicle, a location, etc.  It can even be a space-holder for an entire scene, but it keeps you moving.

If you use an outline, story board, or bible, you probably have an idea of the types of research you’ll need—an untraceable poison, the latest in DNA identification, what kind of airplanes flew in 1914, the titles of officers in the British military in 1830, or who ruled in Bulgaria in 1620. Spend a specifically allotted amount time before you start writing getting needed details lined out, then keep yourself from going back and forth to research small tidbits as you’re writing. You’ll have a lot more words on the page at the end of the day.

One downfall of doing end-of-story research is that finding some really great piece of research might change the direction of your story just when you think you’re finished, but that’s part of the fun and interest in writing. I don’t know about you, but my characters often decide to go off on their own tangents.

And don’t become a hermit who never leaves the house to do research. Remember libraries and museums? They have vintage photographs, actual items you can look at up close and personal, and knowledgeable staff who can get you “just the facts, ma’am” in less time than it takes you to boot up your computer. If your story takes place in a fictional home town, local desert or mountains strangely similar to your own, get in the car and drive around. Chances are, you’ll see things that make your story more real.

So unless Alice is your name and Rabbits your game, stay out of the Rabbit Hole and keep on writing!

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Terri Benson was born and raised in the Grand Valley of western Colorado.  Married for nearly 35 years and counting to the same very unromantic man, and having raised 2 sons, she enjoys reading and writing historic romance and mystery to get away from the day-to-day realities of life.  In addition to writing dozens of published articles in local, regional and on-line newspapers and magazines, and award winning short stories, she enjoys camping, boating, hiking and gardening.  She doesn’t enjoy housework.  Find more about her at www.terribensonwriter.com.  Member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of American, and a great critique group.

A Very Happy Query Days!

By Julie Kazimer

*Keep reading for a very special holiday gift from me to you! No skipping ahead or you’ll be on the naughty list.

Oh, the holidays. Goodwill toward our fellow man. Gingerbread houses. A half-finished novel left over from NaNoWriMo. And of course, the dreaded New Year’s Resolution.

I bet I know what yours is. No, I’m not psychic (or any variation on the word like psychotic).  I know what your resolution is because you’re a writer, and we all want one thing—peace on Earth, but barring that, we’d love a major book deal with a movie franchise, and a few million readers.

Not a lot to ask, but how can our New Year’s Resolution get us there?

It all starts with a query.

Every year, for many years, my resolution was to query agents and editors in a quest for the aforementioned book deal. And every year, for so many years, I’d quit by February. Why? Because I was either being rejected outright or ignored.

Looking back, it makes complete sense.

There wasn’t anything wrong with my novels (for the most part). But there was something very wrong with how I was approaching those agents and editors. My queries sucked. Bad.

This past month, I was asked to judge a writing contest where the writers provided a query with their submission. It occurred to me while reading the queries that they all fell into three categories:

1)       Well written, interesting, unique concept, and appropriate for the agent/editor. A winning query. One guaranteed to pique the interest of an agent enough for a partial or full request.

2)      Well written, but lacking spark, either with voice or concept. These queries only get a request if the sample pages included are far more interesting.

3)      Poorly written (structure, grammar, typos, run-ons, etc), which, no matter how great the concept is, can’t be overcome.  No requests.

Sadly my queries often fell into the 3rd option. That’s why I’m going to give you a special gift (or not so special depending on your viewpoint). I’m offering to critique your query before you get ready to hit send in the New Year.

Here’s the deal, you can post your query in the comments, and I will read it, and comment on things I would change. Why would you listen to me, you might ask? Because I’ve made every query mistake known to writers. I’ve written hundreds, read double that, and am willing to read yours, for free.

If you are worried about someone stealing your idea if you post your query, you can email it to me at jkazimer at msn.com. If you’re worried about me stealing your idea, I’m terribly offended and think I might cry, right after I finish plagiarizing JK Rowlings.

This gift only will last from today until December 12th. So get to posting those queries, and, if you read the other queries and would like to comment on either the query or what I’ve said about it, please do so. It takes a village…minus all that reindeer poop.

Happy Holidays!

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J.A. (Julie) Kazimer lives in Denver, CO. Novels include CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, Dope Sick: A Love Story and FROGGY STYLE as well as the forthcoming book, The Assassin’s Heart. J.A. spent years spilling drinks as a bartender and then stalked people while working as a private investigator. For more about Julie, visit her website and blog.

Connect with Julie on Twitter and Facebook.

Me? A Procrastinator?

 

By Kerry Schafer

Procrastination.

A fascinating topic — one I can spend hours discussing, analyzing, and lamenting as a lovely (and valid) evasion from whatever task I’m procrastinating from.

Now, I know procrastination has a bad rap, and a lot of people think its roots lie in sheer laziness. This is a myth that must be dispelled forthwith. Proper procrastination is a skill, indeed an art, which generally requires much more energy and creativity than would have ever been expended on the original project.

Sometimes procrastination makes perfect sense. If the task to be avoided involves removing green food from the fridge (and by this I mean foods that were never intended by nature to be green), or if the bathroom needs cleaning, or a teenager’s room needs to be mucked out with a shovel and a rake – then procrastination makes perfect sense.

But we also procrastinate when the project on the agenda is something that we love. Take writing for example. Most of us who write are passionate about the process. We talk about how we love writing, how we couldn’t live without it.

I asked my writer friends on Facebook a simple question: Why do you write? Here are some of the answers:

“I write because I have stories in my head that need to get out.” ~ B.e. Sanderson

“I’m not right if I don’t write…there’s some piece of happiness in the process for me. If there’s no work in progress, momma ain’t happy and if momma ain’t happy ain’t nobody gonna be happy ~Linda Robertson

“1) I love telling stories and weaving tales. 2) I’ll read a book or watch a show and think, ‘Not bad, but it could have been better if they’d done this.’ 3) There is a story in my head and it will drive me nuts if I don’t get it out of me.” ~ Todd Leatherman

“The voices! The voices in my head!!!” ~Trudy Morgan Cole

“It’s what I was put on this earth to do.” ~Aurelia Blue

“I love to paint with words.” ~Judy Phillips

“Because there are still books I want to read that only I can write.” ~James Ray Tuck Jr

You’d think with this level of drive and enthusiasm (and possibly mental instability, given the number of people who mentioned the need to silence voices) we’d all be typing away at every possible moment, getting those stories down on the page with vim and vigor and great enthusiasm.

Alas, this is not so. Writer procrastination would be a national sport if writers were a nation. Come on, admit it. As much as you’re driven to write your story, to get the voices out of your head or the words down on the page, how often do you find yourself doing something – anything – else?

Honest answers now:

Which is your preference :

a) Facebook b) Twitter c) Pinterest d) Other

Which is your default procrastination game: 

A) Spider Solitaire  B) Farmville  C) Candy Crush  D) Other  E) I don’t waste my time on stupid games, I get real with WOW and the equivalent

True or False: I’ve been known to do housework to avoid writing, possibly even cleaning green things out of the fridge.

Bonus Questions: sneaky procrastination activities that look a lot like writing, but aren’t.

Do You:

  1. Engage in IM chats that are supposedly about writing but delve deeply into other inanity?
  2. Engage in plotting that goes on and on and prevents you from writing?
  3. Engage in writing preparation activities like making coffee or other beverages/snacks to consume while writing, setting up music playlists, cleaning off your desk, until your writing time is over?

If you are not a procrastinator, go away. We don’t need your overcharged, driven, annoying type here. If you are a procrastinator and you actually took the quiz: good for you! You have earned a cookie.

There are a lot of reasons we might procrastinate on writing, but I think the biggest bugaboo is perfectionism. We care deeply about the story, about the words. We feel a responsibility to the characters we create and want to portray them accurately. We also want readers to love or hate them as much as we do. We want readers to love our work. The whole project sometimes looks too big, too scary, too much. If only a novel could spring fully formed from head to page, as beautiful and complete as we envision it, then all would be well.

But the words come out rough and bumpy, characters fall flat, plots lack in pacing and suspense. It’s damn hard work to fix and polish and bring the story anywhere near the shining thing we want it to be.

And so we delay. After all, if the story is still perfect and lovely in our heads, then we haven’t yet failed to bring it into being.

What is a procrastinating writer to do?

Well, you can suck it up and power through. Install internet blocking software on your computer and lock yourself in a barren room without distractions. Chain yourself to a chair. But where’s the fun in that?

Ann Lamott pretty much nailed it with her book Bird by Bird. If you’re a writer and haven’t read this book yet, click the link, buy the book. Read. Read again. Do it NOW. Yes, I know you plan to do it later. I also know how that will likely turn out.

Some of the best resources for overcoming procrastination and perfectionism come from SARK. She has written a couple of wonderful books for creative people: Make your Creative Dreams Real: A Plan for Procrastinators, Perfectionists, Busy People, and People Who Would Really Rather Sleep All Day; and Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper.

If you’re anything like me you probably don’t have time to read a book to help you with procrastination right now. You’re busy. (Checking your Twitter feed, cleaning the fridge, etc. These things take time.) So here is a link to what I’ve come to believe is the best cure ever for most varieties of procrastination: SARK’s Micro Movements.

The basic idea is akin to Lamott’s advice to take things “bird by bird.” You set yourself a micro task that will require no longer than five minutes of your time. For example, open a new document and give it a title. Write one paragraph. Or even one sentence. That’s it. You’re done. You can carry on if you feel like it, but you don’t have to. You get to feel the satisfaction of crossing something off your list, rather than looking way down the road to a long year of thankless writing…… ahem. Sorry about that. But you do see my point – it’s easy to get so mired in the epic scope of what you’ve undertaken that you can’t ever get anything done.

I used to do hour long writing sprints to get my word count in. This was highly productive IF I managed to make myself sit down and do it. Not so long ago my critique partner got me started on 15 minute sprints. You know, I can concentrate for that span of time even on a bad day. And if I do about four 15 minute sprints, it often works out to about a thousand words. 

Here’s an opportunity for you to try micro movements on your own. Come on, give it a shot. All you have to do is click this link to have a look at SARK’s micro movements. Who knows – maybe you’ll be inspired to give the method a try.

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Kerry Schafer’s first novel, Between, was published in February 2013 and the sequel, Wakeworld, is slated to hit shelves and e-readers on January 28, 2014. Kerry is both a licensed mental health counselor and an RN, and loves to incorporate psychological and medical disorders into her fantasy books. She is a bit of a hypocrite who does not always practice the relaxation she preaches. You can find out more on her website, www.kerryschafer.com, or find her on Twitter as @kerryschafer or on her Facebook page Kerry Schafer Books

Wrapping it Up—Finishing Up a Series

by Katriena Knights

No matter how much you love a series, sooner or later it has to end. Well, this is true for television—in series fiction, you could probably keep going until you expire in front of your keyboard. However, there are plenty of reasons you might want to wrap up a book series, and when you do, you want to be sure you do it right.

I think the most effective way to wrap up a series is to know where you’re going from the beginning. In the old days, when people rarely went beyond a trilogy, this was easier. Now, when you can go to thirty or more books (see J. D. Robb and Laurel K. Hamilton, who I keep talking about), you might never have to plot out an ending. (See above, expiring on your keyboard. Then your daughter can continue your series like Tony Hillerman’s is doing right now.) However, if you don’t trust your offspring, you might want to be sure your book’s main story is brought to a conclusion before you are.

On television, this kind of planning is fairly rare. Generally, the showrunners find out they need to wrap up a story at the beginning of a season at the earliest, and that’s usually because they’ve made the decision to end the show. When the network makes the decision, often they don’t get to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion at all.

A couple of shows do come to mind, though, where the plan was in place from the beginning or at least from close to the beginning. One of the best examples of this is Babylon 5, where showrunner J. Michael Straczynski had a five-year plan in place from day one. Even this didn’t quite go as planned, since key characters had to be redone on the fly when actors left or didn’t work out, and the network put the kibosh on the last season by cutting it short due to ratings. Still, it remains one of the most fully realized genre plotlines on TV. (There might be other examples, probably from syndicated shows, but they’re probably not things I’ve watched.)

I’m not sure Lost is a great example of anything, although I did enjoy the show, but during the second season into the third, ratings slipped to the point where the network told the showrunners to build a plan to be done after the end of season five. They did, and managed to answer most of the questions that had built up over the course of the five seasons, though whether they were satisfactory answers mostly depends on who you talk to.

In the book world, a few series also come to mind where the author planned the storyline to run to a certain length. Rachel Caine’s Weather Wardens was intended from the beginning to run to twelve books, and the spinoff series was planned at only four. Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series will end when she runs out of alphabet, and based on interviews, she also has a plan for how her adventures with Kinsey Milhone will come to a close.

In addition to having a plan for how you’d ideally like your series to wind up, I think it’s probably a good idea to build your underlying plot in arcs so that it could conceivably end at several different points. Say you write the first three books and end a major story arc there—then if for whatever reason you’re unable to continue the series, you’ve still given your readers a mostly satisfactory conclusion. The showrunners of Supernatural mentioned this strategy at the end of that show’s second season, when they were uncertain of renewal. They answered most of the major questions that had lingered through the first two seasons and set up a new plot arc that would carry the third season if they actually had one. Now in its ninth season, Supernatural now blithely drops massive, life-ruining cliffhangers at the end of each season because they know they’ll have another year to work them out.

In general, it’s important to know what questions you’ve raised throughout your series and have answers to those questions. Your ending should match the tone of the rest of the series—don’t have a massive, apocalyptic siege of destruction at the end of a comedic romance series. Avoid deus ex machina type solutions, and try not to handwave questions that have taken on greater importance in the story than you might have expected at the beginning. If you like the idea, set up story arcs within the longer series so you can end at earlier points if necessary. If you keep these issues in mind, you’ll be likely to construct a series ending that both you and your readers will be happy with.

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog.

The Worry List

The Worry List – by Kerry Schafer

It’s hard to write when your head feels like the kitchen junk drawer. You know the one. It’s the place for random elastic bands and those little plastic things from bread bags. Coupons you’re going to use some day. The screw that inexplicably dropped out of the bottom of the kitchen table that you will definitely put back in. Soon.

Mine also holds three kinds of tape, scissors, flea medicine for the dog, and a roll of stick-on Christmas present labels.

Don’t judge.

If you don’t own a drawer like this you are probably still a good person, and you are welcome to borrow the image of mine for the duration of this analogy.

Anyway, let’s agree that your head is stuffed to the point of spilling over. So when you sit down at the computer to write about a galaxy far, far away, instead you find yourself thinking about the drooping plant, the car that needs a brake repair, finances, not spending enough time with your family, laundry, what are you going to make for dinner and OMG – that blog you should have written for RMFW days ago but somehow forgot.

Panic ensues. Now you really can’t write anything at all because you’re much too upset and you need to dip into a container of ice cream first. Or have a drink. After which bed is the logical choice because things will look so much clearer in the morning.

And you manage to fall asleep because you truly are exhausted, only to be awakened by a crushing list of things to do or worry about. Sometimes the LIST takes on the qualities of Terry Pratchett’s Luggage (if you haven’t read the Discworld books and don’t know what The Luggage is, you should definitely add reading these books to The List right now).

One of the best cures for worrying that I know of is to actually give The List full focus for a space of time. It really doesn’t make it bigger, believe it or not, and it can actually make it more manageable and let you get back to getting things done.

Allot whatever time you can to this. I recommend clearing the decks for an hour in order to fully concentrate your attention on worrying, but I recognize this may  not be possible. If so, you can complete the tasks in stages.

  1. Collect your supplies. You’ll need blank paper (a notebook is good), pen, different colored hi-liters, and a beverage of your choice. If at all possible, clear your space of children and spouses and maybe even cats. (I hear you calling me delusional. This is unkind, but possibly very true)
  2.  Start jotting down the worry items, one to a line, in no particular order. This is a free writing activity. No item is too “trivial” to be included. Even if you know this is not a rational worry, write it down. If the problem of Goldfish Doesn’t Wear Socks came into your head, then it deserves a spot on your worry list. Keep that pen moving and keep on jotting down all the things, either until you run out of worries or your time is up. (New items may pop up later – just add them onto the end if they do.)
  3. Now here’s the fun part. Take a pen and cross out every item on that list that is not worth your worry time. That goldfish who doesn’t need socks, for example. Eliminate them.
  4. Next, read through and cross out all of the things over which you have absolutely no control. They may be very important personal or world problems, but if it’s something you know you either can’t or won’t take any action to fix, cross it out. BE RUTHLESS.
  5. Still with me? Now it’s time to begin categorizing the items that are left. Pick a hi-liter color for items that must be dealt with TODAY and mark them.
  6. Choose another color for the things that need to be dealt with this WEEK.
  7. Choose another color for the things that need to be dealt with this MONTH.
  8. If you’re an organized or compulsive sort of person you may feel the need to go on marking things for every month of the year. This is the point where I just choose a color and designate everything else on the list as “to take care of sometime.” I just can’t focus out more than a month at a time.
  9. Create an action plan for the things of today, promising yourself you’ll do the same again tomorrow for the next day’s needs.

Hopefully now you feel a little lighter, a little less cluttered, and can get on with the very important business of writing. Or sleeping.

Thanks for stopping by the blog today. Next month we’ll tackle a bit of the psychology involved in Writer Procrastination.

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Kerry Schafer’s first novel, Between, was published in February 2013 and the sequel, Wakeworld, is slated to hit shelves and e-readers on January 28, 2014. Kerry is both a licensed mental health counselor and an RN, and loves to incorporate psychological and medical disorders into her fantasy books. She is a bit of a hypocrite who does not always practice the relaxation she preaches. You can find out more on her website, www.kerryschafer.com, or find her on Twitter as @kerryschafer or on her Facebook page Kerry Schafer Books

I Took Way Too Many Notes at the Colorado Gold Conference

By Patricia Stoltey

I felt obligated to stick to the same word count I suggested for the rest of our blog’s contributors and guests, but it was hard. I took so many notes, and I learned so much, that I still feel as though I fell off my diet and stuffed myself too full. Let’s see if the post will be lean enough if I give you the name of the session, the instructor’s name, and one thing I learned (all paraphrased). I’ll skip details about the guest speakers and just tell you they were all wonderful.

On Friday, I worked the registration table until 2:00 PM and then had to check into the hotel room, so I didn’t get to my first session until 3:00. That was Bill Konigsberg’s Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue in Young-Adult Fiction.

First deadly sin: Overuse of slang

Agent Panel with Sally Harding, Natalie Lakosil, Kathleen Rushall, and Sarah Joy Freese.

One of the worst things an author can do in his query letter is not talk about his book. The format to follow is “The hook, the book, and the cook,” and all need to be brief.

In the Middle: Pluses and Minuses of Small Press Publishing, Katriena Knights

Contracts with small presses tend to be shorter in duration and often for only one format. This allows a book to have 2-3 good life cycles.

Denver Skyline from Our Conference Hotel Room Balcony

Denver Skyline from Our Conference Hotel Room Balcony

Saturday was an amazing day filled with difficult choices. Picking which workshop to attend was hard, and I often changed my mind at the last minute.

The Artist’s Way: Still Fresh, Robin Owens

When challenged to write pseudo-morning pages for ten minutes, I discovered some authors (Janet Lane, for instance) are very creative at 8:00 AM. I, however, was just grumpy and mostly scribbled on about needing another cup of coffee.

Why Would Librarians Buy Your Book—Or Not?, Mary Gilgannon and Alice Kober

The mini-synopsis (story blurb) on the back cover (and often included in book catalogues) is critical to librarian selection.

How to Art Direct Your Book’s Cover Design, Karen Duvall

The latest trend in covers is to use models in headless shots, or silhouettes, or from the back.

The Point of No Return: Crossing the Threshold from Traditionally Published to Self-Published, Jeff Shelby

The new exploding market is New Adult for young women age 18-25 with plenty of romance, sex, drama, and bad boys. Normal length: 65,000 words.

An Agent Reads the Slush Pile, Kristin Nelson and Sally Harding

Don’t do world building in a prologue. If you use a prologue, it should set up a question or establish a scene that will become important later in the story.

Who’s Your Narrator?, Ronald Malfi

Dialogue needs to reflect each character’s voice, even when the chapter or scene is not from that character’s POV.

The Hybrid Author, Karyn Marcus and Kristin Nelson

I learned all about the story of Hugh Howey who began by self-publishing and was later picked up by a major publisher for his compiled book, Wool. I’d never heard anything about this author before. The story is too long to tell here. Sorry about that.

Sunday morning I skipped the continental breakfast of fruit and pastries and joined friends in the restaurant for a real breakfast. The waitress forgot to bring my bacon. Can you believe that? Forgot to bring my bacon!

I attended the 8:00 AM session, still upset, but quickly settled in to enjoy The Road Map to a Successful E-Pub Career Shift, Cate Rowan

Cover art for e-books needs to pop when it’s displayed in thumbnail size (that’s where the online bookseller shows a line of books that were purchased at the same time as the search book).

I, You, Them: How Perspective Powers Your Story, Trai Cartwright

Holy cow! I still have new things to learn about Point of View. Do you know the difference between Third Close Dramatic and Third Close Limited? I had them confused. Sigh! I’m not going to try to explain them here. I’d probably get it wrong (even though I think I took really good notes).

And that’s my super-condensed version from twenty-seven 4 1/2” x 6 1/2” pages of notes. I could go on and on…

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPatricia Stoltey is the author of two amateur sleuth mysteries published by Five Star/Cengage in hardcover and Harlequin Worldwide mass market paperbacks. The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders are now available for Kindle and Nook. Her blog is known for featuring guest authors who write in a variety of genres.

She can be stalked on Facebook and Twitter.

Passion is Inspiration

By Nicole Disney

We’ve all had that moment. You’re driving on the highway, in the middle of your shift at work, in the shower, and inspiration comes. The words draw each other together like reunited lovers in bursts so poetic and fleeting you must find a pen. Whether that means leaving the steering wheel of your speeding vehicle in the hands of your seven year old or turning your hair into a gum of leftover conditioner is hardly the point. The only problem is that there is an equal and opposite force out there that will leave the cursor blinking on a screen much too bright for the black room hours of paralysis have darkened.

Following another brilliant Colorado Gold Conference, I suspect most of us are still feeling buzzed on new ideas and potential agent and editor connections. Now may seem an unnecessary time to muse on inspiration. But like a New Year’s Resolution, this energy of immersion can so quickly fade into the tedium of reality. How do we hold onto this magical feeling of hope and motivation?

I can easily recall an uncomfortable number of times I spent my entire day fantasizing inside my characters’ minds and worlds, counting down until I could clock out from work, go home, and write. But something happened around hour nine or ten of work. Thoughts of my keyboard and favorite pens turned to thoughts of cuddling with my kittens, a movie, and bed.

Now I’ve learned to remind myself to compare writing not with what else I could do at home, but what I don’t want to do at work. Family time, meals, and sleep was never what we writers set out to replace, that’s just the way it often happens. But if we ever want to reach the coveted combination of laptops and cuddles, we have to boot the day jobs to the curb. It’s not writing versus reading a good book and sipping on wine; it’s writing versus waiting tables and double shifts.

That may be enough to get you to the keyboard, but what if all your brain will manifest is a vague and distant knowledge that you should probably blink more often to temper that kind of blank staring? Some will say write anyway. Force it, even if you know you’re going to delete every word of that cumbersome garbage. While I do appreciate the value of getting the pen moving, I’ve recently discovered something much more entertaining, something more fun than sheer will power.

I sit down and make a list of questions. Not just any question will do, these must be the most thought provoking, hot button, or otherwise offensive questions you can muster. Compile every subject a socially unobtrusive person would avoid and then go there. If you can figure out what makes other people mad, then you know what makes them care. Figure out what makes you care, and you’re a short step away from inspiration. A warning should be inherent in this exercise. Whether you go out and actually provoke people is completely dependent on your sense of adventure. What follows may be a disaster or great material, depending how you see the world.

Even if you only consider these issues in your mind, and even if you never actually write a story about any of them directly, these arguments with multiple valid and understandable stances are the guts of great stories and of believable characters. How they make you feel can be the oil that starts the wheels turning again. Passion is inspiration.

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Nicole Disney is the debut author of contemporary lesbian fiction novel, Dissonance in A Minor. She lives in Denver, Colorado where she continues to write dark, edgy novels. She is also a martial arts instructor and teaches Krav Maga, Muay Thai, and Karate. For more about Nicole, please visit her website. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Getting Physical: Ways to Make Your Characters Come Alive

By Lori DeBoer

Whether you write genre or literary fiction, you must be able to bring your characters to life. When characters are first conceived, they invariably seem a little wooden, too recognizable as constructs of the author’s imagination. The people that populate your stories need room to grow; they do so by going out into the material world and inhabiting it.

Here’s some strategies:

Ditch the Headtrip
Interiority—revealing the inner life and thoughts of a character—is what sets novels apart from screenplays, but don’t overdo it. If you spend too many pages inside a character’s head, you’ll give your writing a case of claustrophobia. You want your readers to fall into the dream of your story, not want to claw their way out of it. Do so by giving readers recognizable physical anchors: bake some literary brownies and readers will buy into the fictional house.

Buddy Up
Scenes that feature a character going it alone—driving, drinking, lounging, brooding—quickly go flat. Introduce another character into the mix. Having two actors on a story’s stage provides a physical and emotional interplay that increases drama, conflict and unpredictability.

Do or Die
The most memorable scenes occur when the task at hand is active and unusual; even better if it’s uncomfortable for at least one of the story’s players. In the short story “Emergency” by Denis Johnson, the action opens with one of the characters mopping up blood in a hospital operating room, while the point-of-view character rifles through his pockets for drugs. In the short story “The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link, the main character peruses thrift stories, hoping to find her grandmother’s (metaphorical?) magical purse and, in it, her missing friend.

Make Meaningful Gestures
Are your characters all talk and no action? Break up blocks of dialogue with expressive body language and movement. Since 80 percent of communication is nonverbal, every shrug, twitch, nod, wave, grimace and clenched fist adds depth. Summer Knight by Jim Butcher opens with the wizard Harry investigating a rain of toads. While he is collecting specimens, he is confronted by a friend for isolating himself after his girlfriend was harmed. Though his words are terse, Harry reveals his grief: “I closed my eyes and tried to remember not to crush the toad in my hand to death. ‘Drop the subject.’“

Set the Stage
One of the first things theater directors learn is stage blocking—the choreography of the character. This applies to fiction as well. Where do your characters enter and exit your scenes? How close are they are to each other at any given time? Determine how large a space your scene occupies and write accordingly. If you have one character rapidly approaching another, but you draw this action over several paragraphs, that person better not be crossing a tiny room. Author Elizabeth Strout moves characters deftly, as you can see from this excerpt from The Burgess Boys. “Turning his head, Bob saw through the grated windows his brother walking up the sidewalk, and a small rush of anxiety came to him at the sight of this: his older brother’s quick gait, his long coat, the thick leather briefcase. There was the sound of the key in the door.”

Use Your Props
Author Anton Chekhov famously wrote: “If a gun is on the mantle in the first act, it must fire in the last.” Actually, there are various versions of this quotation floating around, but they all advise writers to use their props. Let’s extend this to mean that fictional characters have a relationship with the physical objects around them. If you have a prop in your scene, how do your characters respond to it? In Flannery O’ Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” guns are central to the tale of family with children that encounters criminals. All three men have guns, which the young boy notices and asks about. A few paragraphs later, one of the criminals “drew a little circle in the ground with the butt of his gun.” Spoiler: O’ Connor follows Chekhov’s advice.

Simulate the Senses
If you want to ground your characters in the scene, have them respond viscerally, emotionally and intellectually to the sensory information around them. In “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, the main character wants to avoid facing his father one night: “Meanwhile, he was wet and cold. He went around to the back of the house and tried one of the basement windows, found it open, raised it cautiously, and scrambled down the cellar wall to the floor. There he stood, holding his breath, terrified by the noise he had made, but the floor above him was silent, and there was no creak on the stairs. He found a soapbox, and carried it over to the soft ring of light that streamed from the furnace door, and sat down. He was horribly afraid of rats, so he did not try to sleep, but sat looking distrustfully at the dark, still terrified lest he might have awakened his father.”

I’d love to hear more ideas on how to get physical with your characters.

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.