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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking Back, Looking Forward

For most folks, December is a month for reflection on the old year and planning for the new, and I am no exception. 2017 started out a little slowly for me, writing wise, and ended on something of a bang. I’d like to keep that momentum going in 2018; more, I’d like to build on it and really produce some spectacular reads for y’all in 2018.

To that end, a few days ago I began planning (as much as I plan) a systems-based approach to writing in the new year, a process I’ve been trying to get back to since realizing my switch to a schedule-based approach in 2015 wasn’t working.

And since I’m still adjusting to the switch back, I’m cutting myself some slack by setting most of my 2018 writing goals for just the first three months. I’ll re-evaluate at that point, see what is and isn’t working, and readjust if necessary.

2017’s Publications

First though, let’s recap what happened in 2017. Writing wise, I published two titles during the first half of the year and five titles during the last half, specifically (and in order):

  • Greenwood Cove, Sunshine Walkingstick, Book 1 (Celia Roman)
  • The Deep Wood, Sunshine Walkingstick, Book 2
  • Death Omen, a Sunshine Walkingstick short story
  • Cemetery Hill, Sunshine Walkingstick, Book 3
  • A Mutual Feeling (C.D. Watson)
  • Intersections (C.D. Watson)
  • Dreaming of a Dark Christmas (Lucy Varna, V.R. Cumming, Celia Roman, C.D. Watson)

Additionally, in the latter half of the year I completed two short stories for my upcoming Romancing the Weird collection, “Brian” and “Time after Time.” Some of you got these as a bonus for pre-ordering A Mutual Feeling or Intersections, something I may try again with future short stories.

Not bad for a year that started off so slowly.

2018’s Overarching Goals

Now, just because I’m going back to the old systems-based approach to writing doesn’t mean I’m completely without explicit goals I’d like to hit. The first is one early readers of my Lucy Varna books grew accustomed to right off the bat: a title published every other month on average, whether it’s a full-length novel, a novella, or a short story collection.

To stay on the realistic end of that goal, I’m officially setting it for a very reasonable four to six titles published during 2018. The first one, the next novel in the Daughters of the People Series (Lucy Varna), is already available for pre-order.

That’s overarching goal number one. Overarching goal number two is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time: write (or finish) one complete short story every week.

Sounds like a lot, yes? I promise you, this is more accomplishable (totally a word) than not, if I can stick to my writing habit (not schedule).

To be completely fair, I’m giving myself a two-week break at some point during 2018, probably either the last two weeks of the year or a week around Thanksgiving and another around Christmas. Let’s face it: those weeks are hard for everybody. Between family events and basketball, they’re doubly busy for me, so two weeks off, which leaves fifty weeks (fifty stories!) for me to play with.

Now, to fulfill that goal, I first need to define “short story,” which I choose to mean anything up to forty to fifty thousand words in length (technically, a work of fiction that long is a short novel). Since I’m limiting the time I work on short stories each week and since I sometimes miscalculate story lengths (as I did with A Mutual Feeling), I’m going to be reasonable and shoot for forty short stories. To be even more reasonable, I’m trying this out for three months (January, February, and March) and will re-evaluate then.

So my first two 2018 goals are this:

  1. Publish 4-6 titles.
  2. Write 40 or more short(er) stories (depending on how the first three months of 2018 shake out).

Two goals, lots of stories. That’s my kind of New Year!

Writing Habits

Back in the day when I was writing like a pro (ironically enough, before I considered myself a professional writer), I had unwittingly instituted a strong writing habit that went something like this: Wake up, slap myself into the day, have supper and spend a little time with my family, get back home by 8-8:30 p.m., start writing by 9 p.m., write at least two scenes a night, finish sometime around 4 a.m. (sometimes later), and go to bed. That was, no kidding, a typical writing day. I did that five or more days every week for nearly two years, and it worked.

I’m in the process of re-instituting a similar writing habit now, although on a somewhat different time schedule. The process- or systems-driven goals remain the same as when I started writing: two or more scenes per night, at least five days per week.

To put a number to those goals, I’ve defined a scene as being about two thousand words in length. That’s not always accurate, but for the sake of giving myself a target to aim for, it’s close enough.

Again, to be reasonable, I’m aiming for two to four thousand words per writing night toward whatever novel I’m currently working on completing.

But I have that other goal, the short story goal, so I’m setting aside one thousand words per day, five days per week, toward that goal in addition to the words set aside for novels.

Bear in mind that these are minimum word count targets, but to be reasonable my daily word count goals for 2018 are:

  1. Write two or more scenes per day on a novel, five days per week, or at least 2000 words per writing day.
  2. Write one thousand words, five days per week, on a short story.

That’s 3000 words per day, five days per week, or 15,000 words per week. I could multiply that out and give you the exact goal numbers by month and by year (and thus fill in the gaps between overarching goals and word count goals), but I’d much rather focus on one day at a time, by the week.

Word to the wise: Don’t try to stuff the entire elephant into your mouth all at once; eat it in small, manageable bites. That’s what all of these teeniny goals are for, to break my overarching goals down into reasonably small, perfectly accomplishable chunks.

As I said earlier, I’m “trying on” my old writing habits (and the subsequent goals) for the first three months of the year, and because I need some accountability, I’m also planning on updating my progress here during my regular Book and Author News posts.

What Does That Mean for Readers?

Which stories will I be working on? No telling, but I can say that I’ve got both Sweet Surrender (The Pruxnae, Book 5) and Redemption (Daughters of the People, Book 6.5) mostly developed, and the first scenes written for both. It’s very likely I’ll be working on at least one of those manuscripts in the first quarter of 2018.

I’ve also started developing a Christmas novella set in NetVerse (The Pruxnae’s story world), so it’s possible I’ll be working on that as well. Other possibilities include The Master Vampire (The Vampyr, Book 4, V.R. Cumming), which is fairly well developed and has an already substantial bit of the first draft done, plus the final two Daughters of the People novels, an accompanying Daughters of the People short story collection, and some new, never-before-discussed projects waiting on the back burner.

But here’s the thing: I’m making no promises.

Promises of that sort are for schedule-driven writers, but I’m not a schedule-driven writer; I’m a systems-driven writer (Habits R Us). It’s possible that I could wake up one day with a brilliant plot twist for the final Vampyr Series novel and end up shifting my focus to it from, for example, Sweet Surrender while the idea is fresh in my head. This is what worked for me during my first two years as a writer. Trust the process, people, and have some faith. You’re going to get some great stories in 2018. That’s one promise I am very willing to make.

As far as the short stories go, some of those will probably be aimed at paying markets (read: short form fiction magazines) and some will be tagged for a self-published short story collection, like Dreaming of a Dark Christmas. I’m planning on listing the titles of finished short stories in my regular Book and Author News posts, so keep an eye out there if you’re interested.

Other Business Related Goals

I have two other goals I’m aiming to achieve this year, business wise. The first is to go back to blogging on a semi-regular basis, something I did quite a bit of during my first couple of years as a writer. I even had a set time for writing blog posts, between waking up and eating supper (or, more likely, while making supper). I haven’t set a firm habit-driven goal for this yet, but I hope to soon.

The other business related goal has to do with the Speculative Fiction magazine my son and I are working on, Alternate Realms Magazine. I’d like to move toward getting at least one new item out each week other than our monthly new releases list. So far, those overarching goals include publishing a new article, one to two reviews, and one to two interviews each month. Again, I haven’t set aside the exact time for that within my writing habit (that systems-driven approach), but I will. It could be that some of my blogging time is eaten up by ARM, and I’m totally fine with that.

I have one other secret goal I’m working on that may or not reach fruition in 2018, as it requires skills I haven’t fully developed yet. I’ll let y’all know what’s up with that when I get a little closer to figuring out how or if I can accomplish this one.

Personal Goals

And, of course, the personal stuff, mostly related to health. As a writer, I spend a lot of time sitting and typing. (Go figure.) My 2018 goal is to build on my steady, upward spiral of focusing on things that have a positive impact on my health.

For example, sometime in 2015 I decided to try the Paleo diet, something I’d been studying for a couple of years prior to that. It really worked for me, so I gradually converted to the Primal lifestyle. Not a strict one, no, but close enough to eventually feel and look better than I had in years.

Last February, I backslid thanks to an incredibly hectic schedule, caused in part by an extended playoff season for my sister’s basketball team. (She’s a coach. I have to support her, right?) I’ve since gained *mumble, mumble* pounds, which led directly to a whole size increase in my jeans, this after working so hard to go down four full dress sizes.

Nope, I was not happy about that, so it’s back at it for the New Year. Ok, I’ve already started getting back on the Primal wagon through diet and exercise. After the New Year, I hope to incorporate weight training at some point, and will hopefully be able to get out and walk or hike, weather permitting.

Yeah, our weather here is supposed to suck (Thank you, La Nina!), but it is what it is. If I can’t get out and hike, then I can substitute the ever fun chore known as toting firewood. Hey, whatever works.

I’m not aiming for pounds lost or pants sizes decreased. Rather, I’m aiming for a healthier lifestyle. That’s always worked better for me than short-term, rigid diet and exercise programs.

Part of that includes decreasing the amount of time I spend online, especially on social media sites. Frankly, Facebook stresses me out. I love catching up with family and friends, but doing so also means seeing the inevitable political rants. No, thanks. I’ve already nearly completely cut Twitter out of my life; Facebook is probably going to go the same way, or will at least be relegated to the bare minimum. I know readers are always looking for ways to connect, but believe me, following my blog and/or subscribing to one of my newsletters is a far better way to interact with me.

Another personal goal? Read more. This year, I read more than sixty individual titles ranging from short stories, magazines, and novels to non-fiction for research or to build my writerly skills.

In 2018, I’d like to read at least that many titles again. I’ve set aside specific parts of my day for reading, namely while exercising and before bed (this is an established habit), but I also sneak in reading time during long car rides (when someone else is driving, natch) and breaks during basketball games. My son and I will also occasionally either listen to an audiobook while we’re on the road, or one of us will read a physical book while the other drives. The family that reads together and all that.

Finally, I have some work to do around the house I’m living in, the one my great-grandfather built, three things in particular. First, the porch is in desperate need of painting. We hired someone to do it last year, but due to scheduling conflicts related to those hurricanes that blew through, our hiree wasn’t able to complete the job. This project’s earmarked for spring, as soon as the temperatures warm up enough at night for the paint to stick.

Second, I need to finish cleaning out the three extra bedrooms and the upstairs walk-in closet. Most of what needs going through is clothes, but some of it is personal, like pictures and correspondence. We’ve discovered some gems so far, including Aunt Dixie’s wedding dress and a picture of my grandfather when he was a wee lad, the earliest picture we have of him. I have high hopes of uncovering even more treasures as we go through the remaining items.

Third, once the bedrooms are cleaned out, I’ll be rearranging furniture. The downstairs bedroom is earmarked for a living area slash TV and game room. I’ll be moving furniture from the current parlor to the new living room so that I can use the parlor as my office, while the current living room (where the fireplace is located) will become the parlor slash reading room. Having a dedicated writing spot will go a long way toward helping me re-establish my writing habit, so that’s something of a priority. Again, weather permitting. It’s hard to cart bags of old clothes off to the thrift store when your car is buried under a foot of snow.

Wow! That’s a Lot of Goals!

Nearly 3000 words worth to this point in the post, not that I’m counting. (Ha!)

The whole point of this is to a) reinforce my habit-driven process within my own mind, and b) to provide some accountability by posting my goals publicly. Encouraging words are very much appreciated, but please be kind. Remember that I’m the one in charge of the fate of some of your favorite characters.



Anyway, life always gets in the way, and I anticipate nothing less during 2018. Basketball and other family related events are going to happen and, most likely, will eat up more time than I anticipated. And that’s fine. Family comes first, but work runs a close second and I really need to focus on it, for my own sake if not for my readers’.

The other most likely interference will be work related. Once I finish a manuscript, regardless of length, I set it aside for a day to a couple of weeks and let it simmer while I work on something else. When I’m ready, I pull it back out again, read and revise it (if necessary, and it almost always is), then incorporate any changes into the master file. This can take anywhere from a couple of hours for a shorter story to a week or more for a novel, and during that time, I like to work solely on that story. It’s really difficult, after all, to finalize one story when you’ve got others floating around in your head.

So, I may be taking time here and there away from writing during which time I’ll still be working on getting stories out to you. Trust the process. I may not meet all my writerly goals exactly when I should, but I promise, I will be writing my way toward a really great 2018.

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2018 bring you much peace, success, and happiness.

The Pontiac Man

The Pontiac Man

I come from a family of many stories. When we can’t find one appropriate for a situation, we make one up on the spot. I tease my dad that he kissed the Blarney Stone one time too many, as good a reason as any as to why he’s such a great storyteller, but the truth is, some people have the gift of story and he’s one of them.

One of his stories revolves around Pontiacs. Dad has been a fan of the brand for a long time now, particularly of the Grand Am and Grand Prix models. When the company decided to no longer produce them, it about broke his heart.

Dad owned versions of one or the other a few times. I bought one from him, and Dad gave another to my son when he turned eighteen, so we like to joke that Pontiacs are a family tradition. Dad reminds my son frequently about the power of a Pontiac. “When drivers see a Pontiac man coming, they know to get out of the way,” he’ll tease. When my son and I are out driving in his car and he hesitates, I say, “It’s a Pontiac, honey.” And away we go, carried along by the power and thrill of the Grand Prix’s roar.

For the longest time, I’ve wanted to write an essay about my father’s love of Pontiacs, and have never found a good place to start. Finally, I wrote a short story called “The Pontiac Man.” It’s not about Dad, no, and it’s not even about cars (although Dad did pick out the particular model used in the story), but it is a tribute in my own small way to the influence Pontiacs have had on our family.

“The Pontiac Man” is currently available online as a free read, for this week only. You can read it here, and when you’re done, take a moment to remember the passing of the Pontiac, an American legend, into the vaunted halls of memory.


Rediscovering the Joy

Rediscovering the Joy

A few weeks ago, when it became clear that I was on the verge of (finally) finishing the first draft of Cemetery Hill (Sunshine Walkingstick, Book 3, by Celia Roman), I decided to re-read the Daughters of the People Series (Lucy Varna) in preparation for continuing work in that story world. The last series release was in August 2015 (Sanctuary, Book 5), and while I've been fiddling with developing the final three books in the series over the past two years, I wanted to refresh my memory on the story world before diving into it again.

The evolution of the cover for The Prophecy, with the original cover on the left and the latest one on the right. All covers were designed by L.J. Anderson, Mayhem Cover Creations.

I've written elsewhere about the way the Daughters of the People Series came about, from the initial concepts to writing The Prophecy, my first novel. The magic of discovery, that first moment when I realized I could actually write fiction, changed my life. Finishing The Prophecy was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and the start of my career as a writer.

My first year of writing was so steeped in that magic, I couldn't stop writing. The dam, built over forty plus years of dreaming and trying and, often, failing, had broken. Words gushed out faster than I could capture them, and the ideas flowed with them. My editor jokes that if I never had another idea, I could write at a steady pace for years without running out of the ones already found.

Somewhere along the way, under the stress of family tragedy, a surprisingly well-selling novel, and a reader-oriented publishing schedule, I lost that magic. Writing became a chore, one I began to dread, and over the past two years, I struggled to write. It wasn't just that the joy I'd discovered in writing had disappeared; my entire process collapsed. Anyone who's followed my career can easily tell this simply by looking at the number of titles published in 2016 and 2017, compared to my first two years. The difference is staggering.

My mother used to tell me, "Thursday's child has far to go." I always took that to mean I had a lot of work to do before I'd get anywhere, that I had a long, long road ahead of me. When I told Mom this, she looked startled and said, "No, it means you're going to do great things."

Whenever I doubt myself, I try to remember that conversation, and her implicit faith.


The original cover for Light's Bane (left) and the current one (right).

For the past nine months or so, I've been concentrating on writing and publishing the Sunshine Walkingstick Series. It was an experiment, to see if I could write non-romantic fiction and to try to determine in which genre my writing style will fit best. Although I love each and every story world I write in, I've grown tired of Romance. My (writer's) voice and the style of stories I write don't fit well with what Romance readers enjoy reading.

Some, yes. Of course, yes, as I have a dedicated audience for each of my romantic series. 

But I kept asking myself if I'd be better off writing in a genre that tolerates, for example, deeper world building, a slower build, and stories that make the reader think. The umbrella of Speculative Fiction seemed like a good fit. I've always wanted to write short stories, I love all things Weird and Wondrous, and I had ideas by the bucket load. 

So I started a new pen name (Isobel Fletcher) under which I planned to write short stories of all genres fantastical, as well as novel length SciFi Horror. I'm still heading in that direction.

My plan (and I did craft a plan) entailed writing under two pen names, neither one of which would produce strict romances.

Eh. I should know better than to plan. 

From left to right, the first cover for The Enemy Within, the concept cover I created one afternoon, and the cover L.J. created based on that concept. It was at this point that she redesigned the covers for the first two novels in the Daughters of the People Series, and the concept off of which the covers for later novels were designed.

I promised myself that before I went too far down a new path, and especially before I added any new novels to my schedule, I would finish all the series I already had going so I could start with a relatively clear slate. Getting through the Sunshine Walkingstick Series was like slogging through cold molasses. That constant pressure to hurry up and publish killed 95% of the joy of writing in Sunny's world. For the first time since finishing The Prophecy, I found myself unable to juggle stories, a process that had been incredibly successful for me during my first two years writing fiction. Yes, I snuck in a few short stories here and there, but that was later, after I began to realize that I was doing everything all wrong.

When it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.

But this is the advice that nearly everyone gives to other writers: Write in series. Write in genres that sell. Create a publication schedule and stick to it.

That doesn't work for me. It took me entirely too long to realize that, and now that I have, I wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea in the first place, when what I'd been doing (writing what moved me, publishing as I finished) had worked so well. Organic planning works for me, and yes, I do have a plan. Rigid schedules? Not so much. 

Here's another piece of advice some writers tout as absolute truth: Never read your finished stories. Never look back. Always look forward.

That one doesn't work for me either. For one, some of my story worlds are so intricate, there's no way I can store all that information in a series bible. I mean, for pete's sake. The Daughters of the People Series is a nine book series, plus half a dozen or so short stories (several already published), a spin-off series (beginning with Say Yes), and more to come. It's just easier to read the stories.

For another, I actually like the stories I've written. Imagine that, a writer enjoying her own story worlds. 

It's been so long since I've written in the Daughters of the People world, there's no way I could finish the final three books in the series without refreshing my memory. But let me tell you, I dreaded the thought of picking up The Prophecy and reading it again. I knew my writing style had changed. Shoot, it changed so much in the first year alone that I ended up revising my first two novels and issuing second editions of each one.

I knew going into this re-read that I couldn't revise those books again, no matter how flawed they were. I just don't have the time. There are going to be problems, I thought, and tacked on a well-meant, Just cut off your internal editor and get through the story so you can move on.

The middle three books in the series: Tempered; In All Things, Balance; and Sanctuary. Tempered was not an original part of my seven-book-series plan. The main female character, Hawthorne, appeared in the first book, and grew on me so much, I decided to give her her own story. It was a finalist in the 2015 Maggie Award for Excellence (Georgia Romance Writers) in its category. 

And you know what? I found problems. The opening was slow, the writing was stilted, those damn misused participle phrases I hate so much kept popping up.

Know what else? About a third of the way through The Prophecy, I forgot all that and started enjoying the story. I rediscovered the magic I'd created nearly four years ago during the seven weeks it took me to write it.

By the end of the story, I was hooked. As soon as I finished The Prophecy, I picked up Light's Bane and sped through it, went on to The Enemy Within and ditto, and am now halfway through Tempered. These books are my bedtime reading. At times, I literally have to force myself to put them down so I can get enough sleep to function the next day. I don't always succeed, but now I know why some readers call the series addictive. 

Before my process breakdown roughly two years ago, I had planned on expanding the Daughters of the People world with two spin-off series, one being the aptly named Sons of the People Series and the other a seven book series that would take place after the final book in the Daughters of the People Series. Additionally, I had planned two short story collections, one of which I decided to go ahead with regardless (I already have a cover, too), and a three-part story starring the Woman with No Face.

The funny thing is, before all the craziness that started in the summer of 2015, I knew I could write in the world of the People for a very long time and be happy for it. Now that I've rediscovered the joy of this story world, I have also rediscovered that certainty. 

No Good Deed by Lucy Varna
The Christmas Surprise by Lucy Varna
Trick or Treat by Lucy Varna

The covers I created for three Daughters of the People short stories, which I wrote for newsletter subscribers. Two of the stories will be included in the first short story collection. The third will serve as the opening scenes of a Sons of the People novel. 

I was able to resist the temptation to fix the flaws in The Prophecy, including the typos. They weren't so numerous that they detract from the story.

Light's Bane, on the other hand, needs another pass. When I revised it (early 2015), I remember carrying a really heavy workload and hurrying to get the revision finished so I could move on. I wish now that I'd taken the time to read it again, or send it to a proofreader, this after my editor and I had already done numerous passes searching for problems.

Not enough, apparently. Halfway through reading my personal paperback copy, I had found so many typos, missing words, and extra words, I finally gave in and printed the entire manuscript off, after which I red-inked errors as I read. As soon as I can work it into my schedule, I'll go back and proofread the first half, but that won't be until I finish re-reading the series to date.

By comparison, I found one typo in The Enemy Within. Yes, I have a rigorous process. Errors will slip in, no matter what steps an author and her team take to prevent them. Nothing is perfect.

That said, when I published second editions of the first two novels, I standardized a format for the print editions that I then used in subsequent books. For some reason, I never reformatted The Enemy Within and Tempered so that the series would have a uniform interior look. I'll also be making time to do that, but again, probably not until I finish re-reading the entire series.

I could leave everything as it is, but writing is my business and it behooves me to do everything I can to create a professional product. When readers open my books, I want them to have the best reading experience possible. There should never be any question that I'm a reputable writer and publisher; where quality is concerned, my books should be indistinguishable from those released by corporate publishers. 

From left to right, The Gathering Storm (the next book in the Daughters of the People Series), the cover for the first short story collection, and Say Yes, the first Sons of the People novel. 

After handing off that last Sunshine Walkingstick novel to my editor a couple of weeks ago, I started working on The Gathering Storm, the next Daughters of the People novel. To be honest, it took me a while to get into it. I'd lived in Sunny's perspective for so long, it was difficult for me to adjust to the more subtle and detailed style I used for the stories written of the People. Writing the first couple of new scenes felt like I was pulling my own teeth.

Last night was different, though. After sitting down and studying my plot cards, I began a scene from Sigrid Glyvynsdatter's point of view. (The lead female character, who is a geneticist with the Institute for Early Cultural Studies, the People's primary research branch.) Her assistant, a non-member of the People named George Howe, with whom readers of earlier books should be familiar, walked in with some very interesting information. Big clue revealed in that scene, although I may tone it down in subsequent revisions, but that's not the point here. The point is that for the first time in a very, very long time, I was so excited about what I was writing, I forgot that I was working.

Yeah, that's been a problem.

People have a lot of funny notions about writing. Richard Parry, a fellow writer, shared a post with me a few days ago in which he outlined what non-writers believe a writer's schedule looks like. It involved a lot of drinking and angst. I laughed so hard, I cried. (And then I went and bought another one of his books, because dang, is he good.)

Folks, writing is a lot of hard work. If you haven't read the post in which I described how I wrote my first novel, I urge you to do so now. Take note of how long it took, in particular the number of hours. If you don't want to go look, that's ok. It was seventy-seven. Yup, seventy-seven hours just to write the first draft of a novel. Those seventy-seven hours were spread over thirty-three days, and those thirty-three days were spread over seven weeks. And that was just the first draft. It doesn't count the time my editor put into reading that draft as I wrote it, nor the time I put into the second draft, nor his time editing that second draft, nor any time I put into polishing the story and, finally, revising it.

Writing is not easy.

But it should be fun. It's taken a lot for me to rediscover the fun in writing. I hope I never lose it again.

In case you're interested, here's the current suggested reading order for stories written in the world of the People, including the final three as-yet-unpublished novels in the Daughters of the People Series:

The Prophecy
"No Good Deed"
"Trick or Treat"
Light's Bane
Original Prologue, Light's Bane
"The Christmas Surprise"
The Enemy Within
Say Yes
Bonus Scene, Say Yes
In All Things, Balance
Bonus Scene, In All Things, Balance
"Tomorrow's Promise"
The Gathering Storm
War's Last Refuge

More information on the series is available at a dedicated website for all things People, including the official translation of the Legend of Beginnings and some commentary on it and the Prophecy of Light.

How I Wrote My First Novel in Seven Weeks

How I Wrote My First Novel in Seven Weeks

Note: Most of this post was originally published in January 2014 on a now-defunct blog. My process hasn’t changed significantly since then, only now I have the experience to understand exactly how hard it is to write when I deviate too much from this process. Lessons learned!

Yesterday*, I promised to share the techniques I used to plot and write my first novel, in the hopes of helping another would-be author who’s having similar problems. I didn’t expect for that post to come today, but that’s the idea I woke up with this morning, so here goes.

First, a little background. I’m a professional genealogist. As part of my “job” (I’m self-employed, so defining my work duties is entirely up to me) I write non-fiction genealogy-oriented articles and edit a small genealogical society newsletter. I also have a genealogy blog, where I share whatever comes to mind related to genealogy. Sometimes that’s information about my ancestors; other times, it’s thoughts on genealogy as a profession. My blogs suffer when my mind is focused elsewhere, it’s true, but the way I write posts is similar to the way I write other non-fiction. Since that’s important to the process I used to write my first novel, I want to take just a moment to provide an explanation. This reads a bit like one of those stupid infomercials, and I apologize for that. I did try to cut some of the you won’t believe what happens next crap out, but there’s only so much you can do with a this is how I did that story. Please bear with me while I explain.

Writing Non-Fiction Begins with an Outline

Yes, the dreaded non-fiction outline, the bane of school children everywhere. Or, at least, it was in my day. Report-writing is so uncommon in schools now that the lack draws criticism from educators everywhere, including Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, the only academic journal devoted to publishing original historical research papers written by high school students. If you think students shouldn’t write non-fiction in high school, I’m about to change your mind because understanding how I write non-fiction was KEY to discovering my fiction-writing process, and that all begins with outlining…which I learned how to do in school, thanks to all the report-writing I was required to do back then.

I’ll spare you the grisly details of all that and jump right to the good stuff: outlining the non-fiction I write today. When I write a non-fiction article, the first thing I do is jot down ideas about the content. I then refine those ideas, adding or deleting where needed, and arrange the ideas into a logical order. This forms the basis of my outline.

For example, this morning, I jotted down ideas for an article I’ll likely publish in the newsletter I edit. The working title is “Researching Hidden Ancestors” and is based on four ideas I brainstormed this morning (right before I brainstormed this blog post): analyzing every record; expanding research; reading records rather than relying on indexes; and researching the FAN Club. From there, I developed an (informal) outline that looks like this:

  • Introduction
  • Defining “hidden” ancestors
  1. Focus on using records as much as finding them
  2. Techniques described can be used for any ancestor
  • Thoroughly analyze every record
  • Deep record analysis
  1. Example: ?
  • Expand the search
  1. Using non-typical records; going beyond Federal censuses and “low-hanging” fruit
  2. Example: Fletcher brothers (no land; tax records explain)
  • Be prepared to read
  1. Hidden ancestors hidden because records aren’t necessarily in their name
  2. Indexes therefore useless; read every record if no reliable abstract available
  3. Example: Sally Hemphill’s deceased child
  • Research the FAN Club
  1. Many hidden ancestors can be found through their Friends/Family Associates and Neighbors (i.e. FAN Club)
  2. Example: Amy (Nichols) Ledford
  • Conclusion

None of this means anything to non-genealogy readers, but it will mean something to its intended audience (none of whom will ever read this, so there’s no worry of spoilers). Now, I’ll use that outline to write the article, which will probably end up being around four pages long. Not bad for half an hour of brainstorming, eh?

What does outlining non-fiction have to do with writing fiction? Simple. My main problem with writing fiction was not with character development or world-building or lack of ideas, but with plot. I always ran out of plot a few pages into the story. One day, I realized that a non-fiction outline serves the same purpose as plot in fiction. The outline is simply a list of things discussed; plot is what happens in the story, i.e. the things you “discuss” while building the story. Same thing, different application. I already knew how to build an outline thanks to writing non-fiction. Applying it to writing fiction was really very easy, once I made that connection.

That was just the first step. Now, I had to figure out how to actually develop the plot in a fictional work, and for that, I had to figure out why I was having such a hard time getting from great beginnings to great endings. I don’t know why, but it hit me that I needed to actually see the story’s outline. Fictional stories have too many plot points to fit handily into a one- or two-page outline. So I brainstormed, did some research into how others handle the same problem, and came up with the next two keys.

Visual Plotting with Index Cards

Because I needed to “see” the story, I had to figure out a way to get the story into a larger format. I already knew a computer screen was too small because my favorite method of outlining non-fiction involves my computer. Handily enough, I have a free wall in my home, down a hallway, that was just large enough to use as a story board of sorts. I also remembered another technique I learned back in high school: using index cards to jot down research notes. I combined the two and came up with a workable system for visual plotting by pinning index cards, with ideas jotted on them, to my big wall. I pinned cards from left to right as to where I thought they would go in the story, with “uncertains” off to the side or pinned above the main story. If I had idea cards that were too vague and needed more definition, I pinned them to the side as well.

For example, one of my “big idea” cards read something like “Hero and Heroine fall in love.” That idea needed a lot of defining, but it was something that had to happen in the story, so I pinned it to the side and kept that in mind as I worked. Once I finished putting all my ideas on index cards and arranged them into a logical order, I began developing the plot, something I’ll describe in the next section.

When I was finished, I pulled every single card down, keeping them in order, and put the “outline” into a file in OneNote. I rubberbanded the cards and pulled them out when I got ready to write for the evening. Between this, a spiral-bound notebook (for jotting down ideas about what I want to write that night, a la Rachel Aaron), and things like character files (also in OneNote), I had everything I needed to actually finish the story.

The great thing about using this system is that I could move the cards around, and I did. A lot. As my idea of how the story should go developed, I did a lot of rearranging. I could also “see” that the story fell into three distinct “acts” and could plan accordingly. This helped develop the flow of the story, the ups and downs that naturally occur and thus make the story interesting.

Visual plotting is not by any means a new technique, nor is using index cards to plot, so this isn’t some unique idea I developed. Use your favorite search engine and you’ll see what I mean. What is unique about this is how it fit into my brain. That’s it.

Still, my process wasn’t quite complete. I took Rachel Aaron’s advice and wrote down every single thing I could think of in my story when I first pinned cards to the wall, but still had a lot of holes. That’s where the next key comes in.

Plot Points vs. Scenes

I’ve read a lot (and I do mean a lot) of books and articles on writing fiction, and nearly every single one of them emphasizes plotting using scenes. Holly Lisle, for example, describes a way to plot under pressure by writing down scenes on index cards. It wasn’t until after I’d unpinned and collated all my index cards that I realized I wasn’t jotting down scenes per se but plot points, and there’s a whole world of difference. When plotting via scenes, you have to think of every single element that goes into the scene. That means that the author has to know who’s going to be in a scene, where it’s going to take place, and what’s going to happen before figuring out the entire story. That absolutely doesn’t work for me, for a reason I’ll explain in a moment.

With plot points, on the other hand, you don’t have to figure out how to integrate them into a scene until you actually hit that point in the story. That leaves a lot of leeway for character and story development that wouldn’t necessarily take place with a rigid scene-by-scene outline.

Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t have ideas for scenes as I was plotting, because I did, and when I did, I made sure to jot down enough information on the pertinent index card that I could recreate the scene when it came time to write it. Honestly, though, a lot of my index cards looked like these examples (I removed spoilers):

  • Thwarted sex #1
  • Confrontation between Hero and Heroine over (specific underlying theme)
  • (This character) tells (that character) about (problem in story)
  • (Other character) gets upset because of XYZ

And so forth.

To develop the plot, I began with my initial ideas, written down and scattered across my wall, then identified holes in the story and filled those in, working back and forth using logic and basic story formulae (e.g. the first kiss, internal/external conflict, reactions from other characters, set-ups for additional stories, etc.) until I had a workable book-length plot. But I didn’t focus on scenes. I focused on things that had to happen to make the story logical. Having those plot points allowed me to move rather quickly through writing the story, in spite of the fact that I didn’t know exactly how I was going to integrate the PPs into the story, which brings me to my next point.

Plotters vs. Pantsers

I’ve known for a while that I prefer writing fiction by the seat of my pants (Pantser) rather than following a fully developed, rigid outline (Plotter); technically, I consider myself a hybrid because I combine the two for a very organic approach to writing. Even in non-fiction, my outlines are rather loose. I only developed the example above as much as I did to give you an idea of how I outline and then write non-fiction. Normally, I’d take my basic ideas and begin writing, but here I wanted to show you my thought process because it’s important to how I learned to plot fiction.

Now, being a hybrid Plotter-Pantser doesn’t mean I hadn’t put a lot of thought into the story because I had. I’ve been developing this story world for about two years and I had already made a rough outline of the seven-book story arc (titles plus one or two sentences on what happens in each story, but no detailed notes as to characters, etc.).

So, I already had a good idea of where I wanted the story to go. I just needed to develop that idea better and that’s what I did with the visual-index-card-plotting system I described above. As I wrote, I used the story’s plot points to pull myself through from one scene to the next, developing the characters, adding back story (often unexpected revelations), and deepening story lines as I went. I often found myself adding plot twists and characters, too, such as three men I dreamed up when I realized my Hero needed male friends. I hadn’t planned those characters at all in my initial plotting and planning. When I sat down to write one night, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t showing enough interaction between my main characters and the rest of the community. (One of my favorite sayings in genealogy is, “No ancestor is an island unto himself.” This applies very well to fictional characters as well.) It turns out that those three characters all have critical roles to play in upcoming story lines, although only one (probably) will actually have his own story written out (Book 4).

When I finished the first draft, I discovered not one superfluous scene. Not. One. In fact, I had to add a scene, one that I had down as a plot point but accounted for in another way in the first draft. When I looked over my scenes list, I realized the story would really benefit from having that plot point expanded and explained in its own scene. The organic approach does have its advantages!

Writing Speed**

One of the big concerns people have with systems that produce first drafts quickly is that the writing quality suffers. I did not find that to be the case at all. In fact, the changes I made to my first draft were minor: typos, grammatical errors, tightening phrases, and adding small (and I really do mean small) fixes for plot holes or, more often, for stories yet to come in this series. Here’s the breakdown on time spent writing the first draft:

  • 33 days total writing, 68895 final word count (for the first draft)
  • 77.02 hours total writing time, or 2.33 hours per day
  • 2087.73 words per day, or 894.51 words per hour

Now, I did my math late at night after putting in a 4540 word day, so it might be a little off, but you get the idea. This is nowhere near Rachel Aaron’s 10K-word days, but I did manage to write an entire novel in a little over a month’s time by putting in 2 1/3 hours per day on average. To be fair, I did revise a little as I went, so my first draft was more like a first-second draft. But, it was really solid work, and I credit that to the plotting and writing system I used.

And Other Stuff

Each night when I sat down to write, I didn’t set a time limit or a word count goal. Instead, I focused on producing at least one well-written scene per night, and sometimes even managed two scenes, if I had enough time. I know, I didn’t plot based on scenes, but the one-scene-per-writing-session was a goal that helped me focus well enough to get from one night’s writing to the next. Many, many times when I finished writing, I would have ideas for the next scene, which I would write in my notebook or on the pertinent index card. Or I would wake up in the morning with an idea for the next scene, or I would brainstorm it during the day while doing something else, or…

Another key factor was enthusiasm. I know I keep referring to Rachel Aaron, but here’s where her system really made a difference for me. My enthusiasm ran pretty high during that first draft, in part because I was finally writing the way I always wanted to. I’m pacing myself a bit more with the second book, but my enthusiasm is still pretty high. I love my characters, I love the story, and I love the story’s world. I’m having a fantastic time writing about the people who’ve been hanging out in my head for a couple of years now. And in February, you’re going to have the chance to meet them because that’s when I plan to release the first book. Anyway, that’s it. That’s how I plotted and wrote the first draft of my first novel in seven weeks. I hope this overview is useful.

* Addendum: 18 April 2015

I wrote the above in January 2014, just a couple of weeks after completing the first draft of my first novel, The Prophecy. Since then, I’ve refined my writing process even more and learned an awful lot about what constitutes good writing. I learned so much, in fact, that I completely revised The Prophecy. The story didn’t change. That was always solid, but the way I told it changed a lot. I’ll eventually discuss how I revised The Prophecy elsewhere, possibly as part of how my writing (and the way I look at it) changed over time.

I’m also no longer a professional genealogist. Believe it or not, I’m making more money as a writer than I did doing research-for-hire. I’m still fairly well-known for it, among certain circles, and hope to one day return to the field and complete the many methodological articles I’d like to write.

** Regarding Writing Speed vs. Writing Quality

There’s a huge debate going on in the writing community juxtaposing the speed with which the first draft is written vs. the quality of the finished product. Other people combat those misconceptions far better than I could, including such heavy hitters as Russell Blake and Dean Wesley Smith.

The longer I write fiction, the more I realize that I have a comfortable, natural pace, usually around two to four thousand words per day (I still try to write complete scenes, so that’s about two to three scenes), five to six days per week, or about two to four hours a day. Sometimes I write longer. Occasionally, I don’t write at all, but even then, I’m doing something writing related. This system has allowed me to publish (as of April 2015) nine novels and one novella as well as a spattering of short stories.

I’m sure someday I’ll discuss my exact writing process, but the biggest point I want to hammer home is that the quality of the first draft has nothing to do with the quality of the finished product. All good writers edit and revise their first drafts at least once, all of them. I revise as I go along, refining ideas and story, developing characters and the story world. etc. Once the first draft is completed, I go over the entire thing twice, send it to my editor for a good look-see, then go over it again at least once prior to publication.

Almost everything I do after finishing the first draft is refining the writing. That’s what works for me. Other writers may do something different, and that’s fine. It’s great, even. What works for one person isn’t going to work for everyone else. That was the most important lesson I learned while writing my first novel. After years (decades, even) of reading writing how-to books, I realized that the rigid structure-first, story-last formula didn’t work for me. In fact, nothing about my writing process is rigid except that I devote time each day to my writing business, whether it’s writing (and I do try to write every day), editing and revising, formatting books for publication, blogging, learning (yes, I’m still learning; hope I always am), marketing, creating my own covers and teasers… I usually put in ten to twelve hour days, all totaled, but that’s part of being self-employed. I love what I do, love it so much, I hope I never have to stop. How many people can truly say that about the work they do?