What makes you put a book down without finishing it?

The other day one of the writing discords I’m part of asked us what makes us stay up too late reading, and I had trouble actually answering that one. What is it, exactly, that makes me keep turning pages? Compelling characters and situations, yes, but I’ve finished plenty of books where I didn’t actually like the main character, especially not at the beginning. (Wally Lamb writes some very angry men, for example.) I’ve also finished things where the ending or ending explanation is disappointing. (Sorry, Stephen King, but we know you know.)

A screenshot of Stephen King’s cameo in It: Chapter Two where he insults the author character’s endings.

But those are all books I’ve finished in spite of not loving them completely, not books I DNF’d (did not finish). Looking back, though, it takes a lot for me to DNF.

Take We Need to Talk About Kevin, for example. It’s epistolary, for starters, which isn’t usually my thing, and the POV character’s voice really grated on me. She seemed snooty and just … who writes letters to her husband like that? I slogged my way through quite a bit of it before I made a strange (for me at that point, at least) decision: I went to Wikipedia for the plot summary. (Gasp! Who does that? Don’t all good readers finish everything they start, one page at a time?) And, in this case, knowing the ending meant it was worth finishing.

I can’t remember the title of another book I truly DNF’d after going through the same process: slogging through because everyone says it’s good, going to Wikipedia, and then …

Here’s my cardinal sin: when it’s the author screwing with you instead of the characters.

What I found in that Wikipedia search (and really it’s probably good I can’t name the title or the author) was that the jarring POV change I’d just hit was the author purposefully obscuring the truth. Making it seem like the POV in the first section was a specific character when in fact … it wasn’t that character at all. The author jerking you around and yanking your chain and (I imagine) feeling pretty darn clever about it. (Can you tell this is seriously my pet peeve?)

I love reading thrillers. Can’t get enough. And I love unreliable narrators. Gone Girl is awesome. It’s not Gillian Flynn playing the deception, though – it’s her characters, all working to deceive each other in-book, and therefore deceiving the reader. Gillian’s not the one feeling pretty darn clever about it – [character’s name redacted in case you haven’t read the book yet] is the one feeling pretty darn clever about it. Because [character] wants to fool everyone, and the reader just happens to be part of everyone.

I love thrillers with unexpected twists. I also read a lot of thrillers, so more often than not, I can guess the twists. The cool ones leave two or three options open so I’m still not sure. The awesome ones still manage to surprise me. But even when I can guess an ending, I can enjoy how the author takes us there and how they present the story … as long as they don’t get in their own way while doing it.

Clearly the answer to this one is incredibly personal and subjective. What about you? What’s the point where you mark a book as DNF and pick something else up? (Also: what are your favorite thrillers? I could stand to add a few to my TBR pile.)

Nitty gritty: narrative timelines

So this post isn’t about how much time it takes to write something, or caring about a project for months, or about planning your writing schedule. It’s about the timeline within your writing. How much time passes from the first page to the last? How much in a chapter? And how can you make it clear?

I’ve read books where the chapter titles are dates or even, in the case of Rewind by Catherine Ryan Howard, timestamps. (This is especially useful for books that aren’t presented chronologically.) But of course you don’t have to do this to indicate how much time has passed. You can work it into the text via either the characters or the narrator – say, the way The Princess Bride uses “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

We’re going to think about this one for a moment.

If you’ve never read or seen The Princess Bride, it’s a book-within-a-book scenario. William Goldman presents it as the book his father read out loud to him when he was sick, so he’s never actually read it himself. He tracks it down for his own son, who deems it boring, and that’s when Goldman finally picks it up … and decides to publish his own “good parts” edition because the book is boring. In the “original text,” for example, those three years of Buttercup’s life and her training to be a princess are explained in excruciating detail. Goldman, therefore, writes what his father said as he skipped over all those pages: “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

S. Morgenstern, the “original author” of The Princess Bride, should probably have listened to Elmore Leonard:

I try to leave out the parts that people skip

Elmore Leonard

But the question is: what are those parts? How do authors know what to skip?

For Not Your Mary Sue, I have some Very Important Plot Points that happen in June, all close in a row. There’s pretty extensive coverage for a couple weeks, and then … well, the next part I really wanted to write was almost a year later. But it’s not as easy as just writing the parts we want to write. There had to be snapshots of what happened in between in order to set up the proper emotional situation for the almost-a-year-later section.

In my initial draft, I had a bunch of information there. New places, new relationships, new activities. And it was helped along by timeline cues: references to seasons or holidays, which is easiest in the fall and winter. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas New Year’s, Valentine’s Day … they’re easy touchstones because I imagine most of the people interested in my writing would know when they happen, so I don’t have to explain.

Now here’s the tricky part: I actually edited out a bunch of that myself before sending out the full manuscript. Trying to leave out the parts I thought people would skip, you know? Keeping some of the timeline touch points and making it clear time was passing, but … not in as much detail as those first few weeks, or the days covered almost-a-year-later. Those, I figured, were the interesting things.

Well. On the plus side, I still have all those scenes hanging around for when I was asked to put more detail in that middle section. By leaving all of them out, I’d whacked off the opportunity for emotional investment and therefore weakened some of the things that happened almost-a-year-later.

So, if you’re sitting down to plot out or write a story, what are some things to consider about timelines?

  1. Sketch out a calendar. I’ll print out the months my story covers because I tend to use real time, but even giving yourself seasons works. This helps me see when things are happening that will be important to the plot or offer that emotional connections for readers, and what time can be skimmed over. It also helps me make sure I’ve put in all necessary clues and foreshadowing so nothing that happens later should feel like a trick – the seeds should be there.
  2. Use signposts for readers (and yourself). If real-world things like “It was almost Halloween” aren’t going to work, then consider opening a scene or chapter with “It had been three weeks since she’d seen him” – something to help your reader know that yep, there was a time skip. Nothing important happened. (Or, if something did, it’ll come out in the dialogue when she sees him again.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to add too many details to that first draft if you’re not sure. And, when you cut them for a new draft, keep your old draft intact, or cut-and-paste things to a separate file. Don’t ever fully delete your work or kill your darlings, just in case they’re going to be useful later. Go ahead and take your time with the important plot elements – those can expand to fill more pages. Take the time that needs to be taken during your first draft, because you can always massage it later.
  4. Have someone else read it. Get more eyes on the page than just your own. Can they follow what’s going on and when? Do they have enough to form the emotional attachments you’d like them to? Are there in fact parts your beta readers would like to have skipped? (Are there parts that need more emphasis earlier on?)
  5. If things still aren’t working, draw out the timeline again, this time based off what you’ve actually written (and not what you’d planned to write). I like color-coding these and tracing them across characters so that I know what all the important people are doing during a certain week or month, even if they’re not currently “onscreen” in the novel. It can especially help when considering characters’ motivations and their actions: did they just come off of an emotional moment? Or have they had weeks to adjust to something?
  6. And of course remember that your rough draft is a rough draft. It’s for you. Nobody else ever has to see it. This is where you can try to cram in as many clues as possible, or cover that “boring” day if you think it’s important to show changing character relationships, or meticulously explain that cool thing you know how to do just because it brings you joy. Then, when you’re revising, you might sigh and take those things out … or leave them in and see what your beta readers have to say about them.

We’re never going to get it right for everybody – there will be parts people skip, and parts people wish you’d said more about – but paying close attention to your timeline (and not just your plot outline) can help guide you, your characters, and your readers through the story.

Do you think about timelines during your writing process? Is it part of your planning, plotting, revision … or not even on your radar?

Nitty gritty: tense and POV

Last week’s writing post led into a conversation about creative writing courses and how they don’t always teach the actual basics of writing. So I was mulling over what I could say about the subject without getting too bogged down, and how it might relate to my life, and … well, I’m currently shifting a novel from first person present tense to third person past, and I’ve got some Thoughts about that.

Tense

Some people have Very Strong Feelings about books written in present tense. (She sees the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretches out a hand.) The first time I picked up a book in present, I was thrown. We’re generally used to past tense, depending of course on genre and trends. (She saw the dog. The dog looked up at her. She stretched out a hand.)

Why I like present tense: it’s immediate. The characters don’t know what’s going to happen, either. They’re living through it and we’re trailing along over their shoulder.

Okay, granted, your character doesn’t have to be writing in past tense from an advanced age, meaning she clearly survived the encounter with the dog. I specifically remember reading Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David, which is told from Apropos’ point of view as an old man recalling his life, and thinking “Okay he’s going to survive everything” because clearly he already had. The tension there is in how he got out of all of those impossible-sounding situations, not if.

Depending on what genre you write, you might be more pressured to pick one or the other. The main thing, though, is not to mix them. (She saw the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretched out her hand.) If it’s present, keep it present. If it’s past, keep it past.

Here’s a fun thing about past tense, though. (Can you tell I’ve taught grammar before?) Take a look at these two examples:

a) He had a cat.
b) He’d had a cat.

The second one is further in the past than the first. Weird, right? If you’re writing in past tense, sometimes you need to reference things that happened before the thing you’re writing about – things that are even paster than the past. So, if he owned a cat when he was a kid, but doesn’t now, you might get something like:

Chris looked at the cat and wrinkled his nose. He’d had a cat once, but once had been enough.

In the moment of the story, he’s looking at the cat and wrinkling his nose. Before the moment of the story, he’d owned a cat. Cool, right? (Or weird and complicated. It’s okay. You can say it.)

POV

Point of view is when you decide where your camera goes. We’ll start with first, second, and third.

  • First person: I. This is when you’re deep in someone’s head. You can hear all of their thoughts without them having to say “I think” or “I wonder.” It’s just “Whoa, Jenna’s skirt’s a bit north of the knee” or “What the heck did that mean?” So your first person would be: I saw the dog. The dog looked up at me. I stretched out a hand.
  • Second person: you. This one isn’t very common outside of choose your own adventure books. (And don’t get confused – the book You by Caroline Kepnes is actually in first person. The POV is inside Joe’s head. He just talks to Beck in his head. A lot.) You saw the dog. The dog looked up at you. You stretched out a hand.
  • Third person: he/she/they. This one’s outside of everyone, and comes with more choices: how many of your characters do you want to follow around? Whose shoulder does the camera peek over? How many people’s thoughts can you hear? How often are you going to move the camera to follow someone else? They saw the dog. The dog looked up at them. They stretched out their hand.

I tend to think about POV as how limiting I want to be. If I stick to first person, then anything that happens without my POV character in the room can’t be shown. Will that work for the plot I’ve got in mind, or do I need to see some of that other stuff? Is there going to be enough tension that way, or does the reader need to see the bad guy getting up to something?

If I’m going for third person, then how many (or really, how few) people can I follow? Younger Me really, really loved pulling a Stephen King, writing up a few dozen characters, and then trying to follow all of them. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. For multiple POVs, consider how quickly your readers will be introduced to them; how easily it’ll be for them to follow the switches; and make sure you don’t head-hop in the middle of a scene. (Jenny thought that was a bad idea. Jeremy wondered if it might work. That’s two heads, right in a row. If Jeremy is the POV character, he’s stuck with what he can see, unless he can read minds: Jenny wrinkled her nose, but Jeremy wondered if it might work.)

It can help me to color-code my scenes so I know which POV I’m following and how often I’m switching. Some books alternate chapters between two POVs; others jump all around and cue readers in with the character’s name as the chapter title. The important thing is to make it clear to your reader whose eyes they’re looking through and whose thoughts they’re hearing. Even if it’s meant to be the Mysterious Bad Guy chapter, make sure your readers knows it’s the Mysterious Bad Guy.

What can be seen? Who sees it? Who gets to think about it, analyze it, and interpret it for the reader?


One important thing to keep in mind in all this is that you don’t have to worry about it in the first draft if that’s going to trip you up. You can even switch tenses and POV partway through a draft if what you’d originally picked isn’t working. It’s not exactly fun to go through and change things into a different tense or POV, but it’s a lot easier than starting from a blank page. At least you’ve got the story down and a firm place to start.

What’s something you wish had been covered in creative writing class that nobody ever thought to mention?

What role does the setting play in your plot?

It’s one of the requirements for writing a story: where it all happens. You can have amazingly detailed and dynamic characters but, unless they’re floating in the vacuum of space, they’re not enough. You need to know where they are, and what effect that “where” has on them and on your story. Your setting doesn’t necessarily have to be a character in and of itself, but choosing the right setting matters.

Setting matters for characterization

Think about how the places you’ve lived have affected your own life. They’re going to influence your way of speaking, even when you’re not aware of it. I’ve seen lists of things about the Midwest that other people find weird and of course aren’t strange to me, but it’s important to know all of those “natural” things you say, do, or expect aren’t universal. If your characters say “Ope,” drink pop, or look for a corn maze in the fall, then your setting is going to have to support all of that.

Setting matters for plot

Also think about the challenges you want your characters to face. Should they be able to run to Wal-Mart any hour of the day and buy things to solve their problems? Do they have access to Internet and cell service? Are they living on top of each other in an apartment block or way the heck out there in the middle of nowhere? If there’s a family emergency, how quickly can they be at their parents’ side? If they have a medical emergency, where’s the closest hospital? Your setting will have an effect on all of these plot elements.

Setting matters for believability

Yeah, I know we can argue about what, exactly, is meant by “Write what you know,” but if your story is set in the real world – even if you’ve made up your own town, like Derry, Maine – your familiarity with the wider setting can really help make things seem believable (even when a killer clown comes out of the sewers). Stephen King is from Maine, so his stories set in Maine have a certain verisimilitude because of his personal experience. When he mentions Yoopers, though – he’s done it twice so far, in 11/22/63 and Billy Summers – it’s … not quite right. (Look, I’m impressed he even knows what the UP is, but Traverse City isn’t in it.)

If you choose to mention real places and you’ve never been there, you run the risk of alienating readers who have. Take Traverse City, for example. I was born and raised there, so King’s reference to TC was cool, but … wrong. There’s also Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, which messes with the city’s geography in ways that (sorry, Lauren) could have been fixed with a simple google search. Granted, how many people in the world are going to know where there is (and isn’t) a Mailboxes Etc. in Traverse City? Well, say the 15,500 or so people who live there, but … if you don’t know TC, you probably don’t even remember it’s ever been mentioned.

Still. It’s something to think about.

So how do I bring this all together in my own writing?

Not Your Mary Sue opens on an island in Lake Superior. I don’t name it – it’s just … a private island. The actual location along the coast doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact of isolation. I wanted my two characters completely stuck with each other for the first half of the book.

I’ve lived in the UP since 2007, so I know the area. The way Superior looks when it’s the only thing on the horizon. How to warn people if you’re going through certain dead zones because no, your cell phone won’t work – you know you’ve come out the other size when you get a whole slew of notifications. I wanted my characters to have the isolation in Misery but to somehow make this happen in the 21st century, when cell phones and Wi-Fi make that difficult. It’s hard to be a kidnap victim for weeks on end when you can simply dial 911.

Lake Superior as seen from Eagle River

My male main character is from the UP, and my female main character grew up in the Midwest and has done a bunch of traveling, which means I can use either my normal speech patterns or the way my friends talk. I don’t have to try to make sure that someone’s always from Brooklyn, for example, because they’re from the places I know.

For me, the setting and initial situation – two characters in isolation – occurred together. I’ve never tried to put Jay and Marcy anywhere other than their rocky island out there in Superior. (Unnamed island, remember, so nobody can tell me I got the number of pine trees wrong.) It just made sense, based on my own life experience.

What’s been really interesting, though, for someone who’s lived in Michigan most of her life, is remember that not everyone knows what it’s like to look out over Superior. How that view can change drastically depending on the weather.

Lake Superior at Agate Beach

Superior isn’t a main character in the book, but she’s certainly a presence. They’re literally surrounded by the water, isolated because of it, and any thoughts of escaping have to take the lake into account. In Not Your Mary Sue, the setting plays such a major role in that first half of the story that it couldn’t be picked up and transplanted anywhere else.

How do you think about setting when you write? What makes your settings necessary to plot and characterization?

Do you “cast” your characters in your head?

It’s part of character building: figuring out their biographies and motivations, yes, but also their eye color and hairstyle. How they stand, sit, and speak. I spend more time on my characters than a plot outline because my usual strategy is “Put them together, give them an inciting incident, and chase after them.”

Sometimes I work up complete character sheets with all of this info actually written down, and then I do include a photo of a celebrity as a reference. At times it’s a specific screen shot from a specific role that celebrity has played, so my character is more cued in to that role than the person whose face I’m using. Other times it’s a specific expression that just captures what I’m going for. I can remember one specific character from 2012 where I just searched for “redheaded man” and found one perfect shot of an actor whose name I don’t know, with the exact expression that captured my character. Googling the actor at the time didn’t give me any other angles that really spoke of my character, but that one photo was just *chef’s kiss.*

Picking the photo – or the actor I associate with certain traits – can be key to helping me write the character consistently. In 2019, I had a character in my NaNoWriMo novel who was supposed to be calm. About everything. No matter what I threw at him. And I, myself, am not like this. So.

I picked Patrick Dempsey as my casting for that character even though they don’t really look alike. I’ve just seen Dempsey play a number of characters who are soft-spoken no matter what the situation. When things were getting exciting in the plot, I’d picture Dempsey in one of those roles saying my character’s lines, and it helped me focus on the character’s (almost unnatural) calm. It helped me get out of my own head and my own reactions and into the character who, being an immortal warlock, had little in common with me.

Or take my upcoming novel, which you’ll actually get to read. Not Your Mary Sue opens with two characters, Marcy and Jay. Marcy is a televangelist’s adult daughter, a white woman in her early 30’s. Jay happens to be the notorious Fresh Coast Killer. He’s also white and in his thirties, but … a male serial killer. That’s not within my personal realm of experience.

For Jay, I was playing with the idea of an actor who presents as someone absolutely horrible onscreen, but who is apparently a very nice person in real life. Jay is, of course, the opposite: the “nice person” is his act and the “absolutely horrible” is his real self, but it was a good jumping off point for me. I started thinking about that sort of character around the time when Sherlock and the Loki fandom were big, so you have Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston playing these characters who are, at best, jerks, and yet who have fans fawning over them because they’re apparently really nice people. I mean, you’ve got Loki killing 80 people in two days and Tom posing with kids for UNICEF. That contrast spoke to me.

I’ll say at this point that I haven’t done any looking into Benedict and Tom to actually confirm any of this. Their real lives, that is. Tumblr posts praising their public lives? Sure. Just this idea that they can have these two incredibly contrasting public faces, no matter what their private lives are actually like.

Jay is more Loki than Sherlock, and having that idea of someone who could present such a range of emotions – and inflict such a range of emotions on other people – helped me start sorting out his background, and his various reactions to things, and his view of himself. He had to be changeable, and secretive, and that’s got to take a toll on his mental health even before we add in the Fresh Coast Killer aspect.

I’m looking ahead to NaNo this year, and I haven’t cast my characters yet. I’m debating doing picrew versions, building them from the ground up instead of trying to find the absolute perfect actor and image. (I don’t draw, so that’s out.) I’ve got the basics – hair color, eye color, height differentials, that kind of thing – but sometimes being able to just look at a face really helps things fall into place for me and help me get into that headspace of who a character really is.

How about you? Do you cast your characters at any point in your writing process?

What do you think of NaNoWriMo? Is it worth it? 

I was looking through 101 Author Interview Questions for some inspiration (and a distraction from my current writing to-do list), and came across this one. If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably already know how I feel about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but just in case …

First, what is NaNoWrimo?

At its strictest, NaNoWriMo asks you to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That averages out to 1,667 words a day. You can’t start your novel until it’s officially November 1 in your time zone, and if you have to submit your final word count before the calendar ticks over to December. NaNoWriMo is also traditionally for new projects, partly so you’re not bogged down on trying to get it all “right.” The point is to get your first draft down. You can fix it later.

Traditionally it’s for fiction – single long works, since “Novel” is part of the name – but I’ve also used it for my nonfiction: drafting, revisions, editing, and proofreading. There are two “Camp” sessions in April and July that let you pick your own goal, but November (and 50k) is the main event.

What’s it cost you?

Nothing. You sign up for free and pick your screenname. Create a project – you can choose whatever filler title you want, or go all out and pick not just a title, but make a cover – and update your word count during November. Nothing happens if you don’t hit 50k. If you make it, you get sponsor prizes … and a first draft of a novel. Your own.

What are the negatives?

Well, November can be a busy month. You might get bogged down. Americans have Thanksgiving thrown in there, which usually comes with family commitments. And if you’re like me, you don’t pay attention to how many words per minute you write. Until I did NaNo, I had no idea where I fell along the fast vs. slow continuum. So you might not know how long it’ll actually take you to write 1,667 words.

There are lots of tips for time management floating around out there, specifically related to NaNoWriMo. Food prep, for example. Setting your schedule and taking advantage of even 10 minutes of down time. Following @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter for the prompts and the feeling that you’re writing along with other people. I’ve seen people talk about how they wear a special hat while writing to cue other household members into the fact that this is a Do Not Disturb time, especially when they don’t have a room with a door that can be closed.

I’ve also seen a lot of “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” Generally by people who wouldn’t dream of participating. And the thing is … you’re not going to turn around December 1 and query what you’ve written. What you’re doing is drafting, which is one very had and amazing step, but not the last one prior to querying. But think about it: you’ll have this draft by the end of the month, and you can’t edit a blank page. (Thanks, Jodi Picoult.)

What do you stand to gain?

Community. There are events during NaNoWriMo for everyone who’s made this commitment. You’re not alone. Other people are out there doing this too, struggling and succeeding and asking for advice. All 2021 events are going to be virtual, so check out the region closest to you to see how many writers there are and what platform events will be on. (I’ve been one of the co-leaders of the Michigan :: Upper Peninsula Region since 2012, and we’re on Discord. You don’t have to be a Yooper to chat – visitors are welcome.)

Accomplishment. Starting out is scary. Trying to write one word, knowing you have to somehow pull out 49,999 more to follow it. That you’re supposed to craft some sort of story, with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end. But every single word you write is one that wasn’t there before. Whatever you’ve got at the end of the month, you made all that.

Writer, know thyself. It’s not just a learning experience about getting the words on the page, but getting to know yourself as a writer. Do you like to frontload the month and get a ton of words down as padding? Are you a steady 1,667-words-a-day sort of writer? Does the panic of the final week make your word count jump? There’s also the chance to talk to so many other writers to figure out what they did, and whether it might work for you. How much prep work do you need? Do you do character sheets and maps? Or do you just wing it?

The thing is, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – Novembers and Camps – since 2010. The first half of Not Your Mary Sue is barely changed from my original draft in 2017 (so take that, “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” You’ll never know unless you try). I love writing, especially writing fiction, and the level of energy that happens during NaNoWriMo is just amazing. I get all antsy throughout September and October, wanting to start my novel but putting it off until my laptop clock tells me it’s officially November, and it just all builds up and floods out. I absolutely love NaNoWrimo, and if you’re looking for that nudge to finally write a novel, it’s totally worth it.

Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? Will you be joining me this year?

Do you think about writing rules or advice while you’re writing?

There are a lot of rules that go into writing, and a lot of advice books out there. Mind your grammar, to start with, and remember the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. Use complete sentences, always finish everything you start, hit this plot beat by this manuscript percentage … if you’re not sure about something, Google it and I’m sure someone, somewhere, has a rule. How do you keep them all straight?

I … don’t. At least, not while I’m writing.

If there’s any single piece of advice I’ve adhered to, even before I read it, it’s Stephen King’s “Read a lot and write a lot.” I just found this CD I’d burned in January 2007 with fanfiction and original fiction dating back to 2000, and there were over 70 individual documents on it. A lot of them were various starts instead of complete plot arcs, but there were still a good number of “complete books.” (Hey, I was 15 in 2000. I wasn’t writing 80k, but I was completing plot arcs in things longer than short stories.)

Mostly because of the “read a lot” part, my grammar and punctuation is good, even back then. When you’re exposed to it on a regular basis – especially when it’s a regular, fun basis – you see how it’s done, so it’s easy to imitate. I don’t remember anyone explaining how to write dialogue because, by the time someone probably did, I would’ve just tuned it out. (My parents let me read anything and everything I wanted from a very young age, with one exception: they said Pet Sematary was too scary for a second-grader, even though it had a kitty on the cover.)

Now, is my grammar perfect? Nope. Have I taught multiple college-level grammar courses at this point? Yep? And still …? Nope. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be. People hardly ever speak with perfect grammar. Plus, if you really need it to be polished and shined for a specific, that’s what revision is for.

And this isn’t just about my fiction. When I’m writing my nonfiction, I might try to shift the voice in my head to Full Academic, but … I don’t bog myself down by worrying about it too much on the first pass. The main goal of writing is, for me, to get the darn words on the page, however they’ll come. Jump around, sketch some notes there, plop something in the middle and figure out how to connect it later … whatever. Just get the ideas down.

The “rules” are for revisions.

The first draft of something for me is play. We’ll turn to Shannon Hale here:

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

Shannon Hale

And, for the record, my approach to that first draft is “shovel allllllll the sand!” Things can always be deleted later – plot beats, random characters, that one cool point I really want to make but probably doesn’t fit … shovel it all in. Get it all down. The hardest step is putting something on the page, so don’t worry about all the things that’ll just make me freeze and leave it blank. Shovel that sand.

Now, like all writing advice, this doesn’t work for everyone. I have friends who, somehow, meticulously plot out books – or even series – before they start shoveling sand. My revision process is a lot more intense than theirs because I’m still organizing my sand and they’ve already got it placed in neat little blocks with turrets and gables and other architectural flourishes from the start. Some of them started out working that way, and others started more like me and got bogged down in the revisions, so they backed up and changed their approach.

I think the number one rule about writing advice is that not all writing advice will work for you.

My biggest struggle is drafting, not revising or editing, so I’ve formed my approach to make that hardest part the easiest it can be for me. When I sit down to write, I throw the rules out the window. Just get the words on the page – form the sense of it so it can be massaged and perfectly shaped later on. Some days are easier and I can pay more attention to the rules, but others … they get thrown out the window.

The first draft is playing. I’m just shoveling sand. Then, once I’m done shoveling, I’ll switch tools and start shaping, matching tenses, paying attention to singular and plural, messing with punctuation, and knowing that, no matter how much I try, by the time my mom reads my proofs, there’ll still be plenty for her to catch. (I get emails like “On page 6, I know you meant x instead of y” and “On page 10, that’s a gerund, so you really need to …”)

So the short answer to whether I consciously think about rules and advice while writing is no, and the longer answer is “Because I come back to that later.” Plus I’m not the only one who considers it. Editors, proofreaders, peer reviewers … lots of people have the chance to catch the rules I’ve missed. It never has to be just you, trying to remember all the rules.

What about you? Do you think of specific grammar or writing rules when you’re tackling your first draft? Are there specific things you know you need to focus on?

“Do you actually write every day?”

I’ve got a writing buddy who’s working on his dissertation, and his coach just told him that writing every other day isn’t enough – he’s never going to finish it. She wants him to write every day. Well, every weekday, at least. We’ve been meeting two hours a day, three days a week, so we’re going to start meeting every weekday morning. Which is fine, because whether or not we’re zooming, I set my mornings aside for my own work, but my dad asked “Wait, do you actually write every day?”

The snarky answer is “Define ‘writing.'”

As a process, writing isn’t solely “putting words on the page.” It’s a necessary step, but not the only one, and usually not the first one for me. There’s reading, both nonfiction research and fiction in various genres; outlining; planning; editing (and deleting); and so on. Do I try to do at least one of those steps each weekday? Yes. Does that mean I actually do them? Not always.

But I do set aside the time for it. I’ve got a two hour block open for it. Some days I know it’s not going to happen, and I ignore it. Sometimes I work on the weekends. And sometimes I put in more than one writing session in a day. For me, two hours is the optimal amount of time: long enough for me to get into it, but not so long that my concentration wanes.

The more you write, the more you’ll figure out what block of time works best for you – and whether you can trust yourself to give yourself “days off” or if you need to be sterner and make sure you sit down and do it. (I set my own writing deadlines for my dissertation and could make myself stick to them, but my office mate told her advisor that she needed someone to take a firm stand and not budge. If you know which one of us you are, you can negotiate the tools that you, personally, need so you can finish a project.)

One of the things it’s taken me a long time to accept is that there are some days when even sitting here in front of the laptop isn’t going to get me more words. Days when I need to take a break and do something else. Days when that means recharging instead of avoiding. Sometimes it’s a shorter break, and sometimes it’s an “until tomorrow” break, but the important thing is that it’s only ever a break, not quitting. I set the next writing time in my mind and let myself ignore all writing things until then.

I also do my best to write down ideas as soon as they hit, whether it’s in my little writers’ notebook or on my phone. “I’ll remember it later” doesn’t always work, no matter how big the idea seems – write it down. Make a note. On your break times, this helps you get back to whatever else you’re doing. If you’re working on one project and a lightbulb shows up for another project, you can write it down and then get back to what you were doing.

Does “getting one good idea and writing it down” count as writing for the day? I don’t know, but that’s just one place where “Do you write every day?” gets tricky.

The thing is, when I’m working on a project, or even when I’m between projects, I’m frequently thinking about it. Letting it churn over in the back of my mind. Coming up with these ideas and scrambling to write them down before I forget. Piecing things together or figuring out a way through the latest plot snarl. Sometimes this happens years later – I only finished my 2011 NaNoWriMo epic fantasy in 2018 after finally figuring out how to wrap everything up – but hopefully it’s faster when I’m on a deadline. I’ll think about characters and plot bunnies from ages ago, either to work them into a current project or to see if I can actually do something with them.

But that’s not as easy to track. It doesn’t fit neatly into my two-hour block of time, and I don’t have a word count increase to show for it. Some people might label it “useless daydreaming.” But it’s still a necessary part of the process.

If I’m going to wrap it up and try a concise answer, I guess I’d say “Yes, I write every day, but it doesn’t look the same every day.” That’s not my process. It’s changed over the years as I develop and grow as a writer, but that’s who I am now: writing every day, even if “writing” doesn’t always look like writing.

What about you? Do you have a writing schedule? What works best for you?

“How much do you talk about a project while you’re working on it?”

This question can be approached from a few angles and is kind of hard to tackle, which is why this is the fourth first sentence I’ve written for this blog post. So let’s just dive right in.

Angle #1: I don’t talk about my WIPs (works in progress) because I don’t want someone stealing my ideas.

That’s the fear, isn’t it? If we share our work in writing groups or online, it’s not just the emotional vulnerability of putting ourselves out there. Plagiarism is real, and nobody wants to lose years of work to someone who swoops in and scoops our best ideas. So … do we just never talk about our work at all?

Angle #2: If I talk about my WIP, then I lose all the joy and momentum. Writing it feels like chewing my food twice.

If this isn’t you, then you probably know someone like this: they’ve got the backstories and world building and character design all planned out. They talk about it all the time. But as far as actually getting words down on the page and writing it … it’s not happening. Talking is joy. Maybe talking is less work. And once you’ve said it and gotten an audience reaction, what’s the point of writing it down for an audience you won’t actually see?

Angle #3: I don’t talk about my writing because nobody’s interested.

Maybe your topic’s too niche, or maybe you don’t have writing friends. You don’t want to talk about your WIP because it’s not a conversation – it’s just the other person waiting for you to run down so they can have their turn.

… or maybe a bit of all three?

I’ll say straight off that the people I talk to in real life get a lot more details about my projects than anyone online, possibly because of all three of these reasons. If all I tell you about my novel is “a serial killer kidnaps the woman he wants to write his bestselling biography,” we’re never going to write the same story. Even if you somehow stumbled across my summary on the NaNoWriMo website years ago and spent all this time working up your own version, it’s not my book. (And even that summary is pretty darn vague.)

But do I keep my WIP talk vague solely so nobody steals the idea? No. That’s not the only reason.

Part of it is Angle #2: if I already tell people all the interesting bits, what else is there? You’d know the climax (which should be, of course, the most interesting bit). You’d know who lives and who dies and how it all comes out. So … why read it if you’ve already been given the CliffsNotes version? Don’t people get those so they don’t have to read it?

And yeah, part of it is Angle #3: I know not everybody cares about my work at all, much less half as much as I do. I don’t want to bore people with long info-dumps. That’s not a conversation – that’s a monologue. So I’m careful even in person, when I’ve got body language and such to judge when someone’s attention wanders. (Here on my own blog I get to ramble as much as I want, I guess. You can always click away.)

There’s also another aspect to it. Maybe not a full angle, but at least a partial one: I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want to get all publicly hyped about an idea only to have the project fizzle out at a later step and never actually appear. I’m talking one of the later steps in the publishing process nobody wants to think about: contract signed, manuscript delivered, and still something falls through. Complete superstition, I know, but it’s still totally there for me.

So online I’m incredibly vague. In person, if we don’t really know each other, I’m the same level of vague: unless it’s been officially announced, I deflect. But, if you’re in my writing group, or if you’re my husband …

Yeah. They get the CliffsNotes. The questions. The rambling “I don’t know if x or y should happen” and “I’m thinking of killing Z.” The people who are there for the process get to see the entire thing – the excitement, the frustration, the internal debates. My writing group gets weekly updates because everyone gives weekly updates. They want to know about the comments I get back and how I’m either going to address them or argue against them. They’ve heard about so many manuscripts I’ve completed that will never, ever see print.

(They’ve argued that, someday, a library will want to collect all of my unpublished manuscripts and people will actually read them.)

So I guess the short answer is that, for most of you, I’ll talk very little about my WIPs. I’ll wait for official announcements and share exactly that much information. Which is all a personal decision about what feels right for me – you don’t have to do that part.

What I would encourage all writers to do, though, is to find community. In person, online, however it comes. Find the people who’ll celebrate each step of the process with you and who understand it – the ones who make you feel safe to share without prefacing something with “Okay nobody steal my idea seriously I mean it.” The people who’ll remember your characters’ names and ask if you’ve decided their fate yet.

I like talking about my writing, but mostly I just like writing it.

How about you? How often do you talk about your projects?

“Do you do more research for your fiction or your nonfiction?”

An academic friend of mine asked me this after my novel was announced. She’s familiar with how much work (a lot) goes into academic writing, and she wanted to know how fiction compares. It’s a good question, but I don’t really have a short answer.

My upcoming novel deals with a serial killer. Generally writing about characters who are nothing like you takes a lot of research. However … that is my research area. I’ve read true crime documents in the hundreds, from the cheap paperback, read-it-on-the-beach variety to textbooks used in training courses. That includes execution sermons from the 1700s, newspaper articles from the 1800s, the best-selling books from the 1900s, and Netflix documentaries from this century.

And that’s just the nonfiction. I also read widely when it comes to books generally shelved under thriller or mystery. True, there are some I put down before I finish them, but I still make it through most of them. (Usually I google the plot of something I’m not sure is worth my time, just to see if it’s worth finishing. Sometimes the twist or reveal makes me keep going just to see how the author pulls it off. Other times I put the book down because it’s the author playing with the reader instead of the characters doing the concealing – it’s a small difference, but a deal breaker for me.)

I picked up a lot of the true crime specifically for my academic side, but I generally want to just be able to enjoy my thrillers when it comes to fiction. I want a book I’m going to enjoy and want to finish because I care enough about how it’s all going to come out, whether it’s written “well” (whatever that means) or not. I want a story that’s going to pull me through to the end and then, only after I’m done, will I sit back and start to pick it apart.

(Side note: it kind of sucks making your passions into your research. You can’t just read things for fun anymore.)

So when I think about research for my fiction, I’m including not just the shelves upon shelves of true crime, but also all of those novels on my “have read” list. The novels don’t really feel like research, and the research is usually directed toward my nonfiction writing … but it all plays together when it comes to writing fiction about serial killers.

I tend to set my fiction in places I’ve lived so I don’t have to spend too much time figuring out the literal lay of the land or the sort of people who live there. I don’t need to look up “common Midwestern sayings” because it’s the sort of stuff that just comes out of my mouth, or to wonder about what sorts of restaurants are available to my characters. I’ll bring up the website and double-check the menu, but I already know where they’re eating.

I don’t usually stop in the middle of writing to look something up, but then, I also put off actually starting the writing for months at a time, letting things swirl around in my head. Not Your Mary Sue was initially drafted during NaNoWriMo 2017, in November, but I had the idea going since February that year. Instead of drafting on paper, I was putting things together in the back of my mind, examining them, and taking them apart, all the while reading things and adding to my general store of knowledge. I had a very solid idea of who my serial killer was – his motivations and his personality – before I sat down to write him.

So when I look back on it, the answer is “A lot. Seriously a lot.” That’s a ton of research I’ve been over and over, all sorts of words from both killers and authors, perspectives from killers to prosecutors to researchers to surviving family members of victims, all piled up and put into my writing. I mean, I wrote my dissertation on the history of written crime narratives in America and then came up with a situation where someone’s demanding his own written crime narrative. The two things can’t easily be separated.

So really, if you’re considering writing fiction, I’d suggest starting by taking a look at what you’re already reading and what you already know. The areas where yeah, maybe you need a little more exploration on some specific details, but you’ve already got the broad strokes handy. It’s not so much “write what you know” as “write what you’ve read,” especially when you’ve already done so much work to learn about your passions. Not every tiny tidbit of information is going to make it into a novel, but it can inform a lot, from plot to characterization to setting.

How about you? How much research do you do? Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both?