Tag Archives: writing routine

Happy New Year

RING!Happy 2013! I hope you are blessed with something wonderful to look forward to this year. My family will have our first wedding, with our oldest getting married to wonderful young man in the fall! Yes, that’s her ring pictured. Clearly he has excellent taste. (Duh, he fell in love with our daughter!)

Our youngest has fled the nest and is happy at Louisiana State University. Granted, I would be happier if LSU wasn’t a two-day drive from home,

LSU Student Union
LSU Student Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

but she loves life without snow. She is doing an outstanding job of keeping her grades up, making friends and finding activities, and earning a stipend with work/study. We are extremely proud of her! Except of course for developing a football allegiance to the Tigers.

That, however, is a subject for another post. 😉

The year’s biggest challenge will be time management, but that’s always a challenge for me. :p In the face of a new job and some unexpected, but welcome, freelance work, my main goal for 2013 is: Protect the writing time! On the bright side, I spent November working out the plot of a new book that I can’t wait to get started on, so there’s something to fill up the writing time.

New Year’s resolutions have never worked for me, so I try to focus on goals, personal and professional. Also, I know myself well enough to understand that my brain goes on the fritz as soon it sees a long ‘must do’ list. It’s best to keep the goals few and simple.

In 2013, I want to drink a glass of water for every glass or cup of caffeinated beverage. Believe it or not, this is a challenge. I’ve never been someone who can just down a glass of H2O, but the benefits are more than just staying hydrated. Water will help cut down on caffeine, which keeps me awake at night, plus according to WebMD, it’s good for the skin, helps make a person feel less hungry, and keeps the kidneys and bowels in good working order.

As mentioned above, my most important professional goal is to protect my writing time. This means adjusting my daily schedule so that there is always a block of hours to spend at the computer. I don’t do change well — just ask my family — and I’m going to have to start with something truly drastic: not hitting the snooze button. I make no promises, but I’ll keep you posted on how well I succeed (or sleep in).

So those are my 2013 goals for now. Short and laughably simple, but both chosen because they’re doable, they’ll have benefits on more than one level, and neither is something I do now. (Or rather the snooze button is something I do too often.)

This year, I want more sleep at the start of the night, and enough time to write. What about you? What do you want out of life this year? What steps are you going to take to get it?

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The Practice of Inspiration

A woman searches for inspiration, in this 1898...

Professional artists, whatever their medium, say with good reason that ‘inspiration is for amateurs’. Deadlines, word counts, record companies or editors don’t care if you’re having a good week or not. They just need your product delivered when you promised it.

Nevertheless, even the most organized, disciplined artist (which excludes me!) needs and looks for inspiration to stimulate their process or refresh their brains. If a long-term goal is equivalent to reaching a mountain-top, and motivation is what keeps us on the trail, inspiration is the impulse that started us on the hike to begin with. It could have been something as simple wondering what the view from that particular peak looks like. It’s also the moment when an unexpected vista opens in front of us as we make our way upward. It’s something to savor and take a picture of. You catch your breath and rest, and then get back on your way. Inspiration makes you eager to see what you’ll discover next.

What refreshes you and gives that little zap of energy may not do a thing for your neighbor. Just check out all the different boards on Pinterest if you don’t believe me. What we love is as individual as we are. It could be visiting a botanical garden or window shopping at the local mall. The main thing is to find out what you love and take the time to indulge it. As long as you don’t wait for your Muse to drift down on a golden cloud and sprinkle fairy dust on your head before getting back to work, you should be fine. Maybe something wonderful that you can use right now will come to you. Maybe you’ll get a cool idea that you can’t use at the moment — make a note of it somehow so you don’t lose it. Or you might not see anything that really inspires you. That’s okay, you’ve still got your long-term goal to keep you on track.

One nice thing about looking for inspiration on a scheduled basis is that it opens your heart and mind. It can come from anywhere: spiritual readings, the rock you kept since you found it on the beach at age seven, a science journal. Like anything else, finding inspiration becomes easier with practice. And you find out what things inspire you for different tasks.

Lately, I’ve been looking at a lot of Georgian houses and listening to movie soundtracks. What gets your brain cells off and running? If you don’t know, take a few minutes and see what strikes your fancy!

Type Faster

“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type faster.” — Isaac Asimov

Someday, I am going to needlepoint Isaac’s words and frame them to hang somewhere at eye level to keep me from slacking off. To me, Asimov’s words are a kick in the butt to remind me that 1. I’m lucky to have a calling that allows me to make (some) money from the voice in my head and 2. someday, one way or another, it’s all going to come to an end.

Sometimes the words flow, sometimes they don’t, but a writer schedules set times to sit down at the keyboard or with pen and paper and write. There’s no way to know how easily the words will come. Or how good or bad they will be. But writers are also wives, husbands, parents, friends, critique partners, employees, and volunteers. Writing time is precious, so we must use every moment. If we produce crap that day, next day we’ll either edit it till it’s not crap or write new crap that we can fix.

Athletes and dancers warm up their bodies. Our minds have to be warmed up as well. It helps to start a session editing the last few pages of the previous day’s work. (Thank you Lew Hunter via Sally Walker for that tip!) And I began journaling about midway through last year. At the time, I couldn’t have told you why, because I stopped keeping a diary decades ago. I did not want to spend 30 precious minutes of my day writing something unrelated to my WIP. Finally, in November, I realized that the time spent scribbling in my journal really did help my process. But I journal first thing in the morning, not during a writing session.

This doesn’t work for everyone, but when I spend at least 30 minutes each day writing by hand, it cleans out and primes my creative pump, even if I can’t write till later. Checking emails and social networking distract me.  Keeping in touch is an important task that needs its own block of time. I don’t even like to plot during the time set aside for writing, unless a character makes a really sharp veer from what I thought would be the story. I hate it when they do that, but it’s part of the process, and like kids, sometimes you have to let hero and heroine go where they want to.

Asimov died youngish, age 72. (At least that’s young in the view of someone whose relatives routinely live past 85 and often past 90.) It’s said that he authored or c0-authored over 500 books. Besides the science fiction he is best known for, he wrote mysteries, non-fiction, guides to the Bible and Shakespeare, and limericks. He edited anthologies and had his name on his own science fiction magazine.

I think I have some typing to do.

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At a Loss for Words

Every writer runs out of words – at least good words – at some point. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is both normal and inevitable. Nature goes in cycles, from the seasons to the life, death and rebirth cycles of everything from stars to mayflies. From writers to dancers to architects, everybody hits points where our creativity and energy go dormant. Stars and mayflies, however, do not have to meet deadlines, performance schedules and project completion dates.

What do I do when words and energy run out? I remind myself of the opening to Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…”. So the first thing to do is not panic. The words are gone now, but they’ll come back.

The first thing I don’t do is not write. It’s frighteningly easy to say “The words aren’t coming, so I’m not going to try today.” Next thing you know, you haven’t written anything new for a week, or a month. Or longer. For me, not writing is never an option. Even if you can’t do more than journal and brainstorm, write something every day. I also edit previous scenes. They get me back into the story and (hopefully) remind me of why I wanted to write it in the first place.

Or maybe you don’t have to write out a full scene. When I’m really desperate, suffering from severe ‘page fright’ – the conviction that everyone down to chimpanzees could write the story better – I resort to my fallback habit: lists. In this case, it’s what I, as the author, need to have happen in a scene, and with whom. Mine often look like this:

  • Introduce Imogen and mother
  • Morgan panic
  • Alix lie to save him
  • Morgan disgusted at lie
  • Reaction of servants? How can A. be guest and employee?
  • Study or entry????

Far, far, far from a full scene. Not even the bare bones of a scene. But at least there are a few building blocks of life swimming around in the primordial broth. I can see the major players and necessary action, which gives me something to work with.

And I know from personal experience that the thing with the most question marks behind it is where I need to start. Sometimes I’m stumped for the location, as above. Sometimes it’s whose point of view to write a scene in. Whatever it is, the question marks tell me what is not nailed down that needs to be.

It helps to leave a scene that’s not working. Is there another scene you can imagine more clearly? Write that one instead. You might discover that the problem scene might not need to be in the book, or it could work better in another character’s point of view.

An excellent way to avoid blockages like this altogether is to allot time in your schedule for stuff that you like, but which has nothing to do with writing. Physical activity is crucial for good health. We don’t all have the time or money to join health clubs (I sure don’t), but we can take daily walks most of the year. Take a few minutes to put on a good song when you’re alone and boogie around the room. Seriously. If all you can do is chair dance, do that! The music alone gives you a mental break.

People do a lot of things when they’re stuck. I also find cooking and needlepoint soothing. What do you suggest to refresh yourself?

Everybody’s a Critic!

My mother, bless her heart, is under the impression that writers just scribble or type out the words and poof! — we’re all done.  I wish!  I’ve never, ever heard of a book being accepted as is by a reputable publisher, and that is a very good thing.  As a writer, I am too close to the work to judge it objectively, never mind the spelling and grammar errors that come out when you’re focused on just getting the story written down.  One of the best pieces of advice I can give to new writers is to seek out supportive, respectful criticism from other writers.

The key words there are supportive and respectful. I have heard a number of horror stories about critique groups.  My own weekly group is a huge blessing.  It includes writers at all levels of experience and in a range of genres from romance to science fiction to thrillers to horror.  Some of us write books, some write poetry and some write plays or screenplays.  The main thing is that we all demand well-written stories with vivid characters that draw us in and keep us begging for more.  Without this group’s encouragement, I would never have had the nerve to enter the contest that led to my first sale.

Equally important are rules of conduct that limit criticism to the writing.  Our primary goal as a group is to help each other become better writers.  If you join a critique group that praises or dismisses anyone’s writing based on how well or poorly they conform to a set of religious or political views, move on!  The same goes if they treat you differently based on your genre.  Or if they think there is something wrong with you because you want to write a book that people can buy in grocery stores.  (This is one of my goals as a writer, so I will admit to some bias here.)

I’ve also heard stories where new writers are condescended to by those who have been in a group longer.  This is not okay.  Most published authors I have been in contact with, either personally or through correspondence, have answered questions and provided advice when I asked, and even when I didn’t.  Those who were unable to help still took the time out of their schedules to offer encouragement and good wishes.  If these women (and men) can treat strangers nicely, so can Madame Poobah of the Local Community Writers Circle.

Of course, supportive and respectful apply to the ‘critique-ee’ as well.  If you are submitting your work to other people so they can exclaim that it is the most innovative piece of fiction since Western Civilization crawled out of the Dark Ages, probably you’re not going to have a positive experience.  (Yeah, we have folks show up with that attitude from time to time.  They don’t last long.)  ‘Critique’ and ‘criticize’ are related.  You’re asking people to tell you where the weak spots are in your WIP.  Don’t be surprised or offended when they actually do that.  If you get comments from five different people complaining about the same paragraph, that’s a pretty good indication that you should reconsider it, but it’s unlikely that they’re conspiring to drive you away.

Be patient if someone suggests you take your story in a direction that you don’t want to go.  There is no law that says you have to follow every piece of criticism you get.  Ultimately, you are responsible for what you write.  Smile, say thank you and move on.

And yes, you should thank someone who has taken time to listen to or read your work and given you their advice.  Even if you don’t agree with them.  Even if someone has given all negative comments, or you think they’re being nit-picky over teeny tiny details.  I’ve slept on criticism I’ve disagreed with and found it valid the next day.  When something isn’t working my weekly group lets me know.  They’re not brutal, but once you’ve been there long enough for your skin to thicken, they’re blunt.  And I love it when people nit-pick — it means there are no major problems that week!

As long as I’m discussing critiques, what are some of the best or worst scenes you’ve read in a book?  Or what kind of scenes do you love or loathe?  As writers have any of you ever found some embarrassing mistakes in your manuscript — or worse, in your book?  (Like the two paragraphs where I use the word ‘wrist’ four or five times.  Or one of my first readings where everything was ‘scandalous’.  Luckily for all of you, I abandoned that story!)

Cast Away! or Silencing your Inner Whiny Child

Notebooks
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I’ve just spent the last three weeks in a cast, thanks to a sore calf and ankle that turned into a partially torn Achilles tendon. Today, the cast came off. (And there was much rejoicing!) I’m still hobbling around in a big, ugly black boot, but I’m thrilled to be cast- and crutch-free. My shoulders are really thrilled, believe me.

While I was sitting around with my clunky leg and ankle elevated, I had a lot of time to think. And journal. I journaled because when I tried to be a good little author and work on my current project, all I could think about was why did my toes looked funny or how frustrating it was not to be able to just walk downstairs to the television, for Pete’s sake.

As long as I was so grumpy, I figured I would write out my frustrations in an old spiral notebook. Once they were off my chest, I could just toss the pages. There is never any reason to hang on to psychic garbage. This is similar to Julia Campbell’s ‘morning pages’ in her perceptive book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, although my pages were not written first thing in the morning and I didn’t care if they led to increased creativity or not. I just wanted my Whiny Inner Brat to shut up.

And for the most part, it worked. I could moan and groan as much as I wanted on paper, knowing that they were headed for the shredder and no one, including me, would ever see those complaints again. It helped to deal with a lot of the frustration of enforced inactivity.

Eventually, though, my subconscious got sick of the Whiny Brat and I started scribbling out occasional scraps of something useful. Like how to better arrange the linen/medicine closet and store the Christmas decorations. Nothing earth-shattering or award-winning, but helpful on a daily basis. I started writing about possibilities too, like what color palette I’d like if I ever get an office of my own. And ideas for future books, as well as a way to organize them before I start working on them in earnest. The latter is extremely helpful, as it drives me nuts when a new book wants to be written while I’m already working another one. I found myself saving a page here and there for later use.

So even though I’ll be in a hideous piece of footwear for several weeks and have a rather long ‘to-do’ list awaiting me, I am refreshed and ready to resume my usual routine. Which is a good thing, because once I ran out of complaints, words for my WIP started coming again, and my hero and heroine have an important scene coming up.

Has anyone else out there ever had a forced break from routine? How did you handle it? What, if anything, did you accomplish during that time?

Stages of Character Love

I am shamelessly fickle. My relationships with my main characters go through several stages. The first is infatuation, when this fabulous new person presents him- or herself in my mind, and I’m thinking about all the neat things that he or she could do and be. It’s a rush of excitement and, well, not exactly lust, since we are speaking of fictional entities here — but desire and hope. As in I want to write about these characters and I hope I can sustain their development through an entire book.

The second part of the Infatuation Stage is when I pull out my character worksheet to write down concrete details.  This is one of my favorite parts of writing! Does he have blue eyes to die for or big brown bedroom eyes? Is she tall and lanky or short and curvy? I tend to develop my hero and heroine at the same time, but that’s just me. As long as the writer gets to know the characters intimately, how she does it doesn’t matter.  There are a lot of questions to answer: Who is his best friend or closest confidant? Does she get along with her family? And what do they want more than anything else in the entire universe? Why can’t they get that thing/situation/person? What choices are they willing to make to get their Heart’s Desire?

Of course, this process can lead to dimmed enthusiasm about the characters as I go off into tangents about how their traits are going to affect the choices the characters make.  Must he have his large smelly dog with him all the time? What if she’s allergic? Did they even have allergies in the Victorian era? How did they treat them? And her hobby is needlework? Really? That’s not nearly as exciting as say, sword-fighting. But where would a well-bred female learn to fence? For that matter, where would a not-s0-well bred female learn to fence?

In case you haven’t noticed, I am the kind of person who makes mountains out of molehills.  Fortunately, in the fictional world, there are these nifty things called ‘erasers’. Give me a few minutes and I can come up with a better hobby for her (probably not needlework or sword-fighting), and she won’t be allergic to his dog, either. (Although she may not particularly enjoy the dog’s trail of hair and mud.)

Suppose I get out of the Infatuation Stage and I’m still willing to make a commitment to these characters? Then I have to sit down and really think about what they’re going to do over the course of the manuscript. This is the long haul. I’m going spend hours at a time, for months, with this couple. I will lay awake nights because a scene isn’t quite right, or because their story needs more conflict, or I’ve lost sight of their goals. But I’m in the Commitment Stage, by golly! I will stick it out through multiple drafts!

Sadly, this leads to the Break-Up Stage. By the time I finish writing a book, I am fed up with both the hero and heroine. All I’ve done for weeks is deal with their problems.  (Okay, I invented their problems, but that’s beside the point!) I feel suffocated because their needs are taking up so much of my time and energy. I secretly want to see other characters. For a writer this is the dangerous time of rushed endings. I’ve learned the hard way that the characters must be allowed to finish their own stories out.

At last, at last, the final sentence is written and I can put this couple out of my thoughts for awhile. I can move on, to the next couple that has caught my mind’s eye. And the cycle begins again…

Unplugged

I’ve had computer issues lately. Not the kind where you push the ‘on’ button and nothing happens, which is one of the worst sensations a writer can experience. (That happened to me last summer. I about had a seizure.) This is the kind where, for some reason, I have to force myself to the screen and keyboard. I don’t want to check emails, update my Facebook status or tweet. Dust settles on my last post here.

Maybe it’s a reaction to spending a lot of time online in February and March guest blogging or sending in posts related to the release of Her Scottish Groom. Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t enjoy the attention and contact with romance readers! This is not something that I get to do that often, and I am thankful for every single opportunity to write a post and respond to comments. I appreciate the kindness of other blog owners and their readers, and it seems to have generated interest in my latest release. The Kindle edition of Her Scottish Groom is selling steadily enough to range from 99 up to 65 on Amazon’s Kindle Store Historical Romance Top 100 list for the last 10 days or so.

(I know, it changes hourly and it’s not selling thousands of copies or downloads. But it’s the first list I’ve ever made, darn it!)

Anyway, Life is Good and there’s no real excuse for disappearing from my online haunts. Still, I’ve resisted logging into anything but my Pandora stations for the last two weeks. I outlined two presentations for a couple of unexpected speaking engagements. I worked on my WIP, but in longhand on notebook paper. The page count is shaky, because I’ve also free-associated two potential series into very rough descriptions on paper. (If I carried smelling salts, I’d take a deep whiff at this point — do I really want to get involved with an entire series?? Never mind two!) It’s too early to tell if they’ll come to fruition, but the chance to let my mind wander felt sort of like a vacation.

Writing is a huge part of my life, but not its entirety. Time spent away from the computer means that my house is a lot cleaner. This is good because clutter seems to block me mentally. (In view of how much I dislike housework, this realization disconcerts me greatly.) My family got muffins for breakfast and  I’ve had lunch with my dad, chatted with my mom more often and helped my youngest host her friends for their pre-prom hair/makeup/dressing ritual.

So if anyone missed me while I was gone, thank you for the thoughts. I’m back, balanced, and ready to take on the world again. And I have the clean underwear to prove it.

I Hereby Resolve….Not

A string of Christmas lights decorating the ed...
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January. Bitter cold. Gray skies and white snow-covered ground. The Christmas lights are down, the bills have come in and it’s time to buckle down and work on those resolutions. Kill me now.

Instead of making resolutions this year, I’m joining several other writers to set up goals for myself. Real, concrete, measurable goals that will leave me with something to show for my efforts in 2011.

I never did like resolutions. The day always came when I ate the cookie or spaced off the exercise regimen. Then that little voice would start in: “See? You can’t do this after all. You should have known better than to try.”  If I could, I’d beat the Internal Naysayer to death with the toilet brush. If I have learned one thing, it is that everyone fails at something, sometime. Accept this.  Then get back up, brush yourself off and remind yourself of why you made that resolution to begin with.

Why did you want to go to that yoga class three times a week? Did you want a stronger, more flexible body? To get toned up in time for bathing suit season? To relieve stress? The answer to ‘why?’ is the goal. It doesn’t matter if the resolution involves a diet, a budget, a class or time spent with loved ones. The reason why you made it is what you want to accomplish.

In 2011, I want to finish my WIP and hopefully one more book after that. Why? Because then I’ll have two manuscripts to submit to agents and editors. And if they sell, cha-ching! Money and another publishing credit. Put in those terms, why would I not work on my goal every day??

Back to that failure thing. Life isn’t going to stop throwing curve balls (or hairballs, car problems, and extra reports) just because we want to go to yoga class, set aside money for a new car or meet a minimum word count.  The goal will still be there when the phone call or last-minute snafu has been taken care of. True, life does throw things at us that are so monumental all our goals need to be reassessed. But I’m talking about day to day nuisances, not catastrophes. Maybe there is so much going on in your life that a small adjustment is needed in your daily or weekly goals, say two times a week at yoga class instead of three. Just don’t give up your goal completely! Remember why you wanted to reach it in the first place.

I’m tracking my progress toward my goals this year in a $6 desk calendar.  On the days when I miss my word count goal, I write down why. For some comfort, I note what I do accomplish every day, writing-related or not. I can literally see where my time goes and keep myself on track.

Meeting a goal give a sense of accomplishment as well as the tangible benefit you wanted in the first place. We all deserve that feeling of success. Go for it!

What would you like to do in 2011?

Playing with my Blog Thingie

That’s BLOG thingie, not…um, never mind.

I just realized that Ann Stephens Romance is nearly a year old! I’m kind of excited by this, as I’ve been a lot better about posting entries here than with my first attempt at a blog.  In the spirit of reviewing & revising, I’m looking at some changes down the road that I hope will make things easier for me and more interesting for readers.

Posting here about once a week works well for me and I don’t plan to change that. I’ve got to be  the most boring person I know, so it’s hard to believe that anyone would  want to follow my non-fictional opinions or adventures. (To those of you who stop by regularly, all I can say is bless you and thank you!!!) And for now the blog’s appearance still works for me.  It’s clean and restful, which I like, and I can change the header photo to my heart’s content. Widgets may be appearing or moving around my sidebar as well.  If there’s something that is more interesting or appealing to you readers, let me know!

Starting in December, I’ll categorize each week’s post ahead of time, in part to keep me on track.  Selfishly, I’ll use areas I enjoy discussing, like the craft of writing, upcoming romance releases, historical hobbies or lifestyle or even a bit of background on my own books or WIPs. I might even consider a few snippets of what I’m working on if any of you are interested.

Also, I thought it would be fun to answer questions from readers periodically, so check back here to see when you can ask that burning question you’ve always had about my writing or hobbies or whatnot.  Just bear in mind, you can ask…but I may decide something is too personal to answer. 😉  I don’t lay awake at night worrying about stalkers or anything, but my children are concerned that what I write might infringe on their privacy. (In other words, they’re just plain mortified that their mother writes smut and they don’t want their friends to find out about it.)

Some of the pages accessible above my header photo may change as well, depending on what readers enjoy and show interest in.  I wasn’t sure about this whole ‘blog thingie’ when I began, but as it’s become part of my routine, I find it gives me a lift.  What do you readers enjoy seeing when you check an author’s blog?