Onward to 2016!

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I have to say, 2015 was a fantastic year for me in terms of writing and publishing. It was the year I got to hold my first piece of published work in my hands. It was the year I had three erotic poems and three short stories released in print and ebook anthologies, as well as online (plus a BDSM erotic romance short pending for early 2016 and another out on submission). I completed my first novel just under a year ago and my second in November, the latter of which I intend to begin querying by mid-February.

Side note: writing a query letter is hard, ya’ll. Dare I say harder than writing the book itself. But it can and must be done if you want to be trade published, which I do.

There’ve been some changes. Nearly all of my energy has been rerouted from short stories to novel-length works. I turned my “blog” into a “news” feed because I wanted to devote the majority of my free time to writing fiction. I put a flash fiction series on the back burner that may or may not make it to “The End.”

While I believe wholeheartedly that it’s important to finish what you start, I think it’s also important to stop and take inventory, to ask yourself if what you’re doing is bringing you closer to your goals or slowing you down. I want to write books. Short stories and flash fiction have served as invaluable stepping stones for honing my craft, but the only way to get better at writing novels is to write them.

So, whatever your goals, ambitions or resolutions—writing-related or otherwise—here’s to a productive 2016!

On Finishing: What I’ve Learned from Completing a First Draft

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Rounding out at approximately 87,000 words, my novel-in-progress is no longer in-progress. It is done. Well, what I call the “first working draft” of it, anyway. It’s not quite a first draft since I’ve been editing and posting it on Literotica chapter-by-chapter since April 2014, but it’s still a bit rough around the edges—especially those first few chapters. While my ultimate plans for the story are still up in the air, I can say that I’m really, really glad to have finally laid down that last sentence. It took ten months to complete this story and with three anthology projects lined up for February, I’m going to need all the extra headspace I can scrounge up.

I don’t want to wax poetic about the process because, as a rule, I try not to treat my words as though they were precious. Yes, I live and breathe writing and storytelling, but if there’s one quality that I could giftwrap and ship to every budding writer, it would be ruthlessness. By that, I mean: don’t coddle yourself or your work, pledge to finish what you start (and then do that), and if cutting an 8k draft down to 500 words will make the story better, then by all means, snip away.

Having said that, I will concede that the post-I-just-wrote-a-book-high is pretty fantastic in a quiet, “Well, how ‘bout that?” sort of way. I tried really hard not to harbor any expectations as to how it would feel, but a few managed to slip in somewhere between the final chapter and the epilogue. I expected to cry a lot and maybe wind up on the floor for a while. That didn’t happen. In fact, more than anything, what I really want to do is get back to work: the consistent, comforting routine of sitting quietly and meeting the quota.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this story. I love the characters and the smutty romance and the weird little connections that weren’t intended but somehow found themselves lining up all pretty and semi-coherent on the page. I’m happy to have finally given my characters, and hopefully, my readers, a sense of closure and an ending that doesn’t leave them smacking their tongues like they’ve just tasted something cloying.

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Finishing this story has taught me a lot about both myself as a writer and novel-crafting in general. My hope is that these observations might be of some use to you, especially if you’re in the thick of your first big project. So, without further ado, here are five things I’ve learned from completing a first draft:

1. Writing fiction will make you more honest and compassionate. While our stories and characters may be imaginary, what we’re ultimately attempting to accomplish each time we put our words to paper is the tapping of some universal truth, something each of us can relate to. Striving to create authentic characters forces us to look at people—really look at them—and see them as they truly are, prejudices and all. It cultivates compassion. I once heard it argued that the best actors are those who, rather than judge a character’s actions or motivations, pause and take the time to contemplate, “How might I be different if I were subject to these particular circumstances?” Writing requires a similar suspension of cognizance. We pull people out of our brain-muck and then make them do things and sometimes those things aren’t so nice. It’s important that we understand why they do the things they do, not just so that we can make them believable, but so that we can make them sympathetic.

2. Trust the stream-of-consciousness. This one took a while to embrace because, for a long time, I was an “edit as I go” kind of writer. However, while that might work for some, I find it to be crippling. You know that incredible feeling when the words just flow as though the prose was moving through you from some other-worldly source? Well, there’s no better way to quell that stream than to ask it to hold on a second while you perfect this description of a chandelier. It’s tough to look at a line of dialogue and know that it’s crap and leave it there anyway, but that’s the pain and pleasure of revision: don’t worry, you’ll be back…many times over. Just get the words down.

3. The show vs. tell situation is slightly different for Erotica and Romance writers. I wish someone had told me this sooner. Somewhere around chapters four and five of The Cabin, I started to feel like I was writing a technical manual. I was reading a lot of craft books that advised me to show, show, show instead of tell. However, what I didn’t realize at the time was that telling is actually an important tool for Romance writers, especially when writing in first-person. Love and sexuality are incredibly personal subjects. If the characters aren’t baring themselves both physically and emotionally, they can come off as cold, stiff, and unrelatable—the kiss of death for a Romance novelist. No, you don’t want to drown your readers in exposition and if I can convey attraction with a shy smile and a head-tilt rather than flat-out stating, “I think you’re dreamy,” I will. But Romance readers expect that inner monologue, and for good reason. It’s a staple of the genre that places the reader inside the protagonist’s head and then guides them throughout the rest of the story, helping them understand why the character might feel or react a certain way. Speaking of which…

4. If the characters are resisting, something might be wrong. I’m not talking about dragging them kicking and screaming into necessary hardships. I’m talking about recognizing a dead end when you see one. For a while I tried really, really hard to convince two of my characters to get friendly, but they wouldn’t have it. That I even needed to “convince” them was a red flag that I wasn’t being faithful to their motivations. Coming up with a great scene is only half the battle. Ensuring that all the pieces align to make said event happen the way you want requires forethought. You need to sow those seeds early so that each action a character takes makes sense.

5. You won’t know how good (or not good) it is until you get some distance. Now, this is another area where a lot of writers differ, but I happen to identify with the camp that needs to tuck a finished piece away for a while before they can effectively edit it. How long this period lasts depends on length. Short stories need maybe a few days to a week, while a novel would require significantly more time to breathe—at least a month. I like to use that in-between time to refresh my brain with shorter projects, like anthology submissions. Each new venture has the potential to stretch you that much further, improving your voice and strengthening your storytelling muscles. By the time you pull that old project out of the digital drawer, you’ll be looking at it with a brand new set of eyes.

Bonus: It really is all about finishing. There are few good reasons not to finish and sucking isn’t one of them. All first drafts suck. We hear it time and time again: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page” (Jodi Picoult). Granted, knowing when to abandon a project is a skill unto itself, but I’d venture to say that you’re better off at least finishing a first draft before making that call. Finishing is about more than just ending a story. It’s about resolve and proving to yourself (and others, but that’s less important) that you are capable of doing what you set out to do. If you can do it once, you can do it again. And again. And again.

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Postcards from the Writer’s Den

Tis the season to hunker down with a cup of tea and a pair of warm, fuzzy socks and that’s exactly what I’ve been up to, parked in front of the laptop, typing away at my WIP after a hectic workweek.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been slacking on my blogging and social media duties. Oops.

I marvel at the social media and writing powerhouses who manage to divide their attention in ways that seem effortless: blogging, commenting, writing, Tweeting, Facebooking, Tumblring, etc.

Can I borrow some of your mojo? Pretty please?

Since my job is tied to the academic calendar, I’m extremely fortunate to be heading into a nice break. My plan is to finish “The Cabin” before the end of the year, even in the midst of holiday craziness.

This time of year is ripe for miracles, right?

In the meantime, I’m curious as to how other writers (and creative people in general) juggle their blogging and social media engagement with their primary work, i.e. the big projects. Do you see them as one in the same, means to an end, or do you sometimes resent having to forsake one in lieu of the other? Are you like me in that you prefer to hole yourself up in peace and quiet or do you seek lively, energetic environments like busy cafés to coax your muse out of hiding?

Personally, once I’m in the thick of a major task, I tend toward a certain level of detachment from the outside world, though it’s not often possible or even preferable, in most cases. I am by no means immune to the occasional twinge of guilt when I miss a blogger-buddy’s post, or when friends and family send messages asking if I’m still alive, though the clever ones have discovered that I will periodically leave my hermit’s cave for the promise of a good Irish Benedict and crispy home fries—and maybe a blueberry pancake on the side.

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All right, I’m off to put last weekend’s plotting efforts to good use.

Plotting and Pants-dropping

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Oh, hey there weekend. It’s about time you showed up.

Today I am plotting the next chapter of my otherwise pantsed novel. I’m in need of some serious organization and deliberation that only a package of index cards arranged and rearranged across my living room floor can accomplish. That, or, Scrivener, but while there may be a fresh Douglas fir standing next to my fireplace, Christmas is still a few weeks away.

According to my Kindle, I am 82% of the way through Rachel Aaron’s book, 2,000 to 10,000: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. While I feel that some of her suggestions might not work as well for erotica and romance writers as they would for, say, science fiction or fantasy authors (Aaron is a sci-fi and fantasy author, herself), her advice on plotting has been helpful, as evidenced by the highlighted portions and notes on my device.

Consider this quote from her section on Story Architecture:

“In day-to-day terms, this means knowing what you’re going to write before you write it, but in the bigger picture of your life as a writer, it means understanding your story choices on a deeper level. If you want your writing process to be fast and reliable, it’s not enough to just trust your feelings for what works. You need to know why it works and how it works, if you ever want to make it work for you.”

My goal for this post isn’t to convince pantsers that plotting is the way to go because everyone approaches storytelling differently and there’s no such thing as the Eternal Correct Method for Everyone and Everything. I can even see the benefits of flexibility between projects. For example, a short story might pour effortlessly from one’s subconscious while a novel may be better served by an outline and character sheets. Experimentation is paramount.

Regardless of which style you subscribe to, rewriting is an integral part of writing. However, since I also happen to be posting the story chapter-by-chapter online, I have to be really certain about my timeline and events, because once they’re up, I can’t change them.

(I’d like to take this opportunity to state that I have no intention of publishing this story elsewhere, at least not in its current form. It’s generally a bad idea to post a book in its entirety for free on the internet, regardless of what route to publishing you intend to follow. I’ll go into the reasoning behind that some other time.)

While I’ll admit to being pleasantly surprised by my subconscious’ ability to tie certain aspects of my story together without much prompting from me, I’m at the point where there are too many loose ends to simply let my fingers fly and hope for the best. I’ve had an idea for how I would like the story to conclude for some time now, but I’m beginning to think that it might not be what’s best for the plot. When your characters refuse to do things, even fun things, like hook up, you know it’s time to sit back and ask yourself, “What am I doing wrong?”

Yesterday, I utilized one of Aaron’s tips for establishing motivation: character sheets. In her book, she suggests noting certain factors for each important player in the story, such as Name, Age, Physical Description, Likes, Hates, and Wants. Since my characters are already established, I skipped Age and Physical Description and went with this list:

Name:
Likes:
Dislikes:
Wants:
Knows/Believes:
Doesn’t Know:

Those last two are my own additions. At this point in the story, I’m attempting to keep track of who’s been lying to whom, who is oblivious, and who is secretly privy to sensitive information. It’s a lot to manage, hence the usefulness of things like timelines and character sheets.

What about you? Are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between? Do you have any tried-and-true techniques that keep you from getting and/or staying stuck? Share your wisdom!

All right, time to refill my coffee mug and make a mess on my living room rug.