Category Archives: Tips

Pennsylvania State Capitol

Creating The World

Pennsylvania State CapitolWell, that doesn’t make it sound like I’m getting above my station, does it? Delusions of godhood? Surely not!

But there is a world I’ve been inventing. I’ve written parts of two novels set in this world. Every time I struggle to finish them, I run into the same problem: there are lots of gaps in what I know about the world. Not knowing, slows me down. I thought it would be easier to write in a fictitious world than to make up stories that seemed realistic to people living in the same world as the setting. I’m not sure ‘easier’ is the word I should have used. “Fun”? Yes. “Stimulating?” Yes. “Easy”? No.

So I’ve decided I’m going to devote a lot of my StoryADay May to writing stories set in the main city in my world.

This morning I’ve been slaving over a spider-like mind-map, full of different areas of life that might be fodder for stories: Family life, politics, beliefs, green issues, city life, socializing…Each little branch represents an area of city life that I might want to explore. Having decided upon that, I will (I hope) decide on what kind of conflict could arise, who might care about it, and what their story is.

I like well-defined assignments, and now I feel like I have one for the whole of next month.

Are you writing a StoryADay in May? Or even a story a week? Come and join us.

How I’m Creating A Book As I Blog

I’m gearing up for the StoryADay May challenge for 2014 and writing a new ebook as I go along. How? I’ll show you (cue: John Hammond whisper)

For the past few years, at the urging of challenge participants, I’ve provided writing prompts every day during StoryADay May. Every year I vow to be ahead of the game and write them all out before May starts. Usually I get a couple of weeks in and then spend the latter part of May scrambling to catch up.

Last year I did a thing where — again, prompted by participants — I put out a week’s worth of prompts ahead of time, so people could plan their writing week. That was a bit better than my usual scramble, but I still did a lot of the work during May.

This year I have resolved to not only have the full months’ worth of prompts available before May begins but to release them as an ebook that I can charge money for. (Money is a lovely carrot that I dangle in front of myself to make LazyMe follow through on some of my good intentions. I’m not hugely motivated by money, but since I’m planning on putting in all this work, it’d be nice if I could get a little summin-summin to help pay the for web-hosting costs, the domain registration or my upcoming photo session with Nathan Fillion at Comicon – swoon…)

The Process

Here’s what I’m doing.

Step 1: Mindmap

I have a mind map of all the topics for each week (OK, most of them). Doing this first helps me set themes for each week, see what I’m doing, what I’m missing and what I shouldn’t spend time writing about on Day 1 (because I know I’m going to cover it on Day 4).


Step 2: Write The Post

I have a template in place for prompts, which I’m using as a framework for each post.

Writing Prompt screenshot


It goes: preamble (sometimes), The Prompt, Tips, “Go!” along with possibly a reminder to comment or post in the community.

Once I’ve written the meat of the post I’ll take some time to schedule the post for the appropriate day (posting just after midnight) and I’ll add it to the /inspiration/daily-prompt/may-2014 category so that my Mailchimp’s RSS-to-Campaign feature will pick it up and send it out to all the people who have signed up to receive prompts by email. Nifty!

If I’m really smart I’ll remember to add tags (‘writing prompt’ and something context driven) so I can find and link to them again in future when I am writing similar prompts but want to give my audience more options.

I might even find an appropriate Creative-Commons photo on Flickr to illustrate the post AND write an SEO-keyword-laden excerpt. In the interests of getting an ebook out, however, I’m not doing that on this pass. (None of that stuff will go in the ebook and it’s all stuff I can do in the last few days before the challenge when my brain is fried and we’re taking the inevitable roadtrip/having visitors/enjoying Easter/whatever-the-hell-else April/May can throw at me this year.)

What I really want to do is get to the next step.

Step 3 – Scrivener

After having finally watched some videos on how to use Scrivener properly, it seems to me the perfect vehicle for putting together a non-fiction book, even if I can’t make it work for fiction. So I’m using it for that, with the expectation that, at the end of the writing phase I’ll be able to quickly go through each file and make sure I’ve been consistent in format. Then I can add introductions to each week and maybe some introductory/conclusion material, and then use the built-in ‘compile’ feature to turn out a nicely-formatted ebook for quick upload to Amazon, Smashwords and my site.

Method: it’s pretty clunky, but I’m writing each prompt in the WordPress window, adding scheduling and tags and then  cutting and pasting each day’s text from the blog into Scrivener. It’s working for me, for now.

scrivener screenshot

I’m really only posting this here so that, if I try to do this again,  I’ll have some record of how I did it, but if you’re reading this and you’re not Future-Me, then I hope it helps you with your own “Blog To Book” project!


Making Time For Warm-Up Writing

Astronomical ClockIn my last post I talked about the importance of warm-up writing. It’s magic. It gets you past the creaky, just-woken-up feeling in your writing and straight into the part where you remember why you love to do this.

But doesn’t it seem like warm-up writing will steal time from your ‘real’ projects?

Making Time

I’m always saying that no-one should wait until they ‘have’ time or ‘find’ time to write. You need to make time.

As a twist on that, warm-up writing actually grants us me more time to write the good stuff.

Time Crunch

Last year I took part in my first NaNoWriMo. I also had a part-time job and a family to look after. Finding time to write 1667 words every day for 30 days was a challenge.

At first I skipped the warm-up writing because it just seemed like such a waste of time.

Gradually, however, I realized I was still doing my warm-up writing; only I was writing it into the novel. Starting my novel writing every day was painful, stilted, creaky. Only when I got to about 750 did it start to flow.

So I started taking the 20 minutes to write my 750 words on things that didn’t matter.

Then, I would plunge into my novel, fresh and raring to go. Before I knew what had happened I was flying past my daily deadlines.

Of course, I started doing warm-up writing every day (OK, most days. I’m not that smart.)

So how about you? Do you do warm-up writing? if you do, what and where do you do it? If you don’t, why not?

The Very First Thing A Writer Should Do Each Day

Beach Inspiration by Debbie Ohi

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at

It’s hard enough to find time to write. Then, when you finally do, you face the paralysis of the blank page/blinking cursor.

The most useful tool I have discovered for getting past that frozen moment of potential is to do some warm-up writing.

Morning Pages And The Truth Point

I first discovered this technique in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way in the form of her morning pages.

Cameron advises you to sit down first thing every morning and write three pages’ worth of nothing in particular, just to see what come out. She lets you get several weeks into the program before asking,

Have you discovered the Truth Point yet?

And I had.

I discovered that somewhere on the second page (if I was writing longhand), my writing went from being awkward to flowing. Try it. After a page or two, you’ll find something to write about or you might just find your descriptions getting more interesting, your turn of phrase more entertaining and natural.

After writing ‘nothing’ for three pages, you’ll be able to plunge into an actual writing project and be at your best on the first line.

Flash forward a decade or two, and the website offers an online version of Morning Pages, complete with somewhere to do your writing in case you don’t want to write on your blog or in a notebook that someone might find.

The host of credits Cameron with inspiring the site, and says that 750 words is the ‘truth point’ for many people.

I have writing friends who blog first thing in the morning just as a way of warming up. Other people write letters to friends.

Tips For Warm-Up Writing

The only thing I would add is that, like, you should be free to protect your warm-up writing. It’s not meant for display. It’s meant as warm-up. If you’re happy posting your warm-up writing to a blog or posting it off toa  friend, great. But protect yourself as much as you need to.

And no sneaking off and reading Twitter or Facebook, or your favourite author, now!

NaNoWriMo Wrap Up

Things I learned from NaNoWriMo

Outlining doesn’t have to kill creativity

(In fact, it can free you to be more creative.)

I read a great article about a month before NaNoWriMo 1 in which a confirmed ‘Pantser’ 2 discovered the joys of partial outlining. She realised — and taught me — that you don’t have to outline everything. You get a partial outline down and then, when it starts to feel like a slog, start writing. Which is something Daniel Pinkwater told me he does, in an interview years ago, and he’s pretty successful. But somehow it took me until now to get the message. Plus she went on to say that she feels free to start outlining again, once she reaches a point in her novel when she’s slowing down.


So that’s what I did.

It occurred to me that this is exactly what I do with short stories, it’s just that with a short story it is entirely possible to hold all the outline in your head. Usually I have an idea, and a sense of where the story will end, then I start writing. Once I’ve written a few paragraphs I get a sense of what kind of story it’s going to be, the twists will occur along the way and exactly where it’s going. But there is only one plotline; there are only one or two characters that count; and only 1-2,ooo words to cram them into.

With a novel I knew I couldn’t hold everything in my head, and that thought intimidated me. Until my brilliant new friend pointed out that outlines don’t have to be complete, restrictive or done by anyone else’s method.

So I outlined my book, with lots of scenes that I knew would happen at the start and vague ‘this sort of thing happens here’ for the rest of it. Every time I got stuck, or my word count slackened, I would take a day to outline the next section. Inevitably, the next time I sat down I’d be at my day’s wordcount and beyond it, before I’d even been to the cookie jar. 3

Inspiration Comes Second

Sure, you can wander around the world looking for inspiration, but I have found 4 that it is only when I start writing that I,

  1. Start to write well 5;
  2. Become inspired;
  3. Find story ideas and bits of dialogue leaping out at me from all around.

There were days when sitting down and typing felt like — as they say in Scotland — pulling teeth. But because I was determined not to fall behind in my wordcount, I sat and wrote. Slowly. The first 300 words were torture. It took forever to reach 600. But once I was past about 750 words, things started to fly. If I could just get those first 600 words down, I knew I could reach 1667 6

I came across a great passage in Russell T. Davies’ book about writing for the new Doctor Who series. I’ll quote it again and again because it is true and simple and brilliant. He’s horrifically behind on a deadline. Everyone is waiting for him to deliver pages — the production crew, the cast, everyone — and so he’s panicking and smoking too much and going for long walks, trying to solve the problems he’s written his characters into 7

Finally at some ungodly hour, he types,

“…I couldn’t work out how to do it, where to do it, when. All day, gone. Pissed off. Then I sat down to write, with no solution, and … thought of it! Immediately. Obvious. Simple. If  I’d started sooner…ah, the only way to write is to write. For all my banging on about what to do if you’re really stuck on something, there’s nothing dumber than sitting there writing nothing at all.” 8

Get Away From The Desk

And once I had my story up and running, going out into the world was an excellent thing. Grocery shopping let me overhear how people talk to each other, or dream up solutions to plot problems. Working lunch duty at my children’s school gave my brain a break from thoughts of my characters. Walking around town gave me illustrations of buildings, cars, posters, people, smells, trees, memories.

It’s all very well trying to pay attention to these things when you’re not working on a project (and if you’re a writer then you do, you must, you can’t help yourself), but they take on a shimmering urgency when you’re deep in a work. So get out into the world.

Ration Your Reading

Of course, the first thing any aspiring writing should be doing is reading, but it has to be the right kind of reading if you’re going to read and still have time to write.

I discovered that I was limiting the amount of links I followed to fascinating articles, even from people I respect and admire. I limited the magazine reading. I scanned Facebook, rather than plunging in. I didn’t check my ‘celebrity Twitter’ list for a month and we all got along fine. I did not read the back of cereal packets, the BBC news site, blogs or forums.

I did read a little on Wikipedia to help me out of a technical jam in my novel, but I resisted clicking on all the links in the article. And I stopped at the end. I did make time to read books by authors I admire and who inspire me to sit down and write. I did watch TV shows written by writers who make me gnaw the furniture with envy at their skill. Anything else, I deemed a waste of Time I Could Be Writing.

People Can Be Surprisingly Supportive

Tell people you’re writing a novel and they 9 get really excited for you. I have friends and family who were checking in and demanding to read the book when it’s finished. And I have to say I did not expect my wonderful husband to be so enthused about the project. It inevitably meant more work for him, as he gave me time away from the kids, took care of extra loads of dishes and laundry, tidied while I wrote. But he was genuinely excited about the project and didn’t seem to resent the extra work at all. (Actually I suspect he might have been glad to have me out from under his feet some of the time. He’s terribly organized). That’s not to say he wasn’t relieved when I took back some of the household duties at the end of November. But my point is, people can surprise you with their supportiveness if you’re doing something that makes your eyes light up.

There’s tons more that I learned, (I’ve made some notes for next time) but I’m stopping now. To get back to the novel.

Shouldn’t you be writing, too?

  1. So maybe this was the first thing I learned: if you’re going to write articles about writing, a great time to post/promote them is October!
  2. One who writes by the seat of their pants, eschewing outlines
  3. Another thing I learned: don’t worry about the diet toooo much while writing. The hours sat in front of the keyboard will eat up most of my snacking time, so when I do snack, it’s not disastrous anyway.
  4. Again and again and again
  5. Duh!
  6. The number of words you need to write every day to reach 50,000 in 30 days
  7. If he truly were the heir of Douglas Adams, no doubt he would have been taking long baths too.
  8. Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who, The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter, BBC Books 2010. My emphasis.
  9. The good ones, the ones that matter ;)

Short Stories Are Not Novels

The best short stories can say a lot, but they don’t try to do too much.

Writing a story a day is going to be a huge challenge. Inventing characters and settings and inhabiting them for just one day? Huge.

Don’t try to do too much.

We don’t have the time or space to tell wandering epics.

We have time for one incident or one central character or theme 1.]

If your story starts to wander towards an interesting side character, slap that character’s hand and promise him he can be the hero of tomorrow’s story. If you find yourself backtracking to show too much of what happened before the ‘now’ of your story, file the idea and write a prequel tomorrow.

The beauty of writing aevery day is that you don’t have to do it all today. You can write tomorrow. In fact, you have to!

Finish Today, Plan For Tomorrow

So finish the story you started (even if you’ve fallen out of love with it) and make note of all the other ideas that were so good they butted in today.

Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.
-Ezra Pound

  1. by the way all of this is also not true. In writing rules are made to be broken [2. Except that one about the apostrophe. I will hunt you down and smack your palm with a ruler if you put an apostrophe before the “s” in a plural!