Justine: Cold-Starting the Writing Process

A few weeks ago, fellow Eight Lady Jeanne shared with us a video of Diana Gabaldon’s cold start process…in other words, how she turns on her writing mojo when she’s stuck. Turns out, in this example, she used a Sotheby’s catalog to simulate her creativity.

Diana’s cold start process is vastly different from Jeanne’s, which gave her to think it would be interesting (and perhaps helpful) if all the Eight Ladies shared how we get going when the words just won’t come. So, starting today, for the next week, we’ll share the processes we use when we need to get writing. (No writer’s block for us!)

My cold-start approach is two-fold. First, I re-read. If I’m attacking a new scene, I revisit the scene before the new one (or if I’m in the middle of a scene, the beginning). However, if I’m in two POVs and the scene I’m trying to write is in a different POV than the one preceding it, I find the last scene in the current character’s POV and read it, as well (mostly, this is to make sure I get into the right character’s head).

So, if I just wrote a scene in Nate’s POV, but the next one (and the one I’m stuck on) is in Susannah’s POV, I read both the last scene I wrote in Susannah’s POV, as well as the one in Nate’s.

When I read, I make notes in my trusty notebook. Questions I ask as I read include what mood were the characters in at the end of the last chapter? What’s changed? What mood should they be in based on what’s just happened? What needs to happen next? Where should the characters be emotionally after I write this next scene? What Easter eggs do I need to hide? What do I need to circle back and address? You get the idea.

Sometimes, this is all I need to get writing again.

More likely, I need to go into handwriting mode. In the digital age, many people pooh-pooh the idea of writing their book by hand (so slow! so messy! hand cramps!), but studies have shown that different things happen in the brain when you put pen to paper versus your fingers to a keyboard. In fact, several novelists/screenwriters such as Quentin Tarantino, Joyce Carol Oates, J.K. Rowling, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jhumpa Lahiri all write their first drafts by hand. Their reasons vary from needing the physical connection to paper to touting more creativity to focusing more on writing and creating story and less on cutting/pasting/moving text around.

According to this article in Huffington Post, writing by hand stimulates the brain in different ways than typing, generating more ideas and improving cognition. It also slows you down, leaving more time for brainstorming, which naturally requires time and deliberation.

Hand writing also leads to fewer distractions. No email messages popping up in the middle of your screen, no IMs, no tweets, and no bings, dings, or bleeps. However, some of the distractions that DO occur when handwriting–daydreaming and doodling, for instance–can actually lead to more ideas and creativity (which is why some writers prefer to do their first drafts by hand).

As for my cold start process, when I put pen to paper, my goal is to write a Cliff-notes version of my next scene. If I’m not sure exactly where to start, I write down some of the questions I listed above, but with answers. A few times, the question has been as simple as, “Do I need this scene?” If I can’t come up with a compelling reason to keep it, I toss it and it’s amazing how fast that will get me unstuck. You can see below the notes I took recently when I was stuck at the beginning of a scene.


Questions I ask myself and notes I take when I’m stuck. The “Back Up” at the top is literally me backing up and looking at what needs to come next from a fresh perspective. And note my sidenote — no conflict, so skip the scene entirely.

Sometimes, when I’m writing by hand, gems of dialogue present themselves and I jot them down, whether it’s a single line or an entire conversation. Sometimes I get insight on things that need to happen later (or changes I need to make to previous chapters) and I write them down on another page. Most of the time, I’m able to get myself going enough that I can sit at my computer and start actually writing the chapter.

The notes I take by hand can be anywhere from a few paragraphs to a few pages, but using pen and paper has always gotten me writing again. Every. Single. Time. It’s my go-to when I can’t think of what to write.

So…do you have a cold start process? Have you tried mine (or some variation of it)? How has it worked for you?

Be sure to check back each day for the next week to see how the other Eight Ladies get the creative juices flowing. And keep writing!

Kay: This Girl Is on Fire

Happiness is a warm fireplace. The new brickwork still needs painting, but you get the idea.

I’m a slow writer. Even when I’m well-rested, well-fed, well-caffeinated, focused, comfortable, with good light, and have an idea I can pursue, I’m unlikely to hit 1,000 words a day. My goal is 500. Usually I hit that. Some days I hit a little more. Some days, I regret to say, I hit less.

Despite the slowness of my pace, despite the “thought” and “care” I can theoretically put into my daily output given the time I put into it, on any given day I’ll delete half of what I wrote the previous day.

And sometimes—fairly often, really—things snarl up anyway. Just two weeks ago, I reported that I’d hit a wall with my WIP. I needed to work out the story question. That question answered, the “wall” that I saw two weeks ago is now just a distant memory, something that turned out to be merely a bump in my writing road, a problem solved quickly and almost painlessly.

In fact, lately I’ve been—for me—streaking along. I’m writing 600 or 700 words a day most days, and I don’t delete that much from day to day. Every day I have an idea. Every day I can express it. Continue reading

Kay: Learning from the Greats

Beverly Jenkins (Credit: HarperCollins/Sandra Vander Schaaf

As most of you know, several of the Ladies will be attending the RWA national conference in a couple of weeks, and we’ve been busy plotting out how we’ll schedule our time. I’ve just started to look at the workshops, and one that looks interesting to me is “Blending Brand and Platform,” which promises to discuss how to integrate “brands” and “platforms” with one’s writing to “develop readership and sales while pushing the boundaries of the romance genre.” Sounds complicated, right? The speakers include Alyssa Cole, Sonali Dev, Beverly Jenkins, and Alisha Rai.

Okay. I’m not at all sure I could tell you what a brand or a platform is, or how they differ, or how to integrate them with one’s writing. What I do know is that I’ve heard Beverly Jenkins speak before, and she’s terrific, so I’m hoping to have fun there and learn something, too. Also I’ve been feeling that Alyssa Cole, Sonali Dev, and Alisha Rai should be occupying prominent spaces in my TBR pile, so I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say, too.

All these writers are well-known for developing stories that feature characters of color, and that’s another thing I’m not sure I know enough about. My planned three-book trilogy, of which I’ve just finished book two, has a secondary character who figures prominently in all three books. This character is a person of color, and I’m concerned that he’s sufficiently well-rounded that he doesn’t come across as a stereotype. I’ve recently read a few reviews of books where the reviewers felt this issue was insufficiently addressed, and I want to do the best I can for the people I invent.

Speaking to this issue, Beverly Jenkins recently gave an interview to Salon, where she asked why readers can relate to werewolves and vampires, but not people who are of a different race. Good question. To read the full interview, go here.

What about you? If you’re going to any conferences this summer, what do you want to get from them?


Kay: Are You Getting Enough? Sleep, That Is

Lots of times when I have a problem in my story, I can go to bed and wake up the next day with a solution. “Sleeping on it” isn’t just for decision making any more!

As we all know, sleep affects us in many ways, from our energy and moods to our brain development. We’re told we’ll be happier, thinner, and healthier if we get enough regular sleep. (Plus maybe richer and better looking. I can hope.)

I recently ran across a blog post that made a stab at correlating the sleep habits of famous writers to their level of productivity. The blogger makes no claims to causality—data was hard to find and hard to quantify, many factors in a writer’s life affect output, and the analysis is subject to an enormous degree of subjectivity—but the results are fun, if not scientific.

The data set consisted of 37 writers for whom wake-up times were available. Productivity was measured by the number of published works and major awards an author received. The duration and era of an author’s life were acknowledged variables.

Overall, with the exception of outliers such as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, who are both prolific and award-winning, late risers seem to produce more works but win fewer awards than early birds.

Click to see all 37 authors, their wake-up times, and their literary productivity, depicted as colored “auras” for major awards and teeny bars for number of works published. The writers are organized from earliest to latest wake-up times, beginning with Balzac’s 1am and ending with Bukowski’s noon. I’m with most of the crowd in the 8am–9am range.

It’s always fun to see how the greats worked, but it’s good to remember that no specific routine guarantees success. It’s just important to have a routine, to show up and work most days. That’s how the books get written.

Check out the full blog post and graphic. Where do you fit in?


Kay: Ode to Critique Groups

This week I met with my critique group, Beth and Patricia. We usually meet monthly at somebody’s house, although lately we’ve hit it big at a Mexican restaurant with a waitress we love, who listens only to audio books and prefers science fiction. This meeting was fun and productive, as it always is. Beth, as always, said about my section, “It needs more emotion! I want to know how she feels!” And Patricia said, as she usually does, “This part just doesn’t make sense.”

I love it when that happens.

I’ve met with Beth and Patricia for the longest time—years and years—but even my newest beta readers are godsends. Every one has flawlessly pointed out the weaknesses in my work—the overwriting, inconsistencies, confusing passages, and character or emotional underachieving. They’ve done so with humor and kindness, intelligence and bravery, and I’m more grateful to them than I can say. Continue reading

Kay: Not Dead Yet

“Nuns at a Calder Show, Los Angeles” photographed by Imogen Cunningham when she was 70

I was on public transportation the other day when two women—neither of them young, but both of them younger than I—sat down on the seat behind me. They didn’t hesitate to use their outdoor voices on the train, so consequently I learned that one of them is writing a novel, and the other envies her friend and wishes she could do the same.

However, she said, she’s too old to start now.

For any of our wonderful followers who might feel the same, or who know others who might feel the same, let me first draw your attention to Ida Pollack, who had a book out to her editor for revisions when she was 105. Helen Hooven Santmyer hit The New York Times best seller list and became a celebrity at 88 for her novel . . . And Ladies of the Club. And Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first of the “Little House” books, Little House in the Big Woods, when she was 65 and the last one when she was 76.

Clearly, as long as you’re not dead, you’re not too old to write a novel.

But the conversation between these two friends on the train made me think about the writing life—a slow and often tedious process filled with (sometimes years of) revisions and then years of submitting and rejections before the hopeful author finds the editor of his/her dreams. Continue reading

Kay: Rituals are Fun, but Process Gets It Done

woman-typing-on-laptop2People like rituals. Some sports stars don’t wash their lucky socks during the season, or always eat the same meal before a game. Actors tell each other to break a leg. Spiritualists burn sage to cleanse a room of evil spirits.

Writers have their rituals, too. They sharpen their pencils and line them up. They crack open a new notebook. They put on the same playlist while working.

There’s a kind of magic that comes with habitually picking up a favorite pen or sitting down every day at sunrise (or moonrise, take your pick). Ritual is emotional preparation. It sets the stage for accomplishment and entices your muse to dance across it. Sometimes when things don’t go well, ritual can trick you into cooperating. But not always. Because ritual is tangential to actually writing, it doesn’t always work.

Process does.

Continue reading