On False Starts

This is part of the process, this is part of the process, I remind myself every time I start a new book.

Without fail, I have a false start. I know why I have false starts; I just don’t like that I do. Typically, this happens because I am excited about the book and want to dive into it, but I haven’t actually gotten to the point where I know where I’m going or what the larger point is of something I mention early in the story. Or I have an idea of what I want to say and where I’m going, but I mess up what point of view it’s from. Usually, I realize this halfway through writing the scene when things feel off.

I am neither a pantser nor a plotter but some secret third thing. I like to think of my writing process as gardening. I start out with a basic idea of what I want to accomplish, what the end goal is, and sort of let things happen as they may while pruning and prodding the plot to make it cohesive. Plots and plants need shaping and scaffolding sometimes. While writing, I do have a very basic act by act outline where I plan the main points of the plot (or the key beats) and I also keep a stack of note cards with a bunch of scenes on them that I know I want to use in my story. Sometimes I pull them out to move stuff around or figure out where I need to go next.

The problem is that I need the beginning to be solid before I move on. I know there are plenty of writers on the internet who will be like, “No, you must move forward! You must keep going no matter how messy it is because progress is progress.” Yes, that’s great, but that doesn’t work for me. If the foundation isn’t solid and the beginning doesn’t feel at least somewhat tidy and logical, I can’t move forward. This means I spend a lot of time futzing with the opening chapters of my books until I hit about 10,000 words. From there, everything seems to flow better. I would much rather mess with the opening chapters and get the book on a decent foundation because everything flows from those opening scenes. They set the stage for everything else, so they need to make sense. I also do another editing session at the 25-33% mark for added cohesion.

The false starts have become a part of the process as I’ve grown as a writer, but I’m still coming to terms with “wasting words.” It’s hard for me to give in and say, “Okay, this isn’t working. Let’s restart.” My brain would like to push through and keep going, but sometimes rewriting a chapter is easier than fixing it piece by piece. That’s what happened with The Reanimator’s Soul. I got a chapter and a half in and was not happy with it. At first, I wasn’t 100% sure where things had gone wrong, so I put it aside to write “An Unexpected Valentine.” Sometimes a palate cleanser is necessary for clarity. Once I finished that short story and reread what I had written of The Reanimator’s Soul, the issues were glaringly obvious. The prologue needed beefing up, and the first chapter was in the wrong point of view. I went back and rewrote the prologue chunk by chunk and totally restarted chapter two. Between finishing “An Unexpected Valentine” and doing the rewrites, I had also worked a bit more on my outline and note cards, so things were clearer.

The question I had for myself was, “Would I have figured this out if I had just waited a week or two to start The Reanimator’s Soul instead of diving in headfirst and making a mess?” and the best answer I can give is no.

For me, those false starts are part of the process. They help me tidy up the ideas I have and sort of troubleshoot things that don’t work in a way I probably wouldn’t have figured out through thinking or outlining alone. Some things sound great on paper but just don’t work in the actual story. Other times, you think you could do A or B, so you just pick one and pick the wrong one. Oops. So far, false starts have happened for the past four books I’ve written, and I’ve probably done the same for more, but I just don’t remember them.

At some point, you have to figure out where optimization ends and the process begins. You can’t eliminate all the mess in the writing process, so sometimes we have to acknowledge that we need to write through a little chaos to find the gold that comes after. Knowing this also helps you better estimate how long certain parts of the process will take. For me, I always know act one will always take twice as long as any other part of the writing process, and I can live with that.


5 Tips for Atmospheric Writing

Recently, I’ve been reading Maggie Stiefvater’s series The Raven Cycle, and what has blown me away (besides the characters, plot, and just amazing story overall) is her ability to create atmospheric settings. What I mean by that is that the settings evoke a specific feeling, and this feeling adds to the tension or heightens the mood of the piece. Atmospheric settings can sometimes be so evocative that they are characters themselves. I found this in The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater, Jazz by Toni Morrison, and The Witching Hour by Anne Rice.

In my own writing, I’ve tried to develop this skill while building the backdrop of London in The Winter Garden and Brasshurst Hall in The Earl and the Artificer. While working on this skill, I’ve learned a few things.

  1. Write your scene first. Add your atmosphere after. I tend to write my scene in layers where I write out the dialogue and overall scene direction first. Then, I do a quick pass through where I add more detail until the scene is fleshed out. When it comes to writing, dialogue, plot, and character movement is much more important than atmosphere. My suggestion is always to work on your scenery after you’ve gotten the essentials down. This also tends to eliminate pages and pages of atmosphere/scene building because you already know what you need in your scene instead of tossing in everything and the kitchen sink just in case your character needs it.
  2. Know what you’re trying to evoke. It makes infinitely easier to build tension or heighten the mood if you know what you’re trying to accomplish. Ask yourself a questions. Is your story paranormal or a western? How does your genre affect the atmosphere of your piece? What’s the overall emotion in this scene? Suspense, mystery, anger, romance, sadness, etc. Does the feeling fit the genre or scene? Does it fit the characters? Sometimes the feelings will conflict with characters to create tension, but if it stands out in a bad way against the rest of your story, you may want to rethink what you’re trying to create.
  3. Figure out what your scenery looks like before you start adding it in. I don’t mean that you need to break out the Sims and start building an entire house, but you should know the major features or the features you hope to highlight. My suggestions is to jot down the defining characteristics of the character the scene relates to. For example, when I was creating Dr. Hawthorne’s home office, I knew he he was a busy doctor who was progressive for his day. This comes out in his bookshelf, which is filled with medical texts from scholars throughout history, and between books there are rather disgusting anatomical specimens in jars. Because he’s busy, his desk is covered in notes that need typing and random bits of paper for his own research. Personal spaces should reflect the characters who live in them. As always, knowing where you’re going makes it infinitely easier to avoid writer’s block.
  4. Focus on the senses. And not just sight. Pretend that you’re where your characters are. What would you smell? Could you taste or hear anything? The more sensory details you include, the more evocative your scene will be. When I get stuck in this area, I go onto Pinterest to look for photos or Youtube for videos of scenery or thunderstorms, depending on the scene. If need be, look up words to describe smells or tastes. I know I’ve looked up how to describe the smell of rain.
  5. When you’re all done, go back and prune. You don’t want pages and pages of atmosphere, so go back after you’ve written your scene and see if you can get rid of anything. Pay careful attention to word choice as you’re editing. Are your descriptions succinct and do they make sense? Show them to someone else and see what their feelings are about your descriptions. Sometimes what’s in our heads doesn’t come out on paper. Atmospheric writing should add to the scene, so if it’s doing nothing but adding to your word count, cut it.

If you’re trying to boost your writing skills and learn how to create atmosphere in your story, my best suggestion is to read and take notes on what other authors do. The best way to learn to write is to learn to read as a writer.

Do you have any examples of writers who rock at creating evocative scenery?


7 Tips for Editing Your Manuscript


I have a love-hate relationship with editing.

Being the type of person who is appalled and embarrassed to have others discover mistakes in my work, I use editing as a way to polish my work before I show it off to anyone.  I have one alpha reader who reads most of my work while it is in progress because she is the most familiar with my characters and can often judge if I have a scene or reaction makes sense, and of course she sees my work in its unedited glory.  She is also my best friend and a fellow writer, who isn’t afraid to say, “Uh, what were you thinking?”  No one else should see it that way.  To me, an unedited work is like being in your underwear.  You don’t necessarily want everyone to see you in that state. Continue reading “7 Tips for Editing Your Manuscript”