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Monday, August 30 2010

The first draft is finished! Sadly, my word count is under the 75,000 words I was shooting for, but hey, the story was over. Nothing left to tell. And I've left quite a few gaps in certain chapters, with little notes that say, "Add conversation about Gwyn's life in San Jose" or "Put more action here." As I work on revisions, my current word count of 67,500 should creep over the 70,000 word mark at least. 

But I finished the draft on Thursday, and already, my mind has begun to wander off. There it went, scuttling behind the couch. Without the set 1500 word minimum each day, I'm not sure when I've completed a day's worth of work. On Friday, I gave myself the task of reworking the two dining scenes I mentioned in the last blog. But that only took me an hour or two. Not much in terms of hard work and dedication. So I tried to keep myself busy with revising the next chapter I'll be sending to my writing group and filling in a couple of blanks, but I was really just wasting time. Without a set structure, I can stall better than a run-down car.

Take yesterday, my research day. I needed to look into a clue for helping Gwyn identify the killer and then sketch out more developed characters. First I read the Sunday paper. Then I went to the grocery store. Then I pestered my husband to play me air hockey. Finally, I sat down at the computer to start the research. First I checked my email, then I played Minesweep, then I checked the news, balanced my Quicken, and checked email again. When I couldn't think of any other way to delay (short of cleaning the office, which is even worse than research), I began my search for information. And it didn't take long. In fact, I wasted more time avoiding the research than actually looking anything up. Leaving me plenty of time to develop those characters. But, wait! Lunch break!

If I'm going to use the next six weeks to resolve all those issues I pushed out of my mind, polish the manuscript until it can't be any cleaner, and send it off to my agent, I need to focus. I need To Do lists, I need my notes at my fingertips, I need to disconnect from the Internet (gasp! No! Anything but that!). Most of all, I need the same motivation that kept me on track to write 7500 words a week and finish this draft. I just need to find where I misplaced that motivation. I know it's around here somewhere.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 10:35 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 23 2010

Excuse me while I bang my head against the wall. Oh, wait, that saying's a cliché, something I need to work harder to avoid. But more on that in a minute.

In my last blog, I mentioned the list of revisions suggested in How to Write and Market your Mystery Novel. Those revisions total two pages, an easily doable prospect. Then I decided to read Don't Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerdon. The crux of the book? 24 CHAPTERS on mistakes authors make that direct their manuscripts straight to the slush pile. But before the author even talks about these mistakes, he explains a bit about the publishing world and why perfectly good authors with perfectly good manuscripts may never get that sought-after contract. Not exactly cheery stuff to bolster my enthusiasm for first finishing my book and then revising it.

But, I'm a glutton for punishment (oh, geez, another cliché), so I decided to skim through the book. And look! The first couple of chapters cover the pitfalls of prologues and flashbacks. Why, I don't even have a prologue in my book. Or a flashback. I can skip that entire section! This might not be so bad. The next couple of chapters also don't apply to my book. Four chapters down, twenty to go. I'll be done with this book in ten minutes!

That's when I kept reading and started to feel a bit uncomfortable. I could certainly improve in a few areas of the next chapters. Minor changes, but still, necessary changes. And then I got to the section that discusses the triteness of restaurant and bar scenes in books. Whenever two people need to have a meeting, it's always over drinks or lunch, giving the characters an easy activity to cover while they exchange information. The first guy sips his drink and says a few words. The next guy wipes his mouth with a napkin and responds. And on and on. I'm absolutely guilty of overusing the restaurant scenes. Now, in my defense, one of the subplots involves my character eating healthy food, plus part of her job is waiting tables. But, in addition to all that food talk, both times she's alone with her love interest, they're at a restaurant. Weak! So once I start my revisions, I have to completely redo both scenes.

Okay, so that one chapter in Don't Murder your Mystery will result in work on my part. Surely that was a fluke. But no! Next he talked about introducing new characters and overusing gestures. Pretty soon, I had to get out a tablet and take notes on words to search for, scenes to redo, and character problems to fix. And let's not forget the use of clichés, a huge no-no, and one I'm guilty of all the time (see the first sentence of this blog). As I was working on my book this morning, I felt like every other sentence I typed was a cliché. And once you start thinking about not writing clichés, that's all you can write.

 Just when I think I'm getting a handle on this whole writing business, I discover that I'm still making all types of amateur mistakes. My characters nod too much, they're too agreeable, their descriptions are lacking. At least I read the book before I finished my first draft. Now I can keep the list tucked in the back of my head (God, is that another cliche? I don't even know anymore!) as a constant reminder to revise everything. And never get too comfy.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 01:00 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 16 2010

Many years ago, when I began to seriously tinker with the idea of writing a mystery, I ran into a problem. A big problem. While I had plenty of experience reading mysteries, I had no idea how to actually write one. I mean, sure, I knew a body or two had to show up. Someone had to look for clues and solve the crime. Someone else had to kill the victim while others lurked nearby and appeared guilty, harboring their own secrets. But how to combine all those aspects in a cohesive and gripping manner?

I browsed a vast selection of writing books on Amazon until I noticed "How to Write and Market your Mystery Novel" by Jean Hager. Let's see: I wanted to write a mystery and once I finished, I'd presumably want to market it. Perfect. So I added the book to my virtual cart, waited for the package to arrive on my doorstep, and tore open the box. I frowned at the thin red book that sat in the bottom and pulled it out, flipping through to the end.

132 pages. That was it? And the last 20 pages were lists of various book award winners and the bibliography. They didn't even count. I was supposed to learn how to write a full-length novel in 112 pages?

Turns out Hager accomplished a lot in so few pages. I recently pulled the book off my shelf to read the chapter on revisions and was once more struck by how useful the entire book is. Hager simply didn't add fluff, something I definitely appreciate as I struggle to find time to both write and read about the craft. Each chapter is concise and selective in its details. The chapter on character description reminded me of improvements I need to make in my own cast, the dialogue chapter reinforced the idea that I need to tighten up my conversations, and that revision chapter will prove invaluable as I move closer to completing the first draft.

The fact that Hager provides all this info in 132 pages (really, 112) shows that carefully chosen words are an important part of any writing project. Another reminder to edit, edit, edit. And when you're done, edit once more for good measure.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 05:52 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 09 2010

As I write my book, I'm faced with the usual dilemmas. The main one, of course, is plot and where the heck this story is going. Then there are subplots to worry about, characters to create, flesh out and name, and sentences to construct in creative and entertaining ways.

But currently, my biggest issue is chapter breaks, a seemingly trivial and easy aspect of writing. Looking over my progress this week, I've got a good chunk of writing, about thirty pages, with nary a chapter break. Can't have that. Readers will revolt. But where to break up the chunk? How long is too long for a chapter in a cozy mystery? When I'm reading a book, I have a habit of flipping forward to see where a chapter ends. If it's longer than about twenty pages, I get cranky. What is the writer trying to do? Wear me out? What if I want to stop sooner? I'll then flip through those twenty pages to see if the writer at least threw in a section break, anything to mark a clear stopping point so I'll know where to pick the story up again with little effort.

But I've also read thrillers that have ridiculously short chapters, some in the three to four page range. At first glance, this seems ideal. I can stop whenever my eyelids begin to droop. No worries about page after page before the next break. But this is a trick. The writer is lulling me into a sense of control, when in fact, the opposite is true. The writer is the one running the show. Every time I consider stopping, I think, "Gee, this next chapter is only five pages. Might as well read it." Then I repeat that phrase for the next chapter and the next, until I've read another hundred pages without realizing it.

Of course, I might be the only reader who even worries about chapter breaks. Perhaps some people simply stop at the end of a paragraph, stick the bookmark in the crease, and call it a day. Still others might start a book and read it straight through without stopping.

For me, as a reader, the ideal length for a chapter seems to be anywhere between eight to twelve pages. That's long enough that I can stop reading with satisfaction and a sense of completion, but not so long that I feel trapped in a never-ending tale and find myself saying, "Geez, will this chapter ever end?"

So I'll be keeping my chapters to around ten pages. And just in case others like shorter chapters, I'll throw in a section break here and there to help the reader out.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 01:18 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 02 2010

While writing this book, I've discovered a secret to meeting my daily word count. Finish writing as soon as possible in the morning because life tends to get in the way. I realize this isn't exactly a new discovery. Not by any means. But after last week, it's a good policy to follow.

Take Wednesday. I woke up at the usual time, booted up the computer, opened the garage door to let the cats in (why my cats sleep in the garage is a whole other story), and found a pile of vomit waiting for me. Wednesday was not the first time I'd been greeted in this fashion and it's really lost its sense of urgency. Truth be told, I didn't even bother to clean up the mess right then. I mean, technically, the garage floor is outside the house, so it's not like I had a bunch of throw up in the actual house. And maybe if the cats had to wander by their own vomit to get to the food bowl, they'd stop throwing up. Plus, I had a word count to reach.

So I went back upstairs. Shortly thereafter, Jake emerged from his room to inform me he'd peed in his bed. No problem. Throw the sheets in the wash, air out the room, and get back to writing. And write I did. At least until the baby started to cry when I had a mere eleven words to go before reaching my fifteen hundred words-a-day quota.

He was standing in the corner of the room near the dresser, and at first glance, everything looked fine. At least from across the room. But a closer look raised a question. What was all that brown stuff all over the baby? That's right. It was poo. Poo on the floor. Poo running down his legs. Poo on the dresser. Poo on his hands. Did I mention he was putting his fingers in his mouth?

I carted him off to the shower and hosed him down while he shrieked in accompaniment. Just as I toweled him off, the phone rang. My sister wanted to invite us for lunch in the park. Right then, the idea of fresh air and wide open spaces that didn't smell like poo sounded heavenly. But first, I had to squeeze in a quick trip to the store and still clean up the cat vomit. I had just enough time to unload the groceries, wash down the garage, and feed the baby before we had to head for the park. By the time we returned, it was early afternoon and I needed to complete all the chores I hadn't completed that morning.

But it didn't matter. I typed the last eleven words and ta-da! I'd hit my daily word count! After I'd finished my chores and washed the dinner dishes, I could throw myself into bed with a clear conscious. I needed a good night's rest to face whatever bodily fluids I'd have to clean up in the morning.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 12:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email