Four Writing Cheats

As I did last time, I am drafting an entire 80,000 word novel in 31 days at Camp NaNoWriMo. This is, of course, impossible unless I am a Stephen King kind of super-writer or am creating 320 pages of crap. Neither is the case. The truth: I cheat. Here’s how:

1

The Way You’re Supposed To Do It
Take your story idea and tell it as you type. Trust your muse to guide you. Let that gorgeous prose flow through your fingers. Spin a tale that captivates.

What Actually Happens
My muse is an alcoholic who misses a lot of work. She doesn’t show up when I look for her. I can stare at a blank screen for long minutes without any idea what to write. Then I get started and end up down some rabbit hole with no Wonderland anywhere in sight. I once wrote an 80,000 word romantic suspense book that had an ending so bad it surpassed an opening like “It was a dark and stormy night.” I wrote most of that novel, including the ending, sequestered in my daughters house in Scottsdale. Great surroundings; I produced absolute crap.

How I Cheat
My books have about twenty chapters, each with four scenes of about a thousand words each. I don’t start writing a book until I’ve listed the twenty chapter summaries (usually not much more than a descriptive title) in the right order to tell the story. And, I don’t start writing any chapter until I’ve summarized each of the four scenes answering these questions:

  • What’s the single bit of information this scene must convey?
  • What’s the ideal setting for this scene?
  • Which characters absolutely must be in this scene?
  • What’s the conflict?

Once I have all that worked out, I sit down and type away madly, knowing where I’m going but not exactly how to get there. It’s the way we guys drive cars.

 

 2

The Way You’re Supposed To Do It
Get up early or sit down after the long day at your real job and write for several hours every day, producing a pile of maybe fifty part-time pages per week. That’s a novel every seven weeks or so.

What Actually Happens
After years of writing, I can tell you that my greatest gift is coming up with reasons not to sit down and write. This must be done. That is urgent. The other thing is really preparatory to writing. I’m too tired. Oh, and now that I’m seated I can see that whatzit that must be cleaned/finished/fixed/. It’s really rather amazing how good I am at this.
What’s even worse is the psychology of sitting down to write. It scares me, sometimes to near paralysis. I can almost hear the breathy whispers of my muse (and smell the alcohol on her breath) saying, “It’s too hard. You don’t know where to start. You should really rethink the whole chapter. And the last chapter needs to be revised. You’re not really a writer, you know. Everyone will see that when you try to publish this. There’ll be lots of laughter, all at your expense. This is a waste of time. It’s too hard….” I suspect most of us writers feel this when we think about writing. Sure, there are the occasional bouts of inspiration and eagerness, but those are not the norm for most of us. Certainly not for me.

How I Cheat
Every morning I get up, start the coffee, and open the back door to my little studio to let in the cool summer morning air, or build a fire in the little wood stove in the colder months. Those activities give me ample time to start feeling inadequate and afraid. Then I sit down and start writing. After about a paragraph I remember how much fun this actually is. I write for 30 minutes every lunch break. I write for an hour every night before dinner. That’s two or three hours every day and nearly full time in July, working out to almost half-time over the year. With planning included, I can crank out a single 1000 word scene per day. That equals a book draft per calendar quarter.
This is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned about writing novels. At the appointed time, sit down and write. No rethinking anything, no fretting, no revising, no excuses. Just sit down and do it. This is remarkably difficult and is really what Woody Allen was talking about when he said that eighty percent of life is showing up. He was referring to the difference between those who want to write a screenplay and those who actually complete one. As soon as I start to feel afraid that I can’t do it, I throw my butt in the chair and start doing it.

 

3

The Way You’re Supposed To Do It
It’s a lonely job. You slog away at your story alone at home or alone at a crowded Starbucks. Day after day. Then you produce the finished manuscript to the delight of loved ones and friends. You are amazing.

What Actually Happens
You never finish anything. You’re strong. You’re determined. You’re persistent. You never give up. You’re full of crap. It turns out that there’s a writer’s bell-shaped curve. The vast bulk of us in the middle and toward both ends of the curve simply cannot keep at it to the end. At one extreme there are the three percent who can, but that’s not us. At the other extreme of the curve are the three percent who try writing a novel and run away screaming after the first paragraph. You can find their laptops at the Starbucks lost and found.
You’re writing a book, a complete 320 page book? How do you do that? The answer is, we don’t. We just say we are, month after month, and eventually year after year. People find out that we write and ask, “Published anything yet?” The question hurts as if a dull knife had been shoved into the chest and then twisted. The question really hurts because we’re terrified they’ll ask the real question, “Have you finished anything?”

How I Cheat
I tell everybody what I’m doing. My family knows where I am and what the week’s goal is. My students know. I’m not sure which is worse, the accountability my family gives me (“So, this one will sell and we’ll pay off all our bills, right?”) or my students (“I’ve had a lot of bad teachers over the years; I just want to say that one of them is an author. You there yet?”).
I tell everybody. Right now my 80,000 word goal is public knowledge at Camp NaNoWriMo. By the way, I’ve done NaNoWriMo in November several times and won’t do it again. If I manage to complete 50,000 words in November, I’m so burned out that I can’t write again until April. I’m off from teaching in July. That’s the perfect time to put in extra hours.
I tell everybody. This week I’m also participating in the monthly challenge at www.book-in-a-week.com where I and three or four dozen other writers post our writing pages goals for a single week each month. Then we report daily and encourage the hell out of each other. Maureen Wood is the guiding star for this. Thank you, Moe!
Yes, I’m strong, determined, persistent. But not all the time, and certainly not consistently over the weeks it takes to complete a novel. My friends, family, students, and even quite a few total strangers all draw those traits out of me when they ask, “How are you doing on this week’s goal?”

 

 4

The Way You’re Supposed To Do It
Send your first draft to some alpha readers. Consider their recommendations. Make a few changes. Send it off to your editor who has a couple of good suggestions to buff up the story. Do your book signings.

What Actually Happens
By the middle of the book, if you get that far, there have been so many changes to the story that the first act no longer fits. You go back and revise. Then you have to revise the middle again. You decide to give the whole thing a read and find more typos than a dyslexic chimpanzee could make. And you really have to revise the whole chapter plan.

How I Cheat
Good writers are actually good re-writers. Make a note when you write something in chapter ten that will eventually require a change to chapter two. Do not go back. Keep plowing forward. Get to the end. When finished, set the thing aside for a couple of weeks. Then:

  • Read it through once and correct the typos and make any changes you need to make.
  • Send it off to beta readers, asking them to tell you if any parts of the story do not work.
  • Make the changes.
  • Send it off to alpha readers telling them you want the story to stay as it is and want them to tell you if they would buy a book like this. Sure, they can point out errors, too.
  • Make the changes.
  • Send it to your editor who will suggest adding or deleting whole scenes, pumping up characters, and maybe take a writing course.
  • Do what she says.

Summary

I do just enough planning before I write in order to know where I’m going. I have worked hard to create a habit of writing at the same time every day and maybe a little more, but not much more, on the weekends. Before paralysis can set in, I plop my butt in my chair and immediately start writing the next paragraph. I tell everyone what I’m doing and then try to have the courage to make direct eye contact with them when next we meet. And when I think a sentence I just wrote could be improved, I don’t improve it until I do the real writing in the re-writing and editing phases.

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Three Sisters, Great Stories

My adult romantic suspense books feature Diana Skye who finds love and intrigue in international settings that I know well from Canada to Great Britain, Mauritius, New Zealand, Singapore, and beyond.

Ivy Skye, just out of college and trying to run a dance studio in the New Mexico village of Redondo, lives in an urban fantasy where her neighbors are not at all what they seem.

The youngest sister, Caitlin Skye, is finishing high school in coastal Florence, Oregon when her interest in AP Biology draws her into adventures with a young adult speculative fiction character who has an ancient secret.

I work hard at writing and re-writing to create the best characters in stories that are quick moving and satisfying. Including editing and planning time, I still produce a thousand words every day, seven days each week, working from my home studio in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

Four books are now polished and ready for publication. I am seeking an agent.

Cordially,

Don Cram

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