The Creative Flow: How I Figure Out What to Write

For the past couple of weeks, you’ve graciously listened to my brain droppings about various aspects of the publishing industry (thank you!), and books I’ve read. It hit me the other day that, since my blog is primarily about my writing life, then perhaps I should actually write about my writing life.

One of the questions I get the most is, “How do you think up these things?” In addition to having an extremely vivid imagination (a must for fiction writers) and a slightly cynical view of the world, it’s not hard to come up with plots.

(Writing them is the hard part…but that’s another post for another day. :D)

Seriously: I get my inspiration from the news, random comments from people, Facebook memes…whatever works. I also dig in the crates for classics, and think about how they would be refashioned in this modern age (I’m a fan of Shakespeare, so he provides endless fodder). Then I start kicking around the “what ifs”. Once I hit upon a theme that resonates within, I start plotting it out. Characters, their backstories, how I want the story to end, is it a one-off novel or a series…things like that.

Oh, I also figure out the genre. Some stories are very obvious in how they should be written; others can go different ways, so I need to figure out the best way. Depending on my mood, I may go for the sure shot (a genre in which I’m strong, like fiction or thrillers) or try to challenge myself in a genre in which I’m not (science fiction/speculative fiction).

The format is important too. The late, great Octavia Butler once said in an interview that some stories are meant to be books, and some are meant to be short stories. I didn’t realize that until I started revisiting some earlier, half-done stuff and figured out that I was blocked on some of them because of this very principle: some novels should have been short stories, and some short stories should become novels. Since I like to write and expound upon a broad canvas, it’s easy for me to write a novel. Writing a short story, however, takes a talent I have not yet mastered.

Finally, I start writing the first draft. More on that in an upcoming post.

Thanks for stopping by.

The Spaghetti Syndrome: Writing What Works

I’ve spoken before about how it’s important to focus on a writing project and see it through to completion. But what if you have no idea what that project should be?

It’s like testing spaghetti for doneness: you keep tossing strands against the wall to see if they stick. You may have many ideas, and may even try developing a few of them, but how will you know which project is worth your time, at this time in your life?

Answer:  Your writing will tell you.

When you hit upon that work that begs for your attention, you will know it. The character(s) will start speaking to you (if it’s a fiction novel). Mannerisms, language patterns, quirks, behavior–all that will come to the forefront with ease, as if they were real. And that’s a good thing.  If working on a nonfiction book, you will be lit up at the research involved in bolstering your argument; you have a spring in your step at interviewing people, even determining the content of your footnotes, if need be. The “work” becomes pleasure, and that is a stage to which every writer aspires.

[Sidebar: Writers are the only people who can call a character by name, and say that the character is speaking to him/her in her head. If such a statement was uttered in mixed company, it might get you a one-way ticket to a psych evaluation.]

“But…but…” you may splutter, “What if I have more than one book, or character, speaking to me? What if I like both of them equally?”

Ah…good question. This recently happened to me, as I work on book #2 in the series. I started on one book (let’s call it Book B), then switched to the other (Book C), as it was more developed (I actually have a complete first draft). But as I reworked Book B, it wasn’t flowing. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get past a plot snag, which made me wonder if I should go back to the original version of what I’d changed. Then I started toying with Book C. And it started flowing. And I decided that this will probably be the next in the series, instead, and Book B will then become Book C.

Logically speaking, I should just try to force the original Book B into submission, since I would be doing a second draft, and thus that much closer to publication next year. But if I can’t get into that groove where I am living and breathing that main character, and the book plot, then I can’t deliver a good story to my readers. No good book, no book sales, and I’ll end up on the corner with a cardboard sign and a crumpled paper cup, begging for spare change.

I’m in a good position, in that  Book B and Book C could actually be interchanged in my publishing schedule, with no ill effects. Still, I say all this to say that while concentration on one project is important, it’s equally important to find that story that  grabs hold of you and won’t let go until you finish it. That may mean switching projects mid-stream; it may also mean starting completely over. Just know that if you force something that is not ready to be forced, it will come across in your writing, and you will do your readers a disservice. They deserve better, and so do you.

Thanks for stopping by.

Taking the Plunge: An Initiation into the Writing Life

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asked a lot of questions by people who are interested in writing a book. They range from tire-kickers to hard-core committed, but they all have one thing in common: fear.

One of the main questions was: how do I get started? Most of my clients have day jobs, and writing tends to take a backseat after dealing with long days of corporate shenanigans. Plus, there is this big myth surrounding the writing life, that a mere mortal can’t get a book written. Granted, it takes a lot of focus (and prayer) to get a book put out there, but no more than it would for someone to work toward a promotion, or earn a college degree (at any level), or raise a family. And with the ease of self-publishing these days, it’s really not that hard to become a published author. Still, people freak out about the very act of getting started.

Folks, there is no magic formula to writing a book. The only thing you have to do is: write.

(Publishing is another matter, but let’s just focus on actually having something to publish, for now.)

“But…but…I don’t have the time,” you may wail. “I have a job/kids/bowling/errands/pets; when am I going to find the time to write?”

Answer: you will find the time when you make the time. As with most goals in life, it all comes down to desire: how badly do you want it?

We all make time for things we want to do. If writing is what truly lights you up inside (as opposed to something you see solely as a means to make money), then carve out the time to do it. Wake up earlier to get some writing time in. Use your tablet/iPad/smartphone to get some writing in on your lunch break. Write before you go to bed.  But most importantly, write.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Baby steps. Writing for a short time a day, or a few pages a day, when done consistently, will yield a book. A book can range anywhere from 150-350 pages, on average, depending on the type of book you want to write. Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) has a good solution to the “I don’t have time” conundrum. Try it and see if it works for you.

A book that I highly recommend is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (yeah, that Stephen King).

On Writing S. King original  On Writing 10th anniv edition S. King

The popular author of bestsellers such as Carrie, Cujo, Pet Sematary, The Running ManThe Shining, and short stories/novellas that became movies (The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me were originally published in a collection of short stories, under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) wrote a very comprehensive guide to writing that is part autobiography, part writing boot camp. (did you know that he actually threw the manuscript for Carrie in the garbage, because he was so discouraged by rejection from publishers, and thought that he didn’t have what it took to get published? His wife fished it out of the garbage and sent it to his agent. The rest, as they say, is history).

One of the things that King mentions as a must for writers is reading. A writer has to read.  This is non-negotiable. It’s important to see how other writers set up scenes, move plots, describe characters, put words together. It’s also a good way to get ideas (most book topics out here have been recycled many times, but with different spins). Keep in mind that getting ideas is not the same as plagiarizing; if you can’t make a subject/idea your own without blatantly copying from another, then let it go.  I mean, really making it different: this goes beyond just changing a character name and/or location and passing that off as originality. I can’t tell you how many The Da Vinci Code knockoffs I’ve seen circulating around; they are very obvious, so you’ve probably seen them too.

Another vehicle that I recommend is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo. I’ve done this every year for the past five (six?) years. This occurs every November, and you have the entire month to write a 50,000-page novel (which is approximately 250 pages). The “winner” (who reaches or exceeds the 50K-word goal) gets bragging rights and a bunch of discounts and freebies from self-publishing vehicles such as CreateSpace and Lulu, and e-book vendors such as Kobo (I finally “won” in 2013, and that is the book that is coming out this October. Yay me!). You have to buy your own T-shirt, though. 🙂 There is no fee for entry, and it’s fun to participate in local events that are geared toward helping you get to that 50,000-word finish line. This is a good way to meet other writers, who can help hold you accountable toward finishing your goal. It’s a good way to make yourself write and if you don’t “win”, that’s cool; at least you’ve gotten started.

An expanded feature of NaNoWriMo is that they do Camp NaNoWriMo, which are month-long, virtual writing “camps” that take place in April and July (signups for July are now open). You get to meet “cabin mates” (fellow writers who can help you be accountable) and set your own writing goals, as opposed to the default 50,000 words. If you only want to write 10,000 words (approximately 25 pages), then do that. 25K words? No problem. Whole hog at 50K? Go for it! It’s all good.

[As a matter of fact, I’ve signed up for the July Camp NaNoWriMo, so holler at your girl (I’m afrosaxon in the ATL). Maybe we can be cabin mates!]

One thing I don’t personally recommend is writing workshops, where a bunch of people sit around and share and critique each other’s work. There are some good ones out there (I guess), but my experience with said workshops is that not all participants are in it to win it. Some use workshops as a safe space where they don’t actually have to put themselves out there to the public; you’d be surprised at how many workshop participants have been in them for years, and are always “preparing” for publication. These also tend to be the same people who are quick to tear down your work in a non-constructive way (under the guise of constructive criticism). What starts as a vehicle for nurturing becomes a crutch. When you are a serious writer, and especially a fledgling writer, you need to surround yourselves with people who are in alignment with your goals. It’s just like marriage, or a committed relationship: are you going to take advice from single friends, or from those who have achieved that which you seek and are thus better equipped to understand your struggle? You can’t fly like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.

So to those who are thinking about writing a book, article, blog, it’s time to roll like Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

yoda do or do not try

Thanks for stopping by.

Oxygen Mask, Aisle 2: The Fear of Putting Yourself Out There

I help guide others through the maze of self-publishing. I edit manuscripts, walk them through the processes of ISBN purchases, book cover design, book distribution listings, marketing, etc.  I’m pretty good at it. One day, I asked myself how I could help others realize their dreams effectively, when I haven’t realized my own? So here I am, about to put my work out there to be praised, ridiculed, ignored, etc. via self-publishing.

Excuse me while I hyperventilate.

I’m a pretty private person, so the thought of putting something as personal as stories that I’ve created, out into the world, is terrifying. I’m like Erykah Badu: “Now keep in mind that I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my s**t.” Those are my children, and I don’t want anyone to talk ugly about my children. But therein lies the rub: if no one talks about it, then the books don’t sell, and I don’t get better as a writer.

Raegan Mathis of Untitled 1975 said it best in a recent blog post:

Sometimes, whether we want to or not, we have to lay ourselves bare and just put it all on the table.  

No one comes together with another person with empty pockets or bags.  It doesn’t happen. Unless we’re speaking of babies.  No matter how we come together – as friends or as lovers, everything needs to be put on the table.  At one time or another. 

Some things have to be laid out sooner than others.  Other things, they can wait.  Sometimes, we don’t have a choice but to lay it all out or lose. 

This isn’t cards.  We don’t need to hide our hands.  We lay them down and bring our hands together to form one hand.  Love is about bringing it all together.  

It’s like preparing a dinner with what you have.  My father is an expert at seeing things in the fridge and making a meal when no one can see how it all comes together.  Ever had a wonderfully unexpected dinner that wasn’t planned, wasn’t from a recipe but was from what you had left over? Putting everything on the table reminds me of those dinners.  

Sometimes we won’t lay it out because we think someone won’t like what we have.  But what if you learn they have some of the same things you do? What if they have the missing pieces you need to make your life better?

Meet people where they are, with what they have. “


This passage was a boost to my spirits. I will meet people where they are (as readers) with what they have (a discerning eye and search for resonance). To do that, and to do it now, I have to do it on my own terms.

I have my own misgivings about mainstream publishing (coming to a future post near you!), which is why I’m taking the indie route. It’s a risk: I’m coming out of pocket for pretty much everything: cover design, promotions, etc., in the hopes that I will reap it all back in the end. Go big or go home, right?

Yet I stay awake at night, thinking of the gamble. I am middle-class and single. I don’t have the luxury of having a spouse or significant other to fall back on, should this writing thing go left. I don’t have a trust fund to cushion my fall. Getting a “real job” would be an exercise in futility (see above comment re: laid off or fired), even if I could find a spot that wasn’t scared of having to pay me for my considerable experience and education, or afraid that I’d take some manager’s spot someday, or didn’t make me want to slit my wrists for having to sit behind a desk for eight hours a day.

What if my work doesn’t catch on? Am as good a writer as I think I am (and as others claim I am)? Where do I find decent help for navigating social media waters? Do I need to blog every day? Do I need to post to my Facebook page every day? What about Twitter? Instagram? Do I need a Pinterest account? Can my editor fit my project into her schedule in time for ___ release date? PR…I need someone to massage my image. Where? Oh Gawd, I need a book cover photo–who? Dang it–I have to write a blurb for the back cover. Do I want to release a hardcover edition for Christmas? How do I move the plot along in my book? Maybe I should work on ___ book/story instead. To include an excerpt from the upcoming book, or not to include? Should I post short stories online? If I do, will someone copy it and pass it off as their own? Is there a plugin to prevent that? Great, now I have heartburn on top of insomnia. I think I need another pillow. Maybe a banana.  Or a peanut butter sandwich. But I do have those granola bars…

It’s like having fifty browser windows open in my head, all at the same time.

Then it all circles back to perception. One of my greatest fears is ending up on the free book list on Amazon , which is the digital equivalent of the bargain bin.  While there are occasional gems on there, a lot of the books offered aren’t that great, for whatever reason. Not to mention the content of my books. In my romance-oriented books, as well as some of the mainstream fare, I have sex scenes. I was embarrassed to see the movie Monster’s Ball with my mother; knowing that she (and/or my grandmother) will read those scenes is a bit disconcerting…but not enough for me to omit them. 😀

Finally, I am not looking forward to the barrages of questions from friends and acquaintances, regarding characters in my books. As any fiction author knows, the assumptions that the characters are based on real-life people are automatic:

Person A: You didn’t have to make me so [insert negative attribute] in your book.

Author: What are you talking about?

Person A: Your character, ______.  That was me, right?

Author: No, it wasn’t. I made him/her up.

Person A:  Uh huh, whatever. I know it was me. You didn’t have to write me like that, though.

Author: *sigh*

That whole “any resemblance to characters living or dead, is completely coincidental” caveat on the copyright page of fiction books is nothing more than legal protection. Very few actually believe it, especially since writing is much less expensive than therapy. But that will be my story, and I’m sticking to it.

This is going to be a wild ride, so the only thing I can do right now is strap in and hold on…and see who’s going to ride shotgun.

Thanks for stopping by.


You Spin Me Round: On the Genesis of New Ideas

I’m taking a break from working on the second novel in my Bastille Family series, because I had to shut down spinoff ideas. My head was spinning from idea overload.

Writers, you know what that is: you think of how you can further maximize your current or future work, be it a character spinoff, or a companion book, or a prequel. Those ideas then multiply like project roaches, until you have a folder full of half-baked ideas for expanding your literary empire.

(Am I the only one with such a file? No? My author heads, I know you feel me.)

There comes a time when you have to slam on the brakes.  Thinking too much messes with productivity and when you are hustling to keep the public’s interest by virtue of a new book, or short story, focus is important. Unfortunately, like most writers, a vivid imagination never sleeps. If we’re not careful, those bright ideas for literary dynasties will derail the bread-and-butter efforts. Once that happens, there isn’t enough Adderall in the world to get us back on track.

Because I’m working on a series, and because I have Gemini rising in my astrological chart, I have a tendency to work on two things at once. The headlines for various national and international newspapers, plus Facebook, adds to my treasure trove of story ideas. It’s hard for me to stay on task sometimes, especially when I’ve hit a wall in my current project. Then, it’s easy to ease on down the road to another incomplete project in an attempt to kickstart the Muse. However, I’ve learned from personal experience that that way lies madness. Staying the course is important and while I have a lot to say, and a lot of ways to say it, I have to establish myself to the public first…and that means riding the current project out to completion (especially since I’m including an excerpt in the first novel). *sigh*

Okay, back to the drawing board.  Thanks for stopping by.



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