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No New Ideas Under the Sun

Monday, May 18, 2015

Model Nicole Simone as AlexSo, in working on my new story idea, I came up with what I thought was a unique thing for my heroine to be doing in order to research the villain for the new mystery/thriller novel she’s writing. This was so good—and would give me something that could create conflict between her and the hero.

And then I picked up a contemporary romance to read, published in 2006 . . . and the heroine is doing the exact same thing that I had come up with for my heroine to do!

As a writer, have you ever found yourself reading a book that uses the same or a similar idea as the one you’re currently writing? What did you do?

As a reader, how often do you find certain themes, plot lines, or ideas repeating themselves in the books you read? Do you like/dislike it when that happens?

A New Word-Count Meter (Because I Have a New Story Idea)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Because I’m not posting regularly right now, it’s highly likely that you haven’t noticed that I’ve posted a new word-count meter over there in the right-hand column that looks like this:

Word-Count Progress for
Untitled (Stone and Alex’s Story):
A Matchmakers Sequel


Click to view daily statistics

If you follow my posts on my Facebook Page, you’ll have seen this image:

Brandon Routh, the template for my new hero, Preston Stonewall “Stone” Marshall

And this image:

Plus-size model Nicole Simone as my new heroine, Alex _____(?)

Plus-size model Nicole Simone as my new heroine, Alex _____(?)

Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on Jenn Guidry’s story, but since I’m trying to re-learn the joy of writing, and since I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Stone and Alex for a couple of weeks now, I figured the best thing for me to do would be to set Jenn’s story aside for the time being and work on this one while I’m still excited about it.

And if you’re good, my minions, I might even post some excerpts of what I’ve been writing the past couple of weeks about them . . .

But, for right now, I’ll take suggestions for Alex’s last name. She’s 38, a best-selling crime/suspense novelist (think Criminal Minds–type stories) whose first few novels have been made into award-winning “special event” miniseries by a premium cable network, and she’s also been brought on to help write the screenplays (maybe she actually writes/publishes under a pseudonym—this would actually help with the hero not knowing who she is when they meet). She grew up in Colorado (or somewhere else out West?) but has lived in Nashville, TN, for the past 20 years since moving here for college.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Questions? Ideas?

You can view more images of “Stone” and “Alex” on the board for their story on Pinterest:
AlexandStonePinterest

What Are You Reading? (May 2015)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Happy First Monday of May, everyone.
And May the Fourth Be with You!
It’s Reading Report time!

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Tell us what you’ve finished over the last month, what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your To Be Read stack/list. And if you’ve reviewed the books you’ve read somewhere, please include links!

To format your text, click here for an HTML cheat-sheet. If you want to embed your links in your text (like my “click here” links) instead of just pasting the link into your comment, click here.
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  • What book(s) did you finish reading (or listening to) since the last update?

  • What are you currently reading and/or listening to?

  • What’s the next book on your To Be Read stack/list?

What Are You Reading? (April 2015)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Happy First Monday (a.k.a., Tuesday) of April, everyone.
I was traveling yesterday, so that’s why this didn’t get posted on time.
It’s Reading Report time!

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

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Tell us what you’ve finished over the last month, what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your To Be Read stack/list. And if you’ve reviewed the books you’ve read somewhere, please include links!

To format your text, click here for an HTML cheat-sheet. If you want to embed your links in your text (like my “click here” links) instead of just pasting the link into your comment, click here.
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  • What book(s) did you finish reading (or listening to) since the last update?

  • What are you currently reading and/or listening to?

  • What’s the next book on your To Be Read stack/list?

Write: Generating Conflict and Collecting Narrative Debt #ReadySetWrite

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Raising the Stakes with Plot and Pacing #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.comIf you’ve ever been to a writing class, seminar, workshop, or conference, you’ll have heard this one before: “You need to make sure your story has conflict.” You’re less likely to hear: “Have you collected enough narrative debt—and do you pay off enough of that debt as your story moves along?”

Getting Conflicted

When I was twelve or thirteen, there were several prehistoric “video games” I loved playing on our TRS-80 computer. (How prehistoric? Try on cassette tape!) All of them dealt with overcoming obstacles, but my favorite was one in which you were trying to get out of a haunted house. A few lines of text would appear on the screen. (You are standing in a room. To your left is a door. In front of you is a cabinet. To your right is a bookshelf with three books. What do you want to do?) Each action the player took generated a consequence—and a new conflict—until the task was finally accomplished (finding the key to unlock the front door to get out of the house. The exponential growth of the videogame industry over the past three decades is because of the thrill that comes from coming face to face with challenges (conflicts), working our way through them, and (hopefully) overcoming them to move on to new and bigger challenges.

We like to hear and read stories of real people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to survive—the company that owned the publishing house where I worked for several years, Guideposts, was built on just such stories. Think about it. Christopher Reeve. Lance Armstrong. Scott Hamilton. Survivors of the Twin Towers or Hurricane Katrina. The man who got trapped in a ravine when hiking and cut off his own arm to survive. The mom right here in Middle Tennessee who sacrificed herself to protect her two little boys during a tornado and was paralyzed—heck, pretty much every reality show on TV is based on this premise (that, and our unadulterated love of voyeurism). We love to see—and vicariously experience—victory over conflict.

But the human spirit cannot experience that elation if there are no obstacles to overcome or if conflict is too easily solved. Nor will pseudo-conflicts bring about change. It’s been said that an addict will never want to change his destructive behaviors until he hits rock bottom—sometimes several times. Like the addict, we do not know what we are capable of until we are faced with situations we never thought we would have to face: our greatest fears, a deep dark secret being revealed to the person it could hurt the worst, losing a parent or spouse or child to a debilitating disease or death. People face these crises every day. Some cave. Some look for easy outs and end up miserable, in jail, or dead. The ones whose stories we want to hear are the ones who stood up, learned, changed, grew.

This is what the middle of the story is about: the triumph of our characters over any conflict we as the writers can throw in their paths. Be mean to your characters. Take away from them what they treasure most in this world and give it to their arch-nemesis. Strip them of everything. Treat them like Job and see what they do.

Going into Narrative Debt

I think somewhere back in my education, I took some kind of bookkeeping or accounting course—or maybe it was in a math class. What I do vaguely remember learning is the concept of simple versus compound interest. Now, I know it’s more complex than this, but here’s my understanding of it:

    Simple Interest: Interest accrues only on the original amount of the debt.

    Compound Interest: Interest accrues not only on the original amount, but on the growing total as interest that is not paid off builds up each month for however long the debt’s term is.

When we write, every time we introduce a question or a conflict to the story, we are incurring what’s known as narrative debt—in other words, we are building up toward the payoff at the end in the climax, where all of the reader’s expectations will be (or should be) paid in full. When we incur this debt, we have two choices when it comes to the “interest” that goes along with it: simple or compound.

With simple narrative interest, the debt is paid off by the end of the scene/chapter—or, at least, within a few scenes/chapters; in other words, the question is answered, the conflict managed/solved before the next chapter starts. The lost dog is found, the contract on the house comes through, the long-anticipated event goes well.

But the underlying foundation of most plots is compound narrative interest: some conflicts or questions linger and the interest compiles and compiles until you have to pay it off or risk losing your reader. This is like maxing out a credit card and then only paying the minimum payment each month. Yes, you’re keeping your account alive and in “good standing” but you’re not paying it off. It’s a big debt-monster sitting there waiting to devour you—and, if you keep going like that, it will.

Let’s look at this in the Suspense genre. Not only are there going to be breathtaking, spine-chilling scenes where our heroes or heroines are in peril, but then—whew!—are safe again (“simple interest” conflict), there is an undertone, a compounding interest conflict, of unease or fear that pervades the entire narrative. Even when things seem to be going well, the reader can sense something isn’t quite right. This can be done through tone—through the words the writer chooses to use in the narrative. It’s like the duh-dut, duh-dut of the theme song for the movie Jaws. When first watching the movie, you may not even notice the score. But then subconsciously, every time that music starts, you know something bad is going to happen.

If you’ve ever gotten yourself into a situation that required a trip to a financial/debt counselor, there’s a technique that’s taught which is applicable to what we’re discussing: Organize your bills from smallest to largest. Make minimum payments on the big ones, but do whatever it takes to start paying off the small ones first. Not only will it give you a sense of accomplishment, it looks better to your creditors.

Of course, you’ll still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night (or not be able to fall asleep) in a cold sweat thinking about the biggest debt, wondering whether or not you’ll ever be able to pay it off. But then, as soon as you send in a final payment on one of those smaller debts there is not only a sense of relief, the idea of paying off ALL of your debt doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Think about the plot of your current project. While you want to be constantly raising the stakes and generating conflict (and narrative interest, adding to the overall debt) for the characters, it does not follow that the conflict, action, and/or suspense must always be building. Characters must experience some successes along with the setbacks, the obstacles, the thwarting of their desires. They must be able to stop and take a deep breath, so that the reader can, too.

Even though we want to avoid both of them in real life, in writing we want both types of interest, the “simple interest” conflicts—resolved within a few scenes/chapters, to keep the reader satisfied with little payoffs that keep the story moving forward—along with the “compound interest” conflicts that keep the reader turning pages because they have to find out how the ultimate debt of the story will be paid off.

As we solve conflicts or answer questions in our narrative, we should always keep in mind how these solutions/answers feed into the compounding narrative debt. The best way to do this is to create new conflicts or questions with the resolution of the one that came before. If the heroine gets out of one scrape, the escape may create two new ones down the road.

Unlike in life, in writing incurring debt is a good thing.
Just like in life, paying it off is a very good thing.

Write: Building Your Momentum (and Word Count) with #1k1h Writing Sprints #ReadySetWrite

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Building Your Momentum (and Word Count) with #1k1h Writing Sprints #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.comSometimes, when you’re in the middle of your manuscript and you just can’t seem to move forward—and even storyboarding doesn’t help—the only thing that does help is setting a timer and making yourself write, marathon-style.
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One Hour, One Thousand Words

If you’re on Twitter and if you follow other writers, you may have seen the #1k1h tag and wondered what it meant. I did a bit of research (okay, I Googled for about ten minutes) and couldn’t track down the originator of this hashtag, but it’s been around for years. And it’s something that I found quite helpful in the years when I had to complete a 90–100k manuscript every three to four months.

The name somewhat describes what you’re supposed to do—set aside one hour (timed) with the goal of writing 1,000 words in your story. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, yes and no.

I’ve never been able to write 1,000 words in one hour.

Building Your Momentum (and Word Count) with #1k1h Writing Sprints #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com

Old-Fashioned Water Pump (source).

In one hour, if you’ve prepared, planned, and organized ahead of time, most writers can easily write 1,000 words or more. But not everyone can do this. Sometimes, no matter how well-prepared we are, the words just won’t come. And some people will never be fast writers.

While this is a great exercise for building word count, it’s an even better exercise for being able to start writing on command—and to stop when a timer goes off. It’s also a great way to build the habit of writing every day.

I’ve used this example multiple times, but I’m pulling it out again—just like an old-fashioned water pump, the more often we work at it, the easier it will flow. So if you start out only being able to write 500 or 700 words during that hour, the more often you do it, the more likely you are to be able to build up to 1,000 words, or more.

What if I don’t know what to write when it’s time to start the 1k1h?

When you sit down for that 1k1h sprint and you stare at that flashing cursor waiting for the words to come, and they don’t, DO NOT walk away from it and give yourself the excuse that you’ll just take a break and do it later. You know it’s unlikely that you’ll have any better of an idea of what to write in two hours than you do right now. And then you’ll have wasted additional time that you could have been writing.

Fourteen years ago, when I was writing what would become my first completed manuscript, I got to a point at which (being a seat of the pants writer with no synopsis, only a vague story idea) I had no idea where my story was going. But I needed to write. So since I’d just gone to the grocery store that evening after work, I wrote one of my characters doing the same thing. I had him get his basket. I had him pick out produce. I got him through the store all the way to the frozen-food section—where, surprisingly, he ran into another major character; and, all of a sudden, I had a scene that moved the story forward again.

Last week, on my regular Tuesday writing night, I ended up doing the same thing. I realized a couple of months ago that my original premise, while strong, just wasn’t working for me. So I restarted (and wrote an opening in a different viewpoint character’s POV, changing the setting and situation, and thus the inciting incident, entirely) and was feeling a little better about what I’d written. But then I started a new chapter. And nothing happened. I was stuck. Not having an idea of where the story was going to go, I decided to take my own advice and just drop a character (an existing character, but not originally expected to be a POV character) into a situation and see what happened. He started a conversation with someone and then—after about 1,200 words and with only three minutes of the hour left—WHAM! I had a breakthrough idea about this character. I grabbed the notepad I always keep beside the computer when I’m writing and jotted down a sketch of the idea so that I wouldn’t forget it next time I sit down to write. (Right now, I’m only writing one day each week. I plan to increase that gradually until it’s more of an everyday thing.)

It sounds mundane and like bad writing (and it’s probably something you’d end up cutting most of in a revision), but not only are you working at that creative pump, you can also learn more about your character by doing something like that.

So exactly how does 1k1h work?

  1. No Interruptions. Pick a time when you know you can have sixty minutes of uninterrupted time. Sometimes, it helps to pick a location in which you don’t usually work—a cafe or coffee shop, a library, or even a different room in your house. Just make sure it’s somewhere it’s guaranteed you won’t be disturbed.
  2. No Procrastinating. Commit yourself to doing nothing but writing during that hour. No emails, no Facebook or Twitter, no blog reading/writing, no research. No thesaurus or dictionary. If you don’t know a word, can’t think of the right word, or aren’t sure you’re using a word correctly, just use a blank line or highlight what you’ve used so you can come back to it later. During this hour, turn off the internal editor and draft write.
  3. Unplug. A while back, a friend of mine posted a link for some software she’d purchased that will block her access to the internet for a specified period of time. Now, I’m bad about keeping my email program open when I’m sitting at the computer and reading each e-mail as it comes in when I’m supposed to be working. And now that I’ve had a smartphone for a few years, it’s even worse. Oh, yeah, and I usually sit in the living room where the TV/DVR/Roku are—and the TV is almost always on. So when doing 1k1h, it’s best to try to get away from all of that. Try working away from the computer (writing longhand) or try unplugging/turning off your modem (most laptops have a key which will sever a WiFi connection; mine is on the F2 key). Turn the TV off—or move out of the room where it is. Put your phone in Airplane Mode. For this hour, writing is your job, your profession, so act like a professional who’s on the clock—and on a deadline to produce a quota of words.
  4. Set a Timer. This is one of the most important aspects of 1k1h. If you set a timer, you’re much less likely to be continuously watching the clock to see if your hour is up or not. With the knowledge that an alarm will sound when time is up, it’s much easier to focus on your story and characters and forget about time altogether. If you’re able to leave your phone alone for an hour, most phones have a timer feature in the clock app (or I’m sure you can download one). My Surface also has a built-in clock app that includes a countdown timer with an alarm. Even though I didn’t use the iPad for writing when I had it, it had one, too. And you can download timer apps to your computer. Or use a $5 analog kitchen timer. Set it for 60 minutes and start writing.
  5. Walk Away. When time is up and the alarm sounds, STOP. If you need to finish a sentence, that’s okay. But you need to get up and walk away (after saving your work, of course—and maybe jotting a few notes for where your scene is going or what comes next). If you’ve built up momentum by the end of the hour and the words and ideas are flowing, stopping and walking away in the middle of it may be one of the best things you can do for yourself—because it makes you anxious to get back to it. So walk away, take a break, and relax for a little while. The come back, set the timer for another hour, and sprint again.

Ready? Timer Set? Write!

Write: Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.comSo . . . I was going to do another recap post of previous writing/craft topics, but since this series has now stretched into a third month (and there’s still lots I want to cover), I’ll just post links and let you peruse at your leisure:

So, now let’s move forward into one of my favorite topics when talking about writing—the visual aspect. As with most of the rest of the aspects of writing, there are just about as many different ways to do this as there are writers. For me, there are actually two steps to how I storyboard.

Storyboarding Part 1: Character Casting

Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.comThe first is Character Casting and collecting images of the Real World Templates for my characters expressing as many different types of emotions as I can find images of or that speak to me and help me in building the character. This is something I spend a lot of time doing in the Get Ready and Get Set steps of preparing a story.

But when I get into the middle of writing and I’m starting to lose steam or feel stuck, I’ll either spend some more time reviewing the images I’ve already found (saved in OneNote or PowerPoint or pinned to a dedicated board on Pinterest), or I’ll search out more images (or movies or TV shows featuring the templates I’ve chosen, since I almost solely use actors) in order to see if I can find inspiration for new scenes or new aspects of the characters that can infuse me with motivation to get back to writing the story.

Storyboarding Part 2: Scene Cards

If you followed all of the steps in the Get Ready and Get Set parts of this series, you saw where I recommend not only writing out detailed backstories for the characters (and the world), you’ve worked out your overall premise, and you’ve worked out your Seven Story Beats and have either a rough outline or a full synopsis.

All but two of my eleven published novels were sold based on synopses and proposals, and those synopses varied from detailed to somewhat vague. But once I started writing, I got caught up in the minutia of the characters and the dialogue and the setting and sometimes lost sight of where the story was supposed to be going—and forgetting some of the scenes I’d had ideas for when I first wrote the synopsis. Which usually brings my momentum to a screeching halt and means it can be days or even weeks on end without producing meaningful word count.

So that’s when I knew it was time to stop and break out the Post-it Notes:
Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com
Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com

Here are two examples from two different books (and two different rooms!) of how I did my scene cards. They’re color-coded by POV character. In the upper (light wall) image, the stickies in the top section represented the scenes/chapters I’d already written—I’d gone through and re-read my entire manuscript and wrote a one- or two-sentence summary of it. As I was doing that, I was sometimes reminded of follow-up/consequence scenes I needed to write spawned by what was already there. I also went through and re-read the synopsis and wrote out scene cards for the scenes I’d already plotted there. So those are the stickies in the bottom section of the top image.

In the lower (dark wall) image, I did the same first step—going through and re-reading what I’d already written and writing out cards for each scene. The below that, you can see hanging (lowest) on the wall, a page from the Post-it Flip Chart that has my seven-beat outline written out on it, with synopses of what happens in each step. Then, on the page still attached to the flip chart, I was making notes of scenes that I wanted or needed to write. And, interspersed throughout on the smaller Post-its, both with the scene cards and with the character images, are notes on ideas or backstory or tidbits I was thinking about incorporating in the story.

With later books, when I was spending less time working at home and needed my storyboarding more portable, I went back to a previous (old, old) method using PowerPoint:
Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com

As if color-coding the “cards” by POV character weren’t enough, in PPT, I can include an image of the character, just in case I forget which color is which character. Each “card” includes the setting (red text) and a summary of what happens in that scene.

What products or software can I use?

Obviously, you don’t have to have any software to do this—it can be completely manual if you prefer. Just make it creative. Make it fun. Make it work for you.

Here are some examples I found around the web of how other authors do it. (Inclusion here does not constitute endorsement of these authors or their books on my part—I just thought their methods were interesting and I wanted to give credit where credit is due.) Click on the image to go to that author’s website/blog to find out more info about his or her methodology.

Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com

Color-coded Index Cards by KM Smith

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Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com

Index Cards & Sticky Notes by Christi Corbett

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Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com

Excel/Spreadsheet by Ken McConnell

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Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com

Word Table from H. D. Dodson (site no longer exists)

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Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com

Write It Now 4 software by Pamela Hegarty

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Storyboarding to Avoid the Sagging Middle #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.com

Scrivener software by Michael J. Sullivan

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