Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Return on Investment

Last year, I spend a lot of time conquering learning curves on social media. If social media were a musical instrument, I’d have progressed beyond playing scales, but no way am I ready to play in Carnegie Hall.

Then, media creep began to set in, as in just one more site, one more e-mail check, one more clicked link to the point I knew it was getting out of hand.

What was valuable? What was fun, but maybe, not the best use of my time?

I started to answer that question by dividing sites I visited into business-related or not business-related. Sites don’t have to be 100% one or the other. For some, I guessed at a percentage, for example one site was 40% business/60% not business. Then I did a couple of practice runs. If I went straight through my business-related sites, how long did that take? If I went straight through my non-business sites, how long does that take? For the mixed sites, I looked at only business messages on the business run and only the non-business on that second run.

I came up with a stunning figure that only 10% of my on-line time (how long I spent visiting sites) and effort (how much I interacted through likes, comments, pluses, etc.) was spent on business; 90% was fun, but had little or no relationship to helping me be a more successful writer.

Let’s be clear here. I’m not saying that every on-line interaction has to be all business. However, fun, especially when it’s 90% of online time, as it is in my case, runs headlong into an immovable object: 168 hours in a week. That’s all the time there is and all the time there will be. (Come Sunday we’ll be one hour short until autumn. Sigh.)

Enter Return on Investment (ROI), which is a comparison between time and effort spent versus reward.

There is a myth that every contact is valuable because it might eventually lead to a new business opportunity. As business people, how long can we wait for a return? If we’re cultivating a potential new publisher who we hope will eventually republish our entire back list, the down-the-road reward justifies this being a high ROI. On the other hand, the individual customer who might or might not buy one book, is a low ROI candidate.

High Returns

  • A high ROI doesn’t necessarily mean an easy site to visit. Material may be difficult, or take a long time to read and process, but it also returns high rewards as well.
  • High ROIs pay off quickly, within days or weeks.
  • The best high ROI is easiest to measure. We sell something. We get money. We open up new markets.
  • Other high ROIs include problem solving, skills development, and mastering our craft.
  • High ROIs don’t have to be about dollars and cents. We make or sustain friendships that are important to us. Forget networking, which is impersonal. Real networking means sustaining personal connections on a one-to-one level.
  • High ROIs are also about inspiration. If we come away from a site with more confidence or joy, that works.

Moderate Returns

  • A moderate ROI means balancing in the middle: a little challenging to use, but worth the effort because of the return.
  • I rate a lot of things as moderate ROIs when they are coming or going. Perhaps we’re auditioning a new site that we just discovered. Or our needs have changed, but a site we’ve followed for years hasn’t changed along with us. Or vice versa. This happened to me recently. An on-line newsletter to which I subscribe changed focus. I’m finding much less content that’s useful. I’ve downgraded that site from high to medium ROI, and I suspect I’ll unsubscribe sometime in the next few months.
  • Is using this resource hard, but enjoyable and I’m willing to put the time in for a lower, but still pleasing reward?

Low Returns

  • A low ROI means, at the end of the day, how much further ahead was I because I spent two hours looking at knitting patterns, or cat videos, or stupid joke sites? And yes, there are days when we need 2 hours of patterns, videos, or jokes. Hopefully, this isn’t every day.
  • Perhaps we’re on a learning curve and find this site hard to use now, but we have great hopes for a higher return in the near future.

One way to look at our time on-line?

  • Pick two average weeks to do this. Weeks where we’re not on deadline, we don’t have an unusual number of commitments, etc.
  • List all the social media we use.
  • Track, daily how much time we spend on each social media site and what we did there.
  • Rate each activity as a high, moderate, or low ROI.
  • One day’s tracking might look something like this. Do a separate sheet for each day.
How I spent today online

How I spent today online

It was a slow e-mail day. One of the ways I’ve streamlined my e-mail time is by having separate business and personal folders into which I shift mail from my Inbox. And I have strong filters to trap junk mail. Of the 2.5 hours I spent on line, most of it gave me a high return. I’m thinking I really have to make some decisions about one of my Facebook groups.

At the end of two weeks look at all the sheets. Have any patterns emerged that give us a clue of how we might want to change our Internet time?

The thing I found most helpful was that I now separate my business time on-line and my fun time. I run through my list of business-related sites and messages first. I always visit those sites. The fun sites, sometimes I get to them, sometimes they have to wait a few days.

That’s the beauty of the Internet. We can always come back to it tomorrow.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Drama Queens

It’s a little unsettled around here right now. An elderly relative has put off longer than he should have writing things like a Power of Attorney and Advanced Directive. We’re not sure how the current crisis is going to play out, but we don’t think it’s going to be fun.

We are going to lose the beautiful old trees in our commons because the Fire Department says they are too close to the buildings, and would block access in case of fire. If our landlord had paid attention to regulations in the first place, and given those trees periodic care, like proper pruning, this wouldn’t be happening.

I’ll write the first chapter of my next mystery some time this week. Starting a new book is always an emotionally fraught time, and I’ve got more than my usual mad on at editors and publishers in general. Why the heck is book published so complicated? Why can’t I just write and forget all that other publishing and marketing nonsense?

My relative, the Fire Inspector, my landlord, and the publishing world in general need a good piece of my mind.  I’ve laid awake the past few nights preparing a number of vitriolic speeches I’ll never deliver.

I was always a Drama Queen, even before I knew what that kind of over the top behaviour was called. It would be more accurate to say I was a closet Drama Queen. A young woman growing up in the South was expected to meet certain public standards. Privately, I gave my emotions full vent. I had scathing conversations that didn’t do anyone one bit of good because the people I had them with weren’t in the room with me. Sometimes, they weren’t even in the same state.

When I took my first playwriting class, it came to me that these anger-logues in my head sounded identical to drama, tension and angst packed scenes that we were being encouraged to write for the stage. Could it be that I would be better off writing out my frustrations than keeping them in my head?

As it turned out, that was exactly the case. Out was far better than in.

Try this: the next time we’re hopping mad or sad or feeling any strong negative emotions, write down what we’d love to say to the other person.  No holes barred. Just let it rip. Also, write what we think they would say or do in response. We can give those voices character names, if we want. Most times I call them simply A and B. A says this, and then B says that, and so on.

Here’s what I’ve discovered happens

  • I’m shocked at how downright mean and hurtful I’m capable of being to another person.
  • Sometimes the other person, even if he or she is only in my head, says or does something that surprises me.
  • I have a chance to polish those zingers, the lines I usually wish later that I could have thought of at the time.
  • I also have a chance to admit that I don’t want to say those mean and hurtful things, and discover alternate lines that I’d be willing to say for real.
  • This is a wonderful energy drain. I get to stop having repeated, unproductive conversations in my head, when I should be drifting off to sleep.

If we save what we’ve written, we might be able to use this conversation in a future story.

Let’s make ourselves a promise to keep drama on the page, where it belongs, not in our lives.

Oh, yeah. Happy Mardi Gras. Laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll. Eat pancakes. Wear beads. Make a mask. Make gumbo. We’re doing all of those things at our house today.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — being an ordinary writer is wonderful

I think of myself as an ordinary writer. I’m not brilliant, especially talented, or have extraordinary gifts. However, I have spent a long time learning to construct meaningful sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. Writers like to hang out with other writers. Because of that, we forget what a truly remarkable life even ordinary writers have.

We create imaginary worlds, starting with nothing more than an overheard conversation, an idea that won’t let us go, or an image that stops us in our tracks.

We focus on that imaginary world long enough to write 450,000 words, hoping that 90,000 of them will be keepers, and trusting that those keeper words will gel into a novel.

We are incredible pack rats, filing away a tattoo we saw on the subway, the taste of Aunt Sophie’s lemon pie, the way steam rises from downtown buildings when the temperature drops to forty below, and an article on the neurological basis of fear. One day, when we’re mildly distracted, walking to work or doing the dishes, we suddenly know that our next book is about a terrified, tattooed, homeless man, named Raoul Cardinal, huddled against a downtown building, trying to sell lemon pies from a cart, and knowing he has to get out of Winnipeg today, or he’s going to die.

Painters don’t display a portrait with only the base coat in place. Sculptures don’t put a partially carved block of wood out for everyone to see. Dancers don’t bring a couple of minutes of a work being choreographed to the stage, and ask the audience what movements should come next. But, writers trust other writers, and even non-writers with our unfinished work. Other writers, knowing what a great gift this is, try their best to give helpful, not hurtful, suggestions.

We know this is a tough business, yet we still open our hearts to other writers, particularly new writers. Many of us believe that when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed.

All of this seems like no big deal to us. It’s the way writers live. Take my word for it, it is a big deal. We should celebrate being ordinary more often.

With that in mind, I’m crowd-sourcing a problem. I working with a new character named Lollie Whitsunday. She was born and raised in England, but now lives in Canada. Lollie is a nickname that evolved in childhood before she could pronounce her first name correctly. The problem is, I can’t think of a first name that would devolve into Lollie.

The name of everyone who suggests a name will be put into a hat. I’ll and draw one name, and send that person a copy of Some Welcome Home, the first book in my mystery series.

Ideas are cheap, though not, of course, the ideas about Lollie’s first name. What ideas really need is a Value Added Tax. Hope to see you next Tuesday, February 10th, for more about taxing ideas.

Marathon Writer, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – Build a Bookcase — 1 of 12

Writers must read.

We read writers who are in our market niche, because these are often the kind of books we most enjoy. And, it pays to know what the competition is up to.

We read writers who, because of the topic or complexity of writing, write far outside our comfort zone because we need at least a nodding acquaintance with the full writing spectrum.

A word of caution here.

The captain of the Titanic didn’t need to see the entire iceberg to know he had a problem. ~Denise Tiller, mysery writer

If a book deals with too much violence or graphic subjects, don’t feel compelled to read the entire thing. Start at the beginning and read until the first disturbing detail is reached. Once, for me, that was the third sentence. I knew, at that point, that continuing to read would do me more harm than good.

We read great writers because it’s a pleasure to see how well the craft can be done, and we read lousy writers because it’s also a good idea both to see how badly the craft it is done, and to console ourself that we write lots, lots better than that.

One thing I want to do this year is build an essential bookshelf of books and other references that mean a lot to writers. The blog on the last Tuesday of every month will be Build a Bookcase.

This month, let’s start with what was the first book that got us seriously interested in writing? And why?

Mine was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, published in 1986.

By the time I read Writing Down the Bones, I’d been hobby writing for twenty-four years. I’d churned out short stories, some rather regrettable fan fic, and at least two complete novels (neither published to this day, thank goodness). I’d kept a journal for eight years. I’d even gotten a degree in English/Creative Writing. And I was pretty sure that I’d nailed this writing thing.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. For me, this book cracked open the difference between writing and living a writing life. I realized I had to stop writing behind closed doors, and start writing in cafes and other public places. I had to find some writing partners. I had to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. I had to learn to allow flow to happen, back and forth, between writing and living. And, a whole bunch of other things that I’m still learning and polishing today.

This is one of three books that I still keep close at hand, in a little wooden box, less than a foot away from my keyboard, just in case I need a quick refresher.

What book got you started on seriously writing?

Going back to the Marathon Writer — Spiral Effect that I started the year with four weeks ago, here’s a followup on why sitting and writing is a bad idea. In the past week, the longevity columnist on CBC Calgary Drive Home – why sitting is bad for us gave the best summary I’ve heard so far about why sitting is so bad for us. It’s 7 minutes, 20 seconds long.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – To Do or Not To Do?

To-do List Myth

We put items on a list in order to get them done.

To-Do List Reality

The more things on a list, the more things that are never completed. The longer the list, the greater the guilt, and guilt is a strong de-motivator.

We say we put things on our to-do list so we can get them done, but in reality, we’re know one of three outcomes is likely

  • We get the item done.
  • So much time passes that the item becomes irrelevant and we cross it off the list.
  • The item remains on our list for a long time, generating guilt and convincing us we are ineffective, bad people

Feeds and Seeds

To-do lists are made up of feeds and seeds. These terms were coined by Douglas Rushkoff, in Present shock : when everything happens now. Feeds aren’t a problem; seeds are. It’s important to recognize the difference.

Feeds are temporary

  • The United Fund Campaign closes at 3:00 PM on Friday. If we’ve already made a donation or don’t plan to, we basically don’t care.
  • Feeds don’t stack. By 4:00 PM on Friday, that message is off our to-do list.

Seeds stack

  • Seeds are spring-loaded and often generated by other people.
  • They send us e-mails, assign us tasks, or have expectations for our help and cooperation. Each time we get a seed message, we open a loop on our to-do list. That loop remains open until we’ve done the required task.
  • Every unanswered question and every task we haven’t yet completed stays in the most active part of our brain, waiting for an answer.  We open more loops in one hour than our grandparents opened in several weeks.
  • Seeds stack. Right now I’m carrying about 50 seeds on my to-do list, and I suspect I’m at the low end of the scale. Many people have over 200 loops open; some have over 500.

Unwind the Spring-Loaded Seeds

The biggest thing we need to do with seeds is unwind the spring-loading someone else applied and re-load it so it works for us. Opening an e-mail isn’t a commitment to do something; it’s a chance to assess what is being asked of us. Instead of grabbing a pen and adding Read article Carmine sent me for Tuesday’s meeting, to my to-do list, what I really need to do is an assessment.

  • The article is twenty-seven pages long.
  • Carmen has no idea what my workload is like between now and Tuesday. Essentially, she’s put the ball in my court and I am conditioned to value her spring-loading over my need to control my own time.
  • If I give this situation any thought at all, I console myself that the meeting is next Tuesday, and not thirty minutes from now.

What are my choices?

  • Look at my calendar and see if I have a block of time to read a twenty-seven page article.
  • Ask Carmen exactly how this article relates to Tuesday’s meeting. If she says it will be a large part of the afternoon’s discussion, then I’m going to have to find time to read it; but if she says that she’s planning to use the 3 principles in the sidebar on page 19 as a discussion guide, then I know I can get by with a lot less reading.
  • Negotiate a mutually-agreed spring-reloading with Carmen. This includes letting go of some tasks.

Seeds Take Time

The next biggest thing we can do for ourselves is remember that each seed, each loop, each to-do item, whatever we want to call them, is a time commitment. Look up Alice’s new Zip code takes less than 5 minutes. Repaint the bathroom takes an entire weekend, maybe longer.

It may help to add a time element to an entry. Look up Alice’s new Zip code (5 minutes). If we see we have several less than 5 minute items, we can group them together and get them done all at once. Or if we have that bathroom to paint, maybe we need to pick the weekend we plan to do it.

Also, it helps to break down big jobs, like the bathroom, into the first small step. Instead of reminding ourselves to Repaint the bathroom, how about reminding ourselves to Measure bathroom walls, so we’ll know how much paint to buy?

Personalize our Lists

The third thing we can do is make our to-do lists fit our personality. Some people go gaga over a slick black leather notebook, pristine white paper, and a premium fountain pen. Other people like colors, doodling, and silly messages to ourselves. If you’d like to see some cool things people are doing with their to-do lists, I recommend checking out the Google + community, The Bullet Journal.

My to-do list? Electronic all the way. iCal with 20 color-coded categories and as many automatic repeating reminders as I can build in. For my permanent records, a PDF copy of the previous month saved at the beginning of the next month.

One of the things I’d like us to do this year is build a bookshelf of books we’ve found helpful getting us into writing and keeping us there. I’m devoting the last Tuesday of each month to building that bookshelf. Next Tuesday, January 27, I’m focusing on the first book. I’ll tell  you which book got me into serious writing, and why. See you then.

Editing, My point of view, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Fifth (and Final) Edit

This is it. We’re so close to finishing the  novel we can taste it. Remember that books are never finished, they are only abandoned at interesting places, and it’s time we abandon this one.

The fifth edit has only one task and one question

  • The Task: have a commercial printer print the updated copy and bind it. Sit down and read for enjoyment, as if this was a book we’d bought, been given, or checked out of the library.
  • The Question: Was this a good read?

The hardest thing at this point is to not tinker. Yes, tidy up any glaring errors, but resist the urge to tinker. We are finished with this book until we get it out there, find it a home, and talk to our new editor.

Do we have a publisher waiting for this manuscript?

  • If we do, contact the publisher. Are there any changes since the most recent guidelines were distributed? Do our final format changes to match the publisher’s requirements.
  • If we don’t have a publisher yet, find a recent standard formatting guide and stick to it. On the Style Sheet indicate which formatting guide was used as a reference.

Final Formatting

  • Make sure that the Style Sheet is complete and correct.
  • Make sure we have all needed permissions in writing.
  • Go over all supplemental material like dedication, introduction, acknowledgment, and synopsis one more time. Make sure our submission package is complete.
  • Format all material consistent with the publishers requirements or any other guide we are using.
  • Do a final grammar check. Pay attention to punctuation marks, especially commas, semi-colons and quotation marks. Here’s Nick Stockton’s recent WIRED blog that explains why our brain misses errors in material we’ve already looked at over and over and over. Unfortunately, it only tells us why it happens, not what to do about it. One step at a time.
  • Do a final spelling check.
  • Do a final word count.
  • Have a final hard copy commercially printed, single-side only for our archives
  • Copy the final, complete, and formatted draft to our back-up discs. Again make 3 discs, one to keep, one to have someone locally keep, and one to have someone who lives at least 500 miles way keep.


  • Write a cover letter.
  • Go looking for a publisher.

Archive all material

  • Go through all electronic and print material. Decide what can be deleted and what should be archived.
  • Cull unnecessary archival material.
  • If this is a series, determine what needs to be brought forward into the files for the next book.

This is a good place to take a vacation.

And, that’s what I’m doing. This concludes my 2014 series on Writing a Novel. Thanks for hanging in for the entire year. Next week, Tuesday, December 30, I’m taking a break. See you back for 2015 on Tuesday, January 6th for the start of a new topic. Still working on what that topic will be.

Happy New Year everyone.

Editing, My point of view, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – First Editing Pass – Backup & Format

This week I begin a five-part blog on editing with likely the dullest things, backups and formatting. Best to get the dull things out of the way first.


Whether we’ve been doing backups or not on a regular basis; whether we’ve stored material in the cloud, thumb drives, DVDs, or other options, the gap between finishing content and beginning editing is the absolutely essential backup point.

Editing can muck up or even irretrievably erase everything we’ve worked on so far. We need a copy we can easily get our hands on; a copy that we can use when the computer has eaten everything, including our ability to read the copy we can easily get our hands on; and a worst-case copy that we can use when we had to flee for our lives from some natural or man-made disaster. One of the top three reasons small businesses fail is that they don’t have duplicate business records in multiple, widely scattered locations.

Collect everything — research, notes, every saved version, the final working version — everything in one folder.

  • Use as many DVDs as needed to make 3 complete copies.
  • Copy #1 is our at-home backup copy. Put it in a place we can find it. This is for when the computer eats our files.
  • Copy #2 is our local backup copy. Give it to a family member or friend who lives nearby.
  • Copy #3 is our flee-for-our-life copy. Give it to a family member or friend who lives at least 500 miles away.

Now that our files are in one place anyway, sort them into three categories: absolutely need for editing, likely need for editing; and not likely to need for editing.

  • Absolutely need for editing: a complete copy of the last rewrite.
  • Likely need for editing: some notes and background information and our style sheet and glossary. If we’ve put off starting a style sheet and glossary because we really don’t need those silly things, start them now. Yes, we’ve reached the point that we absolutely need them. To brush up on what a style sheet and glossary are, go here.
  • Not likely needed for editing: everything else.
  • It helps to make three folders and divide material into those folders. Why have a lot of things we aren’t going to look at get in the way when editing?

There are two ways to edit: by chapters or some other divisions of the author’s choosing, or the entire document in one file. Some writing assist programs, like Scrivener, make it possible to edit in smaller units, and then combine the edited work into one document. Yes, we can do this in Word, but we run the very real risk of leaving out one or more chapters when compiling and submitting the completed work. This is personal experience speaking, and it was hugely embarrassing.

My preference is to edit chapter by chapter. I simply can’t find things in a 300+ page manuscript. I also live in fear of losing everything all at once. Other people are quite comfortable working in the entire manuscript. Go for it. Whatever we choose, we need to be consistent throughout the editing process.


Before twirly ball Selectric typewriters came along in the summer of 1961, there was one font: courier. Words could be in all caps, all lowercase or a mixture; they could be underlined, or not. Line spacing could be set for a limited number of options, but unless the setting was changed manually, it was the same for each line in a document. Because of the machine’s limitations, formatting rules were universal and sacrosanct.

If we only get one thing out of this blog, make it this. The computer is not a typewriter.

Formatting Rule #1

If we are writing for a particular publisher, we must use the formatting that publisher wants. Go to their website and look for formatting guidelines. If there are none, or they seem to have been posted more than 6 months ago, send e-mail to the publisher and ask for a copy of their current guidelines.

Formatting Rule #2

In all likelihood, we have no idea who our publisher will be. We need to write a list of the rules we plan to use, or pick someone else’s list and stick to those. Yes, our formatting rules need to be written because we won’t remember on page 68 or 249 what we did on page 12. Here’s a link to the format I use, and why I use it.  Feel free to use it if it meets your needs. If it doesn’t meet your needs, use it as an outline to develop your own style.

Formatting Rule #3

What drives me absolutely crazy critiquing or editing other writers is that they use their word processing program for tons of other stuff. Either they have never set up personal styles or they have dozens of different styles that they’ve used for other fiction and non-fiction documents. As a rule, the first thing I do when editing is spend a half a day deleting unnecessary styles and setting up clean styles for their document.

Do ourselves and our editors a favor and set up a limited number of simple styles. Delete everything else we can from the styles palette. And yes, the less than helpful people who put word processing software together, won’t let us delete everything. They’ve done us a favor by protecting a whole raft of useless formats from deletion.

These are the essential styles needed for a work of fiction

  • Normal – for 99.9% of the words in the novel.
  • First paragraph normal – some publishers require that the first paragraph in a chapter not be indented, while the rest of the chapters are indented.
  • Chapter Title – used for the first line in each chapter.
  • Quote – for material that the characters are reading, such as notes, newspaper articles, etc. All quotes should be double spaced, just like text.
  • Heading – for headers
  • Footer – for footers

That’s it, the only styles needed.

To those of you in the States, Happy Thanksgiving.

Next week, Tuesday, December 2, I’ll be doing Editing – Second Pass – The General Clean-Up. Remember all those things we were going to do later. Later has arrived.

My point of view, second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Dawdle and Plant Seeds

We’re almost done with the second draft. We’ve looked at how this draft is the place to strengthen our voice, build emotional muscle, knead a story into shape, and let go of things we may love, but which aren’t working. The final thing to do before finishing this draft is to dawdle and plant seeds.

Dawdle? Are you kidding? I’ve been working on this book absolutely forever. I want it done. Now! No way am I dawdling at this point.

Think again.

In the first draft, the focus was on two things

  • Goal, motivation, and disaster: Who wants what? Why do they want it? What’s preventing them from getting what they want, or if they do get it, how is it different than they thought it would be? This is the builder’s equivalent of preparing the lot, digging a basement, pouring concrete, framing, and roofing a house. It’s where the heavy lifting gets done.
  • Satisfying the demands of the genre. For mysteries, this means clues, red herrings, detective work, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Following the building analogy, this is all of those choices to be made. Carpet or hardwood floors? Paint, wallpaper, or paneling? Appliances? Faucets and taps? Lighting?

The second draft is where interior decorating happens

  • Enhance every chapter’s first and last lines.
  • Where can the story’s volume be adjusted up or down? When should the story go over the top? When should the story be a seductive whisper?
  • Sprinkle flash symbols through the book. A little hazy on flash symbols? Check here.
  • Mix and match characters, narrative lines, settings. Elements that serve more than one purpose or function enrich the story’s density. The rest of this list was taken from Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery. I strongly recommend this book to all mystery writers.

Deepen the context

  • Appeal to the senses
  • Establish a sense of place
  • Evoke mood
  • Provide texture
  • Sketch a description

Humanize the characters

  • Change sexual tension
  • Establish or betray trust between characters
  • Ground or anchor characters (needs to be done periodically, not just once)
  • Increase a character’s insight
  • Increase what is known about a character

Offer a perspective or counter perspective

  • Juice up the plot
  • Change pacing, emotion, or suspense
  • Raise the stakes
  • Use violence as dialog

Embellish with

  • Buried agendas or secrets
  • Foreshadowing
  • Comic relief
  • Irony
  • Surprise!

And, finally, there’s the landscaping: plant seeds for future books. This is especially important if the book is part of a series. We may know what seeds we’re planting, or we may have no idea at all. Knowing isn’t important. The idea is to plant possibilities than can be explored in subsequent books. Seeds may be as simple as a single line of dialog or a short description.

  • “I had a brother, but he died.”
  • Marcy had seen enough of Chicago, thank you very much. As far as she knew, the warrant for her was still outstanding.

That’s the second draft. When it’s done, take a break.

Put the manuscript away for at least a couple of weeks. Like making bread or aging fine wine, the material needs a chance to settle down before we begin the final content revision.

And that’s just what we’re going to do. Next week, November 11, will be a Remembrance Day blog. We’ll resume our writing the novel journey on Tuesday, November 18, with Final Content Revision. See you then.

second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Kneading the Details

Here we are plowing through our second drafts. We’re working on strengthening our voice and building emotional muscle throughout the story. What are we going to do about those ragged lumps?

Ragged lumps

Chances are that we wrote a lot of our first draft without close attention to detail. We liked a character’s name or made up a business name, and used it. Perhaps we have a character with an easily misspelled name and have a sprinkling of Johnsons and Johnsens and Jonsons, all referring to the same character. We set a scene in whatever place occurred to us: a coffee shop, an office, a service station and so on. Likely, we also have notes to ourselves to check facts [Can penthouses still be rented rent on the Chicago Loop or are they now all condos?]

The second draft is where we knead these ragged details into something smooth and shiny, just as bread dough is kneaded.


  • Set up a table with first and last name columns. List each character, with their name correctly spelled. How many characters have first names beginning with the same letter? With the same last letter? If there are two characters with the same name — first, last, or both — is that an accident or an intentional choice, made because it is intended to increase confusion. If needed, rename characters, spreading their names throughout the alphabet so there aren’t, say, five characters whose last names begin with L.
  • Have we inadvertently created a series of names? I read a story recently in which the three main characters were named Sears, Macy, and Bloomingdale. It was very distracting.
  • Do a quick Internet search for each character’s name. Quick means to look at the first 1 to 2 pages of results. What we’re looking for is to make sure we haven’t inadvertently used the name of a sports star, performer, politician, CEO of a major company, etc. That my protagonist has the same name as a woman running a flower shop in Cincinnati won’t stop me from using that name. However, I’d seriously consider changing a character’s name if it turned out he is a well-known quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals or a U. S. Senator from Ohio.
  • Do the same kind of quick search for any businesses for which we created a name. Turns out that there are at least six Longhorn Construction Companies, in four different states. This is not a really good name for my fictional company, which is about to unleash an ecological nightmare.


Rather than using random locations, if we set scenes in places that reinforce our theme, we have a subtle and powerful way of focusing readers’ attention. Let’s imagine that our story is about greed. Where would we find greedy people? Where would we find the opposite, altruistic people or needy people? Instead of the random coffee shop, office, and service station, let’s relocate the scenes to a downtown mission kitchen, a bank president’s office, and a Mercedes-Benz dealership. The locations are essentially the same — an eatery, an office, a car place — but by tweaking them slightly we add texture to the story.

It’s also a good idea, if we can, to reuse locations, having each visit serve a different purpose and a different outcome. Have our protagonist visit that bank president’s office three times. The first time he’s in awe of how palatial it is, and he gets asked to leave. The second time, he comes with more clout, maybe a warrant, and realizes it’s just an office with great carpet. The third time, the previous bank president is no longer there and his successor is having it redecorated. It’s going to be even more palatial, but now the protagonist can distance himself from the greed represented by the decor and walk away.

Killer research

The second draft is the place to tie up all of those niggling research questions because when we move into the third draft, we will be spending our time dealing with nitty-gritty editing details. It pays to have the story as right as possible by the end of the second draft.

Yes, it is possible to rent a penthouse in the Chicago Loop. My character is paying $6,500 a month in rent for one. Hmm, wonder where he’s getting all that money?

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 28th, for Second Draft — Making Hard Choices. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but some of our favorite parts are likely on their way out.

second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Build Emotional Muscle

If real estate is location, location, location, a novel’s second draft is emotion, emotion, emotion. Many writers, myself included, write the first draft focused on what comes next. The second draft is where we need to spend more time on why does what come next matter?

My heroine is a young woman, Marcie, whose best friend, Lorraine, recently died from a poisonous spider bite while on a Caribbean vacation. The island’s police department’s opinion is that her death was a tragic and unavoidable accident.  Neither Lorraine’s mother nor Marcie believe that. Marcie has been interviewing Lorraine’s co-workers who were on vacation with her, and she’s sure Lorraine’s death had something to do with a research project Lorraine’s company is doing.

A sub-plot is Marcie ditching her current boyfriend, who’s a jerk, and getting involved with a police constable she meets in the course of her investigation.


I’m working on the second draft of the scene where she breaks up with the boyfriend. Here’s how it played out in the first draft:

Marcie works at a small manufacturing company in an industrial area. She has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone, so she calls a couple of friends who live close to where she works, but neither of them can come and help her. She calls her boy friend, whose watching a hockey game, and can’t be bothered. This makes Marcie so mad that she throws caution to the wind and leaves.

The business has an alarm system, with a time lock and an over-ride code, so people working late can get out, but once the door has closed, they can’t get back in again. When Marcie gets to her car she discovers she has a flat tire. She has to walk all the way home. By the time she gets there, she’s so angry at her boyfriend that they have a fight and break up, thus paving the way for her to meet the constable a couple of chapters later.


How did I do in the first draft?

  • Does this scene connect in any way to my main plot, solving Lorraine’s murder? Not really.
  • Are there high stakes here? Breaking up with her boyfriend is important to her, but will the reader really care?
  • Is Marcie behaving consistently? No. She’s afraid to walk across a parking lot alone, but willing to walk several miles to get home?
  • Is Marcie showing that she’s a tough, smart heroine? Not really. She has a cell phone. Why doesn’t she call a cab? Or AAA or a garage to come and fix her tire? Come to think of it, if she’s that worried, why does she leave the building in the first place? Spending the night on the receptionist’s couch might not be comfortable, but at least it would be safe.
  • How’s the emotional quotient? Not terrific. She gets mad and does something stupid. Then she gets mad and does something likely stupid. Not much range there.
  • Is there anything else about this scene I don’t like? Phone conversations are notorious tension killers and I have three of them – two with friends and one with the boyfriend.
  • Is there anything about this scene I like? I do like the one-way alarm, that she can get out of the building, but not back in. That forces her to take action.

Fixes for the second draft

  • Find a way to relate this to the main plot.
  • Raise the stakes.
  • Expect Marcie to behave consistently, and act like a tough, smart heroine.
  • Raise the emotional quotient: give her more an emotional range, and varied responses.
  • Make the phone calls much less a part of the scene or delete them all together.
  • Keep the one-way alarm.

Second draft rewrite

Marcie has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone. She considers spending the night on the receptionist’s couch, but she’s emotionally drained after spending all day talking about Lorraine, and she wants the comfort of sleeping in her own bed. It’s a wide open parking lot and her car is parked under a light. She could see if anyone approached her. She calls 911, explains the situation to the dispatcher, and asks her to stay on the line until she’s safely in her car. The dispatcher isn’t keen to do this, but Marcie stands up for what she needs, and the dispatcher agrees.

When Marcie gets to her car, she’s horrified to discover that her car is full of snakes. She screams.

The police dispatcher gets a lot more interested in what’s happening. She’s sending a patrol car and advises Marcie to go back inside the building, which she can’t do because of the one-way alarm. She sees an unmarked car turning into the gate at the far end of the parking lot. It has a flashing red light on it’s dashboard. Relieved, Marcie commends the dispatcher for getting a car to her so quickly.

The dispatcher says she hasn’t yet dispatched a car and, in any case, it would be a patrol car, not an unmarked.

Marcie runs for her life. The car speeds up and aims straight for her. She manages to hide and hears a siren approaching. The person in the unmarked car pulls a U-turn in the parking lot, and crashes through a wooden barrier to get away. The patrol car tries to follow, but the car gets away. The patrol car returns.

The dispatcher convinces Marcie that this is the officer she dispatched, so Marcie comes out of her hiding place. The officer, who’s going to be the new boyfriend, is very kind to her. Together they go back to look at her car. Not only is it full of snakes, but there’s a note taped to the steering wheel. “There are a lot more where these came from. Stop asking questions.”

Now that has emotional muscle.

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 21, for our next instalment about second drafts — how to knead a story like a baker kneads bread. It’s vital to make raggedy bits come together.