Just ‘Cause – Writing Projects that Bring Joy

I took a break from my novel last week to write a short story.

‘Cause I wanted to.

There is something so wonderful about writing a just-’cause project. No concerns about word count or genre or marketing. A project you want to write. It charges the batteries.

And more: it gives you a chance to play with structure and voice. It gives you a chance to grow.

Every project you write changes you as a writer, if only a little bit.

If you are stuck with your WIP, take a day to write a just-’cause piece. Something for yourself.

It will teach you, unlock some door you didn’t know was locked before.

And, because you’ve grown a bit as a writer, it can help you tackle your WIP again.

Jutoh VS. Scrivener: Best Writing Program

I’ve been a fan of Scrivener since I started indie publishing. I even posted a piece on formatting (compiling) your book with Scrivener a few years ago (it still works with Scrivener 2).

But when I got a new laptop, I downloaded Scrivener 3…and man, was I disappointed. Much of what I loved about Scrivener for the drafting process is still there, but the compile. What a mess. Seriously.

I’d been hearing indie authors swear by a new (to me) program for a while, and decided to give it a shot:

To a great extent, Jutoh is really similar to Scrivener, especially if you don’t find yourself using all of Scrivener’s fancy cork boards and icons and drafting options. For example, Jutoh includes an area on the left side of the screen with a list of all your chapters (similar to Scrivener’s binder). In this area, it’s possible to drag and drop chapters into a different order (though I’ll confess I find moving chapters in Scrivener to be more fluid / easier). You can use multiple screens in Jutoh during editing (I frequently make use of the split-screen feature in Scrivener). It’s also affordable: $45 for a one-time download (no subscription).

And, maybe most importantly: Jutoh’s compile feature is a breeze (especially compared to Scrivener’s). So easy, in fact, that there’s really not much instruction I can give. Put your chapters together as you’d like them to look in a finished product, then choose your output format, and click “Compile.” Seriously. That’s it.

I absolutely recommend Jutoh for compiling your ebooks (it’s even easier than Scrivener 2). But there’s just something about the drafting process that I find more compatible to Scrivener (though drafting is absolutely possible in Jutoh).

Here’s my current workflow:

Draft in Scrivener – Compile into Word – Import into Jutoh – Complete Global Edits – Compile into OpenDocument – Save as .docx – Import into InDesign – Do Final Edits in Jutoh (for ebooks) and InDesign (for print).

I will say, I’m so, so, so, so, so glad to have found Jutoh. It’s an utter lifesaver in terms of compiling ebooks. Though I’m using both Scrivener and Jutoh right now, if I had to choose only one program, I’d go with Jutoh. I’ll definitely be using nothing else to compile for the foreseeable future!

Why You Should Learn to Juggle Multiple Projects (Novel Writing)

I know it can sound horrible, especially at the beginning of your writing journey. Write multiple books? you’re thinking. I’m trying to get the first one out!

Even if you’re still relatively new to the writing life, it’s not too soon to think about multiple projects. Here’s why:

  1. Sometimes, you just need to let an idea gel. It’s not all the way there. If you find yourself really struggling with one project, there’s absolutely no shame in putting it aside for a time to work on something else. Readers will know if you’re forcing a plot to come together. *BUT: If you’re a new writer, you do run the risk of constantly getting to the middle and chucking that project to start something new, never finishing anything. I’ll post a few tips for getting unstuck soon.
  2. Often, I find my brain needs to take a breather from doing the same kind of writing activity. (Usually, when I’m in the midst of endless amounts of copyediting.) Cutting a working day short a couple of hours (or even taking a day a week) in order to do a few drafting sprints energizes me, lets me come back to copyediting refreshed and more alert and able to catch tiny mistakes.
  3. There’s a ton of downtime in any writing project. When working with a traditional publisher, months can elapse between editorial letters. Even when indie publishing, you’ll find yourself waiting on print proofs or waiting to hear from the editor you’ve hired. In the midst of proofing the re-release of my first MG, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky, I found that the margins were pretty tight. So I got back into the InDesign file and widened them. Redid the cover. Uploaded the files and ordered another proof. As I wait for it to be delivered, I’ll be drafting a new humor piece.

Once I got in the habit of juggling multiple projects, I also found myself more easily transitioning between different writing tasks (drafting, editing, marketing, etc.) And it mixes the days up, keeps the writing life feeling new and exciting.

Staying in Rhythm (Copyediting Your Book)

When I’m copyediting, I get in this zone where I pretty much don’t want anything else to enter my brain. I only want to concentrate on the book at hand. I’m sure I’m not alone–it’s why the term revision cave became a thing. You really do crawl inside your WIP and lose all track of the outside world.

There’s a rhythm to copyediting. Kind of like jumping rope. Get away from the book too long, and suddenly, the rope’s getting tangled in your feet and everything’s falling apart.

But I also realize lately that being able to put my head down and work on only my book-in-progress is a real luxury. We all have families and jobs taking up our time, leaving less day than we’d like for copyediting. During the pandemic, I’ve been doing much more cooking and shopping. I have a young dog now who loooooves to walk. Etc., etc.

A few things you can do (and I’ve been doing as well) to keep the rhythm going in your copyediting job:

  1. Keep your book with you at all times. I always compile my manuscript and put it on one of my e-readers. I keep it and a notebook in my purse. Find yourself with ten minutes or so on your hands? You can probably read a chapter, and make a list of typos or phrasing changes to type when you get back home.
  2. Stop reading other books. This is harder than it sounds. But I usually stop reading other works of fiction during the time I’m engaged in a really close copyediting read of one of my own books. It helps keep the timeline of my own book in my head.
  3. Read like a reader. I’ve discovered that, while copyediting, you’re better off reading your own book like you read other authors’ work. You want to read at a fast enough clip that the timeline stays fresh. But you don’t want to just plow through it, looking for missing commas. You want to ask yourself questions as you go: Is this character acting realistically? Did another character drop out of the action inexplicably? Are threads mistakenly abandoned? Sometimes, you can actually find plot holes while copyediting.

And now, back to my WIP…

Outlining Your Novel: Hitting the Beats

So far, in the Outlining Your Novel series, we’ve explored character arcs, the three act structure, death, and the turning point in the middle. As I said when the series started, outlining is not about creating a chronological order of events. Outlining is about taking a large project and breaking it into small chunks.

Now that we can see the novel as a big picture (the character arc is maybe the biggest part of that), we can begin breaking it down. We do that by hitting important beats, or moments of change, for that main character of ours.

Here, it helps to think of your story as a linear timeline. At the 10% mark, the status quo is interrupted in some way. This is a small disturbance. At the 25% mark, your main character encounters the big problem that makes up the primary conflict of the story. At the 50% mark, we have the change in the main character that we brainstormed during the discussion on the turning point. At 75%, we have the dark moment of the soul–the point in which all seems lost for the main character. At the 90% mark, we have the ultimate climax, where good triumphs over evil, and for the remaining 10%, the loose ends are all tied up.

That’s it!

Well, okay, it’s not it. But you’ve done the hard part. All that’s left is to brainstorm chapters that fill in the spaces in-between the beats, remembering your three-act structure. I find Scrivener to be one of the best writing tools out there for breaking a story down into chapters before actually writing. I also highly recommend Googling and reading about the beats and plot points that should be included in the genre you’re writing. That’s not to say you have to include every single turning point. But it provides a great framework to start with.

So go on–get outlining!

Outlining Your Novel: The Turning Point in the Middle

In my ongoing series on plotting your novel, I’ve addressed character arcs, the three act structure, and death. This week, we’re looking at the center of the book.

That might sound a bit odd. We’ve done plenty of brainstorming, but now, we’re jumping right into the middle? Without addressing the beginning of the book?

As I said before, the idea of outlining is to take a big project (writing a novel) and break it into manageable chunks. That doesn’t mean meticulously plotting from beginning to end. For me, it means gathering all the pieces of the novel and then sliding them into the appropriate place.

So. The turning point.

I find this beat in any novel particularly interesting, and have ever since I encountered James Scott Bell’s WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE.

The idea is that every main character encounters a turning point in the center of the book, after which their attitude and behavior begins to change. They have a mid-point epiphany. Or something life-changing happens. They may realize something about their enemy (perhaps they realize they’ve been chasing or blaming the wrong person). At the mid-point, they change direction.

What I really love about this strategy is that it plays right into creation of the character arc. Writers always use the term “character arc.” Not character line. Character arc. Picture an arc in your mind. Has the same shape as a rainbow, doesn’t it? Right in the center, it has a…

turning point.

(!)

In order for the full character arc to be believable, something drastic needs to happen to your main character in the center of the book. Remember, no one ever changes their mind on a whim. Something has to happen to a person to change their mind. They have to have some sort of experience that changes them.

Here, you want to brainstorm an event that can happen right at the center of your book, one that will change your main character for the better. The change won’t happen in its entirety in this moment–it will continue to take place for the rest of the book. But the trigger for the change to occur happens here.

Go on–get to brainstorming!

Outlining Your Novel: How Death Can Help

Okay, so maybe I took that title just a wee bit far. Then again, as you’ll see, maybe not…

As I’ve been saying, the point of outlining is to break a big task or idea into increasingly smaller chunks. First, we looked at creating a character arc, which gives a writer the big picture of the book. Then, we made the first breaks into smaller chunks by dividing the book into three acts.

Now, we need to begin brainstorming the scenes that will take place in those three acts. Don’t worry about the exact order of events. Just think about which scenes would help make up each one of those three acts.

What makes a good scene?

One way to help come up with dramatic scenes is to think about–yep–death.

There are different kinds of death to help brainstorm:

  1. Death-death. Physical death. Pushing up daisies death. Is your character in physical danger? Is their life on the line? Or are there physical dangers for those the character loves? Physical danger–maybe even being on the run–can help provide for all sorts of dramatic scenes throughout the book.
  2. Professional death. Is your main character’s job on the line? Are they a coach with only one last season during which they could possibly turn a team around? Are they a drunk lawyer with a terrible courtroom record? I also think of professional death as a loss of any kind of title. In my book Playing Hurt, both of my main characters are former small-town athletic superstars. When they are no longer able to play, they lose a big part of themselves. Thinking about or putting your character in a situation in which they could potentially lose their external selves can help add depth–or even eccentricity–to your main character.
  3. Emotional death. Is your main character’s heart on the line? Could they potentially lose someone or something they love? What threatens it?
  4. Psychological death. This one isn’t necessarily negative. This is an internal change. The character changes his view of self or the world. This one goes right back to our original character arc. In fact, if you’re building a book around that character arc, I’d argue this kind of death is actually built in!

You’ll likely find additional or different types of death if you look elsewhere. This is a good place to start. Really, what you want to do is ask yourself what’s at stake? What can your character lose? That can help add drama and drive the plot of your book.

Happy Halloween! (The Psychology of the Horror Reader)

I’m taking a breather from the outlining series because it’s Halloween this weekend–the greatest holiday of all time.

Part of having a successful book is understanding the reader you’re writing for. Arguably, readers gravitate toward certain types of books because they’re seeking a certain type of reading experience. To simplify, readers of all genres will find a “good guy wins” scenario the satisfying one. The main character finds love. Or solves the mystery. The perpetrator finds justice.

What does a horror reader want?

For me, what makes a horror novel satisfying is often that the main character has horrible, often impossible to understand circumstances forced upon them, yet survives. The main character finds an inner strength. Maybe a special power. But in some ways, the best horror novel is a struggle to conquer not just an external force or foe but also internal hangup or fear.

Often, thinking about the psychology of a specific genre’s reader can help guide your own book. It can be helpful in the early stages of outlining, especially when you’re thinking of your own main character’s arc.

Outlining Your Novel: Three Act Structure

Last week, I discussed getting started with novel outlining. Now that you’ve decided on your character arc (and general plotline), we can move on to the next step—actually dividing your work into a few smaller chunks. Three chunks, to be specific.

As I stated last week, the purpose of outlining is to break an enormous project (a novel) into manageable chunks.

Here, we’re breaking the novel into three acts.

You don’t have to use a three-act structure. Some novelists prefer four (or five!) acts. But when first learning the task of outlining, I think the three-act is the simplest. And the simplest description I’ve ever run into is in 2K TO 10K by Rachel Aaron:

ACT I: Put your characters in a tree.

ACT II: Light the tree on fire.

ACT III: Get your characters out of the tree.

That’s it—no worrying about turning points, etc., which you often encounter in descriptions of even the three-act structure.

ACT I: Describe the world of your novel. Introduce us to the characters. Even introduce the catalyst for change. Give us some hint of what’s about to send this world into chaos.

ACT II: Here is the crux of the action of your novel. Where the problems absolutely explode.

ACT III: The resolution to the problems. Get your characters to safety. OR: get your characters to extinguish the fire (this will make your characters heroes, because no one else in the world will face the same danger).

This portion takes more than a sentence. It might not even be something you accomplish in a day. It will take some exploratory writing. Play with this. Try out some passages. Imagine some scenes. But the key word here is play. That’s exactly what it is—play. Try things out. Some you’ll keep, some you’ll discard. And that’s okay—in fact, that’s what you should do. It’s a lot easier to try out ideas while brainstorming (and wind up discarding them) than it is to devote 20k words or so to an idea that you wind up scrapping. That’s the point of outlining, after all—to save you time and work!

Outlining Your Novel: Character Arcs

I’m a big proponent of outlining books before writing them. I think it can cut serious amounts of time out of the drafting process—months, in most cases! Most people agree they’ll try anything to cut time out of drafting, but most who are new to outlining often don’t really know where to start. Or they see in their mind a kind of top-down outline that moves through the book in a chronological order.

In my experience, true outlining has very little to do with chronological order. In fact, that’s something I do at the very end of the process. Actually, outlining (at least, the way I outline a project) is about whittling. Taking a big idea and breaking it down in to increasingly smaller chunks.

That’s why I’m starting a series here on outlining.

This week, I’m focusing on the very first step in outlining:

The character arc.

This is arguably the most important part of any book. Even action-driven books.

What is a character arc?

It’s the internal journey your main character goes on in your book. This main character will not be the same person at the end of the book that they are in the beginning. They’ve had a revelation (or several). They’ve seen the world in a new way. They see their role in the world in a new way.

The physical journey they go on—which is the actual plot of the book—facilitates this change. It allows the character arc to take place.

Maybe one of the best examples of a journey that directly facilitates a change occurs in Dickens’s Christmas Carol—Scrooge sees the error of his miserly ways because of his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. He’s a different man as the book closes.

But the change occurs because of his physical journey. Nobody changes their mind sitting on the couch and binge-watching Netflix. They change because they have an adventure out in the world.

*Your main character will undergo a fairly radical internal change. This change will be the direct result of the physical journey they go on, which will be the plot of your book.

The first step of outlining, then, is deciding who your main character is. And how they will change. And how that change will take place—what will happen that will allow that change will take place. Don’t worry about order of events. Don’t worry about the finer points of plot. Put this part together in a single sentence. Use Scrooge as an example:

Scrooge sees the error of his miserly ways because of his encounters with he ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

That’s it. One sentence. That’s all this step requires.

But it’s also one of the most important steps. In many respects, this is will form the basis or your hook or pitch when you prepare to submit the book.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Don’t worry about hooks or pitches right now. Just write your sentence.