The fine art of procrastination by The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author

For writers, it’s also the bane of deadlines and the arch-villain of productivity.

For me, the vast majority of procrastination comes courtesy of the Internet.  Writing is a solitary job.  A chance—any chance—to socialize with like-minded people isn’t just taken, it’s eagerly seized with both hands.  Twitter is my kryptonite.  That’s how I get my book industry news and keep up with writer /agent/editor friends.  It’s like an office water cooler for writers.  We may write for a living, but we do like to cluster together and talk shop, better still if we can do it while imbibing adult beverages.  (If you’re at a conference or convention and wonder where all the writers are, just find the hotel bar.)

I don’t remember how I procrastinated before the Internet came along, but I’m sure I found something to lure me away from the humongous manual typewriter I wrote my first two “practice novels” on.  Procrastinationandwriting go hand in hand.  Nowadays most writers do their work on computers, and most of those computers are connected to the Internet.  Some writers can claim research as an excuse. I can’t. I’m a fantasy writer; what I write, I make up. I don’t need the Internet for that. I’m incredibly productive at my family’s mountain cabin — no Internet, no TV, three radio stations.  I get an amazing amount of work done. Hmm, I wonder why?

It’s not just the computer’s fault. Actually, it’s completely my fault; the computer is just an innocent bystander, a tool of procrastination.  When I’m working on a particularly tough section of a book, I also have what has to be the cleanest house in the neighborhood.  I get an inexplicable need to do five loads of laundry, dust the bookcases, clean the cat box (okay, that’s a real need), empty the dishwasher, and ooh, looky, there’s three bananas left.  Must. Bake. Banana bread.

I like to tell myself that I’m merely allowing time for a particularly juicy plot point to stew, or that I’m multitasking, or that I’m “taking a writing break.”  Yeah.  Right. What I’m doing is avoiding the book.  Writing is hard work.  Contrary to what non-writers probably think, words just don’t fall out of our heads onto the page.  Aside from being messy, it just doesn’t happen that way.  For me there’s the pressure (and fear of failure) to get the vividness of the scene running like a movie in my head onto the page.  A book that’s not finished is a book that doesn’t suck.  But when you’re under contract and on deadline, not finishing is not an option.

So, what’s the solution to procrastination?  Having someone yell “sit down!” every time I start to stand up would work (well, might work).  Saying “no” to procrastination takes the same discipline and dedication that drove me to not give up during those years of submitting books and getting rejected.

 

 

Writer’s insomnia – or the 3:30 a.m. muse wake-up call by The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author

3:30 a.m.: I’m awake, wide awake. The beginning of the next scene is coming to me. Actually it’s already here, fully formed. I can see it like a movie in my head complete with dialogue. Just like in real conversation, my characters don’t repeat themselves, and the I know from past experience that the film won’t run for long, so it’s up to me to catch it all while it happens.  If I don’t, it’s gone. Dang it.

Not because I’ve got a fully formed scene (that’s great), but because it’s 3:30 in the a.m. and I know I won’t be able to go back to sleep after I write that scene down. Once my writing brain is firing on all cylinders, it doesn’t care what time it is. Though I really can’t complain when it happens. If it’s productive. Anything that gets me closer to the end of a book with a scene I just couldn’t quite reach during the daylight hours is good.

But sometimes it’s not productive. If I wake up at 3:30 with my heart beating faster than normal and my first coherent thoughts are: “The book sucks. My career is over.” That’s when it’s not productive. For me and a lot of writers I know, if my work in progress is giving me trouble during the day, then it’s highly unlikely that I’ll wake up at 3:30 thinking warm and fuzzy book thoughts.

I have yet to come up with a solution to a book problem at 3:30, but that doesn’t keep my muse’s evil twin, the Anti-Muse, from waking me up and trying to make me do it.  For me, book problems are solved in the calm, rational light of day—3:30 in the morning is neither calm nor rational.

When I’m finishing a book, it’s normal for me to get both types of wake-up calls. It’s usually at its worst when I only have a few chapters left. The Anti-Muse kicks me awake and wants me to start revising the previous twenty chapters, to wrap my head around the whole book, find the weaknesses, faulty spots—basically the good, the bad, and the ugly. And once I think that one book-related thought, she’s won and I’m awake for the rest of the night.

Yes, there may be (okay, probably are) some problems with the book, but they’re not nearly as bad as the Anti-Muse makes them out to be; in fact, they’re probably pretty minor. But at 3:30, my defenses aren’t up, and the Anti-Muse gets in.

But those mornings when my characters come knocking makes up for all of it. Dialogue comes fast and furious. I have no idea where it fits in the book. I just go with it.  So I grope around for the mini-flashlight, notepad and pen I keep in my bedside table and start eavesdropping and taking dictation.  For a writer, this is when the magic happens.  And it’s this kind of wake-up call that assures me that the book doesn’t suck, my career is not over.

And sleep is way overrated.

 

The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author: Writer’s Brain Gush—The hazards of too many words coming too fast

Writer’s Brain Gush.  Yeah, I know it sounds disgusting, but to a writer with a looming deadline, it’s actually a very good thing (though embarrassing and potentially dangerous).

Brain Gush happens when my muse has finally decided to get off her duff, quit futzing around, and help me get some work done.  As a result, ideas strike anywhere and everywhere. This is good. Mostly.

Now to the embarrassing and dangerous part. Since I was up early on a recent Saturday (my muse’s fault again), I decided to go to one of the two grocery stores we go to by myself and let my hubby sleep in.  I did good on the drive there, and actually managed to get out of the store without incident (major miracle). But when it came time to put my cart back in the “cart corral,” I had two problems. One, I couldn’t figure out how to re-attach my cart’s chain to the line of carts already in the corral.  (We shop at Aldi, and you have to use a quarter to unlock a cart to use. When you finish shopping, you re-attach your cart’s chain/lock thingie to the one in front of it and you get your quarter back. Cool.) Now these things aren’t rocket science. Yet there I stood, completely unable to figure out where to insert the other end of the chain to get my quarter back. I actually had to study the line of carts in front of mine to figure it out. Then came the embarrassing part. For some reason I couldn’t get the chain to reach my cart, so I pushed on the cart, and then and only then did I see what the problem was.

All of my groceries were still in the cart.

Fortunately, no one saw my moron moment. I took my groceries to my Jeep, loaded them, returned my cart — and successfully attached the chain and got my quarter back. Let’s hear it for writer ingenuity!

I took the first load of groceries home and told Derek that in light of my present state of mind, it might be best if he drove to the next store.  As a result, we got there without incident—until the soap aisle. Our favorite soap was on sale (woot!), so I bent over to get one and rammed my head into a huge display that a normal person would have noticed. Again, I don’t think anyone saw me. Derek kissed me on the head to make it better and gave me a hug right there in the soap aisle. As he held me against his chest, I could feel him laughing. Yep, I’m a source of constant amusement to my husband.

So, a word of warning: while brain gush is great for a book, it can leave a writer with only two brain cells to rub together for basic human functioning.

Your absent-minded, Mr. Magoo-impersonating author, Lisa

 

Writing a book one sentence at a time by Bestselling Author The Shearin Group Lisa national

Some people are intimidated away from writing a book because they think we authors have the whole book in our heads when we start. Heck, most of us don’t have the whole book in our heads when we finish. They think that it’s all there, we write it down, and we’re done. Don’t I wish.

Some of us (like myself) prefer to work with an outline. I’ve discovered that I like to work with a very detailed outline. Of course, I can change it (and I always do), but I know it’s there like a security blanket. Other brave souls come up with an idea and just strike out on their own, no outline, no nothing—they feel that to write anything down would sully the creative process. Most authors are somewhere in between. But all of us have one thing in common: we all have to write our books one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time.

I absolutely must work this way.  Of course I have my outline, but when I’m actually doing the writing I have to force myself not to think much beyond the one moment in that scene that I’m writing. When the sheer enormity of what I have to accomplish pushes its way into my thoughts, my poor little brain just short circuits—actually it freaks out.  If I continue along like this, one of two things will happen: I’ll have a panic attack or my head will explode from the sheer volume of words.

Questions start running in dizzying circles in my head.  How am I going to get from here to there?  Oh crap, I forgot to include that character.  Do I really need that character? Should I save him and his subplot for the next book?  How is that subplot ever going to fit in?  In short, I try to do what I don’t think any author can do—have the entire thing in my head at one time.  It’s kind of like looking at deep space pictures from the Hubble telescope.  I don’t know about you, but my jaw drops open at just how vast the universe is. The same is true (on a much smaller scale) of my books’ universe. It’s just too big to comprehend all at once.

If you try to comprehend your entire book while you’re writing, you lose the immediacy of the sentences you’re writing, the intimacy between the characters in that scene. You lose that emotional human (or elf or goblin) touch. The realness of two people who care about each other, or hate each other, or one is about to betray the other—their intimacy/connection/animosity is lost unless you immerse yourself in their moment, get into their minds, and understand what they’re feeling. Only then can you accurately convey your characters’ emotions and make the words come to life on the page—one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time.

 

Writing a series character in fantasy by Bestselling Author The Shearin Group Lisa national

So, you’ve got an idea in your head for a fantasynovel, and what you’ve come to recognize as your writer’s intuition—that little “Hey! Shut up and listen!” voice in the back of your mind—is telling you that you have more than one book simmering in there.  Don’t freak out; this is a good thing, especially with fantasy.  While readers do enjoy standalone books, they get positively giddy over the thought of a series.  I mean, who doesn’t like to find a series with characters that seem real, and each book feels like a visit with old friends.  A book with a story that keeps you up late at night, groggy the next day, and has you sneaking peeks of where you left off under your desk at work or school.

But, if you do think that you’ve got more than one book brewing, there are a couple of questions you need to ask yourself, and things you need to think about, before you dive in.

Is your protagonist better suited to a series versus a standalone novel? Raine Benares, the protagonist in my admittedly quirky, action-adventure fantasy series, has family, friends, professional associates, enemies, people from her past who carry over into her present and—most importantly for a series character—into her future.  With Raine, there are stories within the stories. If you have the sense that your protagonist has a lot more to tell you than he or she is revealing right now, you could have yourselves the makings of a series character.

In each book in my Raine Benares series, the main conflict from that particular book is resolved at the end, but other smaller conflicts that popped up during the course of that book—and the story arc and the relationships between Raine and the people she knows and encounters—continue to change and grow.

What kind of story do you feel compelled to tell?  Is it a “one problem/mystery per book” along with overarching character development?  Meaning that while the story’s main conflict is resolved, the protagonist and other characters have more to tell.  Or is the core of your story initially a small problem, and as the book progresses, is revealed to be but the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg? This would be a story where the more that is revealed increases your protagonist’s involvement, entangling him or her in a situation way beyond what they’ve ever dealt with before.  Both scenarios are perfectly viable candidates for a series of books.

In the second scenario, as more of that story iceberg is revealed, the story (and the problem your protagonist is facing) gets bigger and the stakes keep going up. My books turned out to be of the dangerous iceberg variety.  I say “turned out to be” because I didn’t start out planning it that way.  I saw my Raine Benares series as being two, maybe three books tops.  Well, I’m writing number six now, proof that you don’t really know what you have until you get into it and walk around in your protagonist’s shoes, or in Raine’s case, boots.  When you’re writing that first book, unless you have a functioning crystal ball and the skill to use it, you really have no idea how many books will be in your series.

Carry character traits and quirks consistently from book to book.  This is true of both your protagonist as well as a supporting cast in a series.  I discovered—and revealed to my readers—more of Raine’s past in each book, as well as tidbits from my supporting cast: Raine’s friends, family, and even my villains.  Yes, villains, plural.  I’m a firm believer in keeping my characters on their toes.  If you can keep all those details in your head, great.  If not, make a cheat sheet for yourself.  Believe me, if you don’t catch a mistake, your readers will.

And the best part about writing a series character . . .

Just as readers love a group of characters that they can get to know and look forward to seeing again and again, the same is true for the author.  I’ll admit it, I’m a series junkie.  There’s nothing I love more than discovering a series that just “hits the spot” like a tall, cold glass of iced tea. (Yep, I’m a Southern girl.)  I’m also a character-driven reader.  My favorite books have characters that I can either identify with or would like to have a drink with. I like quirky, funny books with just the right touch of snark, and a story that moves like a freight train.  That’s what I like to read, so that’s what I like to write.  And that’s my best advice: write what you want to read. If your readers enjoy your main character as much as you do, your editor will want you to keep him or her around for a long time.

 

Bestselling Author The Shearin Group Lisa national, Writing Fantasy #2—World Building

World building is at the core of writing fantasy.  Your fantasy world shapes and defines every other aspect of your book: the characters, their strengths and limitations, and especially the plot.  You make the rules, but that also means that you have to stick to them.  That being said, world building is one of most fun parts of writing a fantasy novel.  The ability to literally create a world, define the rules for a system of magic, build and populate cities, and then select and bring to life the people who will tell your story—your characters.

In some books, the world is a character in itself.  I created a world for my Raine Benares adventures that was familiar, yet at the same time new and exotic.  I felt that having the action of my story happen in a place readers could recognize would enable them to not only instantly visualize the setting, but put themselves into the story itself.  Being a bit of a Renaissance history buff, I based my city of Mermeia on Venice.  The architecture conveys the Renaissance feel that I was going for, and it has canals instead of streets, giving my characters a means of transportation and a way to dump a body or two.  I mean, how cool is that?  And since the real Venice consists of many islands, my imaginary Mermeia does, too.  However, I also used islands as a way to separate the not-quite-friendly-with-each-other races and groups of people that populate my books.

Then there’s what’s become a staple of many traditional fantasy series—The Map.  For some, their reading experience isn’t complete without a map; others couldn’t care less.  Me?   I have one.  And whether you ever plan to put a fancy map in the front of your book, it’s good to have a basic map while you’re writing, just something you sketch out that you can use while you work.  Why?  So if your characters have to do any traveling (and in a fantasy, they always do), you know how long it’s going to take them to get from Point A to Point B, what obstacles are in their way, which enables you to determine how those obstacles could influence your plot.  A thorough map of your world (or just the city your book takes place in) can help you uncover subplots you might otherwise be unaware of.

Now we get to the really fun part of fantasy world building—magic.  Who has it?  How much do they have?  What can they do with it?  And the big question, “What if . . .?”  The answers to questions like these can really shape your plot.  Take the time to sit down with a notebook, ask yourself questions, let your imagination out to play, and see what happens.

For example, in my Raine Benares series, magic turned out to be the main plot element.  Not the magic itself, but what people would be willing to do to get their hands on a lot of it and fast.  My protagonist, Raine Benares, is an elf and a seeker, a finder of lost things and missing people.  In terms of magical talent, Raine has enough that she’s good at her job, makes a decent living, and that’s perfectly fine with her.  She’s happy.  Raine’s problems start when through a series of misadventures she finds herself linked to a proverbial cursed stone of power that gives the one person it’s linked to the power to basically take over the world.  You know, kill thousands, enslave millions, and literally move mountains—your standard god-like kind of stuff.  And oh, by the way, the stone will drive you insane, a full-fledged cackling loony, and then you die, usually by throwing yourself off the mountain that you just carved in half.  Needless to say, Raine’s new goal in life is to find a way to get rid of the rock.  The new goal of every magical mobster and sicko sorcerer in Mermeia and beyond is to get hold of Raine.

Voila, a world-building element gives you a cool and fun plot that you can sink your writing teeth into.

And how Raine, her friends, and less-than-law-abiding family fight off the aforementioned mobsters and sorcerers leads to one of the mainstays of fantasy world building—technology.  If you borrow from an actual period of history for your fantasy world (as I did with the Renaissance), you’ve essentially established the parameters of your world’s technology.  I’m a fencer, and love rapiers and daggers, so the period and weapons was kind of a no-brainer for me.  But you don’t have to limit yourself to the traditional sword-wielding periods of history.  In fact, feel free to mix and match.  I’m a fan of Firefly, and I love how Joss Whedon created a sci-fi universe of starships meets the Wild West.  And it worked. Wonderfully.   A recent (and very hot) addition to the growing list of fantasy sub-genres is Steampunk, which is mainly based in the Victorian era.

That’s why writing fantasy is so much fun.  Not only do you get to create and interact with people who come to life in your imagination, but where and how they live is also up to you.  Your fantasy world can be as limitless as your imagination.

And if you can make it believable, you can make it work.

 

Bestselling Author The Shearin Group Lisa national, You can’t fix a blank page

I read an article once where Nora Roberts was quoted as saying: “You can’t fix a blank page.”

Amen, sister.

For me, my ideal writing goal is five pages a day. With chapters of approximately 15 pages, that’s three days per chapter, right? Uh, not usually. Five pages a day is when I’m really cranking out the words, inspiration is flowing, my muse is in the room (and cooperative). Three pages are the minimum acceptable pages per day for me. But what about the times when the words aren’t flowing, when I really don’t know what happens next?

I write something, because in the words of “La Nora,” you can’t fix a blank page.

I’ve recently finished writing my sixth book, and I’ve finally realized that it’s easier for me to face a blank page of paper than a blinking cursor in an empty Word document.  I used to think it was because a blank computer page was simply more intimidating than a blank journal page.  That may be true, but the words just seem to flow easier from my brain to a fountain pen to a blank page.  There’s more of a visceral connection.  As a result, I now save myself a lot of blank-page angst and write the first draft of each chapter in longhand.  I give myself permission to write something, anything.

I explore my plot and characters on the page, to talk to myself on the page and work out ideas, and even to write what I know to be crap that I’ll be tossing in the literal or electronic trash can later.  Because I can’t fix something that ain’t there.  For those of you who (like me) shoveled cow manure into the dirt of the family garden when you were kids—you know that it takes a lot of crap to grow a good garden.

Nobody gets it right the first time; and heck, sometimes not even the second or third time.  For me, first drafts are about just getting the story down. The second draft is for bringing it to life. The details, the nuances, digging deep for the sub-plots and motivations that didn’t (and couldn’t) make themselves known to me until I had the entire story down.

Unless you’re blessed, lucky, or unbelievably skilled, your first draft is going to be what we southerners call “butt ugly.”  Mine are, and I’ve accepted that.  There’s the struggle to get what’s in my head onto the paper and then to the screen.  But mainly my problem is that I’m still working out the guts of the story while I’m writing it. I know the beginning, some scenes scattered throughout the book, and I know the ending. The trick is to come up with the elements that link all of those together—to create the story.

Writing, weaving a story, creating a world that’s never existed before, is fun—at least it should be.  So give yourself permission to play.