Writing a Book and Doctor Visits

Writing a book is like going to the doctor. You enter the office with nervous anticipation. You leave with a sense of relief. Writing a novel is similar. You begin the story with the same sense of heightened anticipation. When the first draft is done, you feel immensely relieved.

A doctor visit engenders several questions. Will he find something unexpected? Will the procedure hurt? Do I have to disrobe? What kind of follow-up will I need? And why is that poor fish swimming all alone in the waiting room’s aquarium?

Unexpected Finds

We’re always afraid the doctor might find a disease we didn’t know we had. This question also applies to writing your book. Will you discover some unexpected plot twists as your characters take over the story? Will the results turn out the way you’d planned? New ideas may pop into your head or be inspired by things you see and hear around you. These may take your story in a whole new direction. For writers, the unexpected reveal is a pleasurable event. The more your story stews in the subconscious, the more chances of this happening. Embrace the unexpected and see where it leads you.

Will it Hurt?

Writing a novel can be painful. Not because it may dredge up memories from your past, but because it’s not easy to face the blank page every day. Will you be able to reach your word count? What happens if you write yourself into a corner and get stuck? Will this book be as good as the last one? We struggle with these demons and others as we sit at the computer each day. Nonetheless, we keep plugging away until the first draft is complete. Similar to a medical procedure, if it’s something that needs to be done, you just have to do it. Remember BICHOK – Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. That’s the key to writing a novel.

Do I Have to Disrobe?

Your novel, once published, exposes your vulnerabilities to the reader. This book baby is naked to the world. Reviews will be mixed, hopefully with the good outweighing the bad. It’s inevitable that you expose yourself as a writer when you publish your work. You invite feedback every time you put a story out there. Grow a thick skin and get over it.

What about Follow-Up?

Like the next doctor visit, fans will be anticipating your next book. You need to get started on it soon after you finish this one, while allowing yourself time to decompress, research, and plot the sequel. Marketing is essential at this stage, too. You can’t put your book out there and forget about it. If you slack off in your promotional efforts, book sales will lag, too.

The Lone Fish

Writing is a lonely business. We sit in our home office in front of the computer all day. When we’re not writing, we are working on promotion and marketing. Friends and family don’t understand the hours of dedication we need to get the job done. It’s a full-time career with no time off. The pressure is always on to produce more or to do more social media.

We have to remind ourselves that we’re not the only fish in the sea, and we need our families to support us. In return, we have to take the time to be with them because that’s what really matters in life. Writing a book is an achievement, but you want someone with whom to share it. In terms of understanding what you do, your critique partners and writing friends can empathize. Don’t feel you’re in the turbulent waters all alone.

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Upcoming Workshop

Saturday, June 4, 2:00 – 3:30 pm, “Self-Publishing Made Simple” Writing Workshop via Zoom with Nancy J. Cohen sponsored by Alvin Sherman Library at Nova Southeastern University. Pre-Register at https://bit.ly/3ytN1yn

Do you have a novel that doesn’t fit genre guidelines or a personal project you want to self-publish? Or perhaps you want to reissue backlist titles or become a hybrid author? In this workshop, award-winning author Nancy J. Cohen will discuss setting up your own imprint, buying and assigning ISBNs, preparing your manuscript, ebook and print distributors, and marketing tips.

Plotter or Pantser

As a novelist, we’re often asked if we are a plotter or a pantser. These refer to your technique in plotting a story. Do you outline ahead of time, knowing each plot point that will occur? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants as you write, unaware of what will come next in your novel?

Plotter or Pantser

It’s possible to be a bit of both. For example, as you approach each chapter, you may know what is supposed to happen. But how do you get from Point A to Point B? That’s where creative magic comes into play. It’s exciting to discover things about your characters that weren’t in your original notes.

I got into the habit of writing a synopsis for each Bad Hair Day mystery. These ran fifteen or so pages long and acted as a daily writing guide. I always knew where I was going if not how to get there. If the story changed along the way, I’d revise the synopsis accordingly.

A synopsis may be required by traditional publishers. As in indie published author, it’s a choice. You may need a short synopsis to enter your book in a writing contest, or to send to a blurb writer or cover designer upon request. It’s still a good thing to have and can point out any flaws in your story that aren’t readily evident.

Despite my preference for plotting ahead, I found myself unable to get past the first few pages in writing a synopsis for my current Work in Progress. I had done rough sketches of the suspects but still wasn’t clear on all their motives. And so I began writing to get a feel for the story. Now I’m 75 pages into the tale and still winging it. I’m learning things about my characters I didn’t expect. Nor do I have any idea whodunit at this point. My only fear is writing myself into a corner and getting stuck.

To avoid this mishap, I’m writing down every loose end or question that comes to mind from the reader’s viewpoint. If I run into a wall, I can go back and pick up on threads I’d missed. Will being a pantser work for me? Time will tell. So will my critique partners who’ll let me know if the plot doesn’t make sense. Here’s an example of some of these loose ends from the opening chapters:

Loose Ends

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Which one are you – a plotter or a pantser? Or a combination of both? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers other than to use whatever technique works for them?

The Babies in the Drawers

Most authors have several manuscripts gathering dust in their drawers. These are our unsold babies, books we wrote along the journey to becoming a published author. Are they really that bad, or were they merely not ready for the right market at the right time?

The Babies in the Drawers

Aside from the corrections that our more skilled eye could now see to make, are these books worth pulling out and making saleable? Would readers who like our series books even want to read a stand-alone?

And yet it’s sad that these early books will never get to see the light of day. The characters are all alone with nobody to appreciate their stories or the time and effort we put into them. They contain the building blocks of our careers.

What do I have hiding in my drawers? I’ll share my secrets with you. In return, let me know if any of these raise your interest. Some of these stories are so old that I don’t have digital copies. The typed manuscript is what you get. We won’t mention the Star Trek novel proposals hidden away, but I have those, too. Let’s check out the rest of them from earliest to latest:

Key of Death – A retired spy living in the Florida Keys encounters an enemy from his past who leads him to the Cuban exile community in Miami.

The Root of Evil – A scientist living abroad comes home and deals with a mystery. I don’t even remember what this one is about but it’s a long book.

Garden of Love – Floral designer Penny Winters is hired to plan a dream wedding for entrepreneur Whip Lanigan but finds herself falling for his charms. How can she compete with his elusive fiancée?

Lethal Designs – When a lovely botanist and a businessman meet over murder in Key West, they become entangled in a web of deceit where the ultimate betrayal is their own.

The Disappearing Diet – Nutritionist Regina Kent takes a job at exclusive Hillcrest Resort, where guests check in but they don’t check out.

Murder on the Menu – When two chefs meet over murder in New Orleans, they become victims of a dangerous conspiracy and a passion as hot as a Creole sauce.

These next ones were attempts at restarting my mystery career after I’d been published and was seeking a new publisher.

Murder at Your Service – When personal assistant Keri Armstrong discovers her favorite client dead in bed, she risks her reputation and her life to find the killer.

Murder at the Yacht Club – Newsletter editor Claire Rollins finds more than she bargained for when death stalks the members of an elite yacht club.

What is the lesson learned?

Persistence pays. Keep writing. “Never give up. Never surrender,” as they say on Galaxy Quest. Each book improves your skills as you learn more about the craft. It may seem as though you are climbing a mountain, but a beautiful vista awaits you on the other side. One final push might get you there, but you won’t make it if you quit. So keep following your dream and the road to publication might be just around the next corner. It takes hard work and dedication, and when you do find a publisher, this doesn’t end because then you have to learn all about marketing.

Excerpt from LETHAL DESIGNS 

The eerie whistling sang through the night like a banshee, ebbing and flowing on the wind. Lani had never heard it before, and she’d been to the Galleon Marina in Key West enough times to recognize the familiar sounds. This one was different, disturbing in its strangeness.

She paused on the dimly lit dock, her sharp gaze scanning the darkness. Row after row of boats faced her in serene solitude, like sentinels of the night. Even the breeze, salty and laden with moisture, seemed to be whispering words of warning. A feeling of foreboding swept through her, chilling her despite the warm summer air.

Tightening her mouth, she strode forward. Her feet were bare, and the wooden boards felt cool and damp as she padded silently toward Don Cambridge’s yacht. Slip number sixty-six lay just around the next corner.

She spotted his boat right away. The bridge light was shining like a beacon which usually meant he expected visitors. Shrugging, she quickened her pace. Even if he already had company, he’d be glad to see her. She’d just gotten back from Miami and couldn’t wait to share her thrilling news. Don knew how much she’d wanted to win that research grant. As her best friend, he’d celebrate her triumph.

Nearing the vessel, she listened to the sounds of the night. The eerie whistling had faded, its melody a faint wailing that floated on the wind. Creaking and clicking noises from boats reverberated all around. Water trickled from through-holes and waves splashed onto rocks. Water, the music of the sea. 

Music. Lani stopped abruptly.

Don’s yacht was ominously silent. She didn’t hear any music coming from his stereo. Don always played it nonstop and loud enough to be heard outside but not too loud to violate the codes. He’d never turn it off unless something was seriously wrong or he was ill. Maybe he’d fallen asleep and had just forgotten to turn out the lights. But that was unlikely. Ten o’clock was like the middle of the day for Don the Night Owl.

Concern propelled her forward. Grasping hold of the boarding ladder, she climbed up onto the carpeted aft deck where her glance rose to the empty bridge. He’s not here. That leaves the cabin area below.

To be continued… or not. How many manuscripts are hidden in your drawers?

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Revisions are Murder

Revisions on your novel can get as intense as writing the book. You still need to get into the zone, live inside your character’s head, and breathe in the scene. But you also need to step back to view the pacing and structure objectively.

Revisions are Murder

I’m involved in this process now for Styled for Murder, book #17 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. All I want to do is sit here glued to my chair to work on my book, but life keeps intruding. It’s hard to remember what I wrote from one chapter to the next with so many disruptions.

Nonetheless, my critique partners were right when they said my sleuth repeats information. She tells various people about the murder case. It’s okay to have a periodic review of suspects with a sidekick or friend, but I’ve been repeating too much material. I’ve hit the delete key many times by now, and I’m only on Chapter Eight. There’s also the issue of suspects who reveal too much information. They should either question Marla’s interest or clam up on her. She has to work more to get answers.

It took me a whole week to get past Chapter Seven. Why was this? Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, can get brusque when interviewing potential suspects. My critique partners pointed this out to me. So in my first revision, I am smoothing out these scenes to make her more sympathetic. She must coax or cajole or flatter people into talking, not fire questions at them like the cops. This means nearly rewriting entire scenes. That’s okay. I expect my first draft to be rough. I’m writing down my stream of consciousness and telling the story as it comes.

I’m also cutting out the unnecessary repetitions. Instead of telling each person she knows all about the case, I’ll insert a line like this: Marla updated her friend on recent events.

Another problem is that I’ve forgotten certain aspects of Marla’s personal life. When she’s at home, she cares for her baby and has discussions with her husband. Oops. What happened to her teenage stepdaughter who lives with them and their two dogs? Each scene at home, I have to go back and make sure I’ve included these elements.

It’s a juggling act inside my head. By the time I get to the last chapter, I’ll forget again what I wrote. That’s when the revision process will start in for the second round. This goes on until I am satisfied that I caught everything and polished every sentence. The work will never be perfect, but it’s time for me to step away at this point and hand it off to someone else with a critical eye.

Editorial and beta reader comments lead to a new round of revisions. Each change can lead to other changes. And so on, until I’m nearly cross-eyed from looking at the pages. Then I call a halt and get set for publication. Thereafter, the book stands up to your scrutiny.

Without a doubt, there’s always something a fan will find that needs fixing. I am grateful for these tips, especially when the mistake is significant. Things do get past my multiple readings, the editor, and the beta readers. We’re only human.

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Here is a sample from the first page of Chapter Eight (Spoiler Alert):

Old Chapter Eight

“We’re thinking of renovating our bathroom, and that’s how we met Lenny,” Marla explained, thinking she’d offer the same excuse to the granite guy that she’d given to the tile man. “We had considered Amaze Design Center, but I don’t want to deal with them if jobs are being delayed due to the foreman’s death.”

“That’s a wise decision.”

“What kind of problems did you have with him, if you don’t mind my asking? I’d like to know what to watch out for in the future. I heard customers got annoyed when he scheduled appointments and nobody showed up.”

George lifted a hand to shade his face from the sun, making Marla wonder why he didn’t wear a hat if he was outdoors so often.

“My problems stem from the fact that the louse hadn’t paid me for the last two loads. I refused to extend them any further credit. Jack was upset and chewed me out in front of another contractor. He hollered that a customer blamed him for the delay in obtaining the granite to complete his job. This client wrote a nasty note to Brad.”

He snorted. “A lot of good that did. Brad would never fire Jack. They knew too much about each other.”

Oh yeah? Like what?

“You couldn’t have been happy about Jack taking out his frustration on you,” Marla said in a sympathetic tone.

“I could have punched him in the face. It wasn’t my fault that his company was behind in their payments.” George curled his fist for emphasis as his lips thinned and his eyes squinted.

New Chapter Eight

“I understand Jack riled lots of people,” Marla told the granite guy. “I’m not sure I want to do business with his company.”

George glowered at her. “What does it matter now that Jack is dead?”

“His death has shut things down, meaning projects will be delayed more than usual. If you don’t mind my asking, did your problems with Jack relate to his job?”

George lifted a hand to shade his face from the sun. “Their firm hadn’t paid me for the last two orders. I refused to extend them anymore credit. Jack burst in here one day and chewed me out in public. Apparently, a customer had blamed him for the delay in installing their granite countertops. This client wrote a nasty note to the company president.”

“I’ve met Brad. How did he respond?”

The granite dealer snorted. “Jack didn’t say, but I knew Brad wouldn’t care. He could never fire Jack. They knew too much about each other.”

“Is that right? Like what?”

“Things from the past,” George said, hunching his shoulders.

His stance indicated an unwillingness to elaborate, so Marla tried a more sympathetic approach. “It must have been upsetting when Jack came here and railed into you. He shouldn’t have blamed you for his aggravation. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t fill another order until the company’s debts were paid.”

“You said it. I could have punched him in the face for yelling at me in front of customers.” George curled his fists for emphasis.

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Revisions are a never-ending process. But eventually the book is done, and it’s time to begin another work of creation. Personally, I’d rather fix what’s written than face the blank page. How about you? If you’re a reader, do you notify writers about typos or mistakes you discover?

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Tripping Over Timelines

How do you keep track of timelines in your work-in-progress? Do you use graphs, charts, or plotting boards to note the days of the week? When I was starting out as a writer, I kept plotting boards. This was a poster board that I divided into blocks representing each chapter. After I wrote a section, I’d fill it in on the poster for a quick visual reference. These days, I use a chapter by chapter outline in a Word file. I’ll still fill it in after I write each segment. I add the days of the week so I can remember what day it is for each scene.

Tripping Over Timelines

Spoiler Alert!  As I was working on EASTER HAIR HUNT, #16 in my Bad Hair Day mysteries, I hit a major snag. The story begins on the day before Easter. It’s March. My hairdresser sleuth, Marla Vail, is seven months pregnant. Her mother wants to plan a baby shower. Meanwhile, Marla is chasing down her missing friend, Blinky, who disappeared after an Easter Egg Hunt at Tremayne Manor.

How much time has passed since Blinky had gone missing? Was it reasonable to think she might still be alive? Uh-oh, I’d better check on the timeline. This realization led me to a plot twist two-thirds through the story.

clock

I’d been concentrating so hard on the storyline, that I had lost sight of the subplots. If Marla is seven months pregnant, when is her due date? I had to go back to the previous book, Trimmed to Death, to figure out when she might have conceived. Then I printed out a set of calendars from https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/

According to what I read online, Easter Sunday can fall between March 22 and April 25. In 2008, Easter was March 23 and Passover was April 20. Okay, my story will start on Saturday, March 22. By counting the weeks, I figured out Marla’s due date will be June 15.

calendar

By now, my story had progressed into April. Her mother could hold the baby shower on April 19, the day before Passover. I penciled in other events involving Marla’s friends and relatives. Now I know exactly what is happening, and when. Had I done this from the start, I wouldn’t have had to go back and change each conversation that mentioned these personal issues. I’d like this story to finish before Marla’s baby shower, so that could be my final wrap scene.

Sometimes you get carried away in the rush of storytelling and have to go back to fill in the details. What’s my advice? Get a calendar and follow your story along so you know which week you’re on and how long the action is taking. Sometimes you’ll read an entire murder mystery that takes place over a weekend. In that case, you’d need to keep an hourly account. Either way, keep track of your timeline from the start and save yourself some time-consuming revisions.

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Fine Tuning Your Novel

You’ve read through your novel for the umpteenth time and can barely look at it anymore. Then your advance reading copy or final pdf file arrives, and it’s time for a last glance before sending your baby into the world. Will you still find changes to make? Undoubtedly. Sometimes these are conversion errors. Or you may notice typos or word choices that need a tweak.

Fine Tuning

Trimmed to Death, #15 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries, is set to debut on Sept. 25. Check out the latest changes I’ve made and you’ll gain some insight into the mind of a writer. Caution – There may be spoilers.

p. 74 – bustled … bustle.

A few minutes later, Janet bustled down the stairs along with her housekeeper. After giving the woman an order and watching her bustle off toward another part of the house, Janet turned to Marla.

Change “bustle” to “scurry” so it reads …watching her scurry off…

p. 78 – “get involved” x 2

Janet clapped her hands. “It sounds wonderful. I’d love to get involved. Tony, you could ask Tristan to donate some of his desserts. You cross paths on occasion.” She turned to Marla. “His restaurant buys vegetables from our farm. They like to advertise how their dishes contain ingredients from sustainable food sources.”

“That would be amazing if his restaurant would get involved in our charity event. They’d benefit from the publicity as well.”

Change “I’d love to get involved” to “be included.” So it should say, I’d love to be included.

p. 103 –Marla winced. “I know what you mean. I’m wondering if you knew Francine Dodger, publisher of Eat Well Now magazine.

Delete “Marla winced” on this line. I use “wince” too many times.

p. 125 – “It says, ‘Meet me at midnight by the Living Tree. All hail Osiris.’ “

Last quote mark is reversed.

p. 148 – “You can tell, huh? Your dad called with bad news. Another woman is his case was found dead.” Change “is” to “in”

p. 154 – “Why are you so afraid, Janet?

Add quote mark at end of sentence

p. 161 – “Actually, I came to order lunch. Can get you get me a turkey delight to go?”

Can get you get me. Delete first “get”

p. 165 – “Lynette theorized that Francine would have made an effort to buy the magazine from the conglomerate that owns it.

Made an offer, not made an effort. Change effort to offer.

p. 170 – “I’ll give you a taste of our olive oil varieties after we return.”

Marla’s jaw dropped as she noticed the variety of goods for sale.

Varieties … variety. Change “variety” of goods to “range” of goods

p. 178 – Used “message” x 3.

Chills ran up Marla’s spine as she scanned the message. Mind your own business or you’ll be next.

[Chapter Break]

“It looks as though the message was printed on a sheet of white computer paper.” Marla snapped a photo and messaged it to Dalton.

Change “messaged” to “sent” in this last sentence.

p. 180 – The word “property” is used too many times.

“Without color of title means we’ve been paying property taxes and any liens on the property, as well as meeting the other conditions. Besides occupying the property for a minimum of seven years, we have to be in open use of the property, essentially acting as the sole owner.”

Change “occupying the property” to “occupying the place”

p. 199 – Used “man” x 3.

“If his column is losing readers, it’s because the man has lost his edge.”

“Could he have wanted to get her out of the way?” Dalton studied the other man’s face.

“Are you kidding? Man, that guy couldn’t hurt a fly. He doesn’t have it in him.”

Remove this “Man” and just say, “That guy couldn’t hurt a fly.

p. 204 – She could have quite a list of personal indiscretions hidden away. Change to: She could have had quite a … Add “had” in this sentence. This refers to the victim.

p. 231 – Used “took” x 2

The camera wasn’t in Francine’s purse and hasn’t been turned in by anyone.”

“Do you believe the killer took it?”

“It’s possible. The pictures Francine took could be useful to the case.”

Change to, Do you believe the killer kept it?

p. 249 – Referencing Marla’s stepdaughter in this paragraph:

Meanwhile, it promised to be a bumpy ride. Dalton likely wouldn’t approve of any guy she brought home for them to meet until he’d done a thorough background check and conducted a personal interview. She couldn’t blame the girl for being guarded about her love life and had to trust her to make the right decisions.

Change “she” to “Marla” in the beginning of this sentence to clarify: Marla couldn’t blame the girl for being guarded about her love life and had to trust her to make the right decisions.

Recipes:

p. 274: spice cake mix is not capitalized

p. 275: Yellow Cake Mix is capitalized

Choose one or the other for consistency

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It is not easy to scrutinize your work line-by-line and word-for-word, but this is part of the writing process. You want your book to be the best it can be, and this is the way. Positive feedback from readers makes it all worthwhile.   CLICK TO TWEET

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