Finding the Right Title: Words of Wisdom

Titles. We all need them for our books. I enjoy coming up with titles for my novels and stories but it can be a lot of work. Just like writing.

My first library cozy mystery was originally called Death Due. I changed it to Due Death, an attempted play on “due date,” but decided I didn’t like that and changed it back to Death Due as I worked on the first draft.  Later, I realized that was too generic, and didn’t jazz me, so I brainstormed a new title.

Almost at once a play on Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying sprang up in my mind: A Shush Before Dying. The novel was set in the eighties, when silence was still enforced at a public libraries. One of the shushers winds up dead.

The second title for book 2 in my library cozy mystery series came almost at once: Book Drop Dead. Sometimes coming up with a snappy title is a snap. However, most of the time for me there’s a lot of skull sweat involved.

Today’s Words of Wisdom tackles titles, giving advice and examples on coming up with ones that will help catch a reader’s interest. We have excerpts from PJ Parrish, Mark Alpert and Ruth Allen. As always, it’s well worth reading the full posts, which you can find linked from the bottom of the respective excerpt.

In twelve years of teaching workshops and doing critiques I’ve have seen maybe one title that I thought really captured the book’s tone. (It was our own Kathryn Lilly’s Dying To Be Thin.) So I know how hard this is. Here is my advice on titles, for what it’s worth:

  1. Capture your tone and genre. Go on Amazon and look up books similar to yours (cruise the genre bestseller lists). Words have inflection, mood and color. Choose them carefully.
  2. Grab the reader emotionally. Two titles that do it for me: The Unbearable Lightness of Beingand The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 
  3. Don’t settle for clichés. Yes, it’s hard to come up with fresh permutations on old standby words (especially in genre fiction where we rely on “dark” “blood” “death” etc.) But you have to find words that are unique about your story and draw upon them. Here’s a great title that twists a cliché word: Something Wicked This Way Comes.
  4. Don’t use empty arcane words that you think sound cool. Examples of bad titles: The Cambistry Conspiracy. (about world trade) The Hedonic Dilemma(about psychology ethics).  Penultimate to Die. (the second-to-the-last victim).  Don’t worry…I made these up.
  5. Create an expectation about the story. You know why I love this title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? It makes me say, “Oh yeah, buddy? Show me!” and he does.
  6. Be brief and punchy. Okay, I know I just gave you a bunch of long titles I love but there is something wonderful about short titles and studies show most bestsellers have short titles: Gone Girl  So doesTell No One, Lolita and Jaws (original title A Stillness in the Water).
  7. Make the title work on other levels. This is hard but worth the brain-sweat if you can do it. Consider what these titles come to mean once you get deep into the stories: Catch 22, Silence of the Lambs. But don’t get too clever. I love Louise Ure’s book Forcing Amaryllisand the title is brilliant because it is about a rape and murder. But do most understand that the title is from a gardening term about forcing a plant to bloom early? Not so sure.
  8. Make a list of key words that appear in your book. Is there something you can build on? For our book A Killing Rain, the title came when I heard a Florida farmer describe that drenching downpour that can kill off the tomato crop and we used it in the book. The title was there all the time and we didn’t see it at first.
  9. Search existing works — the Bible, poetry, Shakespeare. I found our title An Unquiet Gravein an 17th century English poem.
  10. Write 20 titles and let them sit for a week or so. Go back and read them and something will jump out. Find some beta-readers you can test with. Titles usually evoke visceral immediate responses. You will know immediately if they connect.

And last: Never get emotionally attached to a title. It’s the worst thing you can do because it probably will be changed. Or needs to be. Because your first title is usually, as T.S. Eliot said, a prosaic every-day thing. You can do better. It’s there. You just have to dig deep. Sweat out that great title that Eliot called the “ineffable, effable, effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular name.”

PJ Parrish—April 16, 2013

 

Choosing a title for your novel should be fun, right? So why is it often so frustrating?

I think it’s because there are so many requirements for a good title. It has to tell the reader, in a general way, what the book is about. It also has to convey the tone of the book — a light, amusing title for a lighthearted novel, a heavy, ominous title for a dark, creepy thriller. It can’t be too similar to titles of other recently published or very well-known books. And it shouldn’t carry the baggage of unwanted associations. Above all, it has to be catchy.

One could argue that novelists shouldn’t worry so much about titles. This is an area where the publisher has the final say, because the title is so important to the marketing of the book. The author can make suggestions, but the publisher has veto power. And I’ve learned that the best titles often come out of brainstorming sessions between the author and editor after the book is finished. But I can’t start a novel without giving it at least a working title. I can’t just call it a work-in-progress. Would you call one of your kids a work-in-progress? (Although that’s what children are, really.)

I’ve written four published novels, and each had a working title that was different from its ultimate title. When I started writing the first book I called it “The Theory of Everything” because it was about a dangerous secret theory developed by Albert Einstein to explain all the forces of Nature. (Einstein himself called it Einheitliche Feldtheorie, the unified field theory.) But that wasn’t such a great title for a thriller. It seemed better suited to a literary novel. (And, in fact, there are several literary novels titled “The Theory of Everything.”) So my editor and I put our heads together and came up with “Final Theory.” That seemed more compelling and yet still true to the subject of the book, because physicists believe that if they ever do discover a theory of everything, it will also be a final theory (because they will have nothing fundamental left to discover).

Mark Alpert—May 17, 2014

 

Meaning before details.

According to John Medina of the University of Washington, the human brain requires meaning before details. When listeners doesn’t understand the basic concept right at the beginning, they have a hard time processing the rest of the information.

Bottom line for writers: The title and the cover—image plus title—have to work as a unit to explain the hook or basic concept first. Wrong image and/or misfit title confuse the would-be buyer and you lose the sale. On-target image plus genre-relevant title and the reader/agent/editor will look closer.

Your cover indicates visually by color, design and image what the reader can expect inside—a puzzling mystery, a swoony romance, futuristic scifi, or scary horror—but the first words the prospective reader/agent/editor sees are the ones in the title.

Your title tells readers what to expect.

You’re unpublished but your title is awfully close to Nora Roberts’ newest or…ahem…a clone of James Patterson’s most recent? Come on. Get real. Please. For your own sake.

Your book is about a modest governess in 19th Century London who falls in love with the maddeningly handsome Prince who lives in the castle next door, but your title promises hotter-than-hot, through-the-roof sales like, oh, maybe, 50 Shades Of Grey? Really? 51 Shades of Grey is the best you can come up with? Seriously?

If you’re in a quandary about choosing a title for your book here are Anne’s 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title for Your Book.

You can also research successful titles in your genre for inspiration. Whether your genre is romance or suspense, you will find that certain words recur. Just be aware that most publishing contracts give the publisher the right to change the title. Sometimes the author is pleased.

Other times? Not so much. (Don’t ask me how I know, but horror stories abound.)

If the title you’ve chosen for your book is your idea of the one and only, check your contract to make sure you have the last word on title. The reality, though, is that few author have this right and, if you’re just starting out, you won’t. Sorry about that, but it’s the reality.

If you’re self-pubbing, you control the decision about titles. And, if you think of a better title in the future, you can easily change a title later.

Ruth Allen—May 3, 2021

***

  1. Do you like coming up with titles? Is doing so easy or hard?
  2. How do you brainstorm your titles? Do you have any particular technique, like finding a famous quote as a starting point?
  3. Do you research titles of other books in your genre when you work on your own?

Dealing with Doubt Words of Wisdom

In my experience doubt is one of the greatest obstacles writers face. Doubt that you have the chops to finish your latest book. Doubt that you have the skills to even start. Doubt when you find yourself stuck, whether you are an outliner or a discovery writer, or a hybrid of both.

Doubt and I are old acquaintances—it wasn’t until I had been studying and practicing the craft of fiction writing that I began to overcome it, but, even then, doubt continued to get in my way.

My late friend and mentor Mary Rosenblum told me in no uncertain terms I needed to figure out a way to vanquish the inner “demon” of self-doubt or I would never progress as a writer. She told me one of the most talented writers she ever knew had been crippled by intense self-doubt after initially writing some promising work and had not written anything since. I took her advice to heart.

It took me several years after her urging to finally begin to get a handle on overcoming doubt, but I did.

I learned you never banish doubt completely, but rather, you figure out how to write and finish despite the doubt. Today’s Words of Wisdom looks at doubt and how to overcome it before and during writing, as well as when you are stuck not knowing what happens next, with excerpts from James Scott Bell, Joe Moore and PJ Parrish.

Another reason excellent writers experience doubt is, ironically, excellence itself. Because these authors keep setting their standards higher, book after book, and know more about what they do each time out. That has them wondering if they can make it over the bar they have set. Many famous writers, unable to deal with this pressure, have gone into the bar itself, and stayed late.

Jack Bickham, a novelist who was even better known for his books on the craft, put it this way:

“All of us are scared: of looking dumb, of running out of ideas, of never selling our copy, of not getting noticed. We fiction writers make a business of being scared, and not just of looking dumb. Some of these fears may never go away, and we may just have to learn to live with them.”

Yes, you learn to live with them, but how? The most important way is simply to pound away at the keyboard.

You write.

As Dennis Palumbo, author of Writing from the Inside Out, put it, “Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.”

If a writer were to tell me he never has doubts, that he’s just cocksure he’s the Cheez-Wiz of literature, I know I will not want to read his work. That’s why I think doubts are a good sign.

They show that you care about your writing and that you’re not trying to skate along with an overinflated view of yourself.

The trick is not to let them keep you from producing the words.

Don’t ever let the waves of doubt stop you. Body surf them back to shore, let the energy of them flow through your fingertips. That’s the only real “secret” to this game.

James Scott Bell—July 10, 2011

 

So when you get stuck, what can you do? Here are some suggestions that I’ve used. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.

  • Change your writing environment. I have a home office with a desktop PC. I also have a laptop. Sometimes I need different surroundings so I grab my laptop and move to another room or outside. Just the act of breathing fresh air can fire up your brain.
  • Listen to music. Often I write to background music, usually a movie score (no distracting lyrics). But sometimes setting down in front of my stereo and rocking out to my favorite group can clear my head and refresh my thoughts.
  • Get rid of distractions. TV, email, instant and text messages, phone calls, pets, and the biggest offender of them all: the Internet. Get rid of them during your writing time.
  • Stop writing and start reading. Take a break from your writing and read one of your favorite authors. Or better yet, pick something totally out of your wheelhouse.
  • Don’t decide to stop until you’re “inspired”. I’ve tried this. It won’t work.
  • Open a blank document and write ANYTHING. It’s called “stream of consciousness”. It worked for James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. It can work for you.
  • Write through it. Beginners sit around and hope for a solution to come to them in their dreams. Professionals keep writing. The solution will come.
  • Finally, do something drastic. Bury someone alive. Works every time.

Joe Moore—July 20, 2016

Maybe there are writers out there who never have any doubts. Maybe Nora Roberts or Joyce Carol Oates never break out in a cold sweat at night. But I suspect there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of you out there who are in the same sweaty boat as I am. Because getting published is the easy part. (I know, those of you who aren’t don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.) Staying published is what’s tough. That means consistently writing good books that people want to read. And did I mention trying to always become a better writer?

Here’s Chuck Wendig on the subject of self-doubt. He’s my favorite go-to-guy when I am feeling alone and fraudulent:

You’re sitting there, chugging along, doing your little penmonkey dance with the squiggly shapes and silly stories and then, before you know it, a shadow falls over your shoulder. You turn around.

But it’s too late. There’s doubt. A gaunt and sallow thing. It’s starved itself. It’s all howling mouths and empty eyes. The only sustenance it receives is from a novelty beer hat placed upon its fragile eggshell head — except, instead of holding beer, the hat holds the blood-milked hearts of other writers, writers who have fallen to self-doubt’s enervating wails, writers who fell torpid, sung to sleep by sickening lullabies.

Suddenly Old Mister Doubt is jabbering in your ear.

You’re not good enough.

You’ll never make it, you know.

Everyone’s disappointed in you.

Where are your pants? Normal people wear pants.

You really thought you could do it, didn’t you? Silly, silly penmonkey.

And you crumple like an empty Chinese food container beneath a crushing tank tread. 

There’s no easy way to cope with this. But here are some things I have found that have helped me over the decades. If you have some remedies, pass them on. We can all use the help.

  1. Talk to other writers. Be it through a critique group or at a writer’s conference, or just hanging out at blogs like this — make human contact with those who understand. One of the hardest lessons I learned was that, although writing is a solitary pursuit, it’s not a good idea to go it alone.
  2. Get away from your WIP.  Which is NOT to say you should abandon writing for days or weeks because it you do that you lose momentum and risk being exiled from that special universe you are creating in your head.  But it is a good idea, when you a stuck or in deep doubt, to feed your creative engine. Go for a good hike (leave early and take the dog). Read a good book or better yet some poetry. Go see some live theater  or a concert. You will come back refreshed. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle: You can sit there and stare at 19-across for days and not get it, but if you put the puzzle down for awhile then pick it up, you see the pattern and can move on.
  3.   Stay in the moment.  Don’t project your fears forward or your regrets backward: What if I spend the rest of the year working on this story and it turns out to be a heaping pile of poop? What if no editor ever buys it? What if I only sell four copies on Amazon? If only I had started doing this when I was younger or before I had kids (or fill in the blank) I might be successful by now.  As a therapist friend of mine once told me: If you stand with one leg in the past and the other in the future, all you’ll do is piss on your present.    
  4. Don’t be afraid to fail.  Because you will, at some time and at some level. If you spend all your energy worrying about this, you will never be a writer. Failure can often lead you in new directions. Margaret Atwood took a vacation to work on her novel but six months later, she realized the story was a tangled mess with “badly realized characters” and she abandoned it. But soon after that, she began her dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale. As she put it:

Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.

PJ Parrish—March 14, 2017

***

  1. Is doubt an obstacle you face as a writer?
  2. Do you feel doubt when starting or finishing a project?
  3. If you get stuck while writing, is doubt part of your creative struggle to unstick your writing? What techniques do you use to overcome doubt and unblock your writing?
  4. How do you overcome overcome self-doubt in general regarding your writing?

Short Story Words of Wisdom

One of my writing goals for 2024 is to write more short stories, something I used to do regularly. Early on, that was all I wrote. My first sales were with flash fiction, and my first indie publishing efforts were with short stories in 2012.

Today’s Words of Wisdom gives advice on writing short stories, and ways to publish it. First, PJ Parrish looks at Kurt Vonnegut’s tips on writing short stories. Elaine Vets follows with thoughts on how to get past being blocked when trying to write short. Finally, James Scott Bell shares what a good story does and where to publish short fiction today.

As always, the original posts are well worth reading in their entirety, and are date-linked from their respective excerpts.

When I started this post, I had forgotten that Vonnegut had — despite his disclaimer of having nothing to teach other writers — issued his Eight Tips For Writing a Good Short Story.  So of course, I looked them up. I think they work well for any kind of fiction, actually.  With a few caveats for us crime dogs, maybe. Some you might have heard before, but they bear repeating:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The first one is great advice no matter what you’re writing — even a memo.

The second one I believe in wholeheartedly. Which is why I gave up on The Americans.  

Number three we’ve quoted many times here at TKZ when we talk about motivation. And the deeper you can plumb the depths of what a character wants, the richer your story will be.

Rule four is important. Every sentence should do something, be on the page for a reason. I read somewhere that Vonnegut disliked television, except for Cheers, which he called a comic masterpiece.  He said, “I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written. Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny.”

Now, we get to number five, which is critical for short stories but troublesome for novelists, given that we like to flap our gums sometimes before getting to the dramatic point. (ie weather, description, backstory).  But if you really think about it, you should never start your novel at too early a juncture. You should always find that prime dramatic moment to drop your reader into the action.

Six is a given. As James says here often, something must be disturbed in your protagonist’s world.

Number seven is about authenticity. If you set out to be James Patterson, you will fail. Yeah, be smart about today’s market, but write the book you were meant to write.

Now the last one is tricky. I am not quite sure what Vonnegut is talking about here. Because on its face, it goes against much of what we talk about here about NOT larding your early pages with too much information. You want some mystery in the beginning. You want to pose questions that beg answers. Maybe Vonnegut is just arguing for clarity in the writing itself?  The choreography (moving characters through time and space) must be clear. Confusion should be avoided. Maybe you all can help me out on this one.

P.J. Parrish—March 26, 2019

 

That happens to every writer. It certainly happens to me. Short stories are hard to write. In some ways, they may be harder to writer than novels. Here are a few tips for when you feel blocked working on your short story:

Think small – and think twisted.
There are good reasons why you can’t continue your short story. You could be blocked because you have too much going to on. In short, you may be writing a 5,000-word novel instead of a short story.
In a short story, you don’t need long, dreamy descriptions of the scenery.
You don’t need six subplots.
You don’t need to tell us your character’s awful childhood – unless it’s vital to the plot.
It’s a short story.
Think small.

Here’s another reason why your short story may be blocked: How many characters does it have?
If your short story has more than four major characters – you may — accent on may –have too many. It’s like being in a small room with too many people. You can’t move.

The short story is a small world.
Don’t make work for yourself. Giving all those people something to do is hard labor.

Think small. Cut back on your characters.
If your story is going nowhere, consider some pruning. Clear out all the extraneous details, the unnecessary characters, the descriptions of the weather.
If you’re still not sure, read the story out loud. Read it to your spouse, or your dog, or your wall. But tell the story instead of looking at it on the page.
That’s a good way to find out what works – and what doesn’t.

Lawrence Block is a master of the traditional short story.
Let me show you what he does in one paragraph – one – in a short story called “This Crazy Business of Ours.” It’s in Block’s anthology called Enough Rope. If you’re interested in traditional short stories, I recommend this anthology.

 “This Crazy Business of Ours”
The elevator, swift and silent as a garrote, whisked the young man eighteen stories skyward to Wilson Colliard’s penthouse. The doors opened to reveal Colliard himself. He wore a cashmere smoking jacket the color of vintage port. His flannel slacks and broadcloth shirt were a matching oyster white. They could have been chosen to match his hair, which had been expensively barbered in a leonine mane. His eyes, beneath sharply defined white brows, were as blue and as bottomless as the Caribbean, upon the shores of which he had acquired this radiant tan. He wore doeskin slippers upon his small feet and a smile upon his thinnish lips, and in his right hands he held an automatic pistol of German origin, the precise manufacturer and caliber of which need not concern us.

See how Block establishes a character in one paragraph? That is true economy of writing.
Make sure your story is about what it’s about. In a novel, you don’t have to get to the story right away. You have time to develop it. Time to build. Slowly.
In a short story, you have to hit them and run.

Elaine Vets—December 9, 2021

 

So what does a good short story do?

To make one strong impression on the mind of the reader, and to make that impression so powerfully that it will leave the reader pleased, convinced and emotionally moved is the principal aim of a good short story. To the production of that one effect everything in the story—characters, action, description, and exposition—points with the definiteness of an established purpose. All else is omitted, and thus all the parts of the story are both necessary and harmonious. Centralizing everything on the production of one effect makes every short story complete in itself. The purpose having been accomplished there is nothing more to be said. The end is the end.

Well now! If I may modestly mention my own book on the subject, How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career, this affirms the “secret” I found by analyzing thousands of short stories. I call it “one shattering moment.”

What that moment is depends on the type of story you write. If it’s a crime or mystery story with a “twist,” that’s one kind of moment, and usually comes at the end (see Elaine’s post on that subject here).

Another type of story is the one that lays you flat with an emotional punch. Here the shattering moment may happen in the middle, as it often does in a Raymond Carver story. The emotional shattering can come at the end, as in Irwin Shaw’s classic “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.”

Keeping one shattering moment in mind gives you all the direction you’ll need to write a short story worth reading. Just add your own stamp and creativity.

A good short story can be a gateway for readers to discover you and your full-length books. So where can you publish? There are established venues, like Alfred Hitchcockand Analog. These can be hard to crack and take a long time to hear from.

Some authors, like yours truly, use Patreon. (Hey, can I urge you to give it a try? No obligation, and I’d love to hear what you think!)

Many more use sites like WattpadMedium, and Comaful. Heck, you can start your own blog just for short stories.

Or why not go right to Kindle? Publish it in Kindle Select, price it at 99¢, and run a free promo every 90 days. Make sure you have links to your website and books in the back matter.

James Scott Bell—January 16, 2022

***

  1. Do you write short stories? What tips do you have?
  2. How do you “think small?” How do you get around blocks in doing so?
  3. Where do you publish your short stories?

My story collection Rules Concerning Earthlight is available in ebook and print. Stories of the science fictional, and stories of the fantastic including:

  • A young man lives alone on the far side of the moon, an artificial intelligence his only friend and companion.
  • A hex-slinger encounters his dead wife, sword in hand, standing at a twilight crossroads.
  • A young woman in prison for having superpowers is tested.
  • A former Martian marine and her brilliant husband investigate a mystery on a colossal space station orbiting Saturn.
  • A traveling medicine show where real magic happens faces evil in a frontier boomtown in 1901.

Brainstorming Words of Wisdom

Today’s Words of Wisdom brings three excerpts from the KZB archives dealing with a very useful tool for writers: brainstorming.

Steven James gives ways to inject creativity into your writing which can help with brainstorming, PJ Parrish shares a classic approach to brainstorming, and James Scott Bell provides more brainstorming tips.

The full posts are especially worth reading this time, since there’s even more advice in the originals. Each is linked from the respective date at the end of its excerpt.

Most of us know what it feels like to be uncreative—our ideas are stale and dry, our writing is boring and predictable. We long to inject our stories with ideas that are fresh, original, inventive, and spontaneous.

But how do you do it?

Here are four ways:

  1. Explore Your L.I.F.E.
    When you don’t know where else to turn, explore L.I.F.E., an acronym for Literature, Imagination, Folklore, and Experience. L.I.F.E. is a limitless well of ideas waiting to be tapped into.
    Coax new stories from classic plots by setting them in a different time and place; examine your imagination for themes that pique your interest; search through the timeless motifs of myth, fairy tale and folklore; scour the expanses of your own experience to spark new ideas. Let your memories come alive!

Some memories inspire us, others haunt us. Some memories cling to things we own, others hover around places we’ve been. Start with what you have, nurture that fragment of a memory: your teacher’s face, the smell of your grandmother’s cookies, the charming way your father used to whistle, the chill in your soul as you rushed to the hospital, the taste of salt spray that summer at the ocean, how it felt to hold your daughter’s hand for the first time. Turn those memories over in your mind, flesh them out, allow them to breathe.

Every vivid memory is a garden of ripe plot ideas waiting to be harvested.

  1. Change Your Perspective
    A few years ago while visiting a hotel in Denver, I noticed “EXIT” signs not only above the exit doors, but also at their base. “How odd!” I thought. “Only someone crawling on the floor would need a sign down there!”

Aha.

Whoever placed those signs down low had looked at the doors through the eyes of someone crawling for safety during a fire.

Creativity isn’t “seeing what no one else sees,” it’s “seeing what anyone else would see–if only they were looking.” New ideas are born when we view life from a fresh perspective or peer at the world through another set of eyes.

Keep ideas alive by working backwards and sideways, by peering over your shoulder rather than always staring straight ahead.  Remember, you don’t dance in a straight line.

So take a moment and look at your story from another person’s perspective. Step into the shoes of your main character and write a journal entry, a complaint letter, or a love note. Switch your point of view. Write a few paragraphs in first person or third person. Think of how you would respond if you were in the story. Walk through the action, stand on your desk, crawl on the floor. And keep your eyes open for the doors no one else has noticed.

Steven James—February 10, 2014

Here’s my main take-aways from Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming.

  1. Think up as many ideas as possible regardless of how ridiculous they may seem. It’s unlikely you’ll get the perfect solution right off the bat, so he recommends getting every idea out of your head and then go back to examine them afterwards. An idea that may sound crazy may actually turn out to work with a little modification.

Doesn’t this make sense when you’re plotting? I know when Kelly and I talk, we throw everything on the wall. You need to take the same approach with yourself. Write down every idea and let them bake for a while. Sometimes, the most outrageous thing leads to something useful.

  1. Don’t be judgmental.All ideas are considered legitimate and often the most far-fetched are the most fertile. Ideas can be evaluated after the brainstorming session but judgments during the process should be withheld.

Are you sometimes too hard on yourself? Do you think, “Oh, that’s so stupid, no editor will ever buy it.” Or maybe you are a self-doubter, telling yourself, “I don’t have the chops to try this technique.” Or: “This is a great idea but it’s so complex so I won’t even try.”

  1. Go for quantity not quality.Don’t get hung up (like I often do) on coming up with the most clever solution to your writing problem. Let your brain waves flow so the bad stuff bobs up to the surface along with the good. Osborn said: “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud. Forget quality; aim to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.”

Osborn’s books were geared more toward corporate types trying to get their teams to think more creatively on things like how to get traffic flowing better in big cities. But take a look at his suggestions for improving creativity and see if there’s not something here for us mere writers:

  1. Break up the problem into smaller pieces. For writers, this can mean tackling each plot or character problem as manageable bites, not getting overwhelmed by the idea that you’ve got 400 pages to fill. Get that first draft written then go back and fix your plot holes or layer your characters better.
  2. Search for alternatives.If you’ve painted yourself into a plot corner, look for a different way out than the old ways.
  3. What can be borrowed or adapted?Read other writers and learn from them.
  4. Modify with new twists.There aren’t many new plots in crime fiction but there is always a way to put your own fresh imprint on them.
  5. Is there something that can be magnified or minified?Maybe the stakes in your thriller aren’t high enough. Maybe you need to play down a secondary character who is overshadowing your hero. Are you larding in too much research?
  6. What can be substituted?Maybe if you changed your location the story would suddenly come alive. Would your mystery work better in a small town where you could exploit the English village dynamic? Is your setting banal and underwritten? Are you hitting all the wrong clichés if your book is set in Paris or some other iconic place?
  7. What can be re-arranged?Maybe you’re writing in the wrong point of view? Try switching from first to third. Or maybe the guy you think is your hero is really the bad guy?

PJ Parrish—March 10, 2015

She asked, “Would love any brainstorming tips and tricks if you have them! How do you start building your story and characters? And how do you feel productive and intentional when brainstorming is such a creative (often stubborn…at least for me) process?”

It’s a great question. Here is what I wrote to her:

I wonder if part of the deal is what so many of us have expressed over the years with each new book, that it seems to get “harder.” And the reason for that, I believe, is that with each book you’re better and your standards go up. You know what goes into writing a whole book, all the constituent parts, and think, “Man, I’ve got to do all that again! And better!” So every idea in the brainstorming phase gets tested, when it should be a time for getting as many ideas as you can without judgment.

FWIW, I do the following at the beginning of any project.

– A free-form journal, interacting with myself, asking myself questions, going deeper into why I think I want to write this, and also putting down plot and character ideas as they come. I take several days (at least) for this, writing without stopping, but re-reading the journal each day, doing some editing on what I wrote the day before, highlighting the best ideas, and so on.

– At some point I take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to Starbucks and just write down scene ideas. Random. Whatever vivid scene comes to mind. I might prompt myself by playing the dictionary game (opening a dictionary to a random page, picking a noun, and riffing off that). When I have 30-40 scenes I shuffle the deck and pick two cards at random and see what the connection suggests.

– Finally, I want my concept in a three-sentence elevator pitch that I know is absolutely solid and marketable. Sentence 1 is character + vocation + current situation. Sentence 2 starts with “When” and is what I call the Doorway of No Return––the thing that pushes the Lead into the main plot. Sentence 3 begins with “Now” and the death (physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual) stakes. Here’s an example based on The Insider by Reece Hirsch:

James Scott Bell—August 30, 2015

***

  1. What do you do to juice your creativity?
  2. What do you think of Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming? Is there one approach you want to try?
  3. Do you have tips on brainstorming? What works for you?

Suspenseful Words of Wisdom

I began reading thrillers during my sophomore year in high school. One of the first I read was Thomas Harris’s Black Sunday, a pulse-pounding novel that was a race against time to stop a diabolical terrorist attack at the Super Bowl. Another thriller I read then was Paul Erdman’s The Silver Bears, which featured kind of scheme, one to corner the silver market.

I burned through both novels in just a couple of days. The stories were very different, yet the suspense in each kept me turning pages, unable to stop until the end.

Today’s Words of Wisdom looks at suspense. Jordan Dane gives you a few questions to ask yourself during editing in order to make your book more suspenseful, while Joe Moore discusses how having too much action can hurt suspense, and PJ Parrish considers formulas for suspense and surprise.

The full versions are linked from the bottom of their respective excerpts and very much worth reading in full.

If you’ve made it through your first draft of a novel and want to edit for suspense and pace to give your book a page-turner feel, below are questions to ask yourself.

1.) Did you begin your story at the right point? Opening in the middle of action is an attention getter, but don’t spoil it with excessive back story. You can also add an element of mystery or intrigue to your opener that will draw readers in if action doesn’t exactly fit your story, but remember that less is more. You’ll always have the opportunity to weave in back story if it’s necessary as the story progresses. It might be helpful to ask yourself if the start of your book is the last possible moment before your main character’s life is changed. Change is an excellent starting point. I sometimes start the story where I think it should, then consider adding either an inciting incident by way of Prologue or a standalone jumpstart to the story that precedes where I began.

4.) Do you have flashbacks that work or drag down the pace? Flashbacks can be tricky. We’ve all read books where flashbacks drive the novel and do it effectively, but make sure yours have a purpose and build on the tension of the main plot going forward. Flashbacks aren’t just another way to sneak in back story. Give the reader insight into the main plot with an effective and brief look into the motivation of the characters, if the flashbacks are necessary.

6.) Do you use foreshadowing to your advantage or is it a detriment that deflates your tension? The right balance of foreshadowing can add a sense of pace to your story. It can propel your storyline from scene to scene, but too much can burst the bubble of any mystery and telegraph your punches. Sometimes I look at my scene endings and see if I can stop them sooner at a more critical suspense moment. Or I split up an action scene at the bottom of a chapter and carry it over to the top of the next chapter. This simple idea of splitting scenes or cutting them off at a more appropriate spot can add a sense of pace, without any major rewrites.

Jordan Dane—March 7, 2013

I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with action to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across town or continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room while it’s pouring down rain outside.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The James Bond film Quantum Of Solace is an example. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences were visually amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is not to confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner?

Joe Moore–September 18, 2013

There’s the old Hitchcock formula: 1. A couple is sitting at a table talking. 2. The audience is shown a time bomb beneath the table and the amount of time left before it explodes. 3. The couple continues talking, unaware of the danger. 4. The audience eyes a clock in the background.

The surprise, Hitchcock said, didn’t come from the bomb itself; it came from the tension of not seeing it.

Speaking of formulas, there actually is one for suspense:

Suspense: t = (E t [(µ¿ t+1 – µ t)²])½

I didn’t make this up, believe me. It was created by Emir Kamenica and Alexander Frankel of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It is basically an equation about time and expectations: “t” represents the period of time a moment of suspense is occurring, “E” is the expectations at that time, the Greek mu indicates your belief in the next thing to happen, the +1 is your belief in the future, the tilde represents uncertainty, and the subtracted mu is the belief you might have tomorrow.

That made your brain hurt, right? Mine, too. But hey, you sat through my football metaphor, so stay with me a little longer. The Chicago guys also developed a formula for surprise, which is easier to stomach for us math-challenged types. It boils down to this: what your beliefs are now minus what your beliefs were yesterday.

Their paper “Suspense and Surprise” (co-written with Northwestern University economics professor Jeffrey Ely) was published in the “Journal of Political Economy.” It was inspired by their observation that in various types of entertainment – gambling, watching sports, reading mysteries – people don’t really WANT to know the outcome.

What they DO want is a “slow reveal of information.” As one of them put it in an article in the Chicago Tribune: “To be exciting, we found that things need to get dull.”

Information revealed over time generates drama in two ways: suspense and surprise. Suspense is all about BEFORE, ie something is going to happen. (the ticking bomb under the chair). Surprise is about AFTER, ie you’re surprised that something unexpected happened. (the bomb didn’t go off!) If you are led to believe one thing is going to happen (Broncos will win!) but then are surprised by the unexpected (Colts prevail!) that can be pretty powerful.

So how do you translate this to your own writing?

I’ll let Kamenica explain. He goes back to the Hitchcock formula: “Let’s take that idea and ask a mathematical question: How much suspense can you possibly generate?’ Putting that bomb there generates suspense, but how long can you leave it there? Can you leave it the duration of the movie? Or is that boring? Once you put it there, when do you decide for it to go off? One-third of the way through? One-half? If I am invested, as a viewer, how frequently should uncertainty be resolved? You have a threat, information that (a bomb) will explode, then it gets resolved, the movie continues. But will these people survive the next danger? How often can you do that — change an audience view?”

He has the answer, of course: Three times.

“Say you are writing a mystery,” Kamenica goes on in the Chicago Tribune article, “Zero twists is bad. And one thousand twists is also bad — again, for something to be exciting, it must occasionally become boring. So, three. The math delivers surprisingly concrete prescriptions. That number is constrained to a stylized view, characteristic mystery novel: Is it the maid or butler who did it? Does the protagonist live or die? A novelist must lead you in one direction then …”

Added his colleague Frankel: “The thing is, we also found that you can’t really have a definite number of twists. Three is average. Yet if you know there are three twists, those twists are not actually twists — you are now waiting for the twist.”

And that, to me, is the major lesson here. Not that your book must conform to a three-twist formula. Because if your readers know you have three twists, you’ve lost the suspense. The lesson, to me, is less might just be more.

PJ Parrish—November 10, 2015

***

  1. Do you edit for suspense? Any advice to share?
  2. Do you feel there can be too much action in a thriller?
  3. Do you have a formula for suspense in your fiction?
  4. Any other tips for creating suspense?

Words of Wisdom for the Muddle in the Middle

I haven’t reached the middle yet in Book Drop Dead, the mystery I’m currently drafting, but certainly have experienced the muddle in the middle in the past, just like so many other novelists. Today’s Words of Wisdoms provides advice on juicing up the middle of your novel, from Michelle Gagnon’s tips on surviving the mid point, to PJ Parrish’s using tried and true devices, with Jaws as an example, and Clare Langley Hawthorne’s high-level advice for assessing why you have a muddle and how to fix it.

Oh, the saggy middle. How I loathe it. My writing pace slows. Plot points that seemed brilliant 20,000 words ago are now, clearly, just dead wrong. It sometimes feels like I’ll never pull all the disparate elements together into something coherent that readers will actually pay for. These are the days when I dread opening that .doc file, when I’m tempted to do almost anything else (including laundry and cleaning my oven).

So in lieu of more whining, I’ve come up with some tips for surviving the midpoint (or, really, any writing lows):

  1. Walk away
    This can be accomplished literally: by turning off the computer, heading out the door and walking around the block a few times. Sometimes engaging in real-life activities, like dinner with friends or a movie, actually provides a new perspective on a particularly tricky plot point.
    Or figuratively: closing the manuscript file and starting a new document. Writing a short story, or starting the first chapter of a different book. Sometimes to jar things loose, I’ll embark on a completely different project. Lately during breaks from the manuscript I’ve been working on a screenplay. In some ways that flexes a different part of my brain. Then when I return to the manuscript, the well has been replenished.
  2. Engage in some positive reinforcement
    If I’m really starting to feel as though my writing has taken a nosedive, I dig up some of my earlier work and re-read the stronger passages. Reminding myself that once upon a time I managed to write intelligible sentences is always heartening. It also helps me remember that I’ve been in this position before, and in the end I managed to finish the book, more or less on time.
  3. Spend some time with a master
    If re-reading my own work isn’t motivating enough, I turn to authors whose writing always blows me away. For instance, I was struggling with a love scene. The prose was painfully purple, the dialogue cliched, I was beyond frustrated with it. So I went back to a bookmarked passage in Tana French’s last book FAITHFUL PLACE, where a love scene was rendered so painfully well, reading it almost felt intrusive and voyeuristic. Seeing how she accomplished that was inspirational.

There’s simply no getting around it: this part of the writing process is always a monotonous, painful slog. It’s like a train inching up a mountain, the going always gets toughest right before hitting the peak, then it’s a race down the other side.

Michelle Gagnon—January 20, 2011

 

So what can you use if you find yourself bogged down in the middle of your story? There are some nifty tried and true devices and to illustrate them, I’m going to use a movie we all know instead of a book — Jaws. A couple years ago, I got to know Jaws really well when I contributed an essay on the Benchley book to Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell. I hadn’t read Jaws since it first came out and when I dissected it for the essay I was surprised at how flabby the book is. (lots of bad subplots about class warfare, mafia kingpins, and a really icky affair between Chief Brody’s wife and  Hooper). But the screenplay — well, it’s one of the best thrillers written, and I’ve used it when I teach workshops on thriller plotting. Jaws uses six devices that keep the middle of the story moving forward:

  • Setbacks
  • Pendulum swings of emotion
  • Raising the stakes
  • Obstacles
  • Rift in the team
  • Isolation of the hero

So let’s go cut open that shark and see how each works…

First, there was that great attention-getting opening scene.

Then we meet the hero, who is a classic dramatic archetype: the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Chief Brody is an outsider on the insular little vacation island — and he can’t even swim. In the setup, he is confronted with the problem, and the girl’s death forces him into action.

The SETBACKS keep coming as the victims pile up. And since Jaws is basically a serial killer plot, each new body plunges Brody deeper into despair. But then — TA-DA! — we hit a peak when local fishermen snag a great white and every one is happy.

But then we get A PENDULUM SWING OF EMOTION when Brody’s own son is almost attacked. And another when a dead boy’s mother confronts Brody and castigates him for her son’s death.

Another SETBACK occurs when Hooper tells him the bite radius of the captured shark is off and when they cut open the shark, they don’t find any body parts. Brody gets proactive and moves to close the beaches until they can catch the killer shark. But then he faces a new OBSTACLE.

The Amity mayor who’s hellbent on saving the island’s lucrative July Fourth weekend. Brody’s overruled, the beaches stay open and all Brody can do is sit on the beach and sweat. We get a slight rise in the plot graph when Hooper and Brody go out  on a night hunt (Hooper is a perfect foil character for Brody, there to give him hope and pull him out of the dips). But then they find that dead guy in the submerged boat and things look increasingly grim. Until we get a major up-thrust for Brody. He gets the money to hire a professional shark hunter — Quint.

Our hero has things under control now, right? Not so fast. Quint is a great character, and he represents one of the most effective devices you can use to beef up your middle — THE RIFT IN THE TEAM. As the three men hunt the shark, the escalating tension between them threatens the quest. You see this device used a lot in cop novels — the errant hard-drinking guy bumping heads with his partner. Think of every partner Dirty Harry ever had. Or watch the sparring between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective. Rifts in the team. Brody is pulled down in another dip as he tries to cope with crazy Quint, who at one point even smashes the boat’s radio.

The plot goes into fever pitch after this, with dips and rises as they chase the shark. The STAKES ARE RAISED as their weapons prove futile, and the boat starts to fall apart and the shark even starts to gnaw on it.

We’re entered the final big trough when Hooper decides the only option left is for him to go down in the shark cage. (STAKES ARE RAISED AGAIN). Hooper disappears, presumed dead. And then we begin the final plunge into the abyss for poor Brody. Quint goes out in a blaze of gory…

And there is our hero, alone on a sinking ship, staring into the maw of death. Which brings us to one of the most effective ways to beef up your plot — ISOLATION OF THE HERO.   Think of Clarise Starling alone in that creepy basement. We’ve use this device often, putting our hero Louis in abandoned asylum tunnels, on frozen ice bridges on Lake Huron, gator-infested Everglades, and yes, on a sinking boat in the Gulf. It gives your hero that final chance to prove himself  — through guts and brains — and triumph over evil. Remember how Brody did it?

Blasted the bad guy to bits. With his final bullet. And he couldn’t even swim. What a guy. What a climax. What a roller coaster ride.

P.J. Parrish—January 28, 2014

 

For me, the middle is where you really get to complicate and stir things up for your characters. As an outliner, I focus quite a lot on the middle and often find myself graphing out the tension levels in the novel I’m drafting. If I see a flat line in the middle then I know I’m in trouble. But, whether your an outliner or not – what do you do if, after the first draft is complete, you realize that the middle section just isn’t working? Here are some of my ideas:

(1) Reassess the premise of the novel and explore ways in which you can add complexity, drama and tension to this in the middle.

This could involve adding an additional obstacle for the protagonist, introducing a subplot to add more emotional resonance or tension, or it could be introducing an event that raises the stakes for your characters. Sometimes, the reason the middle of a novel is flat is because the author may not have sufficient depth (in either the premise of the book or its execution) and so the middle feels like ‘treading water’ until the resolution/final conflict occurs. Taking a step back and re-examining the premise might help you identify this and come up with some solutions.

(2) Map out the plot and brainstorm ways to raise the stake or add tension.

As an extremely visual person and a strong believer in outlining, I like to try and display the plot in a visual way that helps me identify places where I might need to add scenes that raise the stakes or add tension. I find once I can see the chapters that meander or sag, I can brainstorm ways in which I can alter the plot to add dramatic tension. This could be the place where an unexpected death occurs, a new character walks in to shake things up, or another obstacle is thrown in the protagonist’s way. Whatever you decide, it should all be aimed at keeping the reader turning the pages…

(3) Eliminate the boring bits!

Sometimes the middle gets bogged down with clues or details of an investigation, the mechanics of the plot or the protagonist going through the motions/actions necessary to progress the novel towards its denouement. One thing I like to bear in mind is that readers get bored…so when re-reading a draft I like to identify areas that even I am starting to glaze over. If, as the author, I’m not riveted, then it’s time to ditch those boring bits and think through how to maintain the tension rather than deflate it.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—July 18, 2016

***

  1. How do you manage or change your outlook if/when you are stuck in the middle?
  2. Are there any plot devices, twists, etc you reach for when your plot seems to be a muddle?
  3. Do you go up to the 30K foot view when your novel is mired in the muddle? What do you do when you’re there, looking down at the plot? If you’re pantser, do you do something different than this?

Upping Your Word Count

Increasing our word counts is something many writers desire to do. Certainly that’s my aim, along with being a bit more consistent on a weekly basis when I’m drafting and when I’m revising. This week I just bought a Mac Mini, my first desk top computer in seven years, to be my offline writing playground, since the Internet is a big source of distraction for me. Writing programs and a music app are all that is installed on that computer. It will normally be unplugged from the Internet. Of course, avoiding distractions is just one factor in upping your word count.

Today’s Words of Wisdom is here to help. First, Robert Gregory Browne discusses how outlining helped him, followed by PJ Parris with some excellent tips (including staying off the Internet), and finally, James Scott Bell lays out how to set and track word count goals.

The full posts are date linked from their respective excerpts and are worth reading in full.

Ever since I started writing, I’ve been a pantser. I come up with an idea, kinda sorta figure out who the main character is, then sit down and start writing. I had tried outlining many, many times (just like all the writing books say we should) and I just couldn’t stand to do them. My eyes would glaze over after three paragraphs.

Isn’t writing supposed to be fun?

But for the Harlequin Intrigue audition I had no choice but to write that outline and three sample chapters. It was full proposal or don’t bother auditioning. They weren’t going to hire me simply because they liked my Facebook page. (Or maybe in was MySpace in those days.)

When it came time to actually write the book, however, I discovered something quite wonderful. Because I had worked everything out in that outline, all I really had to do was, as they say, “word it in,” and I managed to bang that thing out in record time.

From there on out, I was a convert. At least when it came to Harlequin romances. I still wrote (and continue to write) my Robert Gregory Browne books by the seat of my pants (except for one exception I won’t get into here), but the Intrigues were all outlined first. Even after my editor said all she needed was a paragraph from me. I would write a ten to twenty page outline for myself, because I had to write those suckers fast.

I think the fastest I ever went from outline to finished book was about two and a half weeks. I’m no John Creasey, but I think 50K words in that amount of time is pretty damn fast.

So if you’re concerned about your snail’s pace as a writer, just know that as much as you might hate them, outlines can certainly be your friend.

Robert Gregory Browne—April 20, 2016

 

Are there truly any “secrets” to productivity? I don’t think so. If you ask successful people how they do what they do, their answers tend to repeat and are duh-fully common-sense.

  1. Turn off the internet. It’s a time-sucking Circe. If you, like me, turn to it to get a fix when the writing is going badly, well, Bunky, it’s time to cut the cord. Don’t check your email. Don’t answer that text alert. And don’t call up Google in the name of research when you’re really afraid to face chapter 6. The trick that works for me is to take my laptop to a place with no internet. Amazing how interesting your novel gets when all you have to look at is the wall. Maybe you don’t have the luxury of two computers like Lee, but you can disable your browser during work time.  There are even programs that do it for you: StayFocused, Anti-Social, SelfControl and my favorite — Write or Die.
  2. Figure out your peak writing hours.In my salad days, I was a night owl. I wrote my first novel between 9 p.m. and midnight while I was working full-time. Somewhere around age 55, I started getting up at dawn, so now I am an annoying morning person. I read the paper, have my coffee, walk the dogs, then get to work around 11 a.m. My batteries conk out about  3 p.m. so I usually quit. Now if you have a job, you have to carve out time — one to two hours a day with maybe Sunday off is enough to finish a book if you’re consistent.  You have to make your family understand this.
  3. Show up.Yeah, sounds pretty basic, but this one is the hardest for me. I am not a daily writer. There, I said it.  I am trying very very hard to change this. Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up. He’s right. If you hit 80 percent, you’re doing good. And you have to show up on the bad days, even if you don’t feel like writing, especially when you don’t feel like writing. Another one of Fastcompany.com’s contributors is P.K. Subban, who plays for the Nashville Predator’s hockey team. “Sometimes you get out there and your body is feeling great, and you don’t have to push it,” he says. “Sometimes you get out there and your legs feel like they’re 80 pounds apiece, and you gotta do a little extra.”
  4. Quit trying to be so damn perfect. This is my other downfall, the quest for the pretty page. Maybe Hemingway really did sit down every day and sweat out one true sentence. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Just turn on the faucet and let it flow. You can weed out the roughage later. Jodi Piccoult sticks a pin in the need for perfection: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

PJ Parrish—December 4, 2018

 

A word count quota produces pages. A page a day is a book a year. (A page is approximately 250 words. A Ficus tree can write 250 words a day. Don’t be shown up by a Ficus tree.)

Over the years I’ve been asked about my quota and system for keeping track, so here it is.

My quota, as it has been for most of my career, is 6,000 words a week—312,000 words a year. I try to write six days a week and take Sundays off to rest the noggin. Having a weekly quota helps because if I miss a day for some reason, I can make up the words on another day.

This works for me, though it’s nothing compared to what some of the great old pulp writers used to do. A few of them pounded out one million words or more per year, and on manual typewriters, too!

Sheesh. They must have driven their neighbors crazy.

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, was one of the million-plus boys. Sometimes his fingers would bleed. He’d tape them up and keep typing.

Then he discovered the Ditcaphone. At the peak of his productive years Gardner was dictating his books and had a team of secretaries transcribing them. These days there are several options for speaking your words. Google Docs has a pretty fair dictation mode. So does Mac OS. I’ve done some dictating via my phone (into Google Docs) and on the computer, but it never feels quite right to me. With the editing that’s involved after I dictate, I wonder if the actual word count + time equation isn’t just about the same.

Anyway … I wrote 313,508 words in 2018.

I keep track of my words in two ways. When I compose in Scrivener, which I do most of the time, it has a handy-dandy word count tracker for both the overall project and the current session. If I’m writing in Word, I first jot down the word count of the document. I type, and when I finish I simply subtract the old word count from the new.

I tally these words on a spreadsheet, and have been doing so for twenty years. On my spreadsheet I have four categories: novels, non-fiction, short fiction, and writing. That last category is specific to my craft teaching. So I can look at my sheet and see how many words I’ve written in each category per day. I have a daily tally, and a weekly tally. I have a cell next to the weekly tally that keeps track of my cumulative output.

Next to that latter cell I put in a number. The number is a sequential sum of 6000. So at the seven-day mark, I put 6000. At the fourteen-day mark, 12,000. And so on, right up to 312,000. That way I can see if I’m falling too far behind.

James Scott Bell—January 6, 2019

***

Now it’s your turn to share your tips on upping word count.

  1. Do you find outlining helps? If you are panster, what helps you increase you word count?
  2. What is your own “common sense” tip or tips for getting down more words?
  3. Do you set and track your word counts? Any advice?

Beta Reader Words of Wisdom

I’m currently waiting for feedback on my latest novel from my wonderful beta readers. I use them with all of my novels, as well as my novellas. Sometimes it’s just one or two betas. Other times, like this one, it’s a larger group of readers. The group can include another fiction writer. Especially at the start of a series, I find input from another writer can be very helpful.

Two of today’s three excerpts, by Joe Moore and Jodie Renner respectively, look at beta readers and how to help them give feedback which will help your novel become better.

Since many of us also give feedback on other writers’ novels, today’s third excerpt, by P.J. Parrish, provides advice on giving feedback. The full posts date-linked at the bottom of their excerpts, and are worth reading in full.

A beta reader is someone whose opinion you value, who’ll take the time to read your manuscript in a timely manner, and who’ll give you an honest assessment of your work. For starters, I would mark off your list of potential beta readers anyone who is related to you, works with you, or lives in your immediate neighborhood.

Should you utilize a beta reader(s)? It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career. Most beginning authors are searching for anything that will build up their ego and confidence, and keep their hopes alive. And most new authors have manuscripts that are littered with flaws and mistakes—it’s part of the learning process. Weak or unqualified feedback from others can cause a new writer to become confused and/or discouraged. And their hopes and dreams can be crushed by negative feedback. Or their egos are so artificially inflated that negative criticism can cause friendships and relationships to crash.

At the same time, established authors know the value of real, honest, sincere feedback and will react in a professional, business-like manner. Beta readers are a solid tool toward writing a better book.

In recruiting beta readers, try to line up at least three to four that are willing to take the time to not only read your work but give you constructive feedback. It’s also good to mix male and female readers. In general, try to find age-appropriate readers that are familiar with your genre. A female teen may not give you the feedback you’re looking for if your manuscript is male action/adventure. If you write YA, a retired senior citizen might not be the best choice, either.

Try to choose beta readers who are not acquainted with one another. And they don’t have to be your best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since there might not be a hesitation that they will hurt your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written. There’s a good chance they’ll take the whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend.

Don’t ask your beta readers to line edit your manuscript. Tell them to ignore the typos and grammar issues. What you’re interested in is: Does the story work? Does it hold together? Are the characters believable? Can you relate to them? Are there plot contradictions and errors?

Beta readers differ from members of a critique group in that they measure the WIP as a whole whereas groups usually get a story in piecemeal fashion and focus in on a chapter at a time. Most critique groups also deal with line editing.

So once you round up your bevy of beta readers and send them your WIP, then what? Start by listening to their feedback. If your beta reader has a problem or issue, chances are others will, too. And most important is when numerous readers raise the same issues. That should be a red flag that there’s a major problem to address.

Other tips: Don’t be defensive. Sure, we all love our words—after all, they’re hard to come by. But comments from your beta readers are meant to be helpful and constructive. Don’t take offense. Take what they say to heart. Think about it for a while. Consider that they have a valid point and are not trying to tear down your writing.

Joe Moore—June 26, 2013

To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from, based on suggestions from novelists I know. If you’re hesitant to ask your volunteers so many questions, you could perhaps have them choose the ones that seem most relevant to your story and writing style. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.

  1. Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
  2. Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
  3. Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?
  4. Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
  5. Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
  6. Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
  7. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
  8. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?
  9. Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?
  10. Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?
  11. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?
  12. Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?
  13. Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
  14. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
  15. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?

And if you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.

– Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?

– Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

– Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?

– Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

– Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?

– Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?

– Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?

– Which characters did you really connect to?

– Which characters need more development or focus?

Jodie Renner—June 16, 2014

 

A few other things I’ve learned about giving criticism:

Resist the urge to fix the problem. Unless you really have the solution, it’s not a good idea to offer up the answer to another writer’s problem. You don’t know their book; you’re not inside their head. You might be able to tell them they have wandered off the trail and that you, as the reader, feel lost. But it is not up to you to show them which is the RIGHT trail to the end. They have to find their way.

Watch your tone. Being snarky is, unfortunately, encouraged in our culture today. (I was curious about where the word “snarky” came from so I looked it up. It was coined by the Star Trek actor Richard William Wheaton in a speech he gave before a bunch of online gamers.) If you are asked for input, don’t be mean. Kindness is in short supply today and writers are like turtles without shells — easy to crush.

Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. Hey, you’re having a bad day. Your own book is falling apart. Your plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Your Dell died and your geek can’t do a data retrieval.  Don’t vent your anger on someone else’s baby.

Don’t boost your own ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that. They are puffing themselves up, challenging others, going all Alpha dog. Nobody likes a bully.

Let the person react. Giving a person a chance to explain why they wrote something the way they did helps their ego a bit and often, as they explain, they see where they can improve. It also makes you look fair.

Be empathetic. You’ve probably had the same problems the other guy is having. So tell him. Be vulnerable and relate how it was hard for you to understand motivation or the three-act structure. Walk in their shoes.

Don’t focus on the person. One of the hardest things beginning writers have to learn is to not take criticism personally. A rejection letter is never about you; it is about your book. So if you’re critiquing something, you might think, “Boy, this guy’s a lousy writer” but never say it. It only makes the other person angry, defensive or hurt. Plus, it makes you look like an ass.

Okay, so you’re done reading a friend’s manuscript. Or you’ve been doing your part in the weekly critique group. You’ve been kind, you’ve been constructive, you’re offering up suggestions that you think might cause a light bulb to go off over the other writer’s head. And then….

They turn on you. They say you don’t understand their genre. Or that if you’re missing the plot points. Or that they intend for you to hate the protagonist. Or that second-person omniscient is the only way the story can be told. I call these folks the Yeah Buts. “Yeah, but if you keep reading, things will get clearer.”  “Yeah but if you read more dystopian Victorian zombie fiction, you’d understand my book…”

You can’t help a Yeah But. Sometimes, they don’t want to hear anything except how great their stuff is. Don’t get angry. Don’t take it personally. You did what you could. Smile and walk away.

P.J. Parrish—September 10, 2019

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There you have it, advice on working with beta readers, and on providing your own feedback on another writer’s novel.

  1. Do you use beta readers? Have you found them helpful?
  2. If you use beta readers, do you provide them with questions to answer, or things to look for?
  3. Have you given feedback on other writers’ novels? How do you approach doing so?

Self-Publishing Words of Wisdom

Self-Publishing Words of Wisdom

Last September I gave a presentation on self-publishing at the Newport, Oregon Public Library, for the Coast Chapter of Willamette Writers. It was well-attended, and there were a lot of thoughtful questions asked by the engaged audience. One of my challenges was focusing on evergreen advice rather than tips for the passing moment. Digital self-publishing has seen a lot of changes since 2008. Gold rushes have come and gone, as have marketing fads. The market has matured. But, you can still make money, possibly pretty good money, perhaps even enough to live well on, and, as important, you can still reach readers directly.

With that in mind, this Saturday’s Words of Wisdom shares excerpts on self-publishing from past January Kill Zone posts. James Scott Bell gives timeless advice on succeeding as a self-publisher, while Joe Moore gives tips on editing yourself, and P.J. Parrish looks at giving your book covers a makeover. It is always a challenge being selective in choosing an excerpt, but especially today. All three posts are worth reading in their entirety, and I provide links to each below.

So what does all this mean for the indie writer, new and used experienced? Is the “gold rush” over? Is the sky falling?

First of all, just like in the Old West, the gold rush made scant millionaires. There were never going to be abundant strikes except for the few. If the gold rush in digital publishing ever was, it was irrelevant to the vast majority of authors.

Second, the key to making a living as a writer (subtle plug for my book of the same name), has not changed and will never change, because it’s always been the same!

To wit:

You have to write books that are good enough to get the people who read them to want to read more from you, and to recommend you to their friends and social circles.

It doesn’t matter how glitzy your marketing or how cleverly you try to game algorithms. You have to be good at what you do. Imagine that! You get rewarded for merit, not gamesmanship!

And that also goes for discoverability, a word that has overstayed its welcome and is too often used as a Cassandra cloak for expostulations of impending doom.

Phooey.

The indie writers I know who were making a living writing in 2013 were still making a living—and in most cases, a better one—in 2014.

I’ve noticed a few things they have in common:

  1. They know their craft.All the successful indie writers I know personally paid their dues back in the “trad old days.” They studied and wrote and sacrificed and wrote and submitted and got rejected and kept writing. They spent years getting good at what they do. When the trad publishing contracts started looking grim compared to what self-publishing offered, they jumped in with one or both feet. And they were ready.

So what does this mean for the newbie writer? It means that you must set your standards high and create what I call a grinder. You must set up a system that holds your writing feet to the fire, and makes you get better at your craft.

Early in my career I was fortunate to work with one of the best fiction editors in the business. He would send me long, single-spaced letters, ripping into my books at the plot, character, and style levels.

I feared those letters. I would place them unopened on the corner of my desk and just look at them for a few days. I had to work myself up into readiness. Finally, I would read them several times, highlight things with a felt-tip pen, and then take a few hours to recover. Then I’d start revising.

I also had to get rid of any chip on my shoulder. I had to be willing to make changes. Yes, on occasion there were things I fought for. But I came to realize that this editor knew his stuff, saw things I could not, and thus made me a better writer.

As a new author, you have to figure out a way to get this kind of grinding feedback, and be willing to dig in and work hard. Some time ago I listed a way to do that with beta readers and a professional editor. Look for it within this post.

James Scott Bell—January 11, 2015

 

The next type of editing is called line editing. Line editing covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did you end all your character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did you forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

This also covers making sure you used the right word. Relying on your word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert you to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once you’ve gone through your manuscript and performed a line edit, have someone else check it behind you. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while you were working on your first draft can get you into trouble if you weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, you’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the line edit phase.

The many stages of editing are a vital part of the writing process. Editing your manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—you’ve read that page or chapter so many times that your eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake that you’ve missed every time because you’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Read your manuscript out loud, or better yet, have someone else read it to you. Mistakes and poor writing will become obvious.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify your writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once you’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for a period of time. Let it rest for a week or even a month if your schedule permits while you work on something else. Remember that indie publishing means that you set the deadline and pub date. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. You’ll be surprised at what you missed.

Joe Moore—January 20, 2016

 

What I think we should pay attention to is:

  • Professionalism
  • Consistency of brand
  • Messaging

Professsionalism means you can’t get away with a lousy, cheap-looking cover. Because it yells in neon to a potential reader “I am an amateur!” This applies especially if you are just starting out. Like they used to tell us in “women’s magazines” — dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Don’t design your own cover unless you have solid graphic background and even then — GET INPUT! Would you edit your own story? No…you get beta-readers, you hire copy editors. (If you do edit your own books, you’re a fool). You might have to hire a pro to do this. There are lots of good ones out there. Please don’t skimp on this. Please.

Consistency of Brand means your books have to look alike. I don’t mean literally, but they have to all be of a kind so potential readers can immediately sense a unified brand.  All good authors do this. And periodically, they go back in and re-design their older books en masse to give them face lifts. Time for an object lesson….

My friend Neil Plakcy (a member of my old critique group) has been publishing his Golden Retriever mystery series for about ten years now. His books are a lot of fun (the dog helps solve the crime), light in tone, but also deal with some serious issues. (his hero did prison time for computer crimes.) Recently, Neil decided he needed a make-over.  The first line is before, the second line is after. Click to see enlarged.

What was wrong with the first ones? Inconsistency in type-faces. Type too small. The main important image (the dog!) was usually too small and static (the dog is just sitting or standing around mainly). No one compelling image for the eye to focus on. The pictures didn’t capture the books’ playful tone. Dull colors. And hard to find Neil’s name!

What is right with the second ones? The type is consistent and DOG is set bigger and in contrasting color to drive home the content in a glance. The subtitle “A Golden Retriever Mystery” is always the same size and in the same place. Neil’s name is consistent and authoritative. There is negative space for blurbs. And the dogs are so cute they make you want to adopt them. These covers look designed, not slapped together.

Disclaimer time: My sister Kelly designed the new covers. She does this as a side business and this is not an infomercial to get her work because I don’t want her attention on anything else but our stuff for now. But she and I also are redesigning our own back list covers.  And, I gotta tell you, it’s not been easy.

P.J. Parrish—January 1, 2019

***

Are you a self-publisher?

What evergreen tips do you have?

What constants do you see in self-publishing?

Tis the Season for Holiday Words of Wisdom

One of my favorite times of year is almost here—the stretch of days from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we can have rain, frost,  snow, even clear and sunny weather. A special time of year to spend with friends and family. Today it’s my good fortune to share past holiday-themed insight and advice from members of our Kill Zone Blog family.

First, Jordan Dane provides “Holiday Food for thought on character conflicts, with great advice on finding and deepening those conflicts. Then, P.J. Parrish asks if your “Book is a Christmas Sweater” in the description department, and discusses how to dress your writing for success. Finally, Debbie Burke gives “Five New Year’s Techniques On Avoiding Butt-in-Chair Syndrome” from 2018.

I encourage you to check out the full posts for each (date linked below) and comment on them. I hope they provide an inspiring basis for discussion today.

What does your character want and why can’t they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. I can’t emphasize this enough. If there is a common mistake many aspiring authors make, it’s not having enough conflict to keep a story flowing through to the end that will drive the characters and keep their story interesting.

Your EXTERNAL CONFLICT might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (INTERNAL CONFLICTS) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery. If you have a hero who is in conflict with a villain, while he’s battling his own demons, then think about creating a heroine who has opposing conflicts where one of them must lose in order to be together. Conflicts are best when layered and made more complicated.

Find your characters’ greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—and demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension. It’s all about drama!

Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey
• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

  • Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.
  • Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

  • Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

Jordan Dane—December 6, 2018

So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you’ve gone too far or haven’t gone far enough? How do you resist gilding the lily? There are no easy answers but here are a few things to think about:

Don’t generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it’s Monopoly. Instead of a “bad smell” use the specific “like sour milk.” But again, don’t reach too hard or you look silly.

Don’t forget to compare and contrast. The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you’re describing something green, it’s your job to come up with something fresher than “grass.” Here’s one of my faves from Steinbeck: “The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.” And come to think of it, Alice’s description of Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle” is pretty good. But again, don’t strain for originality or you just sound pretentious.

Don’t lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don’t strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn…not a “verdant sward.”

Don’t use cliches: It’s easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can’t use “white as snow.” It’s not yours! Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock” or even “overcome with grief.” Time has eroded all those. It’s your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.

Yeah, it’s tough to dress your writing for success. But don’t despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them. But then my sister told me one day that I was — ahem — dressing to impress. I made every writer’s biggest mistake: I fell in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be “writerly.”

Finding your style — be it writing or fashion — is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out. In fact, I have gone too far with my WIP so my critique group friends tell me I am now underwriting and they are advising me to add more description.

P.J. Parrish—December 17, 2013

 

Vision 

Do you have 20/20/20 vision? No, that’s not a typo, but rather an exercise suggested by eye doctors to counteract eyestrain and blurry vision from too much screen time.

Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen to an object at least 20 feet away and focus on it for at least 20 seconds.

For more eye exercises, check out:  http://www.allaboutvision.com/cvs/irritated.htm

 And finally, my favorite exercise…

Go for a walk 

When you take your dog for a walk, she knows what she’s supposed to do. The writer’s brain can be trained and reinforced with praise the same way you train your pooch. As you move muscles and increase blood flow, your brain expels waste.

I confess during walks I’ve left many hot, steaming piles along the pathway. The best part is, unlike the dog, I don’t need a baggie to pick them up!

Once waste thoughts are cleared out, there’s room for new ideas and solutions to bubble up from the subconscious (Check out Jim Bell’s classic post about “the boys in the basement”).

Start training your brain with a small problem: let’s say you’re seeking a particular word that’s eluding you, despite searching the thesaurus. Go for a short walk and let the brain relax. After a few minutes of exercise and fresh air, the elusive word often pops up from the subconscious.

Give yourself a pat on the head and praise, “Good brain!” 

A Milk Bone is optional, your choice.

 Pretty soon, the subconscious learns that when you take a walk, it’s expected to perform, just like Fifi. While it sniffs the bushes and chases a squirrel, it’s also learning to deliver fresh ideas and solutions. The more you positively reinforce the subconscious for its results, the better and more frequently it comes up with solutions.

Walking works for me 100% of the time because my brain is conditioned. If I’m stumped about what a character should do next, or if the plot gets lost down a rabbit hole, I take a spin around the neighborhood. Before long, the uncertain character now knows her next move; or the rabbit hole has led to an unexpected escape route. I can’t wait to rush back to the keyboard eager to implement the solutions my subconscious offered up.

Debbie Burke—January 25, 2018

***

There you have it– putting conflict into your characters’ lives, avoiding your description becoming the literary equivalent of a Christmas sweater, and techniques to avoid the physical consequences of “butt-in-chair” time.

  1. What’s your sure fire way to put more conflict into your characters’s lives?
  2. How do you find the description “happy medium?”
  3. What physical challenges does butt-in-chair time pose for you? How do you mitigate any challenge?

This is my final post of 2022. I wish everyone a wonderful Holiday Season and all the best in 2023.