Writers Chatting: Chapter Three

Welcome back. I thought today we could talk about staying focused when things going on in your life and in the world become a distraction and where you work.

First up: Distractions

Our guest post is from Robyn Bennis, a scientist and airship aficionado living in Mountain View, California. Her book The Guns Above, will be published and available May 2017 – click here for book info.

You’d think “where I write” and “how I stay productive in Nyarlathotep’s America” would be separate topics, but they aren’t. In fact, finding a good space is critical to maintaining focus. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t go to Canada to write. I’m not even sure I’m allowed back after I dressed up as a sled dog and tried to hug that polar bear.

Instead, I make my own writing spaces, employing the sort of contextual readiness that Bob Harris describes in Prisoner of Trebekistan. You see, while Bob was training himself for an appearance on Jeopardy!, he re-created as much of the set as he could in his own apartment. That way, when he went on the show, the familiar context primed his brain to perform.

I do something similar, creating pure writing spaces through mental conditioning. I don’t allow distractions to intrude into those spaces, even when I’m not writing. So, if I’m at my favorite coffee shop and I want to catch up on Twitter, I step outside first—even if I’m only there for a cup of coffee. If I’m writing at a maker space and want to check the news to see whether I still have civil rights, I’ll go into the lobby. Even when I’m writing at home and want to take a Netflix break, I turn the desk around first.

Okay, that last example might bear some elaboration. I live in a studio apartment, so a home office is out of the question. Instead, I’ve tricked my brain into believing that it’s in a different space. When the desk is facing the window, I’m only allowed to write. Through many repetitions of this ritual and, most importantly, never cheating, I can make the room where I eat, sleep, and binge-watch Star Trek into a pure, distraction-free writing space.

And that’s the key to any productive writing space. You must never cheat. Never allow yourself to take one step down the dark path of distraction, and any space can be perfect to write in.

Thanks Robyn – and to everyone else, if you want to share your experience and I can fit it into a topic, email me and we’ll make it work. 

Hillary Rettig is out today, so she won’t be able to check in, but I did ask her if I could post a couple of her articles on how to stay focused when life gets in the way,

grab your timer and do short intervals. (Even a minute or two!) You will make progress and, perhaps even more importantly, keep the material fresh in your head so that you can re-enter it more easily when you have more focus.

And who knows? Maybe a couple of minutes will lead to a couple more, then a couple more, etc.

Did I tell you I sometimes use dice? I have a great purple set from Chessex (gamers’ choice; a cheap indulgence). Sometimes I roll a die to decide which part of my manuscript to work on. (Which chapter or section; they’re all numbered.) It adds a bit of color and fun to the process, and randomness is a great tool against perfectionism because you can’t really take a piece of writing that seriously when you’re only working on it because you rolled it.

Click here to read the whole thing…

And another great idea…BINGO:

When you pick a section at random it’s hard to take the work too seriously or otherwise get perfectionist.

Reader Nathan wrote in with another great randomizing technique from Viviane Schwarz: bingo cages (a.k.a., wheels)….

…. these techniques work is that they get you out of the realm of abstract thought and into something concrete that’s right in front of you. (Abstraction can be tiring.) And they inject some fun and color into the process, which always helps

Read more here.

In the get-to-know you potion of our chat – where do you work? Office desk, kitchen  table, coffee shop, bed…or do you pull a Trumbo and work in the tub?

Ok, have at it, talk about whatever. Keep it positive and have fun! Don’t forget to introduce yourself and  let everyone know what you’re working on and what you want to talk about. Let me know if you have a specific topic you want me to cover in future chats. – TaMara

132 replies
  1. 1

    I did not know Trumbo was from Colorado until I searched out that photo. But I was all to familiar with the headless chicken monument in Colorado.

  2. 2
    Paula says:

    Hi: I’m a long-time reader here, and have posted periodically as PGFan, but wanted to start posting under my name. I missed the first two events. Is there a live chat happening or do we talk in comments? Thanks!

  3. 3

    Hey everyone! I’ll be hanging out for a bit.

    Interesting note: the first (of many) working titles for The Guns Above was Balloon Juice. I always told people that it referred to an old hazing ritual from the 1930’s, among American airship crews. But really, it was named after this blog.

  4. 4
    debbie says:


    Comments. For past threads, click on the quick links at the top and select authors in our midst.

  5. 5
    martian says:

    Oh, thank you so much for this. The Bennis piece is exactly on point for where I am. I was a little unsure if the writers’ group was appropriate for me since I’m winding up to launch into what will probably be a children’s picture book, but this post is what I needed to read today.

  6. 6
  7. 7

    @Paula: Welcome and tell us a bit about your bad self. :-)

  8. 8
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Good morning or afternoon, fellow writers.

    I write mostly at a favorite coffee shop. They are extremely accommodating. Three bucks gets me a cup of Joe with a refill. The joint trends young but creative. The music I can ignore if needs be (sometimes it’s classic CCR, other times jazz, hip hip, new age, world… they’re all over the map). The place is wood and brick mostly, a little funky and dimly-lit. I love it.

  9. 9
    Peter says:

    Hi all-

    (I see that this PSA is slightly OT for today’s subject; I wrote it this morning so I could get it up right out of the gate).

    I was out the other night seeing a friend play music at a bar in town and after his set we were discussing current events, as one does. Though that day had been disheartening, we both took comfort in the warm room full of people and songs; we committed to produce and consume more culture in our community in addition to more overt acts of organizing and resistance.

    Last time here I shared the good news about my book and its impending launch. One of the things we’ve done (we being me and the chef whose work is the subject of the book) besides make the book is start a quarterly; initially it was a pdf newsletter on their site written and shot mostly by me but more recently we moved it to its own url and began enlisting talented people to contribute. We’re interested in culinary culture, and especially in stories that no mainstream magazine would touch. We like transgressive, unusual, edgy, or outré topics in a variety of media. We’ve run a short story about cannibalism, an essay on messy food fetishism in the UK, and a modern dance video based on Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal “Let them eat cake.”

    So this is an invitation to pitch me things: stories, poems, photo essays, whatever you’ve got, provided it has some relevance to the production or consumption of food or drink. There’s a lot of latitude. I’m especially interested in hearing POC/LGBTQ/immigrant voices. But above all, I want people who can fucking write. (Or do whatever it is really well). We pay our contributors.

    As with any pitch, it’s always a good idea to acquaint yourself with the publication. The link above takes you to the current issue; the little square in the upper left corner takes you to the archive. The most recent issues are at the bottom of that page; those are the ones to peruse for a sense of what we do. Older issues are the pdfs and less salient.

    I’ve always had a big issue with people who pull ladders up behind them once they’ve made it. Now that that ethos has become rather more prominent, I think it’s doubly important to use any advantage we receive to help others. Given the speed of current change, there’s a decent chance that by the time my book tour starts we’ll all be neck deep in C.H.U.D.s and/or Sleestak, but until then I want to do my tiny part to help get worthy voices heard. Hit me up. acookblog at [well-known email service provided by Google]

  10. 10

    @martian: When you are ready, give me a link and I will make sure it gets a little love on the front page.

  11. 11

    @Peter: And this is why I love this community.

    I’m writing up a recipe at the moment, so I’ll stop back later and see anyone needs anything.

  12. 12
    jacy says:

    One thing I find that helps to stay focused is to write about something — anything. It’s hard to work on a project, because you need to find the time, you need to have a workable atmosphere (whether that’s in a coffee shop, in a home office, or even out in nature with your laptop), and you need to kind of clear your mental decks so that you can actually put words down. When I had a good writing regimen going, I found it helpful to start out the day by blogging or writing an essay about whatever was on my mind, and that worked to get the words flowing and warm up my brain. THEN I could work on the project at hand. Writing is one of those things that takes constant exercise, and it doesn’t really matter how you do it, just do it. So when you’re having trouble staying focused on the writing you want to do, just start by writing what’s top of mind.

  13. 13
    RSA says:

    Congratulations on your debut novel, Robyn! Tor is major league.

  14. 14
    martian says:

    @TaMara (HFG): Thank you so much, Tamara! I will have to seriously consider whether I can bring myself to shed the pseudononymity here, but that is so generous of you.

    @Peter: Would you be interested in visual art submissions?

  15. 15

    I write in the café at my local B&N. I regularly work at the same time and for a set period of time (2 hours). Because I work regularly, rather than waiting for inspiration, my muse knows where and when to turn up. Also, sitting there for 2 hours not writing would be boring, so eventually my brain starts spitting out words.

    I do have a question for other people who write in spaces like this. I’ve been editing printed pages and drafting by hand, so I haven’t been taking my laptop. If you take your laptop, what do you do with it when you go to the restroom?

  16. 16
    jacy says:

    As to where I work — I’ve worked in different places. I have a mystery series that I wrote with my best friend. We used to write together in a coffee shop, and it was great fun. Then I moved away and we had to writer over the phone, which was generally not as fun.

    I’m very fortunate now that I have a home office that is separate from my house. I actually have to go outside, walk down the the portico and unlock the door to go to work.

  17. 17
    Peter says:

    @martian: Sure. We ran a portfolio of paintings in the previous issue. Take a look.

  18. 18
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Hello, Peter. Not entirely sure how it applies, but in Nevada City, CA, there is a book store called Toad Hall Books. They have something they call The Cannibal Room (a very small, doorless closet really) that is devoted to the odd subject of cannibalism and ancient, dangerous cultures, and such. It raises a few eyebrows to be sure.

    Curiously enough, at the museum a couple short blocks away, is a permanent feature on the Donner Party. The town is not terribly far from the events of that notorious group of misadventurers.

  19. 19
    martian says:

    @Robyn Bennis: Congratulations!

  20. 20

    Hello again! I was stuck in moderation for a second there, but TaMara must have freed me.

    And thank you, RSA! And Martian! I am still processing that, a year after the deal was signed.

  21. 21
    Paula says:

    @TaMara (HFG): Thanks TaMara!

    I’m a longtime political junkie. I live in Ohio and build websites for a living in partnership with my husband (a graphic designer). I’ve written bloggy things for myself, for clients, on other blogs etc. for years but always wanted to write novels. A couple of years ago I decided the time had come and I wrote Wynne Frost and The Soul of Remorse, a Progressive Political Fantasy.

    I Indie published in July and promptly got caught up in the election — volunteered for HRC and damn near had a nervous breakdown after election night. I had been thinking some of the topics in my novel would be rendered moot after HRC would be elected — HA!

    Anyway, I’ve been working away on #2 Wynne Frost novel and am a few scenes away from completion of my first draft. I hope to have it revised and available in May-June-July — we’ll see.

    I learned how to format manuscripts for ebook publication and so have book available in hardback, paperback and ebook formats. Am learning all about promoting self-published fiction. Have to get back to actually doing some of that, assuming the world doesn’t end! Sigh.

  22. 22
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    The coffee shop where I write is smallish and filled with regulars. I can ask a stranger to keep an eye on my stuff for a few and feel comfortable doing so. At a big B&N, maybe it’s different.

  23. 23
    Brachiator says:

    A software question. Do people use or recommend Scrivener?

    I am honestly asking for a friend and only secondarily for myself.

  24. 24
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Are you the writer and illustrator of your children’s book, Martian?

    I’ve written a children’s book, but am no artist, so I’m destined to go traditional publishing on that one. I’m in SCBWI, I have the ’17 market, but it’s a daunting process doing the business of writing: cover letters, etc.

  25. 25
    Paula says:

    As for working environment: I sit on my couch with my iPad for first drafting. I use NOTES and every 20 days I send the those 20 “sessions” to my desktop. (I have an external backup drive too, to ensure I have copies!).

    When I decided to get serious I told myself I would sit down everyday and write 500 words or write for 1 hour — whichever came first. After awhile it shifted to “I will write 500 words everyday, however long it takes” — because it often takes 1.5-2.5 hours.

    This is always in the evenings.

    When my first draft of first book was done I shifted everything to my desktop, using a program called Jer’s Novel Writer, where I did all the revising. I enjoyed doing that immensely and could spend hours at a time — on weekends, literally 12-15 hours a day. I am looking forward to revising #2 and am almost there.

    For me, the “hard” part is the first draft — the sheer creation of story, events, etc.

  26. 26
    jacy says:

    Scrivener is great. Writers love it. It’s easy to us, has lots of bells and whistles specifically for writers, and doesn’t have all the gremlins that Word does.
    It makes life a lot easier. Also, customer support is very good. My only caveat is to make sure you back everything up in another program. I had the problem of losing a manuscript once and couldn’t not get it back when I had to reinstall Scrivener. So I always copy what I’ve got and throw it into Word just to I have another backup.

  27. 27
    Brachiator says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    If you take your laptop, what do you do with it when you go to the restroom?

    I don’t yet do creative writing, but I do a lot of technical writing for work. And also blog posting.

    I do some work at the library or a coffee shop, and I always take my laptop with me to the restroom. There might be some rare occasion when I can ask someone to watch my laptop.

    But even with the ability to save to the cloud, I cannot risk losing my laptop. Also, when I am out of the house, I either use a Chromebook or a small inexpensive laptop that is good enough for browsing, document editing and editing a power point presentation. And watching a movie when I need a break.

  28. 28
    stinger says:

    Congratulations, Robyn! I look forward to reading The Guns Above.

    I’ve gotten my workshop’s feedback on the reworking of the final two chapters, and am now writing a synopsis. A couple of days ago, I participated in an online seminar on writing and selling historical fiction. Registrants are entitled to send a bit of their novels, a synopsis, and a log line for the presenter’s critique. Most of what I’ve seen online says that log lines are for movies, but I’ve written one anyway.

    I write at my dining table, since I have no desk, or on the sofa, or wherever I am and have a few minutes that I don’t have to be thinking about something else.

    ETA: I’ve started up a bad cold, which I hope I didn’t pass on to my 94-yr-old mother and her friends at the living center yesterday!

  29. 29


    Seconded. I don’t use Scrivener myself, but a lot of writers swear by it. Aaaand a lot of the same writers have horror stories about nearly losing a manuscript.

    Incremental backups! You can never have enough incremental backups.

  30. 30
    Mnemosyne says:

    I have been suffering through a monthlong attack of “everything you write is shit and I don’t know why you’d think anyone would be interested in reading it.” This is accompanied by a feeling that I can’t free-write on my book and call it progress, because I’m probably not going to use that free writing except to inform my characters, so taking time to free write actually puts me further behind on the “real” writing.

    Oh, and the voice in my head that tells me that, if I can’t push through these feelings and write anyway, I must not be meant to be a writer, isn’t helpful, either. Thanks again, purportedly “helpful” asshole who told me that many years ago and got it stuck in my brain.

  31. 31
    Brachiator says:


    .So I always copy what I’ve got and throw it into Word just to I have another backup..

    Thanks. This is good to know.

    Can you install Scrivener on more than one machine?

  32. 32
    martian says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Yes, I’m an artist. I’m at the very beginning of my process, just getting my bearings as it were. I haven’t joined SCBWI yet, but it’s on my list. What’s the age group for your book?

    @Peter: I haven’t found the paintings yet, but the portfolio of nudes is gorgeous. It was love at first sight for a couple of them and a few more that I need to think about, absorb, and consider again, which is a lovely thing in itself, in my opinion.

  33. 33
    Peter says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Very cool. I always wanted to work as a restaurant host for the sole purpose of saying “Donner, party of eight?” to a waiting crowd.

  34. 34
    Paula says:

    @Mnemosyne: Per my researches elsewhere, many people are overly-critical of what they produce during their first-draft-writing which causes them to choke. We all have different processes, but for me, the first draft is all about getting people from a to b to c — working out what happens, getting a beginning, middle and end. The finessing happens in the revisions. First drafts won’t have your best writing and don’t need to.

  35. 35
    stinger says:

    @Brachiator: Strongly recommend Scrivener. It allows you to track, sort, annotate, and rename chapters or segments while keeping the text itself separate from annotations, unlike Word and other word processing software. I couldn’t have written a novel without it. I’m just a basic user–others can probably extol its other virtues.

  36. 36
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Thanks for asking… the age range for my book is 5-9. But I’m in tricksy territory: the word count is longer than what the Writer’s Market pronounces acceptable. They say 500 words is the limit, BUT I have read lots of picture books to my daughter which had many, many more words.

    I like the story the way it is. And I think kids are quite capable of dealing with more than two short sentences per page of a 32-page children’s book.

    Any thoughts, anyone?

  37. 37

    @Mnemosyne: Can I ask how many words you’re at, Mnem? Because I’m at the same stage with my current novel and I’m around 35K, which is when it always hits. I know that and somehow it doesn’t help.

    Have you ever seen this chart? It’s funny because it’s true.

  38. 38
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Ah, just as someone wheels a cart past upon which lies a nude person strategically covered in food in that curious (is it Japanese?) tradition.

  39. 39

    @stinger: Thank you!

    @Mnemosyne: I second Paula’s great advice. On the first draft, just get whatever you can down on the page, even if you think it’s going to get cut later. Just feeling out your characters is incredibly valuable, especially if you go back and rewrite chapter 1 with what you’ve learned about them in mind.

    I’ve actually been paying attention to this while reading, and you can always spot an author who’s thrown out a lot of material early in the book, because their characters shine from the first page. In other books, you can tell that the characters aren’t fully formed until a few chapters in, and it makes for a less compelling opening.

  40. 40

    I found the election unbelievably depressing, and it affected my ability to write badly. I’m only now getting back to what I consider full steam. One important technique was to limit news sources from places where there’s too much anger or doom and gloom. Even now, I’ll probably take another break from reading BJ soon. That’s specific to me, but what isn’t specific is managing your emotions. A lot of writing is figuring out what you need to write.

    To the OP question, I write at my desk, in my comfy chair. It means few outside interruptions, only the controlled environment that helps me manage my ADHD.

    @Robyn Bennis:
    I write every chapter individually, and save it as its own file. Then I email that to an alpha reader. The gmail record has saved my ass before.

  41. 41
    Mnemosyne says:


    I think that’s part of the problem, though — I think the writing in my first drafts is actually pretty good, or at least not terrible. But everyone tells me that first drafts are shit and the writing is terrible. So, obviously, I don’t know what good writing is if I stop and think, Hey, that’s pretty good about something I just put in my first draft.

    Yes, my brain is weird and the self-talk that other people find to be encouraging is actually discouraging to me. I haven’t been able to figure out what to do about that.

  42. 42

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): It may be less about what children can handle than what the market is looking for at the moment. I write for teens, but at SCWBI meetings, I’ve heard people say the word count for picture books is going down.

  43. 43
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    Oh, that chart is funny, largely for being so true!

  44. 44
    Peter says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): I remember that from Tampopo. I can’t offer much about the word count for a kid’s book, but for that age group it’s still often the parents reading so I’m not sure why it matters so much.

  45. 45
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    I also am working on YA material, too.

    Declining word counts… the continuing dumbing down of society? (he suggests darkly).

  46. 46
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    I think I was under about 30K last time I checked, out of a needed 90K (it’s genre, so there’s an expected word count). I still love my idea, but I doubt my ability to fully execute it and I can’t manage to give myself permission to just half-ass it for the first draft. I also have a bad habit of underwriting, but I’m trying to tell myself to just get the characters and dialogue down on the page and I can put the description in later. Which will then mean that my first draft will be short and that will also drive me nuts. ARGH!

  47. 47
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Changing tastes are so irksome to work with and predict… I very occasionally walk through a mall and it’s very obvious that everything on display is apricot (or slate blue or plaid or whatever)… then six months later, “apricot is so gauche, darling!”

    The same seems to hold true in literature. Your book simply MUST have a dog in it… the next year, god forbid there’s a dog in your book.

    I’m venting. My apologies.

  48. 48
    martian says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Rules are made to be broken. If everyone produces exactly to guidelines, a certain sameness takes over, right? I wouldn’t take the words out if you feel strongly about the whole, especially before the work has been submitted and seen. Is that not the kind of criticism you’d work through with an editor? I’m a complete n00b, though.

  49. 49

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): With picture books, I think publishers are just looking for a different balance between pictures and words. I don’t what their thinking is. I’m not sure they do either. If publishers knew the recipe for big selling books, they would all be rich.

  50. 50
    Peter says:

    I have a friend who is a Famous Writer (MacArthur grant, etc.) and his method is simple: he rents a studio in a building in Brooklyn and keeps a laptop there which has had all Internet capability removed. He takes a thumb drive home at the end of the day to back it up. I write in my home office, which is nice and quiet. The absence of distractions is key; I tend to need Internet for research as I’m working, so as a result it can be difficult to focus sometimes, especially what with the actual apocalypse unfolding before our eyes.

    On the plus side, I got an advance copy of the book last week so I actually got to hold the result of three years of work in my own hands. I’m not going to lie; it felt good.

  51. 51
    Mnemosyne says:

    So I guess this is my question for people who have actually published: do you worry about hitting a specific word count in the first draft, or is that something you focus more on for the rewrite? Obviously, if I’m writing something that needs to end up around 90K words and my first draft is 10K words, that’s a problem, but do I really need to meet or exceed my proposed word count in the first draft?

  52. 52

    @Mnemosyne: I so sympathize. My first drafts are always short. That’s because I tell rather than show. And I leave out all the nice details because I haven’t been smart enough to know them yet. And I short all the emotion. I comfort myself by saying no one will ever see this unless I let them.

    Actually, that feeling turns out be related to the question TaMara posted up top, because that’s the moment when I just keep shuffling my depressed way into B&N and churning out my 2 hours worth of work. Eventually, if I do that long enough, there’s a draft. A crappy one, but I’ve cleared my cache of what I knew when I started and things can only get better.

  53. 53

    @Mnemosyne: Just my experience but as I say above my first drafts are always short and my revisions include a lot of addition. I know people who work the other way and spit out excessively long drafts that they then have to trim. I don’t know how they do that.

  54. 54

    For some reason, my books are predictably in the 100k word range. I think it’s a subtle side effect of how much plot I feel is required to make a good story. I plan that plot out in great detail before I even start writing, so my story level edits are always tiny.

  55. 55
    Paula says:

    @Mnemosyne: The writing probably IS pretty good! The key is to not worry about it at all, trust that you will be able to improve whatever needs improving later. Perfectionism in first drafts will just slow you down and kill the flow. And even then the flow won’t be there constantly by any stretch. Some nights it takes me quite awhile to get anything going at all but I tell myself to trust and to open to the flow, and then it comes.

    Per comment 46, absolutely give yourself permission to half-ass it for now. The achievement is getting through the first draft with an actual story that starts somewhere and ends somewhere. That’s all you need to shoot for. At least for me, it was soooo much easier to add scenes, cut scenes, beef up scenes, etc. once I had something to work with.

  56. 56


    I do try to hit a word count in the first draft, but I don’t worry too much if I’m trending away from it. For The Guns Above, I was aiming for 90k, and trending well above that on the first draft, so I reworked the back end of the book to make it shorter… and still overshot by 20k words. But on every subsequent draft, I cut a few thousand words out, until it was back around 90k. Then, after I got a book deal, I snuck a bunch of the cut material back in during production. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.

  57. 57
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    10,000 words sounds like a (solid) short story. Your aim is a novel-length work though… does your story want to be a novel? Maybe it wants to be a short story.

    If it DOES want to be a novel, I think you’ll need to make the plot and themes more complex, perhaps introduce subplots and a new character or three.

  58. 58
    Paula says:

    @Iowa Old Lady: Mid-point is always the hard place (say I, with only 1 full book and 1 nearly complete first draft of second books :-) — but I think that is where people tend to bog down. You start out with a rush, and you have some idea (or a very clear idea) of where you want to end up, but there’s all those words inbetween! You essentially have to come up with the events that keep your situation from resolving immediately and they have to make sense and be interesting and yada, yada.

    When I hit that point I realized that was where the creative process would REALLY kick in. I had to feel some faith in my characters — who often start to do unexpected things — and faith that my “unconscious” knows things I don’t and will lead me.

  59. 59

    @Iowa Old Lady: Ok, I just save that to front page on the next writers post.

  60. 60

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Also, novellas are making a big comeback. Anything in the 20-40k word range is very marketable right now.

  61. 61
    martha says:

    I finally finished my first draft (historical western) last month and decided to try Scrivener as I embark on some major edits for the second draft. So far, I really like it! But thanks for the tip on backing up my backups! I am lucky–I have a home office. I’ve also found that if I dedicate two hours each day, then I get more written than if I wait for inspiration. Usually, that two hours turns into three or four. If not, I’ve at least noodled over things in a useful way.

    I will be making some fairly big changes in the second draft to better define characters, add more conflict, etc. My major conflict is fine, but there’s not enough energy, I think.

  62. 62
    Peter says:

    @Mnemosyne: I don’t think the first draft needs to hit the number. I tend to go over and then cut (a lot), but I know others who spend time with the draft and build on it. There are so many ways to work and we’re all wired differently.

  63. 63
    Paula says:

    Re: word count — I wanted Soul of Remorse to be about 90,000 words. The first draft came out at 100,000. I was easily able to cut 10,000, but then added 10,000 during revisions. So the book is just over 100,000.

    But I think, because I started with that intention, the book just filled in for me. Had I wanted to do 50,000 I think my story would have been simpler. So just set the intention — your mind can make it happen.

  64. 64
    Paula says:


    We’re all wired differently.

    Yes! Embrace that and blow off anyone who tells you you have to do things a certain way.

  65. 65

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): I think Mnem is around 30K at the moment. She’s just worrying.

  66. 66
    debbie says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    I used to be a publisher’s rep for children’s books. It’s all in the story. Leave it as it is if you think best.

  67. 67
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Robyn Bennis:

    Yes, novellas in e-form are popular. That very odd pRon niche involving dinosaurs have made some people a lot of money. I heard about it on Felecia Day’s webcast book club Vaginal Fantasy (Yup, that’s the name.)

  68. 68
    Keith P. says:

    I work at an office desk mainly, but sometimes I work in a dialysis chair (4 hours with few interruptions is a rarity in today’s shitworld)

  69. 69

    @TaMara (HFG): Sadly I didn’t make that chart up and don’t remember where I found it. I do consult it regularly!

  70. 70
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    Oh, I’m sorry. I thought I read she was stuck at 10K. My error.

  71. 71
    debbie says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    Your chart’s also true for art.

  72. 72
    Paula says:

    @Frankensteinbeck: After the election I basically went offline until the Women’s March. I literally couldn’t follow the news. I don’t do any TV news; we have internet access but no cable tv because I HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT CABLE TV; I get all my news online.

    Taking a vacation from news probably saved my sanity. The Women’s March gave me hope about the resistance — I feel much more optimistic today than I did on November 9th.

    We’re all built differently. I had given a whole lot of volunteer time to the HRC campaign — I felt I could take a break while people who were newly-activated, or had only been spectators to the election, could step in to fill the breach. And they have and are! So step back if you need to and recharge. Meditation helps!

  73. 73
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Thank you, Debbie. I don’t want to ignore publisher edicts, of course, but there’s git to be room for odd ducks, too, as it were.

  74. 74
    Paula says:

    I said I use my iPad for first drafting. Let me add, I have a Microsoft Portable Bluetooth keyboard that I LOVE. It is smaller than a full desktop keyboard (doesn’t have the extra numbers section and all that) but is curved (ergonomic) and full-size re: the letters, etc. I can prop the iPad wherever and set the keyboard on my lap and type away. In summer I can take it all outside!

  75. 75
    Peter says:

    @Paula: Understanding our own natures and working with rather than against them is most of the battle.

  76. 76
    Derelict says:

    Second this. I’ve been a professional writer for almost 40 years. Three books, thousands of magazine articles, hundreds of speeches, and I long ago stopped counting direct-mail and marketing stuff. I know many writers who work hard on their first draft, suffer writer’s block, and go through hell trying to get their words just right. Are they doing it wrong? Not if they’re producing copy they’re happy with–and especially not if they’re producing copy someone is willing to pay for.

  77. 77
    Paula says:


    Understanding our own natures and working with rather than against them is most of the battle.


  78. 78
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    I am old school. I use for first drafts a good pen and a Milquelrius note pad. Quirky as hell, but so it goes.

  79. 79
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Congrats, Peter, on being able to at last hold the fruit of three year’s labor!

    Thank you to those who are already professional writers for offering your insights to those of us still trying to make a first sale.

  80. 80
    Paula says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): “Old school” — whatever works!

  81. 81
    Paula says:

    @Derelict: Yep!

    @Peter: Congratulations!

  82. 82
    Paula says:

    So is anyone here self-publishing? Or everyone trying to go traditional?

  83. 83

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): I do that too. I found the pace of handwriting matched the pace of my thinking. When I drafted on the computer, I’d get to the end of the sentence before I thought of the next one, and that was all it took to send me surfing all over the net.

  84. 84
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    I’m going traditional for my children’s books, self for my YA.

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    Mnemosyne says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Yes, sorry, that may have been confusing. I’m close to 30K right now with quite a few more scenes that still need to be written. I’m trying to get over my feeling that people who write more words than they need and then cut back are the only ones “doing it right,” so therefore I’m “doing it wrong” by writing fewer words and then expanding.

    And with that, I need to get up and shower, put on my Regency-era dress, and go to the Jane Austen Tea Dance in Pasadena. Thanks, everyone!

  87. 87
    Marina says:

    I work behind a closed door in a small room with a cat watching me. It’s hard to focus. I keep refreshing David Fahrenthold’s Twitter feed.

    Two questions:

    When I try to paste a writing sample from Word (version 2011) into a query email, I get teeny-tiny type that nobody in their right mind would read. Submission guidelines are specific: no attachments. Does anyone out there have a suggestion? I’ve Googled to no avail.

    What to do when the guidelines ask that you describe your novel in terms of existing novels (e.g., “combines the whimsy of ‘Carrie’ with the fast-paced wit of ‘The Stranger’)? If it was like another novel it would BE another novel… I just don’t get it.

    Suggestions are much appreciated.

  88. 88
    martha says:

    @Paula: I’m not sure. Originally, I had thought I would go for traditional, since I started my novel in a class led by published authors. I need to do some more research on self-publishing. I do realize how much self- marketing and self-promotion both will require.

  89. 89
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Say hello to Wil and Ann Wheaton there!

  90. 90
    martian says:

    @Paula: I’m looking into self for my children’s book. Actually, trying to figure out if doing it first as a reading app makes sense as an idea.

  91. 91

    @Paula: I sold my two MG/YA fantasy novels to two different small presses. The first one closed its doors at the end of August, at which point my rights reverted to me and I self published it. What I’d really like is better promotion from someone, even if it has to be me, but I’m inept.

  92. 92
    NMgal says:

    I’ve only embarked in the past two years on fiction writing. Previously, I’ve been a writer and editor in PR and government affairs so have reasonable facility in putting words together, but on the low end of the creativity scale. I’ve been in the job market recently so have had to go back and dig up writing samples, and man are they old… I’ve been editing almost exclusively for about 10 years, freelance. I’m a really good copy and line editor, and working on my developmental chops, would love to get more into fiction editing.

    What I’ve got is a single extensive story that fits in the fantasy genre, maybe paranormal romance, not sure. I’ve never been a big fantasy fan. Weird. I started writing it down as a screenplay, then converted to teleplays when it became obvious that the story is too long for features (it would take about eight). I have enough material in the first story arc for probably four seasons on basic cable.

    A couple of months ago I started converting it to novel form, and am about 40,000 words into the first draft of the first book. I figure there’s about a dozen 90-100k books in the first series. I have teleplays written that cover the plot of the first book that are serving me as a combination outline and source of dialogue, and a combination of outlines and written scenes for the rest of the story arc.

    So any insights into adapting a screenplay back into a novel instead of the other way around would be welcome!

  93. 93
    Peter says:

    @Paula: We made the book fully intending to self-publish and then sold it when it was 90% done (fully designed and everything). As a result, we got (very nearly total) creative control and final cut but someone else is handling distribution and a big chunk of the PR.

    @Marina: You should be able to reformat the text in the body of your email using the mail program’s tools.

  94. 94
    Paula says:

    @martha: Yes, when you go Indie it’s all on you and there’s a lot to learn. I’m sure there will be discussions on all that in future chats here. I’m sure you’ve read one of the umpteenth articles about the pros and cons of Indie vs. Trad…

  95. 95
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Honestly, if you let your marvelous voice show in your queries, you should do well, Marina. I loved that line about Carrie and L’etranger!

  96. 96
    Paula says:

    Peter: How wonderful! We can follow how it all unfolds!

  97. 97

    @Marina: When you paste in your sample, can you then highlight it and go to the top of the email and select a larger font size? Does that work?

    Re what other books yours are like, they’re trying to figure market. What books do you like that are sort of like your? Maybe they have a rogue hero, or a political twist or something. You can just name them. You don’t have to do the cross thing.

  98. 98
    Paula says:

    @Marina: If you can’t fix your cutting/pasting problem in your email program, try pasting into a plain text editor first, which should strip out the Word formatting. Word is notorious for these kinds of problems.

  99. 99
    NMgal says:

    @Peter: I edited and laid out a novel for a friend (who published and sold well in the 80s but hasn’t got a contract now) and am kind of hoping for the same deal. The book is edited clean and the inside is well designed, using the template established in the self-published first edition. We just need a cover and a convert for epub and we’d be good to go for Amazon. But I’m encouraging the author to query agents and get a traditional deal, because distribution and marketing are the thing. I realize that authors have to do more nowadays than previously even if they have a big publisher deal, but this guy I just can’t see hacking the total self-marketing route. Typical of many, I think, he’s tenacious at getting his story written but easily distracted and discouraged with the boring stuff that it takes to get it to where more than his friends can read it.

    Do you think that being almost “good to go” was a help in marketing to a publisher? Did you have an agent?

    Thanks BTW for the invitation to pitch — sent to a couple of freelancer friends.

  100. 100
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Yes, I’ve read those directives to describe your story in comparison to what is out there.

    I was told once, however, by a former Simon and Schuster editor-turned-lit professor that publishing houses recognize letter templates produced from the Writer’s Digest. I was told that when an editor meets such a query, they immediately reject it, thinking, “This clown can’t even produce an original query letter.”

    Damned if you do….

  101. 101

    I have to get some painting done, but I’ll check up on the thread later to see if there is anything I need to address. And if you want to help me out and come up with some topics going forward, I’d be grateful.

  102. 102
    Peter says:

    Thanks, everyone. As I said up top, community matters. I’m looking forward to seeing what people send me. (Latecomers can check comment #9 for details.)

    Above all, perseverance is essential. As I said on Twitter this morning, “Never give up on your dreams, kids. If you’re feeling frustrated, remember: it took 75 long years, but the Nazis finally won World War II.”

  103. 103
    Derelict says:

    Don’t get too caught up in guidelines like that. I once had an editor kick back an article three times because it wasn’t “lyrical.” I later found out that he had no idea what lyrical actually meant, but he thought it was something his readers really liked.

    Take cold comfort in the thought that better than 90% of all queries and submissions don’t make it past the intern’s desk. Acquisition editors are deluged with crap, and most of it really is crap. (I once received a query letter with the salutation “Greatings!”) But if you have an opening that really works, it won’t much matter what the guidelines say as long as you’re in the ballpark of the genre/type/topic the publisher is looking for.

  104. 104
    martha says:

    @Paula: Oh yes. And I’ve done quite a bit of marketing in my working life, so I know what’s entailed…ugh LOL. I’m going to cross that bridge in a few months, when I’ve gotten through many of my revisions and I’m more comfortable sharing the whole thing. I started out writing a genre book. Now, I’m wondering if it’s simply a stand-alone novel. My editing will help me decide. I can “hire” my ex-instructors to give me a final review + their advice if I want. We’ll see.

  105. 105
    NMgal says:


    As I said on Twitter this morning, “Never give up on your dreams, kids. If you’re feeling frustrated, remember: it took 75 long years, but the Nazis finally won World War II.”

    Goddam, that made me laugh out loud. And then say, “Oh my god that’s awful.” Kudos.

  106. 106
    stinger says:


    What to do when the guidelines ask that you describe your novel in terms of existing novels (e.g., “combines the whimsy of ‘Carrie’ with the fast-paced wit of ‘The Stranger’)? If it was like another novel it would BE another novel….

    I know! My story was inspired by, and I suppose is “most like”, a novel published 30 years ago. The guidelines I’ve seen say you have to compare it to something published in the last year or two. I can’t begin to keep up with what’s just been published!

  107. 107
    EBT says:

    The only work the last month as far as prose goes has been to finally find the spell check on notepad++. I have however done a lot for the code half of my interactive fiction. Including making restarting work correctly.

  108. 108
    Paula says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Damned if you do….

    There’s a lot of that in the traditional publishing route.

  109. 109

    @stinger: Sometimes you can say “the book should appeal to readers who enjoyed X and Y.”

  110. 110
  111. 111
    Paula says:

    This was fun! Look forward to more but gotta go now! Everyone, Happy Writing and do what you can to stay sane!

  112. 112
    Joyce H says:

    I work in the ‘library’ in my house. (The builder called it the third bedroom.) I live out in the country and don’t have a laptop to take out to coffee shops, just an antique old desktop, so often during my working hours, I’ll open a browser tab to a great website called Coffitivity. It’s an ambient sound site that gives you the sound of a bustling coffee shop. You hear voices but can’t really hear what people are saying, just the background murmur. What’s neat is when you choose Paris Cafe, and the murmuring has a French accent!


  113. 113
    Joyce H says:


    So is anyone here self-publishing?

    I’m self-published, have published four Regencies and two cozy mysteries. Look up Joyce Harmon on Amazon.

  114. 114
    Steeplejack (tablet) says:


    When I try to paste a writing sample from Word (version 2011) into a query email, I get teeny-tiny type that nobody in their right mind would read.

    You can change the font size once it is in the e-mail. You don’t say what program you’re using, but in Gmail, for example, after you have inserted your tiny Word text you can select all the text in the e-mail message (press Ctrl-A or select with mouse) and make it one consistent size.

  115. 115
    stinger says:

    @Iowa Old Lady: I can do that, assuming x and y are not book titles but rather descriptors. E.g., “readers who enjoy a strong female lead and adversaries who are not wholly despicable”.

  116. 116
    Steeplejack (tablet) says:


    When I try to paste a writing sample from Word (version 2011) into a query email, I get teeny-tiny type that nobody in their right mind would read.

    You can change the font size once it is in the e-mail. You don’t say what program you’re using, but in Gmail, for example, after you have inserted your tiny Word text you can select all the text in the e-mail message (press Ctrl-A or select with mouse) and make it one consistent size.

  117. 117
    Steeplejack (tablet) says:


    When I try to paste a writing sample from Word (version 2011) into a query email, I get teeny-tiny type that nobody in their right mind would read.

    You can change the font size once it is in the e-mail. You don’t say what program you’re using, but in Gmail, for example, after you have inserted your tiny Word text you can select all the text in the e-mail message (press Ctrl-A or select with mouse) and make it one consistent size.

  118. 118
    Steeplejack (tablet) says:


    When I try to paste a writing sample from Word (version 2011) into a query email, I get teeny-tiny type that nobody in their right mind would read.

    You can change the font size once it is in the e-mail. After you have inserted your tiny Word text, select all the text in the e-mail message (press Ctrl-A or select with mouse) and make it one consistent size.

  119. 119
    Steeplejack (tablet) says:


  120. 120
    Steeplejack (tablet) says:


    When I try to paste a writing sample from Word (version 2011) into a query email, I get teeny-tiny type that nobody in their right mind would read.

    You can change the font size once it is in the e-mail. After you have inserted your tiny Word text, select all the text in the e-mail message (press Ctrl-A or select with mouse) and make it one consistent size.

  121. 121
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    @Mnemosyne: Hello! And welcome to this meeting of the Needs Moar Description Club! I’m Rail, your Member At Large. *hefts my Ask Me Anything sign* I’m a Lifetime Member!

    I can see that our first order of business is reassuring you that it’s PERFECTLY OK to write the dialog and sketch out stage directions first. It sometimes helps to think of writing a longform piece like making a movie: script, then set dressing and costume descriptions, if your personal workflow goes that way.

    It’s up to you how you define a first draft. Personally, I think of the dialog and directions as half of a draft; it’s not a first draft until I’ve filled in the descriptions. I do that because I have a tendency to not add in enough description if I call it done after the story bones are in place. I’m really bad about not describing things when the POV character probably wouldn’t have time to notice them. Bad for my reader when I do that, though.

  122. 122
    EBT says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism: My first draft was (is as it is still growing) a 160 page flow chart. It’s been working for me as I commit ideas to word.

  123. 123

    I’m always way late to this thread and don’t know if anyone will see this. I just can’t wake up at 4am or whatever awful hour it is. But I wish I could. It’s great to see so many writers here.

    I spent this weekend working on my website and the beginnings of a newsletter for a readership that currently numbers a whopping zero. But, I’m hopeful. My book launches next weekend, or so I’m told from the small Indie publisher I’m contracted with. Marketing is definitely on my brain.

    I’m working on book 2. I sit at my dining room table b/c that’s all the space I’ve got. When I get kicked out of there, I type wherever I can.

    Some tips on staying focused are to finish your writing mid scene. That makes it easier to pick up and get back into the story the next day. Another is to read over what you did the previous day (only that section!) and do some light editing and then get back into the story and write your new section. One more tip is that when you’re ready to call it a day, to write down some notes as to where you see the next section flowing. That way when you sit down again, you have some ideas on how to get back into the flow.

    Finally, on productivity, you can try the Pomodoro Method (haven’t tried it, but some recommend), the Chunky Method (Google Allie Pleiter ?) or find writing groups/people and set up some writing sprints.

    Maybe next week I’ll be able to catch you all in real time…

    ETA for clarity. Haven’t finished my first cup of java.

  124. 124
    Johannes says:

    Hey, Tokyo Expat–I just got here, myself. Sunday’s a full day flr me, and I don’t get to stop until about now.

    I’m working on a second novel, a sequel to my first. How do I resist distraction gremlins? I write to music–no lyrics, nothing too good (Bach completely f—-d up a day’s work for me once), but vaguely evocative of the mood I’m striving for. So, for example, inmy Victorian-era novel of English political life, I used John Barry’s score for Mary Queen of Scots quite a lot. Somehow it (mostly) works.

  125. 125
    Applejinx says:

    Whew, finally have ten minutes for the writer thread

    @Mnemosyne: Whoa, take it easy, you’re doing FINE. There’s nothing wrong with how you’re writing, and there’s nothing wrong with your frustration: you need context, I think.

    Book writing is NOT like poetry (unless maybe you’re Ray Bradbury, and it’s his short stories that have the real magic for him). You have to cover a lot of ground and it’s not the case that you’ll be ‘writing huge amounts and cutting it back to only the most precious tingly bits’.

    Why? Because novel writing is done mostly inside the reader. You must build up a whole world, and lots of what you write is not itself miraculous, because you need a hell of a lot of scaffolding. Novel writing is being able to build to fantastic drama or emotion or epiphanies, off this scaffolding. Maybe some of your best work is stuff that’s just read unthinkingly, but sets up later fireworks. I find at least half of it is setting up, and this setting up is not always thrilling by itself: but it’s crucial to getting later results. You’ve got to orient your reader so they stay with you.

    You might not have an exciting bit to write, that day. But you can write the bit you need because it’s next, and even if it’s not thrilling, you CAN write it once you know that you must write even the scaffolding bits. This is not poetry and isolated visions glittering like a mobile of fragmented glass. It’s a structure, an object heavy enough to stick in the memory and support further ideas. Don’t be afraid of the dull-seeming bits, ask rather if they’re necessary.

    You CAN do it, and do it you will :)

    So go forth, and write the next bit, whatever it needs to be :D

    (me, I’m just pleased that I have my Monday update finished already. This time it was all done on Friday, over seven thousand freaking words. I have GOT to get my discipline clicking a little better than this, it’s too painful to do it in these frantic sprints… if you count six hours of unceasing grind, a sprint.)

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    Marina says:

    @Steeplejack (tablet): I think you just changed my life! Funny how options are there all the time, but you just don’t see them. I think this is some kind of life metaphor.

  127. 127
    Marina says:

    @Iowa Old Lady: Thanks for the suggestion–must appreciated.

  128. 128
    Marina says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Whoa, really? ‘Marvelous voice’? [sitting at desk… stunned.]

    Actually I’m kind of afraid of what I wrote: a luridly violent, obscene coming-of-age story with bonus doggerel and caramel-sauce recipes. I think I may be an acquired taste.

  129. 129
    Steeplejack (tablet) says:


    Glad to help. I am finicky about formatting, so I’m constantly mediating between Word and Gmail.

  130. 130
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism:

    Phew! I think I’m actually okay going back and adding stuff until I feel there’s enough there to call it a first draft — it doesn’t really need to all spring out of my head at once. But when I have the characters talking to me, I don’t want to have to stop and figure out what the hallway they’re walking down looks like. I feel like I can put that stuff in later.

  131. 131
    Applejinx says:

    @Mnemosyne: Absolutely right. Sounds like you have a fine grasp of what matters. Rock on :)

  132. 132
    Applejinx says:

    I have just purchased Scrivener for iOS! I already had writings in a Dropbox folder (which I promptly zipped, being a suspicious soul: backup of the backup) and I’m going to see if I can take my show on the road, I’m out today getting tires changed.

    I will happily report on whether it works or eats my priceless scrivenings :)

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