Happy Fountain Pen Day

A notebook with ruled pages, cursive, and a fountain pen
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.com

Inspired by National Fountain Pen day, we’ve created a new forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Analog Tools is about those non-digital, non-computer tools we writers love to use, including fountain pen, other pens, pencils, paper, and typewriters. 

Today is the sixth annual Fountain Pen Day, celebrated every year on the first Friday of November. It’s a great time to try writing with a fountain pen.

Five years ago I returned to writing by hand as a way to take breaks from the keyboard (and pain from carpal tunnel). I made a (to me) startling discovery. Fountain pens are hands-down easier to write with than a ballpoint pen, or even a gel pen (my previous pen of choice). This isn’t just me; this has to do with the basic design of the ballpoint or roller point pen. Ball point pen ink is deliberately thickened to make it less likely to leak. Moreover, the ball that gives the ball point pen its name must be physically propelled with some force across the paper in order to coat the ball with ink and transfer it to paper. The extra force required to propel the pen across paper, and coat it with ink, results in increased tension in a writer’s hand and arm.

Writing with a fountain pen did take some getting used to. But writing has been much less stressful on my hands and arms. I’m not fighting the ink. I’m also not gripping the pen tightly in an effort to physically push the pen across paper while bearing down in order to coat the “ball” with ink, and write. Fountain pen ink wants to spread. If you’re even a little bit curious, I encourage you to try a personal experiment in terms of drafting your writing with a fountain pen, or using a fountain pen for personal correspondence or journals and similar kinds of writing. NaNoWriMo offers a great opportunity to see if writing by hand helps your creativity. It does for some. Switching from my keyboard to writing by hand has helped me when staring at my laptop screen is frustrating rather than fruitful.

Your First Pen

You don’t have to spend much for a perfectly good pen. If you’re brand-new to fountain pens and aren’t sure they’re for you, consider trying a “throwaway” Pilot Varsity (it’s available in several colors) or the refillable Platinum Preppy; both pens are under $5.00. The Varsity is not meant to be re-filled; the Platinum Preppy is, and uses cartridges and can be refilled indefinitely (the Preppy is available in several colors). This is an affordable-no-real investment way to try writing with a fountain pen, and both pens are more than adequate for most writing. Consider using a fountain pen during NaNoWriMo, as a way to jumpstart your creativity.

If you are sure you want to write with a fountain pen, consider one of the highly respected quality “starter pens” under $30.00. These include the Pilot Metropolitan (around $15.00, with several colors of pen and Pilot ink available), the Lamy Vista (around $25.00), and the Lamy Safari (around $30.00), among others. I’ve used and really love all three of these. I’d suggest starting with either a Fine or Medium nib (the nib is the pointy part of the pen that contacts the paper).

Ink

When you first start, you’ll likely want to use pre-filled ink cartridges. Cartridges are sold in packs, they’re portable, and they’re easy to use. You will need to buy cartridges made for your pen; it’s not one-size-fits-all. Ink also comes in bottles, and it’s more economical to use bottled ink instead of buying cartridges (or refills). You need to have a fountain pen converter in order to use bottled ink, and like cartridges, converters are designed for a specific pen. Some pens will come with a converter, others require you to buy one for $5.00 bucks or so.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of ink colors. There are also several kinds of ink; inks that are water soluble (not for use on checks or anything that you want to keep), water resistant inks, archive quality inks, inks meant to feather less and thus perform better on poorer quality paper, and specialty inks that change color, glitter, or are invisible. Most people start with a medium or dark blue, a blue-black, or a black ink. But color can be fun, as well as useful, for for editing or for distinguishing one version from another (draft in blue, edit in red, new draft in purple, etc.).

Paper

You want paper that encourages the pen to glide smoothly, with little application of force, but which will display the ink without blots, or clogging the nib, or feathering.

There are numerous sites suggesting the Best Possible Paper for writing with a fountain pen. People often have very decided opinions about paper. The general rule of thumb is that the heaver weight the paper is, from about 70gsm up to say 100 gsm, the better it is for using a fountain pen. You’ll see people debating the virtues of Moleskine vs Leuchtturm 1917, or Rhodia vs Claire Fontaine, etc., but honestly, preferences are personal. Look for paper that is at least 70gsm; less will bleed or feather or otherwise fail.

If you’re writing rough drafts or person notes that aren’t to be kept indefinitely, HP 32lb Premium Paper (you can print your own lines if you want), I’ve found Mead Composition books made in Vietnam, or Mead Five Star notebooks with a Fine or Medium nib fountain pen are usable (if not viable for the long term) with most pens and inks, especially if I only use one side of a page. Amped Docket Gold pads or  Red ’n Black Notebooks usually work well.

The Nib

The nib is the metal part of the pen that contacts the paper when you write. People have pronounced preferences about nibs, but for your first pen, you’ll probably want a fountain pen with a Fine or Medium nib.1)Fountain pens made in Asia tend to have finer nibs because many Asian writing systems work better with a Fine nib; a Platinum Preppy or Pilot M is close to a European F.

TIPS:

  • Use decent paper
  • Don’t grip the pen too hard or use force to propel it across a page, or bear down on the nib. Let the ink do the work for you; gently guide the pen.
  • Practice writing or even scribbling first; try your signature, try a couple of test sentences.
  • Most problems with fountain pens can be resolved by cleaning them; if it’s a refillable pen, clean or rinse it every time you refill it, if possible.

References   [ + ]

1. Fountain pens made in Asia tend to have finer nibs because many Asian writing systems work better with a Fine nib; a Platinum Preppy or Pilot M is close to a European F.

Your NaNoWriMo Portable Writing Studio: No Computer Required

Image Credit Green chameleon

One reason a lot of writers tell me they’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, the annual November challenge to write 50,000 words in a month is that they can’t fit in long writing sessions; they work and have other commitments, or they don’t have a portable computer and can’t write at home because there are too many distractions.

One strategy for coping with the compulsion to write every day for NaNoWriMo is to have a portable writing studio that doesn’t rely on digital technology and a convenient electrical outlet for writing. The “portable” part means you can carry the basic necessities to make any place your writing studio. The “basics” are what you personally need to be able to write. They need to be portable (and we really do mean “the basics”) and you need to have a convenient way to carry them.

Everyone’s Portable Writing Studio (PWS) is a little bit different. For some writers, it means having everything they need for several hours of intense writing, including food and drink. For others, it means their notebook, and pen, and grabbing ten minutes here and fifteen there, to write. Your PWS will reflect the way you write. You might need a small backpack; others will be able to pack their studio in a slim messenger style bag, or even a back pocket, for the true minimalist.

It’s going to be a matter of personal choices, with the goal of being able to write effectively, without distractions, and without the need for electricity. For some, that means a battery powered tablet or minimalist laptop; for me, that means paper, pen and pencil.

It took me a couple of years to figure out what I really need to write effectively almost anywhere; there was a lot of trial and error, and it changed when it became harder to rely on the ubiquity of the Internet for backup and the ubiquity of electrical outlets for power.

My PWS consists of:

    1. 1 “large” A4 (c. 8.5” x 11”) or B5 (“composition notebook” sized) notebook with good paper (suitable for a fountain pen)
    2. 1 “medium” A5 (c. 5.7 x 8.3) notebook with good paper1)Good paper is a matter of personal choice and intended use; I want to be able to take notes with a fountain pen without a lot of bleed-through, or with a pencil and be able to erase the pencil easily without smearing
    3. 1 fountain pen with spare ink cartridges in blue or blue-black
    4. 1 fountain pen with spare ink cartridges in green
    5. 1 Kuro Toga mechanical pencil with spare lead
    6. 1 Tombow Knock eraser with refill
    7. 1 set over-ear headphones
    8. 1 iPhone with music/ambient nature recordings for writing

I fit this in a small messenger bag, with room to spare. I do a lot of writing in places where connecting to the Internet or electricity is problematic, or downright impossible. That means I’m often writing by hand, with handwriting that only I can read. I draft and take notes and plan by hand, and later, keyboard the actual draft. Often I don’t have time to type up the previous day or night’s work, so I begin the next session by making a clean copy of the writing from the previous session, and revise as I go. This process of making a clean copy and revising really helps me get back into the flow of what I’m writing.

I user the larger “composition” sized B5 notebook for drafting; I use the smaller one for notes and planning. I use Mead Composition books that are made in Vietnam from sugarcane; they work well for first drafts with fountain pen (I can write on both sides of the paper) and cost less then $1.00 on sale.2)Look at the back of the notebook of ra tiny label that says Made In Vietnam I use a Scribbles that Matter notebook for notes and planning. Test whatever notebook you plan to use with the pens and / or pencils you’ll use, to make sure they’ll work for you.

I frequently make my first pass in pencil, writing as fast as I can before the ideas melt away. I’ll revise in ink, or use a different color of ink, if I need to distinguish between versions or possible narrative options. I take notes about ideas and planning in the smaller notebook, and use the larger one for actual writing.

I like the Kuro Toga mechanical pencil because it’s designed to rotate a little each time you press and lift the pencil up from the paper; that means it’s never dull. I like Tombow Knock erasers because they let me erase precisely.

I prefer to write with fountain pens because it’s easier on my hands; fountain pens glide over the paper. When I’m writing away from home I use pens I can afford to lose, like the Platinum Preppy.

I listen to a playlist of downloaded local music or ambient nature sounds on my iPhone to help mask background sound (and set the mood).

A Possible “Minimalist” PWS:

      1. 1 Pocket sized notebook (c. 3½” × 5½” 48 pages)
      2. 1 multipen

The idea behind the minimalist PWS is that you can fit your notebook and pen in your pocket, literally. You can write anywhere you happen to be. The poster child for “pocket” notebooks are the small paper bound Field Notes; there are similar notebooks on Etsy, and from a number of other companies. Some writers who use one small notebook per chapter, and carry a second notebook for background note, plot ideas, etc. Some people like to use a single small bound A6 notebook like Moleskine or Leuchturm; they still fit in a pocket.

A multipen means that you have more than one color of ink available, and even a pencil or stylus, depending on the base pen. You can write wherever you are, whenever you have ten minutes, with the intention of either keyboarding your current work later or making a “clean” copy by hand after you edit.

It’s not too late to create your own PWS for NaNoWriMo. What’s in your PWS for writing anywhere, anytime?

References   [ + ]

1. Good paper is a matter of personal choice and intended use; I want to be able to take notes with a fountain pen without a lot of bleed-through, or with a pencil and be able to erase the pencil easily without smearing
2. Look at the back of the notebook of ra tiny label that says Made In Vietnam

Journaling for Writers during NaNoJoWriMo October

image of handwritten journal entries by John Steinbeck from his Grapes of Wrath journal
John Steinbeck’s journal for The Grapes of Wrath

Fall is here, and that means we’re getting closer to NaNoWriMo.

One way to start thinking about what to write for NaNoWriMo is to keep a writer’s journal, one that’s primarily about prepping to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days during the month of November.

Writers’ journals are a venerable tradition, used by many writers in the past and increasingly popular today. A writers’ journal can be a conventional “dear diary” journal, of the sort Samuel Pepys kept, or it can be a record of where you are in a writing project, where you need to go, what plot points and character traits you want to remember and emphasize — even your emotional response and impressions about your writing.

John Steinbeck kept a writers’ journal from the beginning of his work on The Grapes of Wrath. He used journaling as a way to help cope with and mitigate his anxiety and stress about writing every day. Sample entries include short notes like these:

 

May 31, 1938: I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well.

June 18: I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity

September 7: So many things to drive me nuts… I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too . . . If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves.

October 4: My laziness is overwhelming. I must knock it over . . . I’ve been looking back over this diary and by God the pressures were bad the whole damned time. There wasn’t a bit that wasn’t under pressure and now the pressure is removed and I’m still having trouble. It would be funny if my book was no good at all.

Other writers are less interested in their emotional response to their writing, and more interested in counting the words; they often write short notes about the current word count, the daily word count, and what they mean to start writing about in their next session.

567 words this morning; 31789 total. Must figure out who Bryan really is, and why he wants to find the crater. What is his driving need? What will finding the crater do for him?

As a way of prepping for NaNoWriMo, consider starting a NaNo journal. Starting a NaNoWriMo journal now allows you to plan, plot and work on characters and backstory without actually drafting. Consider the NaNoWriMo journal a sandbox for your writerly imagination. A journal can not only be really helpful in terms of concentrating on writing during NaNo November, it can be a great deal of fun.

A NaNo journal doesn’t have to be elaborate; a .99 cent composition book from the corner drugstore, a spiral notebook, or even a small pocket notebook that’s meant to fit in a back pocket or purse are all perfectly fine; whatever works for you. You might be happier and more like to use a journal app that runs on your smart phone. Like a pocket notebook, an app for journaling on your phone is convenient, letting you make quick notes about your WIP while waiting for the bus or during your lunch break. There are journaling apps for Android and iOS. You might even want to use a bullet journal as a writers’ journal.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of journaling, October 1 starts National Journal Writing Month:

National Journal Writing Month (NaJoWriMo) helps you start and maintain a journal writing habit in 30 days. NaJoWriMo is geared toward personal growth, reaching your goals, and recording your life as you live it.

NaNoJoWriMo is a quarterly event (January, April, July and October) meant to encourage people to try journaling. It’s not terribly rule-bound; you can journal as you see fit, with a goal of journaling every day for 30 days. There are daily prompts, as well as lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit. NaNoJoWriMo has a theme every quarter; this quarter’s theme is Unleashing Your Creative Mind Through Journal Writing. That sounds perfect in terms of NaNoWriMo planning. The NaNoJoWriMo website has a free newsletter; sign up for a free downloadable with lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit.

Journaling is a great way to start your writing day, and it can be freeing to be able to write without it having to be your WIP. You might want to keep a journal to remind yourself of the good things in your life (an awesomeness journal). Journaling is a one way to freewrite and start your writer brain, especially if you’re struggling with writers’ block or your well of inspiration is temporarily dry. If you’re in front of a keyboard and screen for much of the day, or working on your WIP on your computer, consider journaling with pen and ink (or pencil) as a way to free your writer brain to work on your story while you write differently.

Bullet Journals for Writers

There’s a high probability that you already know what a Bullet Journal is, in which case you can skip ahead. If you think a bullet journal is for gun enthusiasts, read on.

What’s A Bullet Journal?

Image credit: Mike Rohde

As originally designed, the Bullet Journal is a minimalist system relying on a notebook and numbered pages. You use short codes to tag kinds of data and tasks. You create your own pages to suit your personal needs and style. A bullet journal (BuJo for short) is an efficient way to track your time and goals, and other data that you use for short-range and long-range planning.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with the concept, a place to start is the original bullet journal video Bullet Journal – YouTube by Ryder Carroll. I’ve also linked to some useful pieces about how to create, customize and use a bullet journal in the Resources section below.

Bullet Journals for Writers: The Basics

Because a bullet journal is so very flexible, many writers use a BuJo just for managing their writing time and tasks. I find a bullet journal especially useful in terms of tracking multiple projects and deadlines.

The Index

The first thing to do when you start using a bullet journal is to number the pages. (Some notebooks have pre-numbered pages, like the Leuchtturm1917 notebook, but it takes mere minutes to do it by hand).

The second thing to do is reserve the first three or four pages of your notebook for your Index. The Index is a list of pages and what’s on them; it makes finding your information very quick.

Tobias Bucknell, SF/F author, has written a helpful post about his experience creating, using, and customizing a BuJo for use by a writer This is how I Bullet Journal | Tobias Buckell. Bucknell says that for him the Index was a key point in making a Bullet Journal personally useful:

But creating an index, that was interesting. Because now I suddenly, like a light bulb going off, realized I could create not only daily to-dos, but project to-dos, and flip back and forth. Even better, while I used a variety of to-dos via digital software, some projects of mine were getting so complex that I needed a way to glance at the 30,000 foot view quickly.

Bucknell’s post provides a wealth of information about customizing the basic concepts and practices behind bullet journals with lots of specific suggestions about how writers might want to use a bullet journal.

There are lots of writers of every sort using bullet journals; some of your peers are likely using bullet journals, and may very well have some specific tips. In the meantime, here are some suggestions about ways to use bullet journaling as a writer.

The Key

Image credit: Mario Valdez

One of the primary techniques behind bullet journaling is what Ryder Carroll calls “rapid logging.” It means making brief notes about tasks, events and ideas, marked with identifying symbols to make it possible to tell what kind of a note you’ve made, and whether it’s a completed task or event or re-scheduled, at a glance. There’s an “official” Bullet Journal key; it looks like the image to the right. People customize the symbols they use all the time.

Collections are Powerful
A bullet journal Collection is a collection of data; that data can be lists or images or mind-maps or sketches, or trackers (more about trackers later). These are some possible Collections for a writer

  • Backstory and plot notes
  • Character notes (and sketches)
  • Setting notes (and sketches!)
  • Scene or Chapter breakdowns
  • Brainstorming—ask yourself questions about your WIP (why does Whitney go to the barn? What does Simon need? What does Simon want?)
  • Inspirational Quotes (See Tobias Bucknell’s post on starting with a motivational quotation)
  • A list of those words, you know, the ones you can’t spell without having to look them up.
  • List special character and place names, or special spellings of standard words, archaic words, idioms or invented words that you’ll want to submit to your editor so they won’t get changed.
  • Your personal style sheet; leading and trailing spaces before and after em-dashes, or not; spaces before and after ellipses, or not; preferred spellings of words that have options. Sure your editor and publisher may have different opinions, but if you standardize the way you do it, they’ll be much easier to change later, if it’s necessary.
  • Patricia Wrede has some great questions for fantasy world building that are useful to answer in a bullet journal as part of your backstory.

Trackers

Trackers are a visual method of tracking repeated events or habits. They’re often used for things like tracking sleep or miles walked, or water imbibed, or pages read, or words written. Technically, trackers are a subset of Collections in official Bullet Journal terms, but they’re endlessly flexible.

  1. Trackers can be as simple as M T W Th F S S to represent a week. Draw a line through the letter to mark the days on which you met your daily goals.
  2. Use a row of boxes with numbers for tracking monthly goals. Cross off or fill in the boxes on the days you met your goal.
  3. If you want to track multiple daily habits for a month, create a simple graph; habits or tasks across the top of a two-page spread, and numbers for the days of the month down the side of the left-hand leaf. Use a filled- in square or dot or X to mark the task (or habit) you completed under the column across the top. (Here’s a tracker example from Heather Haft).

You can get colorful of course, and there’s lots of advice and models about using trackers in your bullet journal. See for instance Bullet Journal Habit Trackers from Productive & Pretty. Lots of people use trackers to track good habits and health.

Migration

Migration in bullet journal terms refers to an event or task that wasn’t completed when you planned, so you migrate it to another day. In other words, you move it from Tuesday the 6th to Friday the 9th (or whenever). The official Bullet Journal Symbol for migrating something is >; lots of people use other symbols. Part of the point of migration is that you have to write the thing down again every time you migrate; if you find yourself doing this repeatedly, it’s an indication that you really don’t want to do the thing, or, that maybe, it doesn’t really need doing. As Ryder Carroll, the inventor of the Bullet Journal says:

You can reduce the amount of things you have to do by transferring things by hand. If a task isn’t worth the time to rewrite it, it’s probably not important. Spend time with things that are important and be mindful of how you spend your time.

Plan to Write

As writers, we all struggle with time management; with finding time to write. One way that a bullet journal habit can help with that is that you can plan not only the time but what you’re actually going to write.

By reducing the time we spend in non-writing activity in our writing time, we can actually get writing done. Those collections with questions, and character notes, and plot points can be springboards, specific starting points for your daily, nightly or weekly writing time.

Tip: A particularly useful technique in terms of tracking your narrative and writing progress, is to make a note when you end a session about where to start the next session

Bullet Journals are Analog

We’ve got Google Calendar, and iCal and all sorts of ways to sync data between our phones, our computers and our tablets. I’m still using them. But there are some advantages to writing by hand on paper.

  1. Handwriting aids retention.
  2. Handwriting allows us to use the parts of our brain that we don’t when we keyboard; there’s a thing that happens when we’re doodling or brainstorming with a pen in our hand where we solve problems, whether of plot, narration or character motivation, or planning. Some of it is perhaps not conscious, but as we write, we formulate a solution.
  3. Because of the way we concentrate on what we are doing and because it is slower than a keyboard, writing by hand gives us time to think.
  4. There’s something to be said for having a single place to track our time and ideas, especially when we write on a digital screen. Think of the journal as a portable extra screen, one that doesn’t require switching windows or apps.

A Note On Aesthetics

Lots of people spend a great deal of effort on prettifying their bullet journal; if you’ve got the time and skill that’s great. There are some incredibly beautiful BuJo’s out there. Me, I have neither time nor talent. I started my bullet journal in stumbled-upon blank page notebook, using a mechanical pencil and my travel fountain pen.

Bullet Journal Resources

Getting Started
There’s the video that Ryder Carroll made, of course, but these are some particularly useful guides to getting started using and customizing a bullet journal to suit you.

For a quick intro see Buzzfeed’s WTF Is A Bullet Journal And Why Should You Start One? An Explainer

It’s worth signing up to the once-a-month newsletter at Ryder Carroll’s  official bulletjournal.com site to download a copy of the free .pdf starter guide. It’s a cheat sheet for getting started with a bullet journal.

The best starter guide (full of practical suggestions for customizing) is How To Bullet Journal: The Absolute Ultimate Guide from the Lazy Genius Collective. Lots of useful pictures, and down-to-Earth advice.

Kim at Tinyrayofsunshine.com has an excellent Thorough Guide to the Bullet Journal System. Her pictures are very helpful and there are some excellig ideas about simplifying and customizing.

Bullet Journals for Writers

Writer’s Edit’s The Complete Guide to Bullet Journaling for Writers has some excellent suggestions about getting started, tracking submissions and using a bullet journal to plan and to manage NanoWriMo.

Victoria of Something Delicious has more specific tips for writers using bullet journals in Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers. (Scroll down past the introduction to bullet journaling to see specific tips for writers).

Belle Cooper has some great practical suggestions for using a bullet journal to track freelance writing.

Supplies

There’s a section in the Absolute Write Amazon Store for Bullet Journal supplies; but you might want to try bullet journaling first before making an investment in pens and notebooks.

According to Bullet Journal inventor Ryder Carroll “All you need is a notebook and a pen . . . ” Consider using something you already have to start with (I did!). If you don’t have a blank page notebook (notebook paper isn’t really suitable) consider something like this Amazon Basics Classic Notebook, in either blank or “squared” (graph paper lines).

If you’re sure you’re game, consider using a notebook that has either a square grid (like graph paper) or a dot grid; they’re easier to use for charts, and they make it easier to write legibly.

If you already use a BuJo, let us know how you use it. What tips do you have for those just starting out? What do you suggest in terms of bullet journaling for writers?

Interview: Marko Kloos

Marko Kloos is the author of the Frontlines series of military Science Fiction and a member of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards consortium.

Born and raised in Germany, Marko now lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children. Their compound, Castle Frostbite, is patrolled by a roving pack of dachshunds. Marko Kloos has a website. His latest novel Fields of Fire (Frontlines Book 5) is due February 28, 2017 from 47North. 

Why did you self-publish initially?

I used to be dead set against self-publishing, but when I finally went that route with Terms of Enlistment, it was sort of a measure of last resort. I had pinged every agent and publisher on my list, and run out of places to send the manuscript. At that point, I was tired of the submission/query treadmill and figured that if I don’t put it out there myself, nobody would ever read it. So I published the novel through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. I figured I’d see how it would go, and move on to other projects in the meantime.

Did you handle the book production yourself when you self-pubbed?

Yes, but it wasn’t very difficult. I bought a commercial license for cover art I wanted to use and uploaded the ebook to KDP and iBooks. My writing software, Scrivener, can compile ebook formats, but in KDP’s case, it wasn’t even needed because you can upload the book as a Word document and let the Amazon software handle the conversion. (I did compile the book in all current ebook formats to have on hand for direct sales.)

Did you plan to involve the Lankies (aliens) at the start or was that something that occurred to you later?

I didn’t have the idea for the Lankies until I was in the middle of writing Terms of Enlistment. But once I knew I needed aliens to fuel a conflict for more than one novel, I wanted to subvert the “bug war” trope and make humanity the bugs, so I knew I would need unusual and formidable aliens, vastly bigger and stronger than individual humans. Everything else just came out of that requirement.

How do you track the back story data (i.e. weaponry and station names, etc.)?

I keep a whiteboard in my office with data for the current novel in progress. I also have notebooks for all the ancillary data that comes with writing novels in a military SF environment: ship classes, hull numbers, lists of names for key unit members, and so on. And I still contradict myself and list the same ship in different books with two different hull numbers. (It has only happened once, and the copyeditor caught it, but it was definitely a “d’oh!” moment. Keep detailed lists and refer to them often, kids.)

Did you have a playlist for Fields of Fire?

I did! I have a playlist for every book. For Fields Of Fire, it was a lot of video game soundtracks, particularly the Halo series, and the soundtrack for Mad Max: Fury Road. (Terms of Enlistment and Lines of Departure were written to the Battlestar Galactica soundtracks from the first few seasons. Angles of Attack was written to the M83 soundtrack for Oblivion and other assorted electronica.)

I know you’re going to be writing for George R. R. Martin’s Wild Card consortium. Can you tell us a little about that?

George asked me to join the consortium in late 2015, and I was both elated and terrified at the same time to be invited into such an experienced and talented group of writers. My apprentice piece, if you will, was a novella called Stripes, which will be part of a Wild Cards novel called Low Chicago, out next year from Tor Books. Since then, I’ve played with more ideas for characters and storylines, and I’ll be contributing more stories to the Wild Cards universe in future books. Wild Cards is out of my usual wheelhouse, but it’s a really fun world to play in, and having to work with the constraints of someone else’s sandbox is a great creative challenge.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I have an office in the back of the house, between my kids’ bedrooms. It has just enough space for a chair, a big desk that can be turned into a standing desk with a button push, a bookshelf, and some whiteboards, brag trophies, and movie props on the walls. (I rented an office in town for a year, but it didn’t work out as well as I thought it would, so I moved back into my home office last year. It’s much easier to get up and running in the morning if you don’t have a 40-minute commute.)

I wrote the first two Frontlines books in longhand with a fountain pen, but the current publication schedule means that I only write longhand occasionally now—a chapter here and there, just to mix things up. But most of the time, I write directly into Scrivener on the laptop. For the longest time, I used a Macbook Pro, but the latest iteration had me underwhelmed. The current laptop is a Surface Book, which has a detachable screen that serves as a tablet in a pinch. For software, however, it’s always Scrivener, whether I write on the PC or the Mac. It’s an indispensable tool for me when it comes to structuring a novel and keeping track of the flow and beats of the story.

I know you used to have full-time munchkin wrangling duties; any suggestions about time management for writing parents?

Writing while parenting full-time is rough. To be able to be productive in that sort of setting, you need to let go of ritual and forget about writing when you’re “in a creative mood.” Kiddo goes down for a nap, you have an hour or two to crank out as many words as you can, even if you feel like taking a nap yourself. No special setups or circumstances allowed—it takes too long to get your special writing tea and fill your special writing pen with your special writing ink. I’ve written hundreds of pages on playground benches while the kid was running around and playing on the swings. Get a notebook and a pen, something that doesn’t need a charged battery or a power cord, something you can stuff into the diaper bag on the way out of the house. Writing while parenting will teach you how to make the absolute most of your limited time, and you will learn to be able to write anywhere with any tool at hand.

Why dachshunds?

Because they are a lot of dog in a low-slung package. Smart, stubborn, tenacious, ferocious little killers, admirable in their single-minded pursuit of small prey and kitchen scraps. Of all the dog breeds I’ve ever owned, dachshunds have the most distinctive individual personalities.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

The two novels that stick out in my head immediately are N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth books—The Obelisk Gate. It’s a fiercely inventive fantasy/SF mix with terrific world building and believable character and social dynamics.

I’ve also been on a bit of a YA binge. I read Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall and then tackled her entire backlist. And Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake blew my socks off—it’s an apocalyptic narrative taking place during the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and it’s written in a sort of “shadow tongue” that mimics Old English. The first few pages will seem bewildering, but then you get into it, and it’s a mind-bender. (The audiobook is considerably easier to get into, because the narrator already parses the spelling for you.)

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

My favorite books about writing aren’t so much about technique and nuts-and-bolts stuff as they are about general mindset. Stephen King’s On Writing is great, of course. But the best “How To” writing books I’ve read are Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, and Spider, Spin Me A Web.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

“Which dessert is best?”, to which I would have to answer, “Crème Brulee. Always Crème Brulee. It’s the perfect union of texture and flavor.” (Although a good tiramisu is a close second.)

What’s your favorite charity?

I have a lot of fans who are in the military or not too long out of it, so the charity I’ve picked for my own fundraising efforts in the past is called the Semper Fi Fund. It assists wounded, critically ill, and injured service members and their families. They do much-needed work, their administrative expenses are low, and their accountability and transparency ratings are very high.

As of this posting, Marko Kloos first four Frontlines books are on sale for Kindle in anticipation of the Fields of Fire release. I read the entire series over the course of a week, and enjoyed them for their characterization as much as for the story. 

Handwriting: Is it Part of Your Process?

I still like writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use “narrow feint” writing paper. — J. K. Rowling 

Image credit: Petar Milošević

I prefer to take notes by hand because I’m actively listening when I write, in ways that I’m not when I’m typing. Sometimes I choose to handwrite because being able to write with paper and a pen or pencil and a convenient light source makes it possible to write in places where even a Chromebook or iPad are cumbersome.

The primary reason I choose to write by hand that my brain works differently with pen (or pencil) and paper. I’m less distracted by aesthetics (typography, for instance, is not an issue). I often turn to pen and paper (or pencil) when I get stuck, particularly on when I’m writing books, or lengthy research articles. Often, I’ll draft in long hand, then edit in longhand, then keyboard it and edit again before I submit.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of other writers also choosing to write in longhand, or print, even when they could use a keyboard. I was surprised by how many of my favorite novelists are prefer pens and paper for drafts.

When you’re writing with pen and paper, you’re working in the same direct mode you use to tell a story to children, and for a first draft, that’s maybe not a bad thing. — Joe Hill  

J. K. Rowling deliberately chooses to write by hand, though as she notes, she prefers narrow-ruled paper and black pens. Neal Stephenson, in a now defunct interview for Barnes and Noble (quoted here) notes that he started writing his novels with a fountain pen with Quicksilver, the first volume of his Baroque Cycle. Stephenson said

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.

I think that’s true. I noticed that the amount of time it takes for me to formulate a thought into a sentence, because it’s slower to read the paper than the screen, often means that I realize that it’s not something I want to write, that the idea or sentence isn’t ready for committing to paper. ItÆ’s less a matter of the internal editor interfering, than one of my “inner ear” noticing that those aren’t quite the words I want, In the time it takes to hesitate before committing the words to paper, my brain supplies other, better words. In other words, there’s less to edit or delete. Stephenson comments on that too, observing that the process of editing is often easier with pen and paper:

Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.

Jonathan Carroll, famous for his contemporary fantasy and slipstream novels, notes that:

Handwriting anything makes me think hard about what I really want to keep or throw out. Because the process is generally slow, I’m thinking all the time while my hand moves across the page. While using any kind of keyboard device, my fingers are whizzing much faster than my mind can think and that is a dangerous thing if you want to write it right.

I find that the experiences of novelists in terms of their writing process, is true of my much less interesting process as well, when I’m writing scholarly or academic pieces or even when I’m writing pieces that I know are destined for Web publications; I think differently, and write differently with a pen in hand. As Joe Hill says:

Finally, in a notebook, you’re stuck with yourself. You’re cut off from your games, the internet, Twitter, Facebook. The only thing you have to entertain you is your own imagination.

What about you? Do you write by hand? Have you ever tried switching to pen-and-paper (or a pencil!) when you’re stuck? Is handwriting part of your process? If not, consider trying it.

From The Dishwasher Froths Success

By C.S. Paquin

Success as a freelance writer has come from the dishwasher— no, not via a lucrative commercial-copy gig bubbling with the attributes of a kitchen appliance, but from the old dishwasher installed in our new apartment.

The state of my kitchen defines my professional success and pre-dishwasher, chaos reigned! Last night’s dishes piled high don’t auger well for a productive morning, but once those counter tops sparkle, well, I’m free to tackle whatever chore is next. The only problem is, I hate dishpan hands, and in avoidance, it’s easy for me to waste an entire day—in fact, the task only takes on a sense of urgency when it’s time for dinner. This disorganization sounds the death knell for my writing career—haphazard working hours, staying up too late to make deadline after hours of procrastination, and working fitfully amidst the laundry, vacuuming, and errands—all impatiently demanding attention once I’m done in the kitchen.

But now, the delight of dealing with dirty dishes without delay, has sparked a catalyst. Each morning, after my daughter goes to school and the baby to the sitter, I tidy the apartment and throw in a load of laundry while the dishwasher sings its sloshy song. By 9 a.m., cappuccino time, I’m opening the mail, and with the rest of the place clutter-free, it’s prudent to keep my desk as pristine and file my papers and pay the bills. I’ve discovered, too, that if I balance the checkbook every few days, then it takes just a few minutes, and I even remember what I bought.

By 9.30 a.m., in disbelief at how early it still is, I switch on my computer and check for looming deadlines. I have regular editing jobs, a small column for a regional magazine, as well as sending out queries to new markets. The difference is, I’m really writing the queries and mailing them. Pre-dishwasher, I’d sit and dream about it, because with a brimming sink, I couldn’t possibly start the query process. So, with my attention not distracted by the chores, I set up and conduct interviews, write and edit what needs to be done, and send in work not only hours, but days before deadline. Ticking off the tasks on my list is addictive and the more I check off, the more inspired I am to find and complete new projects.

Within a few weeks, my flailing career takes new shape—more gigs appear, and checks trickle in. “Aha,” I think to myself, as I add regular banking to the task list: Self-discipline does pay!

This revelation chases away the nagging suspicion that haunted me—that I’m more in love with the idea of writing, than actually writing. These days, as I see my reflection in the shiny plates, I say to myself quite proudly: “I am a freelance writer!”

C.S. Paquin is a nationally published writer in a variety of genres—from news writing to humor. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Journalism, and dreams of being a best-selling author. Her first writing love, however, is creative nonfiction and personal essays.

Four Scary Things Writers Must Learn to Embrace!

Guest post by Francesca Nicasio

When I first started out, there were some things that I tried to avoid as much as possible because they were uncomfortable scared the crap out of me. It didn’t take long though before I realized that my avoidance was getting me nowhere and if I really wanted to succeed in freelance writing, I had to not only face my fears, I had to embrace them.

Below is a list of those fears. I’ve also included the things that I learned from facing them, and what you can do if you share the same fears or apprehensions.

monsterEdits or Criticism

Getting edits and constructive criticism is a good thing. Those red marks on your article may not look pretty, but they will make you a better writer. They can improve your style and develop your attention to detail. As writers, we are often too close to our creations to see flaws or errors. Having someone scrutinize your work will make it sharper and more compelling.

How to deal with constructive criticism: First of all, don’t take it personally. The person scrutinizing your work is just doing their job. Also remember that having your work edited or criticized doesn’t make you a bad writer. It only means that there’s some room for improvement and growth.

When you get the edited piece back, thank the person and revise your work. If you don’t agree with the way they edited your article, say so. Tell them (in a polite way, of course) why you wrote it the way you did and hear out their response. This opens up constructive discourse between the two of you, and you’ll likely pick up helpful insights in the process.

Rejection

The path to freelance writing success is littered with rejection letters. It’s just part of the territory. As writers we must learn to accept — nay —embrace rejection because each “no” that we get brings us closer to that coveted “yes.”

Rejection can teach you some valuable lessons in persistence and resilience. It also tests just how badly you want success. More importantly, rejection enables you to develop a thicker hide–an attribute that you must possess when putting yourself out there.

How to deal with rejection: There’s no shortcut or sugar-coated way to handle rejection. You just have to dust yourself off, learn from the mistakes that got you rejected (if any), and keep going.

You can also think of it this way: If you get rejected by a prospective client or publication, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with you. It just means that you and the other party aren’t a good fit for each other. They’re not the right client or they simply aren’t looking for someone like you at the moment. It’s nothing personal and it’s not anything against you, it’s just the way it is.

Haters

Okay, maybe “haters” is too strong of a word. Let’s call them “negative commenters”.

Unpleasant as it may be though, receiving negative comments should be taken as a compliment. Why? Because it means that what you wrote sparked enough emotion to compel people to leave a comment.

Don’t feel bad when you get negative comments, be upset when you don’t get any.

How to deal with negative comments

If you choose to dignify their comments with a response, always be calm and respectful. Recognize that each person is entitled to their own opinions. Additionally, do not respond from a place of defensiveness or emotion. Instead, state the facts and be cool. And be sure to thank the person for taking the time to comment.

PS: This doesn’t apply to trolls.

Outreach

This is for all the shy ones (myself included). Reaching out to other people may be out of your comfort zone, but it’s absolutely necessary. Reaching success is not something that you can do alone, so get out there and network away. Growing your contact list is essential especially when you’re looking to promote your work or collaborate with others.

Reaching out to others is also something that you must do again and again throughout your career because it’s the only way to find new audiences and/or clients.

How to reach out

Do your research on the person that you’re touching base with. To be effective, reach out with their needs in mind, not just yours. For instance, if you’re contacting them to start a joint venture, tell them why a JV would benefit them and their audience. Remember, they’ll be asking the question of what’s in it for them, so be sure to answer it when you first get in touch.

Your Turn

Have you ever avoided any of the things mentioned in this blog post? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

 Francesca Nicasio (formerly Francesca StaAna) is the founder of CredibleCopywriting.net and is currently developing Copywriter2.0, an online course that teaches aspiring freelance writers the ins and outs of the biz.

Download her free eBook, 25 Types of Writing Gigs that Pay Well (and How to Find Them) here.

 

Breaking Out Of Writer’s Block

By Apryl Duncan

You stare at the blank page. The white of the page embeds itself in your brain, resulting in your mind going blank.

Breaking out of the block doesn’t have to be a mind-boggling challenge, though. Explore the causes and the cure and you’ll be writing again in no time.

Common Causes

  • Unrealistic GoalsIf you’ve decided that you’re going to write from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every single day – no matter what – then you’re probably pushing yourself too hard.Your writing will become dull and drab. The natural flow you once knew will temporarily escape to Writer’s Block Island with the rest of your writing talents.
  • Stress!We all know how stress can affect your mood. But stress can also affect your writing.For instance, say all you wanted to do was come home from work and write until bedtime. Your boss makes you stay late. Your supper was a half-cooked hamburger and cold fries from a local fast food restaurant. Your dog wants to go out. And all you want to do is crawl in bed and forget the entire day.

    As much as we try to carry a stiff upper lip, we’re still human. External factors can affect our mood and ultimately affect our writing. Our focus shifts to all the bad things that happened in our day and writing becomes the last thing we want to do.

  • Neglecting Our WritingSometimes Writer’s Block comes from not writing! Writing every day is essential to keeping those creative juices flowing.You don’t have to make an impossible deal with yourself to write 100 pages of your manuscript in one sitting. Taking as little as 10 minutes a day helps keep you writing and words will flow from your mind much easier.
  • PerfectionismThe perfect paragraph, word after word, is a carefully constructed piece of art. But hanging yourself up on creating that perfect paragraph will win you an all-expense paid trip to Writer’s Block Island.If you run into this problem, give yourself and your writing a cooling off period. After a couple of days, re-visit your work and see where or even if it needs improvement. Your mind will be fresh and clear, giving you a whole new perspective on your own writing.
  • Research-RelatedA lot of writers don’t realize how research can even be a hang-up. Maybe you can’t finish your crime novel because you don’t know how police would handle a certain situation in reality.Sometimes the answer isn’t so obvious and we try to write our way around it. All we really need to do is a little more research.

The Cure!

After you’ve beaten your fists on the keyboard and taken two aspirin for that migraine, try these cures for writer’s block:

    • RevisitRe-read some of your previous works. Maybe it was a journal entry. Perhaps you wrote a poem once. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a novel. You can still gain insight and even inspiration from something else you’ve written.
    • Change of SceneryHow many times have you heard a song that reminds you of something? Perhaps you heard that song a dozen times a day when you were in college. So that particular song brings back memories. The same goes for scenery in your every day life.If you’re sitting in the same room, day after day, the scenery’s going to get old. That scenery starts to remind you that you’re not writing. That you’re stuck in what seems like a hopeless case of Writer’s Block.

      The solution is simple. Seek out a change of pace. Go for a walk. Take a drive.

    • Rewrite Another’s WorkCheck out a newspaper or magazine article. Now rewrite that story from a new angle. Maybe a young girl was kidnapped. Police are still looking for the suspect and the little girl.Your version of the story might portray the young girl as the daughter of a lawyer. Perhaps one of his clients wasn’t happy with the way his own daughter’s murder trial was handled. So he kidnapped the defending lawyer’s pride and joy.
    • Use Real PicturesFlip through a magazine. Cut out pictures, headlines, even certain blocks of text. Now write a short story based on your clippings.For example, you might cut out a picture of a man riding a bicycle on page 14 of your favorite magazine. On page 22 you cut out a quote that says, “Anyone caught doing this will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

      Your story could turn into one man’s crusade. Perhaps this man’s riding his bicycle across country because he’s outraged by automobile pollution levels. His point is to raise people’s awareness about the effects of pollution.

      Meanwhile, police keep hindering his efforts because the man’s riding his bicycle on the freeway, a violation of the law. So you have a man on his bicycle and the police quote, “Anyone caught doing this will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

    • DoodleYes! You were scolded in elementary school for doodling on your paper. Now you have full permission.Free your mind while scribbling. No need to think about your character’s next move. No plot structures to consider. Just a sense of connecting your pen to paper.
    • Object FocusTake a look around you. Does something catch your eye? Even something as simple as a stapler. Describe an object in full detail. Start with its size, shape, color.
    • Building BlocksRomance. Mystery. Thrillers. All genres have their own keywords. Build keywords from your own genre.If you’re a romance writer, you could come up with words like love, marriage, betrayal, lust, happiness. Jot down as many words as you can think of.
    • Life EventsThe birth of a child. Holidays. Graduation. Weddings. We all have our favorite life events. Pick one of your own and write down all your thoughts and feelings about that day. Turn it into a story.
    • NetworkMany authors beat Writer’s Block or avoid it altogether by networking with their fellow writers. Bulletin boards, chats and writer’s Web sites all offer you the chance to meet other authors and work your way through the many facets of fiction writing.Think of talking with other writers as your own personal support group.

Writer’s Block may attack you at some point in your writing career but always remember:

WB isn’t fatal.

Overcoming WB is not impossible.

WB’s only temporary.

Apryl Duncan is the founder of www.FictionAddiction.NET, an award-winning site for fiction writers and readers. She is an author and professional freelance writer who enjoys writing everything from mystery novels to how-to articles on the writing craft.

What’s Your Novel About?

By Marilyn Henderson

You have finished your novel and are attending a writers’ conference hoping to get an agent or editor to read your manuscript. You work your way through the crowd with your gaze focused at name-tag level. Suddenly you spot a gold-bordered tag reserved for editors. Heart pounding, you approach and introduce yourself and say you have just finished your novel.

The editor smiles and replies, “What’s your novel about?”

Suddenly the moment of truth is at hand. This woman knows why you’re here. The conference brochure described the reception as the place where writers could meet editors and agents. This is when you make your pitch.

Now’s your chance to convince this editor to ask you to send her your manuscript. So how do you answer her question?

Just as she had her question ready, you need to have your answer prepared. If you’re a savvy writer, you began working on your plot statement as soon as you signed up for the conference.

What’s a plot statement?

A plot statement is the hook you need to make your storyline sound like a winner so the editor asks to read the manuscript. In screen play writing this is called a pitch.

Just as she got right to the point in talking with you, she expects you to get right to the point by telling her what your novel is about. She doesn’t want a long rambling dissertation about the characters, background or details of who does what in the plot. She wants you to capture her interest by making the book sound too exciting to pass up.

Any book she recommends the publisher buy must be one she can convince others in the publishing house will sell. Publishers are in business to make money, and she hopes to find a winner among the writers at this conference.

Like a query letter, your plot statement or pitch is a selling tool. It’s time to forget all those great enthusiastic descriptions of your story you envision on the cover of your published novel.

Cover copy is written to entice the reader to buy the book. It tells exciting details of the story to entice the reader to want to read more. A plot statement is written to excite the editor enough to think the story will sell. Pitching is how you sell your novel.

The editor at that conference wants to know if the book will sell and make money for the publishing company.

How do you tell what the story is about without telling the story?

Don’t think about the story, think about the original idea that developed into your plot. What about that idea made you decide it could become a novel? What excited you enough to spend months working on it?

The initial spark usually stirs your curiosity or an emotional reaction. You may want to know who, what, when, where or how such a thing might happen. You may wonder what would happen if one of the people involved took a different turn or made a different decision. The idea may have infuriated you, driven you to tears or scared you enough to check the locks on your doors and windows. In other words, it stirred an emotional reaction. Now your pitch must do that to the editor.

The How-to’s of Plot Statements and Pitching

A pitch is a statement that conveys the main storyline in a way that impacts the editor emotionally so she wants to read the manuscript. You write it after your novel is finished because you don’t know everything that happens until then. You need to look at the story as a whole in order to recognize the most important and emotionally charged highlights of the storyline.

Six Do’s and Don’ts for Writing a Plot Statement and Pitching

  • Write it in only one sentence
  • Write in the present tense
  • Write in the active voice
  • Don’t give details of the plot
  • Don’t use characters’ names
  • Choose words that evoke an emotional response

The rules are easy, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you can toss off the plot statement for your novel in a few minutes. I have challenged numerous writers to do a plot statement, and none have succeeded quickly. The plot statement is a key part of pitching. Most writers need a considerable amount of time and help. One writer sent an excellent one, along with the admission it had taken him three weeks and fifteen tries.

Once you do one well, it’s easier to repeat your success

One picture is worth a thousand words. The old adage holds true for plot statements. Paint a word picture that makes your listener form his own mental images that cause him to feel angry or sad or nervous.

Examples of this appear every day in our daily newspapers. Can you read an account of a nursing home fire in which four patients died without feeling sad or angry at the people or circumstances that led to the fire? Can you read a story about a child being abducted without heart-felt gratitude that your little boy is safe and sound asleep in his bed?

Our emotional responses to other people’s troubles develop out of our fears and concerns for our own and our family’s safety and well being.

This is true for editors just as it is for you and me. Editors react to the emotional appeal of a pitch; the plot statement is a key part.

How Emotion in a Plot Statement Works

Let’s look at a plot statement that worked and why it did. The example is a plot statement for a woman-in-jeopardy suspense novel:

“A recently widowed young mother brings her sick three-year-old home from nursery school during a devastating Southern California storm and discovers they are not alone in the house.’

I had chosen woman-in-jeopardy as the subgenre for the novel because it is one of the biggest sellers in the mystery and suspense field. Most readers and editors of these books are women. For those reasons, I aimed my plot statement at emotions women can relate to and understand.

A recently widowed young mother is a sympathetic, vulnerable heroine. Even if the editor hasn’t experienced those problems personally, she can’t help but feel sadness at this woman’s plight.

Then I add a sick child, something every parent and non-parent can relate to and worry about.

With the main character hitting these two emotional buttons, I add a setting that hits another one: “a devastating Southern California storm.” Newspapers and television have brought the horror of flooded homes and collapsing hillsides in California into living rooms across the nation. We shudder at the thought of the unpredictable destruction and losses or give earnest thanks that we don’t live in an area where they occur.

And finally I hint at the menace to come: she discovers they are not alone in the house. An unknown person invading her home plays on the fears of every woman.

Every story element included in the plot statement is an emotional trigger. Together, they create a dark mood of danger and suspense. And more important, they make the editor curious about how the story will evolve and work out.

I admit I didn’t come up with the plot statement on the first try. I didn’t count how many bad starts I had or how many refinements I made once I had a passable draft, but it took me several days to reach this one. The early ones suffered from my trying to tell too much, especially about the intruder. Eventually I realized that the less I told about him, the more sinister he became, and the more “fear” he roused.

The descriptive words in the statement also were chosen for the effect they helped produce. A “recently widowed young mother” has a “sick” child. The storm is “devastating.” These add to the dark mood that enhances a suspense novel.

This statement tells the basic storyline without any details of the action or characters. At the same time, it pushes three emotional buttons for the editor:

  • Compassion (widowed mother and sick child)
  • Worry (the storm)
  • Terror (the intruder in house)

The editor knows these emotional triggers sell books, so she may be willing to read the manuscript to see if the story delivers on its promise. The plot statement did what it was supposed to do.

If you have finished your novel, start working on your plot statement now so you’ll be ready when that editor or agent you meet says, “What’s your novel about?”