Of writing and planning and everything in between

This weekend I held a mini-workshop for my critique group. I’ll admit that I stressed quite a bit about it ahead of time. Part of the reason was because I do know these men and women — and I like them. Part of it was because there is a wide range of genres represented in the group and genre has to be taken into account when you are talking about writing. Then there is the undeniable fact that those taking part would range from new writers to published ones. So, yeah, my stomach was churning when I walked into the room to get started.

Now, several days later, I’m hoping the group had as much fun during the workshop and learned as much as I did. Because the workshop was for our group — even though our door is always open to visitors and new members, we hadn’t advertised that we were having a workshop — I was able to give out assignments ahead of time. Everyone had to submit the first page or two of a new work that we weren’t currently in the process of critiquing. They also had to prepare a story arc that was no more than one paragraph and then they had to be ready to identify what they saw as their greatest weakness and their greatest strength as a writer.

The reason I’d asked everyone to submit the one to two pages was so we could discuss hooking the reader. We’d talked about hooks in the group before. Everyone knew what one was. But knowing and actually doing are often two different things. I knew I could stand up there and define a hook, give examples, etc., but those would only start the reinforcement. Actually having them think about it as they wrote something — and then discussing it with the group — would, hopefully, drive the point home.

What I found surprised me. Everyone managed to get a hook in that page or two. Some had the hook in the very first sentence or paragraph. Others had it a little later. Some hooks were stronger than others. But — and this was so important — they all had one. Even when the group member wasn’t sure what their hook was, unconsciously they had managed to get one in.

The interesting thing about it all was when we started discussing each piece and the writer heard what the reader thought the hook of their piece was. When the other members of the group pointed out something different from what the writer thought the hook happened to be — and I had them explain why they thought something was a hook — you could see the author of the piece switching gear from writer to reader. They quit looking at their work as the baby they were struggling to give birth to and instead saw it as an incomplete but developing story. What I hoped it did was take them out of their heads for a few minutes and remind them that we are writing for the entertainment of others, at least we are if we are writing with publication as our goal.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Just because a group member thought their hook was “A” and the rest of the group thought it was “B”, that doesn’t mean someone was wrong. In each case, what the author thought was the hook was part of it — but often one of the supporting “hooklets” that keep driving the hook deeper and deeper into the reader, making that desire to turn the page and keep reading all the stronger.  And when, as happened on a couple of occasions, group members listed several different things as hooks, it helped the members see that what one reader gets out of a piece might not be what another reader will get.

One comment toward the end of the session that started some interesting discussion came from one of the group members. He had taken seriously a challenge I had thrown down earlier to try writing outside of his comfort zone. This is something our own Sarah has done with me — do you really think I’d write romance otherwise? — when I’ve hit a wall and can’t see my way around it. In this instance, the group member had started trying to write a mystery and, as he said, the ideas are now coming fast and it is clear the dam had burst burst.

That started all of us talking about what we do when we find ourselves staring at that wall and the words don’t come. The only caveat I put on the challenge, if any of the others should decide to take it up, was that they had to read in whatever genre they decided to try. Kyle added that part of what he has done to get into the right mindset was not only read mysteries but also watch procedural documentaries. As he talked about it, I could see the light bulb going off over the heads of some of the others.

So I’m hoping everyone took something home with them that they could put to good use, whether it was a new awareness of the importance of the hook, a better understanding of story arcs or simply thinking about ways they can become more familiar with the genre they are writing in.

For me, I came out of the session recharged some and, barring unforeseen circumstances should be able to finish the major rewrite of Nocturnal Challenge in the next week.

So here are a couple of quick questions for everyone. If you were to go to a workshop, what topics would you like to see covered and why? Also, what do you do when you find yourself staring at that wall and no words coming?



  1. I’ll have to think about the workshop. And right now I really want to write, but I have a long list of other things that must be done. Tempting to push them out of the way and just write. When I get stuck, I find that a long shower, or music, or a task that keeps my hands busy but not my brain… those work to get the story flowing most of the time.

      1. I’ll have to try that some time. I suspect the results will be amusing . . . so long as I don’t post them somewhere I can’t remove them from later.

    1. The joy of smartphones is that they make it possible to be doing something else and dictating your book or ideas for your book at the same time. I have a digital recorder I do that with from time to time and then I plug it into Dragon and let it transcribe my dictation.

  2. When I stare at the wall and no words come, I go to my “odds and snippets” file and see if there is something I can use to kick the process into gear. it doesn’t have to be related to the WIP, but something, anything. Or I go read. When the words stop, it usually means there’s something I need to know, or a bit of incomplete idea that just doesn’t have enough mass behind it to move. Walking also helps – body in motion, brain in neutral, subconscious kicks in.

    Workshop. Hmmm. Let me think about that. Although balancing character and setting would probably be good. I think I’ve gone too far to character and not enough setting in the last two books.

    1. I wish I could do the “odds and snippets” but Myrtle the Muse just laughs at me when I do. Instead, I have to get outside and do something physical. I get a lot of yard work done those days.

  3. Workshop ideas? Haven’t got a clue.

    When I’m stuck, despite my joke to Cedar above, what I try to do depends on whether the weather will cooperate. If possible, I sit on the front porch while it’s raining just beyond the awning and let the sounds clear my head, then I start daydreaming about my characters. I let them run rampant and see what they would do.

    That usually gets me back on track. It’s also why it took so damn long to get Bad Moon on the Rise out.

    1. I love sitting and listening to the rain. Unfortunately for me, when I do that, I forget about everything else. As I said above, I usually get outside and do physical labor that lets my mind wander. A long drive helps too — although the drivers I pass start getting this panicked look on their face as the ideas start coming and I either begin talking them out or, worse, acting them out. 😉

  4. Sometimes even things that go easy are hard to start. I had a bit of an issue this morning getting a fight started. Fortunately on the way to the shop, I stopped at the corner convenience store, and before getting out of the car, “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones started. By the time that got done playing I had a mind worm going strong.

    I got to the shop, got the computer going, called up the chapter in question, and as I got cuddled up to the keyboard, figuratively speaking, the sword was loosely gliding in the hand, I could feel the the leather slide beneath the fingers, the cross dig in slightly on the index finger, and the pommel felt snug against the heel of the hand.

    The jar one feels as the boots come down hard on the cobblestones of the street. The tension rising as the opponent becomes aware of his danger and he turns, drawing his sword. The last couple of steps, the sword raising and swinging, the physical shock as the blades meet.

    And it was on.

    Forty five minutes later, I saved everything, and went out to the shop proper and fired up the lathe. The mind worm worked.

    1. At least it was a good mind worm. I wrote one book that absolutely demanding it be done to the soundtrack for the movie Mama Mia. First problem? I’m not a big Abba fan. Second problem? Most of the cast of the movie couldn’t sing their way out of a paper bag. I was never more glad to finish a book than I was that one and I have horrible flashbacks to days and weeks of having to listen to those songs whenever anything by Abba comes on now.

      1. I’ve always been prone to mind worms, and I may have accidently set myself up for mind worms working their magic on me today.

        I used to do my Tai Chi sword form with a music background. Something a little on the hard side. It both flipped a bit of adrenaline into the system, and helped me concentrate.

        Eventually, I tried the handling characteristics of new sword models I was prototyping, doing the Tai Chi and using the music background. Can you feel the point while moving? How’s the edge alignment?

        So, today, a good mind worm has me feel a sword in my left hand, and my body is already one with it. From there it just becomes a matter of expressing myself.

        That works for fight scenes. I’m still at a loss on other things.

    2. I’m glad that didn’t go quite the direction I thought it was from the first two lines… “Oh, that poor convenience store clerk.” :>

  5. I wish I had a solution for writer’s block. The first time it hit, it lasted for years. Nothing. Even the ideas dried up. The ideas now come in dribs and drabs compared to before. The exception was the Bug Eyes Jackson stories, with three in about as many days, but now I’m wondering if I need to edit the first because it hints how Bug Eyes builds a fire with a flashlight reflector, and this is for middle school kids. I need to build the radio in the second to confirm it works, and doing that for each one is going to greatly slow the pace.

    To get something out the door, I’ve returned to a detective story in a medieval fantasy setting (thanks to Dave – I read a couple of his Bolq, PI, stories and thought I’d try to market a couple I wrote a try). All I need is to do the cover and a section divider graphic. Oh, and to figure out pricing for a yarn right at 7,000 words.Leaning toward 2.99. Too pricey?

    What I’ve been doing when not writing is reading. Fiction; non-fiction; whatever. Pratchett when I just need to chill. Listening to music, singing, maybe playing a bit on a recorder.

    For a workshop it’s a tough call. But I think you’re entirely right on stressing doing, to drive the lesson home. Maybe how to set the hook where the reader will continue to the end?

    1. Kevin, I’ve had times like that and I hate them. What finally got me out of them was to simply set aside a time each morning before I got going where I did free writing. Not much. Two pages by longhand. After a couple of weeks, the muse got tired of writing nothing but whatever popped into my head and decided stories were much better than tirades on how I hated mornings, my grocery list, etc.

      As for your question if $2.99 for a 7k word story, for me it would be. There are very few authors I will pay that much for when it comes to short stories. My best advice is to look at the best sellers for short fiction and see what the average price is for something that length.

      1. Thanks. I might try that. Just thinking about that had thoughts of automatic writing, and maybe something creepy.

        By the time I read your post, I’d already published it, so instead of having it at 2.99 for a few hours the dropping it, I might leave it at that for a while to see what happens. Out of curiosity I listed it, along with three others, as click-on images in the sidebar of my blog, each linked to Amazon. Two of those others are at 0.99, so it will be an interesting comparison.

  6. When I hit the wall I get out a blank sheet of paper and start writing. Literally anything. If absolutely NOTHING will come, I’ll flip through here, or somewhere else on the internet and by and large within 15 min something will have popped into my head. Often it’s just a single word. Sometimes it’s a phrase that has been stuck in my head that won’t let anything out past it. One was “The Samurai are keepers of honor” another was “I wish you two hadn’t followed me’ a third was “They were my own hands”. Some of the words were just ‘Fire’, ‘Evil’, ‘Fools’. And just let it go whichever direction it goes.

    For workshops I like the practical… and I, personally prefer avoiding ‘rules’. Most workshops I have been (rather few, I will admit) tend to focus on writing in a very specific style rather than establishing a broad base of tools. Perhaps a workshop on how to use various writing tools/techniques to achieve certain effects and how they do and don’t work in various genres. For example: In a high register fantasy novel breaking a sentence up with a period between each words would be out of character, in a hard bitten detective novel it can make for snappy dialogue.

    “I. Said. Go. Back.” Drake jabbed a finger in the other man’s chest.
    “I. Had. No. Choice.” William stood his ground firmly.

    (Hope that helps the point, but not sure.)

    1. I will do the free writing as well from time to time. It’s something Sarah started me on. I think I go back to writing the current WIP because I don’t like not having at least some idea of what I’m going to write about. Yeah, I’m weird that way. 😉

      My mantra, whether I am doing a workshop or just talking back and forth in my critique group, is that there is no one right way to write. We all have our own styles and methods. The only rule I live by is you have to finish something instead of being in a constant state of popcorn kittens where you get to a difficult part of the process and jump to something else because, “oooh, shiny!”.

      I do tell folks that they need to read the genre they want to write in so they know the conventions of that genre. I do it because you are right. What works in mystery very possible won’t in fantasy, or vice versa. The best way to know what will and won’t work is to know the genre.

      1. Hmmm. Maybe I saw that on Sarah’s blog sometime, and forgot about it.

        Started doing just this on Monday after a couple of weeks of nothing getting onto paper (hard disk, rather – if I had to longhand anything, I would quit long before the Muse would get fed up).

        Good to know it seems to be a common factor among Muses that they eventually get tired of the whinging. 🙂

  7. Sometimes I take a short break and read or watch something. If that doesn’t work, I can look back through what I wrote and see if there’s something I skipped over that I could fill in. And if that doesn’t work, I sometimes look at an older work to see if it could be revised.

  8. Workshop subjects . . . Pacing, plotting, how to kick your ass and turn out the words . . . oh, wait, that’s the second question.

    Well, I take a block as a signal that (1) I’m tired (2) drove the plot in and bad direction (3) drove the plot in the right direction and now I need to go bad and make everything else line up to the new plan (4) lazy or (5) who knows?

    What do I do? Give the subconscious time to work out the problem, instead of fighting to keep me fro going deeper into the mess. A stretch break, a meal, exercise, a shower, a trip to the store . . . start writing something else, either new or old. And sometimes you just have to get out the mental pliers and drag the words out of your brain one by one until they start flowing again.

      1. Note to self: don’t read Pam’s imagery before coffee because now I will be thinking about pliers and brains and ancient Egyptians.

    1. I discovered that #3 of Pam’s can derail me. On one story, I was going along just fine, knew what was coming, knew what I was going to change and had even written down a note, and “got tired.” Then, I went back and fixed the earlier portions of the drafted and stopped being tired.

      The other useful thing is research. My brain won’t plot, apparently, until I have some clue about the underlying subject matter. It doesn’t like it when I don’t know what I don’t know. Even if I just start the research the brain will let me see things I couldn’t see before.

      Physical exertion is also good. Things can get untangled doing yard work or going for a run. They say exercise is good for brain health. It’s also a good muse.

  9. Not to self: When I’m too tired to think straight, don’t write! Another note to self: When I’m too tired to think, don’t try to go through the publishing process. Not #3: If you see something you want to go back to ~ write it down! I saw what looked like a lot of valuable tips in an ebook about how to connect with people/groups who might have a deep interest in various genres, but was having computer problems (and didn’t write the information down) and can’t find it again!

    1. Not to self: When I’m too tired to think straight, don’t write! Another note to self: When I’m too tired to think, don’t try to go through the publishing process. Not #3: If you see something you want to go back to ~ write it down! I saw what looked like a lot of valuable tips in an ebook about how to connect with people/groups who might have a deep interest in various genres, but was having computer problems (and didn’t write the information down) and can’t find it again!
      Guess I’m tired; the word “note” came out twice as “not.” I’m tired. Got up at 3:00 AM and couldn’t go back to sleep.

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