Friday, February 26, 2016

Writing Goals - the Ideals & the Reality -- by Rachel

Setting goals is a great way to make things happen. Experts tell us that people see better results by setting a goal of say, getting 10,000 steps per day on their pedometer than telling themselves they’ll be more active. In the same way, setting a specific goal for your writing – say, 2,000 words per day – is more likely to bring you success than telling yourself you’re going to finish a novel this year. However, before you set your goal, there are a few things to think about.

Get a plan in place first. Whether you’re an outliner or a panster, having everything you need to write already at your fingertips before you write – research, character sketches, etc. – will make it easier for you to write quickly. The more detailed the plan, the more quickly you can write.

Set a goal that makes sense in the context of your life. Do you have a job and/or kids at home? If so, ten pages a day is probably not feasible. But if you can write full time, by all means set the bar high.

Set a goal that works with your psychology. I personally feel a sense of failure if I set a goal I can’t keep. That takes the joy out of writing, so I tend to set a goal I know I can reach. However, I know of people who set outlandish goals for themselves because they like the challenge. Do what works for you.

Set a goal that is based on your writing speed. Some people are prolific. Others are slow writers. To some extent, this is based on the type of writing you do. Plot based novels (i.e., thrillers) and formulaic novels (i.e., Harlequin) tend to move more quickly than novels heavy on character and theme. I’m a slow writer who would like to write more quickly, so I totally get it if you want to speed up your writing. Just be realistic about how much you can change over the course of one novel.

Set a goal for excellence. Yes, the goal is a finished novel and the sooner, the better. However, characters that leap off the page, plot twists and themes that resonate take time. Factor in time to ruminate on your story. You may even want to set a goal of taking a daily walk so you can think about what you’ve written or a goal of thirty minutes at the end of your writing day to edit for excellence.

Plan for time off. Schedule in days off to spend with friends and family and to rest your brain. Take a week off to go on vacation. Wearing yourself out doesn’t make for good health, and your writing will thank you for the physical and mental rest.

Plan for the unexpected. Life happens. A relative goes into the hospital. Your pipes burst and you have to move out temporarily. Writing life also happens. A key plot point turns out to feel unrealistic when you write it or your storyline has wandered off into a black hole. No worries. Take a writing goal vacation for a day or two while you get your story back on track.  

Writing a novel is a marathon. And anyone who’s trained for a marathon knows that goals and a plan are important, but preferably, goals and a plan that take your life and personal style into consideration.

Have you used writing goals to good effect before? We’d love to hear how it worked for you.

Tweetables: Setting goals for your next novel (Click to Tweet)

Friday, February 19, 2016

Treasure Trove of Research – by Christine

Historical Train Museum in British Columbia
The need for research is understandable if you’re writing a historical novel, but if you’re writing a contemporary YA story, or a sci-fi adventure, you still need to check your facts.  

Even if you write a book that has a setting just like your home town, (like I did for my upcoming release Sofi’s Bridge) you’d be surprised how much you need to research.


  • LIBRARY—Order old books from your librarian that may give a slant on your novel from another point of view. Eg. For Shadowed in Silk I found a book written from the Indian point of view on a massacre perpetrated on the Indian people by an English general in 1919. That book enabled me to write several scenes from the point of view of my Indian characters as well as my British characters.

  • PRIMARY SOURCES—historians rely on primary sources such as birth certificates, photographs, diaries, letters, embroidery samplers, clothing, newspapers, autobiographies. Again, documents or texts like these are usually found only through the library, museums, civic centers, chambers of commerce.

  • SECONDARY SOURCES—Information that is not from first-hand experience, such as scholarly books, articles, reference sources such as encyclopedias, biographies. To finish my British Raj trilogy I read biographies and autobiographies of Indian and English political leaders such as Lord Louis Mountbatten, Gandhi, Nehru the first Indian Prime Minister, and so on, especially for the finale Veiled at Midnight.

  • TRAVEL BLOGS, BROCHURES, BOOKS. Eg. To get a feel for the Irish coastline for the book I’m currently writing, I read a non-fiction travelogue written by a man who sailed around the entire island of Ireland in a kayak, so I could feel vicariously what the coast felt like close up without actually being there. I also read tons on India.

  • THE ACTUAL PLACE—nothing beats being there. Eg—being in India allowed me to
    Or this train trip in India. The blond lady is a fellow traveler. 
    feel the breeze like silk on my skin for
    Captured by Moonlight. Or going to a train museum to step up into a train that could easily have been in my upcoming Sofi’s Bridge

  • COOKBOOKS—Especially old cookbooks give such an insight into the foods people used or still use. Food and their ingredients add such sensuous detail to a story. This was especially helpful in my Raj trilogy when I found a treasure of a cookbook for English woman living in British Colonial India. Through that I discovered a favorite snack for British children living in India was a chapatti spread with marmalade.

  • SPECIALTY MAGAZINES—such as historical train magazines, gun magazines, military, the list is endless.

  • EMAIL—When I was writing Londonderry Dreaming, a romance set in Ireland that featured scenes in St. Augustine’s Church in the city of Londonderry, I contacted the vicar of that church through her website email. She was delighted to help me with details about the church especially the Ruth and Naomi stained glass windows.  Even though I'd been there in person, I needed to verify my memory.

  • OLD MOVIES—Great to hear and see how people walked and talked in the previous century, so different from us now. For my Raj trilogy I watched loads of movies, Gandhi, The Last Viceroy, Flame Over India (an old Lauren Bacall movie) to name only a few.  

  • INTERNET—is good for checking quick details such as weather, moon phases in other parts of the world, accuracy of what day in a specific year, etc. but always check those sources. There are a lot of falsities online.


When I finished writing my first book Shadowed in Silk, I sent the manuscript to a female professor in India, but aside from her Phd in literature, she was Indian, and she lived in India. After reading my manuscript to check for historical, geographical, and cultural accuracy she wrote back to me and said she was amazed that I had never been to India (yet). I finally got to India a year after Shadowed in Silk was published which added to the authenticity of the next two books in that trilogy. But the reason my first novel rang true was because of the tons of research I had done. I read close to 100 books.


Nowadays I Do NOT do my research first. 

I actually wait until after I have at least my outline written, and continue to do research while I’m writing, or even after the first draft is complete.

Here’s why:

Research is a treasure trove, one that can keep a writer buried for months if not years in all that lovely history and fact-finding. I did so much research before I wrote Shadowed in Silk that I had far more than needed for one book, but plenty of authentic details for a trilogy long before I knew it would be a trilogy.

This is what I suggest when it comes to research:
  1. Get your story down first.
  2. Insert notes in your first draft to “Do Research on duck hunting.”
  3. When you’ve got a tight story, your characters ring true, then add your authentic details.


Granted that can happen, but if you do the majority of your research up front, you may never get that book written.

Revision is always fun anyway. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Planning for Pansters (Writing without an Outline) -- by Rachel

I envy those writers who outline their whole novel before they even begin chapter one. They sit down at their computer, begin typing and already know what they’re going to type. A little expansion here, a little fleshing out there. There’s no fretting as they try to pick out their story’s path one step at a time.

O boy, do I wish ….

I’ve tried outlining, but except for a handful of scenes, I simply cannot tell what needs to happen in a story until I start writing in my character’s voices. One scene leads to the next.

As J.R.R. Tolkien famously said, “All those who wander are not lost.” If you’re a panster, trust yourself to discover your novel’s path as you write it (Tweet this). There are a few tips that will shine a light on your path though, so you don’t get so far off the track that you have a mess on your hands when you’re done.

Keep your premise firmly in mind as you write each scene. It may take you a hundred pages to truly discover where your story is going, but you should have a strong premise from page one, and each scene should build and deepen that premise in some way. Follow tangents as you wish, as long as you keep this in mind, and you’ll still have a coherent story in the end.

Before you write, choose two or three comparable novels to the one you intend to write as loose guides. That is, select novels you’ve read that have the type of structure and audience you’re aiming for. Even go so far as outlining them. When you feel lost in your writing, understanding the structure of similar novels will help you lay trustworthy paths of your own.

Know what your characters’ goals are and put obstacles in their way. Don’t be shy. Stir up the waters and create lots of trouble for your characters. They’ll enjoy some small successes along the way, but ultimately, if you write most scenes to make your reader worry, you’ll end up with a stronger story.

End each scene with a hook. This may simply mean that you’ve moved your character and his goal further apart. But anything that makes your reader want to read on will do (i.e., a mystery that is laid out in the last paragraph). Incidentally, ending on a hook may make it easier for you to know where to start when you come back to the computer as well.

Deepen your characters.  Lay them out for your readers until they’re as real as family and friends (although a little more dramatic, if you please). If you make your reader fall in love with your heroes and heroines, even a meandering scene here or there will sing.

Aim for the finale. Although I don’t outline, I generally have a fairly strong image of the catastrophe at the end, that great battle that makes it seem all is lost, but ultimately brings the character to his or her reward. If you know the finale, you’ll faithfully build to it.

If you follow these guidelines, you don’t need an outline to make sure your story stays on the lit path. But what about coming up with the story itself when you have no outline to refer to?  

Last but not least, leave time for your story to stew. If you’re not following an outline, you must give your muse time to dream up new scenes. For me, that means taking long walks or doing mindless activities (dishes or laundry) alone, while my mind drifts. When I let my unconscious mind free, I usually find images or snatches of dialogue that will take me through the next scene or two.

And while I don’t outline my whole novel, I do tend to jot down the basics of the next scene before I start. There’s something about the kinesthetic act of putting pen to paper that helps me plot out the skeleton of my day’s writing.

Tweetables: Writing a novel without an outline (Click to Tweet)

Friday, February 5, 2016

Outlining for the Messy Brain -- by Christine

Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912, oil on canvas, Wassily Kandinsky 

I envy those writers who call themselves pansters. They sit down at their computer and start typing out their novel, having a general idea of where they want their story to go.

Oh boy do I wish . . .

I have a messy brain, stuffed with ideas for several novels all at once, so if I sit down at my computer without an outline I can guarantee myself several major rewrites.

Last week Rachel talked about Getting to Know Your Story, writing out those all-important character sketches, scene kernels, the faith story, and so on. Character development is huge, and at Novel Renaissance we will be talking in greater depth about Character in September. 

But by this time in the novel’s journey we are here:

The Premise is written (although open for tweaking) ü

Character sketches, scene kernels, faith story are written ü

Now I’m ready to start an outline. ü

There are a lot of excellent outline styles out there, but the method that has worked best for me is a combination of elements.  

1.       I always keep in the back of my mind that a good novel is a CIRCLE.

2.      A good novel has major STORY POINTS (approximately 15 to 20)

3.      A good novel is also a 3-ACT STAGE PLAY.

A bit of a balancing act you might think, but not as difficult as it seems.  

Let’s start first with # 1 YOUR NOVEL IS A CIRCLE

When a story comes a full 360 degrees from start to ending, the reader may not recognize it but they should feel a silent ahhhhhh that the ending is reminiscent of the beginning.

For example, Veiled at Midnight had to start with an important historical event and end after another historical event. I also wanted the ending to feature my hero and heroine in an emotional scene that resonated with chapter one. However, Veiled at Midnight is also the finale to a trilogy, so that book had to close two circles, its own story and that of the entire trilogy.

Christine’s Writing Tip: One of my personal tips is to actually copy sections from my first chapter and play with the writing to create my ending.

If you have read the entire trilogy Twilight of the BritishRaj you may recognize parts of Chapter One Shadowed in Silk in the epilogue for Veiled at Midnight. But instead of seeing India through the eyes of my first heroine Abby who is just arriving in India at the end of 1918, the trilogy ends as seen through the eyes of Dassah, a young Indian woman who is leaving India in 1947.  

September 1947

On the Bombay quay, a kaleidoscope of color and humanity dazzled Dassah’s eyes—Women in saris of mango pink, peacock blue, lime green. Bengali clerks rushed here and there. On the dock, uniformed English soldiers joined the throng on their way back to England. So many people. The teeming press of millions. India, the land of her birth.  

And now # 2 STORY POINT METHOD—to help me close the story circle


I start on a fresh document page with a # 1 and write down my first story point.

Eg. Star crossed lovers Cam and Dassah meet as adults during a train derailment.

·         On the next line I put point #15—how I want this book to end.

Cam and Dassah say goodbye to their loved ones in India as they prepare to leave India by ship, and live somewhere in the world happily ever after.

·         Then I go back up to create point # 2, what has to happen after point # 1 to get my characters on the journey to the last point.

After finding her again after all these years Cam can’t let Dassah go, and seeks her out even though the city has erupted in riots.

·         After I write Step # 2, I jump down to Step # 14. What has to happen right before the last point, in order to make that happen?

Cam rescues Dassah from the area in tumult by hijacking a train.

·         Back and forth I go from beginning to ending until I work my way into the middle of my book with all the story points from # 3 to 13 which would include

From the beginning of the story Cam and Dassah find each other, and we think they will live happily ever after. But due to their mixed race love, she runs away and is lost to Cam in the middle of a country being split in half. Cam in his political role as aide to the British Viceroy of India is torn as he helps the British grant independence to India while also searching for the woman he loves before she dies during the Indian Partition and the birth of Pakistan.

·         This method forces me to work out the kinks in my novel first before I start a more in-depth outline. My middles are not just filler, but each point relies on the point before and paves the way for the point following.


When I’ve got my story points down, I then look to see if they naturally fall into a 3-act play. Because of the story points I find 99% of the time that the novel automatically creates that 3-act structure, but if it’s weak then I go back and work on those story points.


Childhood friends (English) Cam and (Indian) Dassah are reunited and try to find ways to openly be married at a time when mixed race marriages were taboo in British India.


India begins the tumultuous process of gaining independence from Britain, and in so doing the country erupts with violence from various factions. At the same time Dassah’s heart is broken that Cam does not want to openly make her his wife, and she runs away, hiding herself in the war-torn countryside.


After a building climax of violence, rescue, and character arcs, where all characters learn how to overcome their situation with God’s guidance, Cam rescues Dassah physically, but Dassah rescues Cam emotionally. The end of the book has them deciding what God wants them to do as a couple.

Ultimately though, that 3-act structure matches up beautifully and very naturally with my premise. If not, I tweak until it does.  

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