As I work on what WILL be my first completed novel-length manuscript, I’ve thought about how many books I should be able to write in a year—how many I’d like to write to make a decent living of course, but also how many a publisher would expect me to get done as well.

You’ve probably heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an annual challenge to write a novel in the month of November, and currently Harlequin has posted BI3M:2011,  a challenge to write your book in three months (two months for your draft, and one month to polish and submit).

Three months is what I was thinking for the first draft and about six weeks to edit and submit. To be perfectly honest, when I finish…before my fiftieth birthday next month, it will be more like five months for my first draft, and I’ve still planned about six weeks to edit and write my synopsis. I do believe I could write a book in a month given minimal interruptions and outside responsibilities, but my goal for books Number Two and Three is now two months for my draft and one to polish and submit. If I can write the way I did last week, completing more than 10,000 words in one week, this will be no problem.

I realize I’m lucky that I can concentrate primarily on my writing, although I will admit that my house is suddenly falling apart around me. (Hmmm, maybe if I start selling, I can have a housekeeper.) My three guys, who currently live at home and are used to pretty nice home cooked meals and me taking care of everything other than a paycheck, are learning to fend for themselves a lot more. (Did I mention that they are ages 19, 21 and 53?)

In the last few weeks they actually started taking my writing seriously. My youngest walked into my room and middle son grabbed him saying, “Stay out of there. Mom is writing!” Middle son knocked on the door and asked if I was making them lunch and younger son reprimanded him, “Knock it off. She’s writing. You can feed yourself!” Hubby helped with dishes after dinner (previously unheard of) and even came home and offered to pick up dinner when I had written more than 5,000 words in one day…twice. Hmmm, maybe the guys are taking my writing more seriously because I’m letting go of some guilt and believing in myself for the first time in a very long time.

So, do I believe I can regularly write three books a year? I really do. I already have the concepts for the next two and with the momentum I’ve built writing this one I have no doubt that I can do this. Do I want to write three books a year…more than ever!

What about you? How long do you spend on a manuscript? How long do you think it should take? How many books would you like to write in a year?

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I finished the first draft on a manuscript yesterday, and I set it aside. Before I move on to editing, I give myself a few days to let the story fade. I hurry the process along by starting work on a new manuscript, which means I turn my attentions to sketching new characters and plots.

I love this part.

I love creating characters. “Sketching” them is my favorite part about the writing process. Sometimes it starts with something simple, like a name. Other times it starts with a face, maybe one I glanced at on the street…or at a stadium, which is the case for the manuscript I’m plotting now.

I spend an inordinate amount of time at stadiums, so the fact that my current hero got his humble beginnings from a passing glance as I sat two rows behind him during a game shouldn’t be surprising. What did surprise me was the power in that moment. (Disclaimer: I am happily married.) When the man reached an arm across the seat of the child sitting next to him, crossed an ankle over his knee and looked over his shoulder, our eyes met. Physically attractive, yes. But there was so much more running through my mind.

Who was the little boy? His son? His nephew? His girlfriend’s kid? Was the man wearing a wedding ring? Why wasn’t he wearing a wedding ring? How old? How tall? What did he do for a living? How did he sound? How did he smell? Where was he from? Boxers or briefs? Six-pack or flab?

Married or not, I’m not the kind of girl who walks up to strangers and randomly asks their life stories. Nope. I’m the kind of girl who goes home, sits at her computer and makes up their life stories.

I play God, and I like it.

Doctors get accused of playing God too, but I think my way is better. No real lives are at stake. No non-compliant patients threaten my career and sanity (although non-compliant characters make me moody). It’s less messy my way. I see a person. He or she sparks my interest, and I go home, dreaming about who they are and what they do.

So back to “the man”…

After our initial eye contact, I followed the man and his child companion from our seats into the “club” area. The man stopped abruptly at the top of the stairs before he opened the glass door, and I bumped into him. (I swear to God I didn’t do it on purpose. Subconsciously? Maybe.) He turned, smiled as I apologized and then held the door for me. I walked in, reminding myself to breathe. He walked passed and ushered the little one into the men’s room. Figuring it bordered on creepy to stand around and wait until they reappeared, I ordered a drink and returned to my seat where I happily watched the man and designed stories for his life during the rest of the game.

I called my girlfriend that night and described the hardly-a-meeting. “He’s my next hero,” I gushed.

She laughed and reminded me that since I sit in the same seats every game maybe I should introduce myself if he shows up again.

He didn’t. (I looked.) And even if he had I would’ve never taken my friend’s advice—and not because I worry about me having an affair (see disclaimer above).

Whoever he is, the man is better left in my head where he can be flawed but redeemed and challenged but victorious, where his voice is the right pitch and his hands work magic every time, where he never grows old, never gets fat and his bank account is endless, where the woman he loves is his perfect match and they live happily ever after.

I like playing God. I like giving everyone a happy ending. How about you?

Have you been inspired to create characters from a real life encounter? Do you enjoy sketching/creating your heroes and heroines, or do you find it difficult to manipulate fictional lives? I’d love to know.

We’ve all been there, that special place where the words just flow, blank pages fill with ink and we can’t write (or type) as fast as our characters tell their story. This has been a week like that for me. If I’m alone, I generally have no trouble finding the zone, but with three guys in the house (loving husband, twenty-one-year-old son and nineteen-year-old son) it’s often difficult for me to get uninterrupted time. The guys are on totally different and somewhat irregular schedules, so I never know when or for how long I will be alone. They are used to me being a short order cook, taking over chores that need done and having friends over at a moment’s notice.

Then of course, there are the outside issues that filter in all day. Telemarketers call.
(I don’t answer the phone, but they are disruptive.) Friends and family call or come by. (I love them all, but I know that some of them think that because I’m home my schedule is flexible and I have nothing to do all day….after all I don’t have a “real” job like most of them. Do I say that too often?) I’m trying to put together a neighborhood watch and there’s work involved there. Then of course there are household things that I usually do and try not to ask the three other adults to help with because they do all have “real” jobs, school and homework.

Things have been different this week. Other than scheduled activities, I’ve written with few interruptions. The boys warned each other to leave me alone because I was writing. My husband hardly called me from work because he didn’t want to interfere with “the zone,” and he’s begun helping with dinner dishes (a radical and greatly appreciated change in my life). And there were very few outside interruptions.

On Tuesday I typed all of my work from Monday and wrote eighteen new pages. Only my dog couldn’t take it. Late Tuesday afternoon when I had been glued to my desk for more than six hours, I suddenly felt a cold wet nose banging on my arm, forcing his head between my arm and my side. Suddenly he pushed through and my forty-pound lab/chow was halfway on my lap, wagging his tail, licking my arm and preventing me from writing. I had to laugh, give him some love, but then I walked him to the door, sent him out and closed the door behind him, NO MORE INTERUPTIONS! 

I’m hoping to be as productive today.

My husband has a four-day holiday weekend. The boys just had finals and—thanks to state budget cuts—there will be no school for them until late August. We also have summer guests coming that I can hardly wait to see. But yesterday, my husband said, “Honey, you don’t have to make special race food for me on Sunday [Indy 500]. I can fend for myself. [This is unheard of and probably means he’ll order a pizza, but I’m okay with that.] I’ll watch the race and let you write.” What a guy! I never write when he’s home, and that extra day is a gift.

My middle son said, “Mom, I can help out more over the summer just give me a list of what you need done in the morning.” (Who are you, and what did you do with my son?) Younger son agreed that he could do this as well. And, new for me, I’m trying to delegate and learning to say “no” to things I would normally squeeze into my schedule.

Hmmm, maybe this is why I’ve had fewer interruptions…everyone is mad at me!

Well, whatever it is, I have to keep it going. It’s 7 a.m. here in Los Angeles, heavy marine layer outside. I’ve got an early start. I’m ready to type my previous work and then write some new pages. The boys who were formerly part of the interruption told me they “have my back” and will field calls on the house phone and outside distractions. (Are they taking my writing seriously?) Truly, I’m grateful. (Did I mention I write the way I talk…in run-on sentences?) My fiftieth birthday is July 10 (Yikes! Did I say that out loud?) and my goal is to have my draft finished before I turn fifty. I’ll let you know how I do.

Well, I’m off to write. Let me know how many words or pages you are getting done each week. I promise to check in…forgive me if I’m slow to respond. (I’m hoping to be “in the zone.”) Let me know what you’re doing to prevent interruptions and how your family and friends help…or not!

Gotta go, I think my pen is bleeding!

Raven McAllan

Raven McAllan

Name and/or Pen Name: *Raven McAllan

Blog/web site/twitter: ravenmcallanauthor.weebly.com, @RavenMcAllan

Where I write: Anywhere I can sit. I am at last the proud owner of a MacBook Air, since lovely hubby got fed up of my “this lap top is slow, old and heavy” and “it hurts to sit at the desk top.”

What I write: Anything romance-y: historical, mystery, contemporary, m/m and even a historical f/f/m. I’m having fun seeing what I can do.

Worst rejection: “Sorry not suitable.” When I asked very politely why, I was assured they would get back to me. Waiting… I accept it might not be any good, but please, please tell me why. Even if it’s a “badly written unbelievable plot, cardboard character and terrible grammar” rejection, I want to get better. Of course finding something nice in a rejection is good as well.

Best rejection: The first in this bout of writing from Harlequin Historical Undone with a specific “next time you submit, please remember the following…” and things to follow. Really helpful. I haven’t re-submitted yet, but I will. Also someone who took the time to give me a few specifics where I’d gone wrong. I didn’t necessarily agree, but it helped to show me something editors may not like.

What keeps me writing: Compulsion. A day without writing is like a day without food. I have fibromyalgia and can only type in short bursts. I am getting very good at plotting in my head and remembering it. I have always scribbled, although after two rejections in a few years and a lot of years ago have only started seriously since I’ve not been able to work. It’s a life line. Also I have a burning desire to do better than something I have read and thought, “I could do that.”

I am a writer: I can’t imagine not being one. Even as a child I wrote. I’ve always had a vivid imagination. (According to one teacher, too vivid!) As an only child, writing meant I was never lonely. I could play with my imaginary friends. Even though as yet unpublished, I have faith in me. Ok, it wavers when a big “R” comes in for something I thought was good…but hey ho. One day!

***

[We’d like to thank Raven for sharing with us. If you’re an unpublished romance writer who is interested in being profiled, email Elley.]

*Editor’s Note: Raven is no longer an unpublished author! On October 7, 2011, her debut novel, Wallflowers Don’t Wilt, became available from Breathless Press.

I’m a sucker for talent shows, especially singing-based shows. I love the idea of a kid from some obscure corner getting his or her shot and making it big. The moment they stand in front of a roaring crowd covered in confetti is the moment their dream comes true…and everything changes.

Sure, they go on to sing. But sometimes they sing crap. And often times, nobody hears from them for a few years until in an interview the once next-big-thing says, “I had to step away from the scene for awhile. I had to write my own music and really fight to sing it. This new album is all me, and it’s my proudest accomplishment.”

The album goes on to sell a few hundred copies, and the kid complains his or her record label didn’t provide enough support. A producer may say something about the kid being difficult or not having what it takes to make it in the industry, and we all shrug and say, “Who’s right? Who knows? Who cares?”

Because unless you sing and plan on becoming America’s (or Britain’s) next big musical talent, it’s irrelevant to you. Right? Not so fast.

If you write for publication, the musical contestant scenario isn’t too far from the decisions you may face. We aren’t talking whether or not these singers are talented enough to be singing. We’re talking whether or not these singers are talented enough to make it big on their own—as their own person, singing their own songs—versus singing someone else’s songs marked for commercial success. It’s the age-old battle of marketability vs. creative control.

My first three manuscripts were written without any input—not even Steven King On Writing, no Donald Maas putting fire in my fiction. I thought up some characters and wrote the stories the way some distant voice told it to me. I enjoyed the process and getting to know the “people.” But truth be told, like the singer who sounded brilliant in her lower registry but sucked when she jumped octaves, my moments of grandeur where outshined by massive amounts of suck. Still, I love those stories. They provided me with so many wonderful moments of release and rapture. They were the stories of my heart—suck and all.

But something happened when I finished my fourth manuscript and started looking for agents and publishers. I read a Harlequin Blaze and decided to look closer at the line. If I tweaked this, toned down that, pumped up the sex and cut about 20,000 words…Wa La! This manuscript becomes suitable for Blaze.

So I did it. I massacred my manuscript for marketability. (MMM)

MMM isn’t an easy thing to do. I don’t advise it. In the end, the story wasn’t exactly a Blaze at all. I went through a few other identity crises with the manuscript, slaughtering it further for different lines. In the end, I stuck with the shorter word count, but I left the heat level the same, kept the swear words and figured someone somewhere needed to love it “as is,” because I was done trying to make it something it simply wasn’t.

Sound familiar?

I’d like to say I learned from the MMM process enough to move on with my writing enlightened and without market pressure, but it’s not true. For my next manuscript, I decided to write for market from the beginning. I took an idea, read a dozen books from my chosen line, and I built the idea around the tropes and rhythms I was reading. It was easier than MMM, but difficult in a whole new way.

My characters started veering off the beaten path. My hero wanted to be free with vulgarities. My heroine wanted to try on meek for size. And the entire time I’m pounding on the keyboard, trying to “talk” sense into them.

“No! Absolutely not. This is NOT the way an H&H behave in a ________.”

More than once I thought about ditching the constraints and writing from my heart—for my heart—but the market pull is strong.

Where am I now? Still in the middle of this psychotic pinball game where I bounce back and forth between marketability and heart. I tell myself, “Self, when you sell something, then you can pick and stick.” If I sell to a certain line, I’m almost guaranteed one more book with that line. My career—and my decision—will be made.

But let’s be honest, it could take awhile. I guess I’m stuck in this pinball machine. Am I stuck with you? Do you write for your heart or for the market? Is it possible to do both?

I may be a little schizophrenic as a writer. I have at least four manuscripts started, three that sit in the bottom drawer of my desk. One is a mainstream novel with more than 500 handwritten pages. Partially typed and partially edited, there are layers and layers of rewrites to this manuscript. I wrote it years ago when my boys were small and put it aside as many years ago.

Then there’s the romantic western that my husband loves, the one I started writing as a dare. I was reading a western romance at the time…and living in Wyoming. I put it aside because I didn’t really want to write a western, but I do think the story has potential.

Then there are two contemporary romances: the one I’m currently working on—which I started a few years ago then put aside because life got in the way—and another I started before I got back to this one because inspiration struck and I wanted to get the idea down. I’m hoping it will become my second finished manuscript. The first, of course, will be the one I’m working on now.

I can’t say I didn’t become scattered when I wrote non-fiction. I’d start on one article and before I’d finished my outline I’d have an idea for another article. What kept me from getting out of control was that I had a deadline on the first article. Plus, it was generally only 2,000 words in length, and I had to send a query out on the next idea before I had the assignment.

With my book, there are currently no outside controls on my project. No deadline—although that will change if I ever finish one and sell it. I’m not sending out a query on the next one because I can’t even send a query on this one until it’s finished.

So…I created controls for myself.

The first is that I have to write at least 5,000 words per week. I’d really like to write 10,000, but I’ve decided to start with 5,000 and when I get used to doing that every week, I’ll slowly increase the number of words until I hit at least 10,000. So far, this is working out pretty well. Although I will admit, I’m still at 5,000 words per week (could be time for an increase).

The second control is my husband. I’m accountable to him. (My idea, not his) Although he’d be disappointed if I didn’t meet my goals, he wouldn’t punish me. (Hmmm, maybe I should come up with a punishment!) However, he is so excited to hear what’s happened in my book each day that I hate disappointing him. If I don’t hit my goal one day, I am making up for it the next. Every evening when he gets home from work, I read my manuscript out loud to him. (He doesn’t want to wait for the typed version the next day, and there are so many scribbles, margin notes and arrows on my handwritten manuscript that aside from me, no one could follow it.) It’s become a little ritual I look forward to and it’s actually kind of romantic. Now that I’m thinking about it, I think I’ll start pouring a couple of glasses of wine for reading time…

The third thing I’ve done for accountability is set up a loose schedule. I say loose, because everyone in my life is used to me being available as needed, and it’s taking time to train them—and me—to understand that I’m actually, really, truly, seriously working. I’ve even implemented hours when I don’t answer the phone (okay, I try not to answer the phone). My schedule starts with writing my blog posts and then checking e-mail, which I’ve limited to 15 minutes. After I’ve done those things, I throw in a load of laundry—I know, but it has to be done—and I type the previous days work. (What? You thought I got my word count by hand counting?) I don’t do any serious editing when I type, however, I do put Post Its with notes on them all over the pages. Then I start another load of laundry, and I sit down and actually write. Usually, by this time it’s about 9 am. Occasionally, on days like today, it may be closer to 10 am. I write until I’m starving, break for lunch, fold some laundry, take a walk and then back to writing.

I’ve been getting about four hours of actual writing in each day—most days—and I haven’t started any new manuscripts lately, although I do have a notebook where I’ll write down ideas that come up. I’m hoping that with time and consistency this will improve from “most days” to five days a week.

Now I know that I’m not the only one with several manuscripts started. So how many of you have more than one manuscript going? What controls do you have in place or do you think might work for you?

Well, I’m already behind schedule, so time to start a load of laundry and hit the keyboard.

TSTL=Too Stupid to Live

I don’t know who coined the phrase as it pertains to literary heroines, but I like it. You know the kind of fictional lady this phrase is speaking of—the one who walks around outside her house in the middle of the night because she heard a noise…despite watching a news story about serial sexual assaults in her neighbor. Too stupid to live, right?

Fortunately, I haven’t encountered too many of these women in my reading. Some heroines have TSTL moments, but they manage to redeem themselves with rational, adult behavior. But the other day, I “met” my very first TSTL heroine. Her only redeeming quality was an affable character. The rest—holy Hemingway!—was worse than nails on a chalk board.

Of course, I’ve never written a TSTL heroine…have I?

Yeah. I have. My first manuscript, first draft contained a heroine who needed a disclaimer. “Be prepared. Julia cries a lot,” I said as I passed the printed pages to my ideal reader.

Julia cried a lot? Julia cried too freaking much—among other annoying character traits that made her TSTL. In drafts two, three, four and five, I toned her down, but the first impression lingered, and now she lives (and cries and whines) in a box under my bed.

Wouldn’t it be hilarious to see disclaimers like mine written on book jackets?

Caution: Catherine makes rash decisions and never learns from her mistakes. This book may not be suitable for readers with low thresholds for indecision.

As I’m heroine bashing, I’m also wondering if a hero be TSTL? For the heroine, her stupidity centers around naïve behavior that is weak or misguided. But I think a hero can be TSTL if he’s an ass who never sees just how much of an ass he is.

Have you had any run-ins with TSTL heroines? What about heroes? What male traits make a hero TSTL?

After author Charlene Sands gave her inspiring presentation on Five Keys to Building a Better Book at my RWA meeting on Saturday. Author Leanne Banks gave a presentation on 15 Solutions to Help with Brainstorming and Ways to Get Unstuck. When I heard that her fifty-sixth book is being released this month, I thought I should listen up.

Leanne’s presentation was both funny and interactive. She made us think about problems in our manuscripts and what to do when we write our characters into a corner or just don’t know what comes next. I really hadn’t thought much about “brainstorming.” but as she counted off her ideas, I realized that I do brainstorm—I just didn’t think of it as brainstorming.

I loved her idea to write an autobiography of your main character. I do often write a character profile, but her idea gave more detail and could inspire new plot lines for a story. Along the same lines I’ve written personal letters to a heroine in the past when I couldn’t feel her telling me her story, and at the risk of sounding insane…she wrote back to me.

Another suggestion Leanne made was to create a collage for your book using different textures and mediums. Although I’ve never thought to make a collage, I do often collect pictures of clothing, homes or things that remind me of my characters and put them in a file with lists of songs, favorite foods, etc.

My favorite tip on her list is to “give yourself permission to write crap.” She said that perfect is sometimes too big, and you can always fix it later. I definitely do this. I write. And, I write. I will go back later and fix it if I need to…or cut it entirely…but I write. Very often just writing will move the story along and the characters will wind up where they are supposed to be. The story will happen just as it should—unless someday an editor tells me otherwise, but I’ll have to wait and see if that happens!

As I’ve said before, I like to write about settings where I’ve lived or at least have been, and preferably places I can get to easily. My current heroine lives nearby. I walk where she lives and works. I sometimes take the day and hang out where her world is happening in my head. I can feel her there. I can see her and the hero. I am inspired. It’s easy for me to research the area and the history if needed. I can find sub-cultures and understand area trends and the unique buzz to the world where my characters live. I can feel the textures, smell the air, the food, hear local conversation… immerse myself in her world. About once a week, I take my notebook and pen and spend the day in her world. It definitely keeps my pen moving.

Both Charlene Sands and Leanne Banks gave me a lot to think about this week. Their presentations reassured me that I’m on the right track, gave me techniques for making my writing better and gave me inspiration to continue.

Have you ever written your character into a corner…or just not known what would happen next? Did you use any special techniques to get the story moving again? Share your tips. Let us know where you find inspiration.

Name and/or Pen Name:Nicole Helm

Nicole Helm

Nicole Helm

Blog/web site/twitter: nicolehelm.wordpress.com, @nicolethelm

Where I write: At the kitchen counter, which is where my laptop is plugged in.

What I write: Contemporary Romance

Worst rejection: I was so spoiled with my first rejection, which was a revise & resubmit, that when my next rejection was a form email with no explanation, that was probably the hardest. After getting such great feedback on the first, it was kind of a blow to know this other publisher didn’t see anything worthwhile in a novel I thought was stronger than the R&R one. Of course, looking back, they were kind of right…

Best rejection: My first. I took part in the Mills & Boon Medical Fast Track in August and I sent in a full manuscript. Not only was the feedback quick, but the editor had obviously read the entire novel, which felt like a feat within it of itself. Then, even though she said it wasn’t quite suitable at the time, she gave very specific feedback on what could be changed and encouraged me to submit again. At the time, that was hard to hear, but now that I’ve had way worse rejections, I really appreciate the time the editor took to read and give feedback on my entire novel. And I’m still waiting to hear back on that revised partial, so we’ll see what happens.

What keeps me writing:  It’s a compulsion. I have taken breaks from writing before, but they never last long. Writing is just something I’ve always done and will always do. I keep writing because it makes me happy. Even my husband notices I am happier when I spend a large portion of my day writing. It is that love and enjoyment above all else that keeps me writing. Everything else is secondary. Sometimes I get all depressed about never getting published, but I still write. It’s just…a part of me.

I am a writer: I have always been a writer…for as long as I can remember. There have always been people in my head, and it sounds a lot less crazy if you’re a writer. It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve really focused on a genre and set about getting published, but for years and years before that I was writing, because it’s the way I perceive the world and make sense of what I think and feel. Even if I never get published, I have to write. And like I said above, it makes me happy. For me, that’s the most important thing.

***

[We’d like to thank Nicole for sharing with us. If you’re an unpublished romance writer who is interested in being profiled, email Elley.]

In an effort to connect with more romance writers, we’ve decided to turn Wednesdays into Writer Wednesday and feature an aspiring romance novelist each week. If your interested in being featured or learning more about the opportunity, email Elley at elleyfranco@gmail.com or leave a comment with your email address below this post.