Sep 22

A Year of Writing Dangerously

Cup-of-teaOK, I don’t know that my writing qualifies as dangerous, but it has been a year since I started this crazy experiment of being a full-time author. It’s been a while since I did a retrospective, so now seems like a good time!

When I quit my day job, my counselor warned me that for every year that I was in the old job, it could take a month to adjust to a new routine. Since I was in my old job for twelve years, that means I needed to give myself permission to take up to a year to get into a new groove. I’m happy to report that I have a pretty good groove going now, a year later. Of course, my routine has to be flexible because what I’m writing and the life around my writing is always changing (first kid started elementary school!), but overall I’m more confident now that I’ll get everything done if I stick to my plan.

Things I’ve learned in the past year:

  1. My addiction to tea has not diminished. The opposite, actually.
  2. Ergonomics are really important. Ignore at your peril. Back spasms and stiff necks will hamper my productivity.
  3. Rituals and routines are more important than I realized. As it turns out, it’s well-documented that creative people benefit greatly from habitual triggers that put them into the creative mood (e.g., a specific kind of pen or notebook; a specific playlist; a specific place to sit; or a ritual like starting with a hot cup of tea). At first, I did it subconsciously, but now I try to do it intentionally.
  4. I can’t actually write for eight hours a day. Besides the obvious necessary breaks, the concentration required to focus on my own writing is too intense to sustain all day; generally, I get only about four hours of really productive writing time. The good news is that knowing that helps me stress out less, because I can remind myself that if I don’t write a lot in the morning, I can still have a good afternoon, and conversely, if I do have a good morning, I shouldn’t feel bad when I run out of steam mid-afternoon.
  5. There’s still plenty I can do in my writing time besides writing: read work from critique partners; read published books; cultivate my social media presence (got to be careful not to let that become a black hole, though…); and take care of my physical and mental health (yoga, counseling, etc.). It’s surprising how hard it is to remember that those are furthering my career.
  6. That said, I am very deadline-motivated if it’s a real deadline. I can and will make a heroic effort to meet a deadline, including working way more than 8 hours a day, though I’ll need some recovery afterward to catch up with everything else. Fortunately, publishing has a lot of “hurry up and wait.” But it’s useful to know that about myself for the future!
  7. Seriously, all the tea.


Aug 07

How to Format Your Manuscript, Part 2

Level 2: Jediimage

So the last post told you about font formatting and headers/page numbers. This post takes you to the next level of convenience—because that’s really what this is about. When you use the techniques Microsoft Word is expecting, you can get the application to work with you instead of feeling like you’re working against it.

Use styles for chapter headings

Why? Because you get at least two cool features: jumping around easily in your document using the navigation pane and automatically starting each chapter on a new page.

Here’s the top of my navigation pane in the full manuscript when I use Heading 1 as the chapter heading style:

By default, Heading 1 is a larger and possibly different font, but I updated the style to be the same font (instructions also in previous post), just without first-line indentation and centered instead of left-aligned (from the Modify Style dialog, in the lower-left corner choose Format > Paragraph).

I mentioned a second cool feature, which is this: I also clicked the all-important button to force automatic page breaks.

No more hitting enter until you get to the next page, or even Ctrl-Enter that might get deleted accidentally. I also happen to think it looks nicer if there’s a little more breathing room after the chapter title than after a regular line, so I add space after the paragraph (which gets added automatically without having to double-enter).

But what about the first chapter?

I’m glad you asked! If you follow agent Mary C. Moore’s advice, you know she says to just begin the novel right after the title on the same page. No problem! Put your cursor in “Chapter 1”, then open the Paragraph dialog (Format > Paragraph, Alt+o+p, etc.) and unselect the “page break before” option I showed above. This will change only chapter 1 and not affect the style for other chapters. This is technically a hack (content-level formatting) but it’s good enough for now.

Right-aligned tabs

You’re doing great, but then you have to put the word count on the right side of the page. What is this magic? Spaces? Tabs? A new textbox? All functional hacks (and I don’t turn up my nose at hacks, as I just demonstrated), but for ease of use, you can’t beat the right-aligned tab. As you can see below, where I’ve “shown invisibles” (formally known as formatting marks), I use just one tab and it’s aligned to the right margin.


If you’re using US Letter paper with 1-inch margins, the usual standard in the US, you want to set a right tab at 6.5″. As the link describes, you can do that with the ruler, but I find the Tab dialog easier.


Voilà! Type your name, then Tab, then your word-count. You can also use this technique if you want to have both left- and right-aligned information in your header. Why might you do that? Here’s a teaser for the next post:


(OK look, I feel bad about not including Padawan Obi-Wan in the last post, but I loved that flail GIF, so here’s some more handsome for you.)

Image result for young obi wan kenobi

Aug 07

Getting to know me

Facts about me

  • I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be an author. I wrote my first story in Kindergarten, and I still have it (thanks, Mom!). It was about a princess, a dragon, and a knight, so… not much has changed.
  • pimpmybioI graduated from the University of Michigan. (Go Blue!)
  • My favorite Doctor is Ten (with Rose Tyler, as it should be—FIGHT ME), but Nine was my first, and you never forget your first Doctor.
  • I love ballroom dancing (that’s how I met my husband! See pic at right).
  • I have two boys, and the oldest just started Kindergarten. I’m more worried about how the teachers will react to me than about his success (he’ll be fine; I’m…assertive).
  • Costumes I’ve worn in public: Jem, She-Ra, Wonder Woman (before everyone knew she was cool!), Princess Peach, Princess Buttercup, Agent Lucy Wilde (my son really wanted to be a Minion), Galadriel
  • I carry teabags in my purse because you never know when you might want tea, like airplanes that carry only Lipton, fancy dinners that don’t have decaffeinated black tea for drinking with dessert—you know, the usual. My writing ritual requires tea and I drink unhealthy quantities of it.
  • If I could be anywhere right now, it would be on a tropical beach with a drink that has a little umbrella in it.
  • Chocolate is life and you can’t persuade me otherwise. I’ve now trained myself to like dark chocolate, and the best chocolate bar I’ve ever tasted is Divine Chocolate Hazelnut Truffle. If you bribe me with that I will do almost anything for you.
  • I’m a Ravenpuff. When asked whether I’d rather be right or kind, the former wins but the latter is what I try to do.
  • When I have to choose a favorite book, it’s always The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley. (Corlath! *swoon*)

About My Book

My manuscript aesthetic collage will reveal to you that I’m no graphic designer, though I wish I were. (There must be an online tool somewhere that converts Pinterest boards to pretty pics, but I did this manually.)

An ugly alchemist makes a magic mirror, only to discover that beauty doesn’t fix her problems and magic always has a price. In the tradition of Wicked and The Forbidden Wish, my YA fantasy novel The Alchemist’s Mirror brings to life the backstory of Snow White’s stepmother in a 14th century that never was.

Alchemist's Mirror aesthetic

Aug 03

Format Your Manuscript Properly: How to Get Microsoft Word to Do What You Meant (Part 1)

So you’re submitting your manuscript

Here’s the usual expected formatting: But how do you get Word to do that?

Level 1: Padawan

I have Office 2016 on Windows 7, so your setup might look a little different. Try searching the term I give you and the version of Word that you have (e.g., “font dialog Office 2011 for Mac”) if you can’t figure it out, or hit me up on Twitter and I’ll do my best to help.


There are two places you might have to set a font. One is the “Normal” style (more on Styles later, but here’s an overview) and one is the “default” font (which is sometimes different). When I was compiling from Scrivener, I noticed that I had to update the default font, but usually updating “Normal” is enough.

Almost always, agents and editors want Times New Roman. In my mind, there are plenty of other highly readable, more interesting fonts (yep, I’m a font nerd), but there are good reasons for wanting everyone’s submissions to look the same, which I won’t elaborate on here.

If your manuscript pretty much looks right, you can probably skip the font step.

Updating the Normal Style

Try this first. Go to the Home tab on the Ribbon or bring up the Styles pane (Format > Styles or ALT+o+s).

Method 1 (if you haven’t formatted at all yet)

  1. Right-click on the style in the Ribbon or click on the dropdown in the style pane and choose “Modify…”.
  2. Set the font and size.
  3. In the lower-left corner, choose “Format > Paragraph”.
  4. Set the indent and spacing.

If this method doesn’t seem to work, try selecting your whole manuscript and clicking on the Normal style to apply it. NOTE! Doing this will get rid of any other styles you’ve applied (e.g., for chapter headings), so only do it if you know you haven’t inentionally applied styles yet.

Method 2

If you already have your words with the proper font, size, indenting and spacing, you can just update the style so that it becomes the default.

Right-click the Normal style in the Ribbon  and choose “Update Normal to Match Selection.”

Setting the Default Font

This step should only be necessary if you’ve done the above but parts of your manuscript still look fishy. Open the Font dialog. It’s under Format > Font, or in Windows you can type ALT+o+f, or you can open it from the Ribbon (outlined in red below).


Choose Times New Roman, 12 pt, and then click the Set As Default button in the lower left.


Exceptions to Normal

For the first page that Mary C. Moore recommends above, you can apply the “No Spacing” style to change it from double- to single-spaced. If it’s acquired the half-inch first-line indent, you can either backspace once at the beginning of each line, or open the Paragraph dialog (Format > Paragraph or ATL+o+p).

Then change “Special” indentation to “(none)”.

Header and Page Numbers

I usually set the page numbers first, because that’s really easy in Office 2016 (TBH, I can’t remember if it was this easy in earlier versions). Instructions for Mac here.

First, double-click in the margin of the page to go to Header/Footer view.


This should automatically open the Header & Footer Tools tab group and the Design tab. Choose Page Number > Top of Page > “Plain Number 3” to get right-aligned page numbers. You can also get there from the Insert tab or Insert menu as described here.

Then click next to the page number and type your name and title.


Note that the number will look grey when you select it because it’s a field that updates, whereas the text you type will be the same on each page.

You will want to check “Different First Page” on the header or in the Format Page Number dialog, before or after you insert the page number. For Mac, format your page number to be right-aligned and uncheck “Show number on first page.”


Jun 08

Ingredients for a Successful Writers Retreat

How to have a successful writers (writers’? writer’s?) retreat, if you’re me:


Ours wasn’t quite this upscale, but you get the idea!

  1. A low-distraction location. My author friend and I rented an AirBnB with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room—perfect for us, because it was exactly what we needed and no more. Bonus: it was decorated with tons and tons of books. Of course, the Internet is still a distraction, but that’s true anywhere.
  2. Comfy furniture. Ergonomic furniture is nice, but hard to transport, so comfy for the laptops is the next best thing.
  3. Caffeine. Lots of caffeine. And herbal tea for the evenings.
  4. Music. My friend has a Sonos speaker which we both hooked up to and it was playing basically anytime we were there and awake. It was really convenient that we could each control the music and the volume, based on whoever had a preference. (Let’s be honest, that was usually me.) She also had headphones in case we wanted different moods at the same time.
  5. A goal. She had a goal of “write as many words as possible” (she already had a scene-by-scene outline ready). I had just gotten edits back from a freelance editor and I wanted to “make progress,” but I would’ve been less distractable if I’d had a more specific goal. Also it turns out that editing is just time-consuming.
  6. Maggie Stiefvater, if you can! We organized the retreat around a workshop she was giving with Court Stevens, which turned out to be amazing in itself, but also gave us an excuse to meet other writers (who already liked the presenters, so we automatically had something in common). Let me assure you that Maggie and Court are just as fantastic in person as they are on Twitter.

Stat of the weekend: We wrote a combined 19,000 words! (Spoiler alert: I wrote 0. But I did actually make progress.)

May 15

How to finish the draft: maybe you need a deadline

I did it! It’s done! I wrote a decent draft of a whole novel! I would have celebrated, but I was too tired.

You see, I was writing to a deadline—an honest-to-goodness deadline with money on the line and someone waiting to receive my manuscript. I almost didn’t make it, but, as it turns out, I am very motivated by deadlines.

In this case, I had hired a freelance developmental editor to look at the draft and make sure the plot and character arcs were solid. Some agents recommend doing this, others don’t. It costs a lot, but I found a good deal, so I decided to give it a try. That was in late January, when May 1st seemed far away.

Then…with my draft approaching 75,000 (!) words but nowhere near the 75% mark of my outline, I fell out of love with my love interest. I spent a week or so in March trying to fix it before finally admitting that trying to shoehorn him in, after the story had drastically changed around him, just wasn’t going to work. I noticed that something I’d invented while trying to make the love interest interesting would work perfectly with this other way more intriguing character who’d been hovering at the edges of the story since I first envisioned it (well over a decade ago…). It was brilliant to the point of serendipitous.

Unfortunately, I was approaching the end of March. I had just invalidated nearly half of my existing draft and the other half would have to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I hadn’t left any dangling references to the now non-existent character. Moreover, the entire ending had to be written from scratch! And did I mention I’d started a diet, too, so that I could look good at the wedding I was in, which occasioned an international trip the week before the deadline? So I did what any self-respecting author would do: panic.

This is the perfect time to panic!

The editor was willing and able to flex on the deadline, but my friends assured me I could get the story done and that, moreover, delaying the deadline would only extend how long I was panicking. So I stuck with May 1 and buckled down to write. At first I just wrote with a little extra fire under my tush. Then I added writing in the evenings after the kids went to bed. As the deadline came ever closer, I canceled social activities and skipped yoga (which is usually not how to feel better). One day I was so panicked that it took me half an hour to calm down enough even to write. (To reward myself for recovering, I went to Starbucks for a breve lightly sweet chai latte. That drink might just save the world.) On a few nights, I hired babysitters to put the kids to bed so I could squeeze in an extra hour or two of writing. I spent a few of the days I was in London writing in the (admittedly posh and beautiful) hotel lobby instead of sightseeing.

But you know what? Aside from the one or two actual panic attacks, the whole experience was amazing. Unbelievably invigorating. I was so immersed in the story that I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I would daydream about it when I was trying to fall asleep at night. I took so much time to write that I found it easier to get “into the zone” and enjoyed some transcendant hours embodying the characters I was torturing. I got really good at making playlists for the mood of the scene I was writing. My best friend/alpha reader was incredibly supportive and ensured that I didn’t have any incomplete sentences or totally dangling plot threads. And when I got to the end, I was really, really proud of it!

Of course it still needs work, but I’m actually looking forward to editing so that I can give these characters the best possible story.

Mar 11

At least I’m not alone

As we’ve already established, I’m a terrible boss for myself. But at least I’m not alone.

Mar 08

How cheap do you need “Cars as a Service” to be?

So this is off my usual topic, but I found it interesting! I wrote a thing for my friend’s technology blog on how much I could afford to pay for Cars as a Service and still break even with my current spending. You should go read it! (Takes less than 5 minutes).

Here’s a public version of the calculator I used (which I unfortunately couldn’t figure out how to embed in the article itself). Fill in the green cells. You can either fill in the amortized cost section or put a year’s worth of car payments in the “Vehicle” cost cell. The commute calculator is just to help you guess your annual total miles.

Jan 13

Getting readers hooked (and stringing them along)

City of Bones by Cassandra ClareTrying to unstick myself while drafting my current work-in-progress, I was drawing a timeline of my story (an adaptation of the idea in this post). My main plot is a question that’s (hopefully) raised in the reader’s mind on almost the first page and that doesn’t get resolved until almost the last page—the main dramatic question. Along the way there are many other questions that get raised and answered at various points in the story.

To help myself understand the technique, I started thinking about a book I’d reread recently (City of Bones) and the example in the article (The Hunger Games).

I realized something about the “hook” of a story that I’d never thought of before—about how you not only hook readers at the beginning of a novel but reel them in. (Links go to my favorite site about story structure.) In the latter post, you’ll read that you have to hook readers just long enough to get them to the next hook. But how?

I thought of two ways to do it. The first is illustrated by City of Bones. Its first chapter is summarized in the back-cover blurb:

When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. And she’s more than a little startled when the body disappears into thin air.

What a hook! However, most of the explanations for the questions raised by the blurb are revealed throughout the first four chapters. So what keeps us reading? By the time all those questions are answered, Clary’s apartment has been ransacked, her mother is missing, a demon attacks her (the Inciting Event), and one of the teenage “murderers” (actually, of course, demon-killers) rescues her. By then, we’ve been plunged into the main plot of not just this book but the whole series, as Clary tries to rescue her mother and comes to grips with a magical world she never knew about. The questions raised in the first chapter overlapped the questions raised by subsequent events just long enough to get us hooked! And of course, like any good plot, the early questions are all tightly linked to the main antagonist.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe second way that keeps readers interested I noticed in The Hunger Games. The story opens on Katniss waking, finding her sister not there, and worrying about her. The questions are raised and answered in quick succession, so quickly that we might not even notice them, but each answer produces another question.

“Where’s Prim? With our mother. Why? She had a bad dream. Why? Today is the Reaping. What’s a Reaping?” That question sustains us for a few more pages, when the answer immediately makes us wonder, “Will Katniss be chosen?” The answer turns out to be no, but only because it’s her sister, Prim, who must face death (the Inciting Event). Given how much we now know Katniss cares for Prim, we can’t learn that it’s Prim without asking, “What will Katniss do?” When she immediately volunteers to be Tribute, we then land on the dramatic question that will occupy most of the rest of the book, which is, “Will Katniss survive?” (Because readers might know that the book has a sequel and guess that Katniss will have to survive, even if learning how she survives would be an interesting question in itself, the clever author quickly makes us care about another question with a far less certain answer: “Will Peeta survive?”)

So there you have it: overlapping questions and answers that are also (or that immediately produce) questions, two different ways to hook your reader and string them along until they care enough about the characters to want to find the answer to the main dramatic question.

Jan 11

Throwing shade since the 1600s

I recently learned an awesome (if you’re a word nerd) bit of trivia. I was looking up “umbrage” for reasons that I’ve now forgotten, and discovered that its original meaning was “shadow” (as from a parasol or umbrella). To quote the Oxford Dictionaries, the etymology of the word is:

Late Middle English (sense 2): from Old French, from Latin umbra ‘shadow’. An early sense was ‘shadowy outline’, giving rise to ‘ground for suspicion’, whence the current notion of ‘offence’.

So umbrage has been…wait for it…throwing shade since the 17th century. English — what a beautiful language. (More here.)

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