Archive for 'lessons learned'

Monday, September 3rd, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Outlining Backwards

I’m still on an outlining kick, and it seems like I’ve been talking about outlining a lot lately.  Maybe because I’m pushing my way out of the messy middle of my current work in progress, a sequel to my superhero novel After the Golden Age.  Last week I tried something that I don’t think I’ve ever done before, at least not in a formal way, as in writing it down on paper:  I outlined the story backwards.

I know how I want the novel to end, and I’ve got the first half pretty much nailed down, but that second to third act transition was kicking my ass.  I’ve got what feels like a thousand balls in the air, and I have to catch them all neatly and elegantly in the next twenty thousand or so words.

So I wrote a summary of the ending and worked backward.  I jotted down a lot of questions:  what problems do my main characters need to solve before they can arrive at the scene of the final confrontation?  Which characters are actually going to be at the final confrontation?  What steps needs to happen before that?  How do they all come together in order to make that final confrontation happen?  What exactly do they need to know, and how can they find out?  It’s pretty systematic:  where do they need to be in the scene before the final confrontation?  What happens in the scene before that?  And finally, I’ll meet up with the part of the book I’ve already written, and I’ll be able to work out how they get from here to there.

This has been incredibly useful.  Answering that list of questions tells me exactly what I need to set up that final confrontation, which had been floundering before this, as I tried to figure out how to make to work.  All those balls I’m juggling?  I’m starting to see how they need to line up to set up that last sequence of events.  I’d gotten to the point where I was stuck, writing scenes without really knowing where they fit.  Now, I’m seeing the bigger picture, and the pieces really do come together.  I’m probably going to need to do a lot of cutting and pasting, rearranging scenes that I’ve written out of order.  It sounds tedious, and it is, but it’s also rewarding because I know how much better it’ll look when I’m finished.

And now I have another tool in my toolbox:  outline backwards.

Monday, June 25th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Saying No, Redux

I’ve mentioned that one of my ongoing goals is to practice saying no.  I need to not take on too much work, and I can’t commit to every invitation — for a guest blog, an anthology, an appearance, etc. — that comes to me.  I’m getting better about saying no.  I know about how many short stories I can promise in a year and still be happy, and I’ve been able to stick to that for the last year or so.  I’m still figuring out how many events in a year is sane, and what kind of events I’m comfortable doing.  I think this is going to be an evolving process, pretty much forever.

Part of my problem is that, in effect, my eyes are bigger than my stomach.  The invitations and projects and conventions and so on always sound like so much fun.  I’m ambitious and I want to do it all.  But I’ve learned that I simply, physically can’t.  What seems like a great idea now will turn into that one deadline that tips my life into stress-out chaos six months from now.  I really can’t go to a convention every weekend and still maintain an actual life at home.  Not without some kind of teleportation device.  And you know what?  That’s okay.  This may be the hardest part of learning this lesson, after spending so much of my early writing career hustling for opportunities and networking my head off:  Saying no is not going to wreck my career.  On the contrary, saying yes to everything might very well wreck my career, if I start missing deadlines and getting so stressed out that I can’t write effectively.  In fact, I think my career will be better served in the long run by saying yes selectively, and saying no a lot more often.

A couple of weeks ago, some other writers posted on their blogs about the great challenge of saying “no.”  Jim C. Hines writes about boundaries in general, the social difficulties of saying no — and how we’re often trained to feel guilty for saying no, for various reasons.  Cat Shaffer writes about setting boundaries as a professional freelancer — how freelancers can be under particular pressure to make their schedules and boundaries infinitely flexible, and how establishing strict boundaries will make both you and your work better.  Both posts are well worth reading, for advice and for validation — it’s not just me who’s going through this.

This is my lesson learned:  I need to pay attention to my boundaries, and then — most importantly — stick to them.  Both me and my career will benefit.

Monday, May 14th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Friends, or No You’re Not Crazy

Just a quick note on one of my favorite things about being a working writer:  A week or so ago, a good writer friend of mine was in town for a stop on his current book tour.  He had a few hours to kill before the event, so I took the day off and went to hang out with him, drinking coffee, eating dinner, and talking about everything.  What we’ve been up to, the business, how crazy things are, how crazy we are, and so on.  And how far we’ve come since we met, and how grateful we are that we’ve had people to share the journey with, who are right there with us and to whom we can bitch and moan about problems that don’t actually look like problems to anyone else.

I didn’t get a lick of work done that day, but you know what?  I still felt super-productive at the end of it.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012 by Bob Mayer
Blogging for Writers

Let’s start with the negative:  95% of blogs are pretty much a waste of time professionally.  If someone is blogging just to get some stuff out and doesn’t care about the results, that’s fine.  Or if it’s part of your social life, not your professional life, then one can do whatever they want.  But if you’re blogging as part of your platform, it’s a different story.

When I look at someone’s blog as a writer, if they haven’t posted in a week, I figure it’s not important to them, so therefore it’s not important.  I’ve found that after three days, traffic to my blog drops considerably.  That’s why Jen Talty and I alternate, with each of us posting once a week; myself in Tuesday and Jen on Friday.  It’s a large commitment of time and energy but it’s part of our platform at Write It Forward.

Jenny Crusie and I used a blog very efficiently several years ago when we, in essence, wrote a book using the He Wrote/She Wrote format.  I think this is a good idea if you have a nonfiction book you want to write.  Write it on your blog.  But I do not recommend posting your fiction on your blog.

One of the greatest uses of blogging is to go to OTHER people’s blogs and leave cogent comments.  This is a good way of becoming known to those bloggers as we all read our own comments.  I’ve been invited to present at major industry events because I went to someone’s blog and left comments that made sense and supported a platform they found intriguing.

I do a couple of group blogs, like this one.  I also blog on the third Sunday of the month at WG2E.  I think doing this extends my reach.

To be honest, there are times I feel like I’m running out of things to say.  I’ve examined publishing and writing extensively over the years.  In fact, many of my blogs end up in my books, such as The ShelfLess Book: The Complete Digital Author.  About half that book were blogs that I pulled, put in order, and rewrote.

I believe the key to a good blog is knowing what your platform is going to be before you start blogging.  How do you want to come off to people?  Why would they come back to blog?  Are you informing AND entertaining?

Monday, April 30th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Leveling Up

You ever played D&D?  Then you know about experience points and leveling up.  It’s actually a neat system for advancing characters through bigger and better adventures.  When characters complete adventures, the Dungeon Master grants experience points.  In the games I’ve played experience points are generated based on the difficulty of monsters defeated, problems solved, and the quality of roleplaying.  For example, when I played a bard, I’d get points for actually composing songs and poems about our adventures.  I’m sure I still have copies of those somewhere…

Anyway, when you reach a certain number of accumulated experience points, your character advances to the next level.  Skill points are higher, fighting ability increases, ability to resist damage increases, and so on.  Usually, after that, the bad guys and monsters your character encounters are tougher.  It’s like that old saying, what’s the reward for a job well done?  A harder job.  (Now that I think of it, this may not be a bad way to think about advancing a character through an ongoing series. . .  Hm, must ponder.)

Some of my writer friends talk about “leveling up” in the business, and I like the metaphor.  You accomplish a bunch of things, tick off a bunch of goals, and you’re feeling pretty good — then you find yourself encountering a whole new slew of monsters you’ve never seen before.  I’ve been feeling this lately.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve accomplished a ton of great stuff, and on the one hand I feel like I have superpowers.  But on the other hand, holy cow look at those new monsters…

*straps on armor and hefts +2 red pencil of copyediting*

Just for fun, here’s a tumblr of Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor.

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 by Bob Mayer
Best and Worst Writing Advice I’ve Received

The best writing advice I ever received was actually reading a lot.  I think that’s absolutely the best way to prepare to be a writer.

I never took a creative writing course.  It wasn’t a big subject at West Point. When I was there, everyone got a BS.  With no major.  But we did have a concentration and mine was in psychology.  I feel psychology is the best subject for writers to study, because you have to create realistic characters.  The hardest part of developing a character is having a character’s blind spot be realistic.  Something about them that’s wrong, but they are blind to it.

My first draft of the Novel Writers Toolkit was 11 pages long.  Everything I knew about writing after publishing 4 books, fit into 11 pages.  Consciously knew.  What I had to do was move stuff from my subconscious to my conscious as well as learn more.  I just rewrote the Toolkit this past year with the latest.  I’ve learned more about writing in the past two years than in my first 20.

I don’t have an MFA; I have a Masters in Education.  My first writers conference was in 1995 and I was a presenter with four books published.  I took some writing courses.  I even took some graduate levels writing courses.  In one, the esteemed visiting writer came in.  He told us to take out a piece of paper and write what we felt.  I wrote:  “I feel like I’m wasting my time taking this course since you haven’t taught us anything.”  Needless to say, that didn’t go over well.

I’m actually not a fan of critique groups. Often the blind leading the blind.  And egos can get in the way.  Also, a novel is too big for most critique groups.  I’m a fan of beta readers.

I’m actually not sure, off the top of my head, what the “best” advice I received was.  I actually think it’s more important that I’ve had an open attitude and been willing to learn and change.  After teaching writing for two decades the biggest problem I see is that you can give the “best” advice in the world, but if someone isn’t willing to listen and change, it’s worthless.

I think we have to take every piece of advice we get by factoring in who is saying it.  Also, to be honest, writers often lie.  Hmm.  That was a weird sentence.  But I’ve heard keynote speeches and I’m thinking to myself “bullshit”.  Most of my work is sitting at the keyboard, staring aimlessly into space, with some drool coming down the side of my mouth.  Thinking is work.

The worst advice?  That part of my brain that tells me constantly I’m crazy to be writing for a living.  It’s an insane business.  It’s better now that I’m indie, but I also have to work two jobs now.  I saw on an informal list where I was one of 22 indie authors who’ve sold over 200,000 eBooks at Self-Publishing Success Stories.  I’m actually up to around 600,000 now.  That’s not many indies who are selling a lot.  It’s a tough job and if I had had any common sense, I’d have done something different.

But it’s the best job in the world.

Also, I don’t understand those people who let what someone says discourage them.  I love the classic story, told in various formats:  The young man wanted to be a great violinist.  The master came to town and the young man wrangled an audition with him.  He played his heart out.  When he was done he asked the master what he thought.  The master said:  “Not enough fire.”

The young man was crushed.  He quit the violin and pursued a different career.  Many years later he met the master at a function.  He told him about the audition and the result.  The master was surprised and said:  “I tell everyone that.  If my saying that was enough to stop you, then you really didn’t have enough fire.”  No one can stop you, but you.

What about you?  What’s the best thing you’ve heard and the worst?


Wednesday, March 7th, 2012 by Bob Mayer
Writers Conferences: How To Spend Your Time

It’s that odd day, the 29th of February.  Happy birthday to those of you who only have birthdays every four years.

This is an excerpt from The Writers Conference Guide: Getting The Most of Your Time & Money


After registering and meeting at least one new person, go to your room and unpack.  Check your plan against the final conference schedule, as sometimes workshops and presenters change at the last minute.  Dump all the extra stuff they give you in the conference packet/bag and repack your bag for the conference with the material you’ll need. Don’t haul around forty pounds worth of stuff.  You’ll have a lot of papers that you can deposit in the room.

Then leave your room.


Our Rule

Every day when you leave your room in the morning, you don’t go back to it until you are done for the day (with one exception, covered shortly).  Way too often attendees hide in their room.  You’re not going to learn anything in your room and you’re not going to network in your room.  It’s hard, it’s exhausting, but get out there.

Even if you’ve registered and there are no workshops for a while, go to the lobby and wander about.  Check where all the rooms for the workshops you will attend are located.  This is essentially doing a reconnaissance of the venue.  Sometimes certain rooms are difficult to find and you don’t want to be scrambling trying to find that one key workshop with just two minutes to get there.

Once you have the site down, hang around near the registration desk.  Talk to people.  Get a cup of coffee in the lobby.

The more people you meet right away, the more people you’ll know on the second day.  Some people take two or three days to feel comfortable enough to chat with others, but by then the conference is winding down.

We recommend spending the first few hours of the conference after registration as the time to set up meetings with your social media friends or other writers you have meet on-line, but have not met in person. We’ve been at conference where twitter buds all wear a purple ribbon on the name tag so they know they are a twitter bud. As more of you gather, there is less of a chance you will ever be by yourself at the conference.

The Workshops

Every conference is run differently and offer different types of classes, workshops, etc. Jennifer will be teaching a 3-day track at the Philly Writers conference on Romance Writing. The participants sign up for the tracks they want to take and the presenters are told ahead of time how many will be attending.

Bob often teaches pre and post conference workshops along with doing keynote presentations and workshops. Each type is a little different and depending on size will depend on the actual interaction during these workshops.


Presentations and Keynotes

Keynote presentations are generally inspirational speeches given after meals. Presentations are large lectures (often given by the big names or as a pre or post workshops) where the presenter(s) give information and there is little interaction.  It depends on the conference size and the group size in the room.



Often times it is difficult to decipher the difference between a presentation and a workshop. The key is really size. Most conferences know which topics and which speakers are going to draw the most attendance, so they plan accordingly. When Jennifer taught at the Dallas Fort-Worth Conference this past February, her class on Synopsis writing was in a double room and turned out to be standing room only. It was more of a presentation than an actual workshop. Her class on Upping the Stakes was in a smaller more intimate room and she was able to interact with the class and get them to talk about their current work-in-progress.


Panels are a group of people who sit at a long table, usually with a moderator.  Usually, attendees are told to ask questions and each member of the panel answers the same question.

We’re not big fans of panels either as presenters or attendees.  Figure out how many are on the panel, how much time is allocated and you’ll often see that each presenter will get X minutes of time.  Often, panels are pretty generic.  Once you’ve attended your first editor/agent panel, the second one won’t be much different.

Arrive Early

If it’s a workshop you’re on the fence about, and there’s another that is your second choice, sit in the back near the door so you can make an exit as easily as possible if it turns out the workshop is a dud.  Otherwise, sit near the front.  When it comes to the larger conferences, most presenters understand people will wander out and wander in, partly due to editor and agent appointments and partly because it didn’t meet the needs of the attendee. As presenters, we understand this and generally don’t take offense, as long as when you leave or enter, you are respectful.

Size of Workshop

If you walk into a workshop/presentation/panel and there are few attendees don’t assume it’s because it won’t be a good workshop. You picked it based on your goals. The presenter(s) have something that you want or are discussing a topic you feel is important. Often times, the presenter is against a ‘big name’ to whom every other writer has flocked. Often small groups can be tailored more to meet specific participants needs.

If the presenter is using Powerpoint, make sure you are in position to see the screen.


If there are handouts, make sure you get one.  Often, they run out of handouts, which is another reason to arrive early. If there are not enough, ask the presenter if they can email you them later. Often times, they are more than happy to, but it usually entails you emailing them as a reminder.

Interaction with Presenters

TNWIFConference(6)We recommend against trying to chat up presenters before their workshop. Often the previous presenter is besieged by people and trying to pack up and the new presenter is trying to set up.  You could ask if they need help, which is a way to break the ice, but remember they are mentally preparing themselves for the presentation they are about to give you.

Recording the Workshop

Some people try to record the workshop.  Many conferences have a policy against this.  Many authors have a policy against this and it is important to find out ahead of time.

Some conferences actually do their own recording and sell the CDs/Downloads.  If that’s the case, you definitely cannot record.  If it’s not the case, at the very least, you should ask the presenter and respect their wishes.  What they’re giving you is their intellectual property for free if you do so.  If they do say yes, remember you can only use the recording for personal use, not post it or upload it.

Note Taking

Do take notes, but don’t take notes on everything you hear.  Often we see people who are so busy taking notes they’re not listening.  Only make notes on things that strike you, either good or bad.  LISTEN.  Absorb.  You don’t need a notepad full of rapidly scribbled notes that will make little sense to you later on.

Often it’s better to jot down your initial reactions and thoughts to the workshop immediately following instead of trying to get every word down. If they gave handouts, they gave them for a reason. It’s the highlights of their lecture. Those handouts are the points they are trying to make.

You can use your laptop to make notes, but try to be as quiet about it as possible.  As presenters, we’ve seen people checking their email in workshops.

One new thing we’ve seen a lot is writers’ tweeting from workshops as they happen. While people follow the tweets when they are not there, we appreciate the recap, but how much are you actually getting out of the workshop? One thing we do is make a list of the things we learned in the workshop and tweet about them when we are not enjoying the total conference experience. More often then not, we write a recap of the conference and post it on the Write It Forward Blog.

Jennifer did this with a panel she was on a the Dallas Fort-Worth Writer’s conference on Digital Publishing sharing not only the content of the workshop, but things she learned from the other panel members.

Bob went as far as to recap tweets from the Digital Book World and he didn’t even attend the conference. This is the power of social media.

Exiting a Workshop

If you have an editor or agent appointment during a workshop, you can let the presenter know ahead of time that you will be leaving. This is good practice in a smaller workshop so the presenter doesn’t assume it’s them or the material that sent you packing, but as stated earlier, if there is a pitch session, we understand that someone might have to sneak out.

As an aside, we recommend that you DO go to a workshop before and after your pitch. Often we see writers skipping valuable presentations to prepare for their pitch, which is at the end of the workshop. Take full advantage of the time.