Questionable: Explain the writing process, maintaining continuity, best writing software, the secret of life . . .

Casey asked (and asked and asked):

Writing process! I’d like to go over the writing process. I realize this is tackled a lot and by varying degrees from many different people, but I still haven’t found my sweet spot. Pantser vs. Plotter, some variation thereof? I’d love to hear about the process of taking an idea to a full-on novel. Maybe using one of your past books as a guide from conception to finished product?

Uh, that would be a book length answer.  The short version:

Do your discovery draft where you just write what comes to mind, anything goes, nobody sees it but you.
Read through the discovery draft and break it down into acts and turning points, looking for escalation, moving stuff around as needed until you have a coherent narrative.
Step back and ask yourself what the book is about.  What kind of book is it, what’s the theme, where are the character arcs and what do they mean.  Revise again to sharpen all of that.
When it’s a good as you can make it, send it to beta readers you trust and ask what doesn’t work and what must be kept.

Maintaining continuity throughout a book. How do you accomplish that task through 300+ pages? Do you use a special tool? Is it done during the editing process? 

During the discovery process, I don’t worry about it.
During the rewrite process, I make notes about it.
During the final rewrite before the betas, I run through and make sure I’ve fixed any glitches in continuity, including language specific to characters (Button says “Crap,” Nita doesn’t; Nita says “Asshat” Button doesn’t, until midway through the book when they start picking up each other’s language.)
I also go through and read the book in the PoV of any major character to make sure each one is on the page with his or her own goals and personality.  That is, I read through as Button so that even in the scenes in somebody else’s PoV, she still sounds and acts like Button.  It’s also a good way to see who you’ve dropped; if you have to skim a hundred pages until that character shows up again, what has she or he been doing? What happened.

Basically, you fix continuity in the rewrite.

Software! I’ve gotten THE BEST software recommendations from this blog. I’d love to hear about any new stuff you’ve found that has been a life changer or that anyone else on Argh is using, too. Having said that, I’m also interested to hear your thoughts on when software is helpful and when it gets in the way of the writing.

This is probably heresy, but I cannot make Scrivener work for me.  I don’t know why.   My go-tos are Word and Curio (for collage and mapping) and VooDoo Pad (for wikis and organizing info).  I would love to master a good timeline program, but I’ve never taken the time needed to do it.  For graphics, I love Acorn.  But that’s it: Word, Curio, VooDoo Pad, Acorn, and if I ever figure it out, Aeon Timeline (I’m using Word tables for timelines at the moment).

Finishing. This is, perhaps, my biggest problem. I’m easily distracted by the shiny. How do you keep yourself focused on a single story through to fruition? Do you let some shiny in throughout to get it out of your system and then return to your main project? How do you refocus on the main project after a hiatus?

You’re asking a woman who hadn’t finished a book in ten years. 

I am SO CURIOUS about serials and can’t seem to find some really good information on what the deal is with these nowadays. I know that they’ve gotten big again since the influx of eBooks, but that’s, unfortunately, all I know. Are serials being rebranded as short stories? Are they still popular after the initial boom of readily available eReading material? And along that vein, what about short stories? Amazon markets them based on the time that it will take you to read it, so the length is all over the place where short stories are concerned. Are they the new serial? What’s their appeal? Are they appealing?

On series (not serials), three words: Worlds, communities, and characters.  Readers who really loved spending time in a book want that book again, only different.  Series give them a new story in the same world.

Short stories: very difficult to write (much harder than novels) and very difficult to make satisfying.  I would imagine their appeal is that they don’t take long to read, so if they’re well written they give you the satisfaction of a novel in half an hour. I’ve written them, but they take forever to get right, and my natural length is the novel, so I haven’t really looked into them.  No idea what’s happening with them right now on Amazon, but somebody in the comments will know.  Argh people know everything.

And to coincide with all of that — because I realize those are somewhat more along publishing questions and not necessarily writing questions — what elements make a really good serial? How is writing a serial, a short story, or both different from writing a full novel? What elements — particularly in the romance genre — go into making quality written serials, short stories, or both? 

You’re asking about two different things, I think, unless I’m misunderstanding your use of “serials.”  Are they really publishing serials now?  That is stories told in parts, only releasing one part at a time, like a mini-series? If so, I know nothing about that. Sorry.  If a serial is just a novel released in parts, then there’s probably no difference in writing them and novels, aside from needing a hook/turning point at the end of each section to keep people reading (but you need that in a novel, too, so . . .).

The difference between short stories and novels is a simple one: length.  But that leads to bigger differences because you have very little real estate to build on in a short story, so it has to be extremely focused and extremely well structured.  There’s no room for error in a short story.  You don’t have acts, at most you have scene sequences and you probably don’t even have that; the whole story is probably a scene sequence or even just a scene.  And yet you still have to deliver that punch, that pay-off, you still have to make the reader sit back and think and then want to read again.  They’re very difficult to write well, the high wire act of fiction writing. 

The habits of a productive writer. What are they? Realizing this is different for everyone, maybe sharing yours and then getting Argh’s collective habits in the comments? 

You’re asking me?  Ask a productive writer.  The Argh people will undoubtedly speak to this in the comments.

39 thoughts on “Questionable: Explain the writing process, maintaining continuity, best writing software, the secret of life . . .

  1. Couldn’t sleep last night, so I re-read one of your older, early stories (and one of my favorites) “Getting rid of Bradley”. It had been a while and I was confused, because for some reason, I thought I was reading “The Cinderella Deal” and kept waiting to read about the students at the house… eventually of course, I realized the problem.

    What I wanted to know was why didn’t you ever write Lucy’s sister Tina’s story? I swear, I just know that Tina was meant to end up with Zack’s partner, Anthony – and I want to read that story!

    So please, think about writing it?

    Thank you so much for all of these great characters you’ve given us, I’ve loved them all.

  2. Because Harlequin put in a clause in the contracts that I couldn’t sign.
    My editor was ready to sign off on three sequels, to Manhunting, Bradley, and Anyone But You, but I couldn’t sign the contract and the legal department wouldn’t take the clause out. So I left Harlequin. I did get my characters back and my name–my agent was fierce–but it’s been too long now.

  3. Jenny, I have a question on facts in a story, are certain facts glossed over to get the story out? For example I’m reading a book where the mother of a child is killed while working at a hotel and the child is being raised by her grandmother, the father is not in the picture. The grandmother has sued the hotel for negligence but only received Workers Compensation for the child that she will receive when she turns 18. But the grandmother needs the money now to care for the child, her paycheck does not cover all the child’s medical expenses. So here is the real question wouldn’t the grandmother get survivor benefits from Social Security and also any life insurance payout from the hotel? If I’m nit picking so be it but it is little things like these that drive me nuts.

    P.S I still like the story

    1. I often have the same problem when I’m reading and it usually diminishes my enjoyment of the book.

    2. Not giving actual legal advice here, just general information — an employee (or someone suing on her behalf) cannot get compensated for negligence (unless it’s gross negligence, when there’s sometimes an exception), so that much is correct. It seems odd to me, but it could be correct, that the death benefits are held in trust until majority of the beneficiary, although a quick search suggests that generally weekly payments are made on behalf of the child (presumably to an officially appointed guardian) for a certain period of time, depending on state law. Having money held in trust is more likely to happen in settlements of law suits, rather than workers’ compensation, and even then, the trust is likely to provide that clearly necessary and extraordinary things like medical bills can be paid out of the trust.

      Depending on what the job was at the hotel, it’s unlikely that there was any life insurance. From what I understand of the hospitality industry (a friend used to work in middle management), the hours are crazy and the benefits are virtually non-existent. Maybe if the worker was upper management, but even middle management gets very few perks.

      As to Social Security survivor benefits, I do think that would be paid to the kid’s guardian. But I don’t know how old the mother was when she’d died, or how long she’d paid into Social Security. If the mother was only, say, 25, and had only been paying in for a couple of years, her benefits would have been nominal (the formula is complicated but depends on time and contribution dollars), and the kid only gets 75%, which makes the total even less. And that’s assuming the mother was working above-board, not for cash, or else there’d be no social security record at all. Here’s the site from AARP on survivor benefits: I think the average retirement Social Security benefit is about $2K a month, and that’s after paying in for forty years, so imagine how little it would be after just a few years. And then take 75% of that little.

      One other thing that seems off about the scenario is that the issue is medical bills. I believe most minor orphans are eligible for Medicaid, which tends to have very low copays, if any.

      Aren’t you glad you asked?

      1. Thank you for the informative response; but we still have the essential question of how books get written and published when they contain obvious factual errors.

        1. They take place in alternate universes, where the facts don’t match the one we live in. See definition of “fiction.”

        2. Nowadays, of course, many books are self-published, and an author may not see the need for an editor; nor feel they can afford to pay one. Conventional publishers, too, are often reluctant to pay for decent editing. I remember the managing director of the first publisher I worked for saying he doubted any readers would notice if we didn’t get our books copy-edited. His focus, of course, was on how much profit the firm could make, and copy-editors’ and proof-readers’ bills ate into that.

          The only essential thing, from this capitalist perspective, would be to avoid being sued for libel. Or spilling any government secrets. I can’t think that inaccuracy is any grounds for legal action – any how-to book would have a disclaimer if there was any risk.

          1. Then it sounds like a snafu: the author didn’t check her facts and/or her editors didn’t recognize the problems; or they did but the author dug her heels in – sounds like her basic premise would have had to be rethought.

          2. I think we all make mistakes, but we should, as writers, try like hell to keep them to a bare minimum.

            It doesn’t take much to do some research online, or ask someone who may be in that industry.

            From there you don’t need to put all of what you learned in the book, but what you do should then (hopefully) be factual.

            We can take liberties, and often have to as a writer to stay true to the story and deliver something compelling. But when people don’t care on the business side, or the writer’s side, what’s in the book can pull you straight out of the story.

            I read one book where the heroine was some kind of doctor, and was using a centrifuge. I liked it (I also when I still lived in the same country as my sister, gave her all my ‘screened’ romances to read) but she hated it because the heroine wouldn’t have been using one, and it was used completely incorrectly. Because of that, I will ask my PhD sister many stupid questions. And do a lot of research over things that won’t make it into the story, but it gives me the feel of being authentic.

            There was another where some kid went crazy and violent on molly, but as one who used to bartend in underground clubs, I’ve never seen anyone like that on that drug. The description was more along the lines of PCP, which is scary.

            I’ve had writers I’ve edited for ignore the links and information to burns and how they work and leave in a character with a ridiculous burn that charred the skin to black and then was out and about the next day.

            People’s mileage varies, obviously, but incorrect things will draw me out. And don’t get me started on bad editing.

        3. A host of reasons. A writer who makes something happen because s/he “needs it to work that way” for the story to proceed. Human error – assumptions made and not corrected. Bad copyediting. A magical alternative universe.

        4. Alternate universe. Didn’t know you were reading really low-key science fiction, did you? LOL, just kidding. It’s best to have the facts straight, but sometimes they get in the way of a really good story. (And sometimes the story gets in the way of some really good facts, and you get a bunch of infodumping.)

      2. A minor child without parents and with no income would be eligible for Medicaid but depending on the state and the child’s medical needs Medicaid might not cover it or cover all.
        And that assumes that the grandmother knew and would apply for Medicaid although generally kids with major medical needs have providers who steer them into the program.
        An immigrant kid might not be eligible again depending on the state and their immigration status.

    3. I just finished reading that book :-). Survivor benefits, like social security, are based on your income during your life. So the character in this case was both young and had worked at minimum wage jobs–and her child only gets 75% of those benefits. The amount would be negligible. The hotel wouldn’t likely have life insurance on their employees. Hope that helps!

    4. I think everybody here has pretty much covered it but . . .

      Survivor benefits from social security should start paying out on the mother’s death, but it takes a little while (not years) and it’ll be bupkis.
      If the hotel is at fault, then she might win a lawsuit and there’d be no reason for those to pay out late, but it could take years to get the suit through court.

      If the mother was a maid at the hotel, it probably didn’t give her insurance of any kind. If she was an executive, she would have benefits.
      Medicaid should cover the medical expenses for a child, though.

  4. Regarding short stories. One of the best short story/novella writers that I’ve read is Suleikha Snyder. Much shorter than a novel but still amazingly full of plot and rich characterization. Tikka Chance on Me is 79 pages, according to the Kindle app but it doesn’t read like it.

    I really dislike short stories because it is really difficult to get them right, but if she did an affordable class on writing like this, I’d take it.

  5. I just read N K Jemison’s How Long Til Black Future Month which is a collection of her short stories some of which keep running in my head. Effective short fiction, it seems to me, has great characterization and a short punchy plot so you keep thinking about the characters when it’s over.

  6. Okay, while this is still in my head – haven’t read the comments so pardon me if this is a repeat.

    I write what could be called serials for one of my clients. Eight 25,000 word books that follow the same set of characters along one story arc. Each book is has a storyline of its own that feeds into the overall plot.

    I have NO IDEA how well they sell or if they are popular because I haven’t had the time or enough interest to find them on Amazon and see how they are selling.

    I would argue that Jenny is a very effective writer, her books are gold. And if they take a while to arrive they are all the better for it. Pure Gold is Crusie.

    But if you want to talk about how to get words on a page. There is only one way that works for me. Have a daily word count and do your damnedest to stick to it. The more I write the faster I get. I’m not going to comment on quality, but my clients don’t often send me re-writes. Perhaps they do them themselves?

    My daily word count in insanely high. I don’t recommend it unless, like me, you are paying your bills with your writing – which means sitting your butt in a chair for a really long time every day. My goal is 5,000 words a day. Theoretically, that should take me five hours. (excuse me a moment while I laugh hysterically.) The problem is I have a very short attention span and the need to communicate with my friends, play phone games, look at pictures – and that doesn’t include the things I want to get done like exercising, sewing, gardening (flowers mostly) etc, etc. It can take me all freaking day to get there, and often I don’t. But I can usually make 4,000 and I take that as a win. Hell, I take anything as a win, because with my brain this could be a complete washout.

    If you want to be a word producer, but your butt in the chair every day and write. That’s the most important part. Everything else is gravy. (By this I mean you can plot every scene to a T, but if you don’t actually write the thing then it’s all for not.)

    Okay, I’m done being me now. I have to write some words.

    1. Kate, could you please talk more about how you plot. Do you write to a fixed outline? How long does it take you to plot, etc? How detailed is your plot? Is it Hero’s Journey? 3-act structure? Down into-the-weeds detail, please! I’m working on writing faster and am up to 1500 words in a morning (used Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K guide) but I’m always keen to learn more from prolific writers. I find all of the tips add up, slowly but surely, into more word count. I have a short attention span too, and use timers and bursts of exercise (literally press-ups on my stairs) to keep my focus. Unfortunately, my shoulders have developed faster than my manuscripts! I’d love to be able to write 5K a day – it seems unattainable. Were you always prolific?

  7. I’m glad Kate answered about serials, because I was wondering if anyone was still doing the,. I remember when they were the big thing on the self-pubbed writers’ boards, but I don’t see them mentioned as much any more. I don’t know how well they sell either, but the interest in them seems to have waned a bit, at least from the writers’ POV. And even at their height, there were a lot of readers who hated them, since episodes often ended in a cliff-hanger (not saying Kate’s do, just what was apparently a popular structure), forcing readers to get the next episode to find out what happened. Some readers were okay with that, some not so much, and took a flame-thrower to the review page. As I recall, the key to success with them was being able to release each installment in a very short timeframe, like once a month, if not more often.

    As for shorts, there’s been some recent discussion of them on a self-pubbed board I visit, and the consensus is that they don’t sell (from self-pubbed authors) unless the author is already a big name. And you can’t price them for enough to make a living with them. Aside from self-publishing, my understanding of most trade-published short-story anthologies is that they’re by invitation (or sometimes an open call), and tend not to pay a living wage. Collections (stories by the same author) are also a hard sell. I’ve got a story (under the pen name, Gin Gannon, because it’s darker and angrier and more violent than my cozy mysteries) in an anthology this fall, which I did for reasons other than money!

    And that’s sort of what it all comes down to — what do you want to write, what CAN you write best, and what are your priorities (e.g., telling the stories you need to tell, money, prestige, etc.)?

    1. I’m thinking of the Violet Carlyle mysteries as a serial. She’s up to a dozen or so books with the character; each book is a separate plot and they come out about once a month. I have no idea how she’s making money with them because I keep finding them on Kindle Unlimited on the same day they’re released.

      And I agree with the previous point about how some errors just toss you out of the book and you can’t get it back in.

  8. I think… you write to the length necessary to tell the story you want to tell. Frank Downey took over a million words to tell the story of Warren and Sophia in *Dance of a Lifetime*, , and I take credit for convincing him to break it into multiple books. The link goes to book 1 of 3. It was (self) published serially. 170+ chapters. He desperately needs a professional editor. But it’s a great story for all that.

    Lois Bujold is semi-retired. That seems to mean she no longer writes to contracts and deadlines, and her last eight books are all novellas – six in the Five Gods series, one in the Vorkosigan series, and one in the Sharing Knife series. Lois does series.

    Seanan McGuire is one of those “prolific” novelists, like Nora Roberts or Isaac Asimov. I absolutely loved her Velveteen Versus series (not kids stories – Velma aka Velveteen is a superhero), but can’t speak to her other books… yet. She has an interview at GoodReads:

    I mentioned the late Doctor Asimov. A HUGE chunk of his output was short stories, much gathered into anthologies. Also non-fiction – he was a scientist, that Doctorate was not honorary. But then, when he was starting, science fiction was relegated to the pulps. Magazines like Analog, Galaxy, Worlds of If, Asimov’s own magazine – I had subscriptions to more than one for years. Short stories were predominant, though I did read several novels published… serially.

    A lot of what I personally have self published is classified as Flash Fiction, 100 to 1000 words. Worse, much of it is further sub-classified as feghoots. ( I just can’t pass up a bad pun. Only one of my stories is a novel. I don’t write anymore. As a writer, I am retired.

    1. I am so grateful for the novellas, and they are so good. But I think the full-book length provided a challenge for Bujold (she often talked about the murky or mucky middles when she was writing them), and although it was tough, when she overcame those, it was amazing.

      Her Penric books kind of read like serials, but they aren’t all dependent or cliff-hangers. V. interesting experiment. From what I hear, though, she’s doing it for joy and retirement pin money, not to pay the mortgage.

    2. Asimov was amazing. He also wrote one of the best analyses of Shakespeare’s plays: it covers them all. It is almost required reading before you attend one if you want to catch the nuances. He was born in Russia, came to the US as a toddler. He entered Columbia at 15 and graduated at 19. He is my favorite author to cite when literary friends are being snobby about genre fiction.

  9. [raises hand] about productivity.
    Apply mass quantities of salt, because I am not a ‘successful’ writer in the sense of making a living, or even a profit, at it.

    I have however completed and published six novels and twenty-four novellas since 2012. Two of those novels and thirteen of those novellas since May 2018, when my work life started its death spiral.

    I have also completed two additional novels and two more novellas which will all be published before the end of summer.

    I have a full-time job (or ordinarily; in 2015 I had an eight-week medical leave, during which I started doing an online paralegal certificate course, and am currently beginning week 8 of unemployment following a layoff).

    I do not have a daily target word count or anything resembling a ‘plan.’

    What I do have is a) a strong need to preserve my sanity in the face of frustrating jobs, long commutes, and a dumpster fire of a national government by creating a world in which my characters get to do the things I would like to be doing; and b) a home life designed to facilitate spending hours a day pleasing myself.

    Basically, I produce by sitting at my computer and writing. If inspiration for one project isn’t coming, I turn to another. Sometimes all I do is read-through and edit. Sometimes I revise things I’ve already published, always trying to make them better. Sometimes I do research for my characters’ activities. That might be listening to music, watching videos, reading plays or screenplays or behind-the-scenes interviews with actors, musicians, etc. Then I take what I’ve seen or heard and make notes in the project files, and sometimes (often) that leads straight to a new scene.

    The great thing about being an ‘unsuccessful’ writer is, nobody is waiting for me to finish anything. Nobody is waiting for me to produce anything specific, either. I can take my time, and I can write about whatever the hell I want.

  10. I have noticed a resurgence of serials. I see them in author newsletters, or as a multi-author promotion. The ones I’ve encountered are delivered via newsletter once a week, or whatever schedule the author decides. Zoe York, Samantha Chase, and a handful of other authors did serials last summer. I don’t like serials…I want to read on my schedule and there to be an end. (For the Record: I don’t like preview chapters either.) I received all the chapters, I think, but they all got stuck in an email folder for future consumption. I think all those authors went back and polished / expanded their stories and then actually published them as a single novel / novella.

    My perception is that authors are using it as a way to give their newsletter readers a bonus, or bring new readers in. I have no idea if it is working (see above about the email folder of death).

  11. I couldn’t wrap my brain around Scrivner at all. Tried a couple of times, including taking a class. Made it through the third lesson, banged my head against the wall repeatedly, and went on using Word.

    I try and write every day. I aim at 1,000 words a day. Sometimes I do twice that. Sometimes I do a lot less. But I find I’m much more likely to produce the work if I keep at it just about 365/days a year. Mind you, I have no life.

    1. I never got into Scrivener either, although in theory it should appeal to my organized, spreadsheet-loving brain. But for me, I’d already figured out how I work, and all I need is word-processing software. For each novel, I create separate documents for brainstorming (which can include inserted pictures) and cast lists (also with pictures if I have them) and the manuscript itself and scraps I’ve cut from the manuscript and revision notes, plus one that’s a table of scenes (essentially a spreadsheet, but I prefer to do it in wordprocessing than excel) for plotting. If it’s part of a series (which it generally is in the mystery genre), I also have a bible document.

      I’m sure I could do all of that in Scrivener, but I’ve never seen any reason to switch from what’s already working for me.

      Oh, but I’m toying with the idea of perhaps using powerpoint more for brainstorming. (Like everyone, I hate bad powerpoint presentations, but resistance is futile. I’ve had to give in to using them in patient advocacy work.) I put together some slides for a talk recently, and it struck me how useful it might be in brainstorming, because of the way it’s easy to move slides (scenes) around, so I could start with known key scenes like turning points, and then fill in around them. It also forces me to be focused on what’s most important, and I could put expanded notes in the speaker’s notes section. Maybe I’ll try it with my next manuscript that isn’t already plotted.

    2. I do like Scrivener, for various reasons, although I haven’t yet written a book on it – I’m using it for ideas and research for various projects, not all of them books. One advantage for me is that I’ve always had to use Word for the day job, and I enjoy doing my own work in a different program.

  12. Serials are a new giant thing with e-books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I’ve seen it with a mainstream historical too (Julian Fellowes Belgravia. It’s great.) There’s a thing called “Serial Box” that publishes them, and some of my friends are all over it. I’m not, neither as a reader nor a writer. But people are doing the episodic thing just like a TV series, and other people are liking it.

  13. Stephanie Bond writes good six part serials and I think they’re all in Kindle Unlimited – seems like serials are a good match for KU, right? One of her serials, Coma Girl, has been optioned for a television series by CBS.

    1. It seems like the close-ended serial would be great for certain television companies. My favorite series all seem to be six-part BBC series, and then there’s Good Omens* which is coming out on Amazon Prime (in ten days!!) which will also be a six-parter. Longer than a movie, shorter than an American TV season.

      *Good Omens didn’t start out as a series; it started out as a book, and got made into a radio series.

      It’s kind of an interesting question — books are generally too long for a movie. Is a book generally the right length for a six-part mini-series?

  14. Jenny – have you tried Timeline JS? I use it with my student. Google based and Pretty quicktolearn. It is actually a multimedia timeline so you could put in your inspiration images if you like.

  15. Thank you everyone! I know I went for the gusto there, but hey, you gotta take the opportunity when it’s presented to you.

    I really appreciate all of the answers to my questions and the insights into your own writing processes. I’m so intrigued by what has worked for each of you that I’m already plotting on how I can try and adapt those into my own life!

    Thank you Jenny and Argh for giving me a lot to think about!! 😀

  16. Thank you for reminding me about the radio series. David Tennant and Michael Sheen are amazing casting but Peter Serafinowicz and Mark Heap are also amazing casting. It’ll be interesting to see/hear how different they are.

    More info about that version here with added interviews and things:

    Not currently available on Radio 4 but you can get it on Amazon:


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