Thursday, January 28, 2016

I'm the Queen of Procrastinators, and nobody can steal my crown

There, I've said it. And you know what? I'm going to share my top ten strategies to avoid getting things done, right here, right now. Yay!

     1.   Be creative

Ha! I bet you thought being creative was a prerequisite for all writerly types out there, am I right? Well, that may be true when you start off. You can't write without being creative (and I truly do believe this holds true even in academic writing...). So what's the problem with being creative, you ask me? Here it is: How is one supposed to get things done when you cannot turn around without stumbling over (or, oh horror of horrors, stepping on) super-cute, impossible to ignore plot bunnies? You thought dust bunnies were a problem? Not. Even. Close. 

     2.  Be nice

I've never had a neighbour who asks for cups of sugar or flower or whether or not I have a spare cake tin, but there's always something one can do in order to play nice with people. Not that there's anything wrong with being nice - I mean, surely everyone can do with some karma or brownie points or however your good side keeps score. There's just one problem: it takes time. Sometimes I envy those crochety old authors you occasionally hear about, the ones who go vanish in a mountain cabin somewhere and come back only to hand their hand-written magnus opus to their long-suffering agent... ah well. I'll just be the nice one, instead. 

     3.  Earn a living

That mountain cabin with the glorious views and the handy distraction-free location? Well, it won't pay for itself. I don't know about you, but I really, really don't earn my living writing things. Not the sort of things I WANT to write, that is. Most jobs these days involve a minimum of nine-to-five dedication. If you don't have a job, you're probably spending an inordinate amount of time either looking for one or worrying about it. And when you're done working and/or thinking about a job, what do you do with the rest of your time?

     4.   Be healthy

You spend time trying to be the best you possible! Good for you! It's what we should all do, isn't it? Sports and dieting (or healthy eating, however you want to call it), that's the way to go. Whether you do team sports or you're more the solitary warrior type (I, myself, am partial to running and yoga), it's all good for you. Sports can even help when you're stuck with your story. Even walking can help (as my bloggy friend Mia recently posted about). Of course, it's rather difficult to write whilst walking, running or playing tennis...

      5.   Have hobbies

Once you're done with all the healthy and the money and the nice, why not try your hand at, say, sketching your favourite characters? There's a worthy thing to be spending your time with, surely! We all have pictures of our characters in our heads, don't we?  (please don't tell me that's just me...) A couple of pictures of him or her up on the storyboard is a great help, I'm sure. In fact, why don't we just draw ALL our characters? Once they're all suitably represented, we'll get back to writing about them. I swear. 

      6.   Aquire more hobbies

It's winter right now, and your friends are cold. Go knit them a scarf, a hat, some gloves. A sweater, maybe...

     7.    Get a pet

I have two dachshunds to call my own (well, that's how I put it, anyway - they might explain it differently). They are wonderful, such characters, wriggly little things that make me smile just thinking about them. They also want attention, and I love giving it to them. That scene I was writing? Nowhere near as important as cuddling my babies. 

     8.   Go on holiday

The Beach! The Mountains! Nature! Sports! Relaxation! What are you waiting for? Take your notebook. I'm sure there will be time to write. 

     9.   Love your family / have a life

Need I say more?

     10.  Sleep

When all else fails, there's always the siren-song of your bed. Certain hours of sleep are necessary to keep functioning, so sleep is good, right? Right. 

Make sense, my top 10, don't they? Perfectly reasonable things to do (ok, some more so than others), all things that can be used to procrastinate. My theory? It's all a question of timing. What do you think? And what's your favourite perfectly reasonable method of procrastinating? 

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Manuscript Checkup: Are You Really Ready to Query?

I sometimes hear of querying authors lamenting the decline of “editorial” agents. In truth, all agents are editors of their projects. It just depends on where along a manuscript’s evolution do they want to jump in. What these authors aren’t realizing is that they might be looking for representation too early in their writing process. Most agents look for a project in its later stages or last stage of development. And the reason is simple and practical. The sooner an agent can get a project in front of editors, the sooner (hopefully) he can see a paycheck. If he’s very lucky, he might find a project that only needs one round of editing, but most likely, that one round of editing will uncover the need to do more.

I’ve been working on a client’s book project for over the last month. This is my third time going through the manuscript for this editing round. I’m fairly sure this is either my fifth or sixth time reading the novel. One thing is certain, though. I loved this story the first time I read it, and I love it more now. It’s true that with each edit and revision, the manuscript improves. But it’s more than that. While I could see issues when I first read the story, I could also clearly see solutions. And now that the changes are on the page, the story is better than I first imagined it could be.  

Often I'll get submissions that are so early in their development that I cannot even begin to unravel their issues, much less envision solutions. Those novels, while "completed," are not "market-ready.” Occasionally, time permitting, I’m able to send feedback. When I do, I am struck by how often the same recommendations come up.

Even after countless rejections, some authors may still find it easier to keep querying and keep submitting rather than go back into their novels to fix what is not working. Often it’s because they’re too close to the work and can no longer see problems in it. Some do see or sense there are issues but are unable to pinpoint them or don’t know how to solve them, or where to start.

I have put together some questions that you can use as a checklist to see if you should start or keep querying, or use them to jumpstart your next revision:
  1. Are the stakes clearly defined within the first few paragraphs, or at least within the first chapter?
  2. Are the scenes grounded with specific and unique details that make them tangible and immersive?
  3. Do the main characters have inner lives with complex thoughts, reflections, memories, etc.? Even if they do not reveal their fears, faults and vulnerabilities to the outside world, do they let us in to see them?
  4. Do we have context to the main character(s) emotional journey? Is there a personal journey at all?
  5. Can we clearly envision distinct physical features of the characters that also reveal their unique personalities (or do we only see their hair and eyes)?
If you have answered “no” to any of the above questions, then this could be why you are receiving rejections or no responses at all.

Keep going through your manuscript, asking the next questions:
  1. Is there an over-reliance or repetition of facial movement or expressions to portray emotions, such as “sighing,” “grimacing,” “groaning,” and “cringing”?
  2. Are there large blocks of dialogue where nothing else is happening in the scene, or it is unclear what the characters are physically doing during the conversation?
  3. Is there a lot of expository information (explanation of background, characters,  ground situation, etc.) revealed through dialogue?
  4. Are there words, phrases, gestures, physical sensations that are used commonly or repetitively (such as “heart pounding” or “pulse racing”)?
  5. Is there filtering language? (for example, a character sees something happening rather it just happens on the page, or rather than saying the thought, the character’s “sees it through his mind’s eye”)
If you have answered "yes" to any of these last questions, it appears, you have some work ahead of you.

Hopefully by going through these questions, you'll have a better perspective on your manuscript, and be in a better place to decide whether or not you should keep querying or look at revising. These questions also aim to provoke ideas on ways to tell your story better, so that the next time you query, there’ll be an agent or editor who not only falls in love with it, she’ll love it more each time she reads it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Birthday Sex

I know we just had the big New Year’s countdowns and reflections, but my birthday was two days ago; so for me, this is bigger. It presents a candid opportunity to look at my accomplishments to date and my future goals as a writer. A birthday is a serious crossroads. One minute you’re younger, the next you’re as old as F*&k. 

I appreciate that in reality it’s a slow, gradual build up, but something about that number flipping from one day to the next, like a sadistic, surreal countdown to mortality, is humbling.
I thought since I’m twenty-nine (again) I should come up with a kick-ass twenty-nine list—something really mind-altering and profound—detailing all the things I’ve learned as a writer this year. Problem is, I could only come up with three. So, here instead, is my concise, yet enlightening birthday list. In no particular order:

1.  I really like sex. But more, I really like writing about sex and plan on weaving more of that pleasurable tapestry into my novels. I went to a workshop recently that challenged the audience to find ways of incorporating sex into literary fiction. What I mean to say is, in this workshop, we were exploring deep and penetrating (sorry, couldn’t help myself ;) uses of any sexual act or erotic tension to bring a story to a whole other psychological level. I decided that concept sucked balls (really, this is too easy ;) and will continue to write sex to titillate and entertain.

Sex scenes in any story shouldn’t be gratuitous. It has to mean something to the characters and progress the plot, but it doesn’t need to turn my characters’ worlds upside down and rock them to their core… unless it’s a mind-blowing orgasm—then it should totally do that. There is a time and place for deep questions about sex and sexuality in writing, but there’s also a forum to play with the erotic in a fun and sensuous way. I don’t want to change the world, I just want my characters to be very, very happy. 

2.  I need to write more. I’ve been to a lot of workshops lately that tout the need to write prolifically and super fast. These facilitators were throwing around insane numbers like completing six to seven novels a year. Each of these mystical creatures needed to be between 50,000 – 75,000 words long.

When I first started writing, it took me five years to complete my self-help guide, Life: Living in Fulfillment Every Day. At the time, I was working with my beautiful co-author Annemarie, so I blame the logistics of coordination. My second book, which happened to be my debut historical romance Avelynn, took a year and a half to write, and a year and a half to edit. Three years. Not bad. I was clearly making progress. The second book in the Avelynn series took two years in total. Currently, I’m working on a contemporary romance and have lofty aspirations to finish it well before a year is up. But, seven novels in one year? I know incredible writers who can actually do this. And kudos to you. Seriously. I’m jealous.
For those of you interested in writing more, faster… here’s my take away from those educational workshops: outline, outline, outline. I’m a pantser, so this was a tough pill for me to swallow, but I have to admit, I tried outlining a three act structure using Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for my newest novel: Hot in Aruba, and it helped. A lot. I have a greater understanding of story structure and where the big moments are and why they are there. Once you get the main bits and pieces down in your outline and are ready to write your novel, take a few moments each and every day to get a feel for what you are going to write before you sit down to write it. Make jot notes; use conscious flow. Do whatever you have to do to understand what needs to happen in the scene you’re about to write and why it needs to happen. Figure out your most prolific time of day. Do you write more in the mornings? Evenings? Commit to writing during that time. Use the rest of the day to catch up on social media, for example. Determine your best place to work, where you are least likely to be distracted. Know your strengths and use them.

3.   Debut novels are not always the great big shiny stars you wished they would be. Once you discover this painful, festering gash of wisdom, you have to learn to cope with it. Avelynn, my beautiful book baby, didn’t get off to a great start. It did very well in Canada, but just couldn’t break into the American market. No matter what I did to promote it, not enough people knew it existed. Despite fantastic reviews, including glowing accolades in Canada’s National Newspaper The Globe and Mail, I just couldn’t garner enough attention. There are millions of books on Amazon alone, trying to make yours stand out is like finding a needle in a haystack. Once you come to this startling conclusion, there might be confusion, grief, despair, incredulity, anger, and frustration, but ultimately there will be relief and acceptance. If you’ve made it this far, a good rule of thumb is to understand that a debut novel is merely a gateway, a stepping stone to bigger and better things. The key is to keep writing.

I’m sure I’ve discovered a great deal more writing wisdom in the 365 days since I last encountered such a stark reminder of my distant birth year, but age blurs the memory. I’ll start working on the other twenty-six points as I go along for next year’s 29th birthday post. :D

In gratitude,

Marissa xo

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Slaying Daemons: The Dark Side of the Keyboard

Once more unto the breach, dear friends. The raging war outside our wall persists, and circumstances seemingly beyond our control loom large.  

A sense of agnostic despair tells us to ignore the carnage, to pretend evil doesn’t exist, and to that end we silently recite the Serenity Prayer, especially that one liberating line—serenity to accept the things we cannot change. But those other lines haunt us. We don’t want to remember them, and yet we do: The courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
There sits the keyboard.
An unassuming object, it is neither good nor bad. Once touched by human hands, it becomes something else entirely. A rabbit hole of endless sordid distraction and entertainment, or a powerful weapon against dark forces, against the Goliath many see but cannot acknowledge.

But when the blast of war blows in our ears…We hear the screams, we see the invisible daemons in our midst, cloaked and deadly. It’s time to fight. We sense it, deep inside our souls. It’s overwhelming and we want to hide, we want to close our eyes and cover our ears. The rabbit hole beckons, offering hours of superficial escape with which to pass the time.  
Or close up the wall with our English dead. Will we have the courage to change the things we can?
There sits the keyboard. Once more.

"Are you up for this? Are you? Look, I just need to know...because the city is flying. We're fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense. But I'm going back out there because it's my job, okay?" ~ Avengers: Age of Ultron

Note: All background images purchased from

Monday, January 11, 2016

Writing Hacks for the Creatively Stunted

Over the years we pick up tidbits of information, useful tips and tricks we think (or pray) will help us through everyday life. Some people call these life hacks. I call these "nuggets of wisdom from people with more time on their hands than me to think this stuff up because I'm too busy worrying how I'm going to do all this stuff to be able to sit down and think of these awesome ideas."

Too long?

So, years ago I started a file on my computer with hacks, hoping I'd be able to use them more and organize my life.

Until I forgot I had a file full of these freaking awesometastic ideas that were supposed to make me wonder-wife and super-mom!

Well the same thing happened to me with my writing life. I'd come across these really nifty hacks or compilations of writing tools and I tucked them away in a file on my computer. And every time I sit down to write words, I never ever think of them. EVER. I forget the folder even exists until I come across one online somewhere and go to save it in that file.

So, as 2016 lays down its carpet of brand new possibilities....I'm digging in to this file folder and sharing with you what I've saved over the years and calling it......


1. I found this gem recently. Here's some ideas on how to give your characters a quirk. You want your characters to be relatable and real, and if you give them a humanized quirk it'll help your reader attach to them. Try and think outside the realm of lip biting and nail chewing.

2. Body Language! Showing body language is a biggy. It is important in scene blocking and can also be as communicative as dialogue between the characters. It helps the reader solidify how you're presenting a scene. If your character's lying, we may not know as the reader by her dialogue, but if she's shifting her feet or if he's not making eye contact these help give the reader clues and deepen the point of view.

Another way to use body language is also if your character has an illness or disease or if you've given the some kind of quirk. Let's use anxiety as an example. If you consistently remind the reader she has anxiety, for one, that's telling. But also, it'll stick out like a sore thumb and be hit home so hard it'll annoy the reader. Instead, try showing the results of her anxiety with body language instead.

3. Showing vs. Telling. It's a hard skill to nail for a lot of writers. But I found these cool little hacks of descriptors that helps fill in those blanks when you're trying to bring narrative to life and let the reader experience the scene with the character versus being told.

For instance....Telling - She had long hair.  Showing - Layered mousy brown hair framed the edges of her heart-shaped face, setting off her jade eyes.



4. And last, but not least, emotions. They play a huge roll in our characters development. And at some point in your book your character will probably hit all six of the major emotions. But in order to take your character deeper and really strengthen their arc, try narrowing in on the different levels each of the major emotions has. As you can see by this nifty chart below, there's far more levels and facets of each emotion. If you zero in on one, it can help you take your character to a deeper point of view and explore.

Happy mean writing!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Writing A Series: An Inside Look

When I realized today was my day to write for the blog, I looked up in a daze from my latest WIP and thought...but what should I write about?  I asked the other Relentless Writers for suggestions and bemoaned the fact that I suck at blogging.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: I suck at blogging.

RW: You don't suck at blogging. Your posts are generally good. What you suck at is planning what to write. (*this is true)
Me: No, I really do suck at blogging. And planning.

(even Sherlock agrees)

RW: Wait, I know. Have you done a post about writing a series yet? (*because I write a lot of series)

Me:  And what would I say about writing a series?

RW:  How did you maintain the continuity between the historical western books? Was it different from how you approached the sequel to Hunter's book? Is contemporary easier than historical? How do you keep track of things? Pinterest boards? Google docs? Have you ever had a reader (beta or otherwise) catch a continuity error? What'll you do to keep that from happening? Are there any sources for "how to write a series" that you've found particularly helpful? From an agent's perspective/your knowledge of the industry, what are the pros and cons of writing books in series? What's your best piece of advice for a newby starting out with a series?

Me:  Oh wow. Okay, so my answer to all that is...I didn't plan that far ahead (big shock, right?). I did it all as I went. Oh, and Google.

RW:  ...

Me:  My post can consist of this: How to Write a Series, by M. Madigan. Come up with a fabulous idea (or you hope it is. It sounds fabulous in your head at least). Make a page of general notes (It's contemporary/western/post-apocalyptic and there are maybe five core characters you'll focus on for the series). Make more specific notes for book one. Start writing. Worship Google. Start the next book by making specific notes. Shoe-horn it into the series to fit with book one. Lots more Google worshipping. Do the same for the rest of the books. The End.

 RW: Um. Don't forget gifs.

That's how the conversation went, but I'm being (mostly) facetious about the process (okay, only partly). Everyone who writes a series will have a different process, so mine is just mine and could probably stand to be improved upon.

However, how do you write a series is a legitimate question because in many genres (romance, mystery, scifi, fantasy), series are hot. Readers want them, agents and editors look for them, so writers need to think about writing them. 

I seem to be a series addict. I've got no fewer than eight in progress at the moment: the Nevada Bounty series (historical romance), the Caine Brothers series (erotic contemporary novellas), the Forever Faerie series (paranormal romance), the Tap Zone series (contemporary MMA romance), the Dragon Club (shifter romances), Never Too Late (second chance at romance/women's fiction), the Timed Out series (space opera), and the Tales from Beyond the End (post-apocalyptic fairy tale retellings).

(that's a lot of series)

Why do I write series? Because I like to set up a world, fill it with people, get to know them and then put them through the wringer. I think that's why readers like them, too. I know that's what I like when I'm reading them, so that's what I aim for as a writer.

But how do you write a series? I can give you some idea of how I do it, but again, all writers are different. I write romance and science fiction so I can get away with some loosey-gooseyness where authors of mystery and fantasy probably can't. Those genres require some pretty tight plotting and planning.

So although I was being snarky when I said this is what my post would look like, in the end, it kind of does:

How to Write a Series, by M. Madigan

1. I'm struck by a fabulous idea for a series.  Often when this happens, I'll brainstorm with another writer friend just to be sure the story idea sounds as good out loud as it does in my head. I also look at some of the stuff that's selling in the industry to see if the idea has merit. If it has potential to sell (for instance, if I came up with an idea for a vampire/angel/demon romance, even if it was amazing, I wouldn't write it because that stuff is dead right now. It'll come back around again eventually, but I don't want to spend time now on something I can't sell), I'll move on to step two.

2. Make a page of notes for the series. What's the genre? Who are the characters? When I came up with the idea for the Caine Brothers series, I immediately sat down and made some general notes for each brother - his name, what he does (billionaire, biker, SEAL, rock star, fighter, shifter), who his heroine is, and a short paragraph blurb for the plot. All these things are subject to change, but the notes give me a vague shape for the series.

3. Make more specific notes for book one. I'm not a detailed plotter, but I do want notes to work from. I don't like writing myself into corners (I did this with the space opera and it took me a long time and some rewriting to get out). I do a character profile for the main characters, a setting worksheet, and write a couple of pages of linear plot summary. Often I will expand these as I'm writing and need more detail. I also make note of important details like dates, quirks, props, secondary characters, relatives, etc...anything that can be used throughout the series to tie them together. I love Pinterest as a visual way to keep track of characters, setting, props, clothes, etc. I have Pinterest boards for each book and/or series. Google is also my friend. I never know what kind of research I'll need until I'm deep into the story, so sometimes there's a lot of stopping-digging-starting going on. Writing a historical western required some pretty interesting research (for instance, 19th century western curse words). One of the great things about being a writer (I think) is that I get to teach myself about a whole bunch of new stuff that I probably never would have learned had I not needed to research it for a book!

Once the first book is done (after I've had my awesome betas read it--and yes, they've caught stuff I didn't see like continuity things, improbabilities, practical problems) and off to an editor, or self-published, it's time to move on to the next one.

4. Start the next book by making specific notes. Repeat the process with the next book. I go back and look at my series notes, figure out who's next, what the general plot is about, then open a document to begin expanding that into a fleshed-out plot. I'll review my notes from book one to see what I need to carry over (themes, tropes, etc), and get to work on the next one following the same general writing process. I kid when I say I have to "shoe-horn it into the series to fit with book one" because although I don't have obsessively detailed series notes, I hope they're good enough I don't have to force anything. And if I come across a problem, I just see that as an opportunity for creative solutions.

5. Repeat the process for as many books as are in the series.

For me, that's it. That's the process. It's part organic, part planning, part linear, part disorder, often frustrating, but always a wonderful, juicy, creative, wild ride!

The point is, if you write series you need to find what process works best for you depending on what genre you write, but also what kind of writer you are. There's no right or wrong as long as you figure out some form of organization and creative process that works to maintain your continuity and inspiration.

(use yours)

Now, go write.