The story comes first

When all else fails, remember the story comes first and your primary goal should always be to entertain.

What’s the hardest part of writing? For me, it’s research. Or, rather, knowing when to stop researching and start writing.  I research like I’m getting a PhD in a topic and then realize I have no story.

Lisa Gardner addresses this in her essays, Confessions of a Research Geek and Eight Ways Research Can Kill Your Novel. She has a ton of other articles about writing on her site, including an in-depth ten-part series called Conquering the Dreaded Synopsis (in pdf) and an eight-part series called Secrets of Romantic Suspense (also pdf). She says of her writing process:

I like to write first thing in the morning, armed with a giant mug of coffee and a cat to warm my lap. I’m always trying to get a certain number of scenes done each week. Sometimes that means writing a few hours a day. Sometimes that means writing ten hours a day. It depends on how fast the hamster is turning the wheel in my brain. I start with a general outline of each novel. The major plot points, key scenes, research that needs to be incorporated into the story, etc. I change a lot as I write, however, so the end novel may bear little resemblance to my starting idea. Sometimes characters take over. Sometimes I come up with a better idea for a plot point or a plot twist, so I reorient the story to make the new and improved concept work. It usually takes me six months to draft a novel, then three months to polish it to a point where I decide it’s not horrible.

Lisa Gardner’s latest book, Find Her, releases today.

find herTitle: Find Her

Author: Lisa Gardner

Publisher: Dutton


Flora Dane is a victim.

Seven years ago, carefree college student Flora was kidnapped while on spring break. For 472 days, Flora learned just how much one person can endure.

Flora Dane is a survivor.

Miraculously alive after her ordeal, Flora has spent the past five years reacquainting herself with the rhythms of normal life, working with her FBI victim advocate, Samuel Keynes. She has a mother who’s never stopped loving her, a brother who is scared of the person she’s become, and a bedroom wall covered with photos of other girls who’ve never made it home.

Flora Dane is reckless.

. . . or is she? When Boston detective D. D. Warren is called to the scene of a crime—a dead man and the bound, naked woman who killed him—she learns that Flora has tangled with three other suspects since her return to society. Is Flora a victim or a vigilante? And with her firsthand knowledge of criminal behavior, could she hold the key to rescuing a missing college student whose abduction has rocked Boston? When Flora herself disappears, D.D. realizes a far more sinister predator is out there. One who’s determined that this time, Flora Dane will never escape. And now it is all up to D. D. Warren to find her.

Buy on Amazon (affiliate link): Find Her


It’s about becoming part of your story

The draw of worldbuilding, for me at least, isn't just about setting the stage and fleshing out a world. It's about becoming part of your story.

Some of us love world building. We love it so much, we forget to work on our stories because our available writing time was spent creating new realms. Victoria Aveyard knows how this is. In her two-part installment “You Call It Playing God, I Call It Worldbuilding,” she discusses the fun and the danger. In part one, she warns:

Worldbuilding is, in my opinion, very delightful quicksand. Once you’re in too deep, it’s almost impossible to get out and therefore, to actually start writing. In my experience, this is usually my way of not writing while tricking myself into thinking I am actually am. And then suddenly it’s six months later and I’ve got some pretty maps, cool names, and no story.

It wasn’t until she learned to do less world building and more writing that she finished her first novel, Red Queen.

She doesn’t mean to warn you off world building altogether, though. Some is necessary, especially if you write fantasy, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance. In part two she gives a rundown of the mapmaking, character building, and plotting she does as prewriting.

Victoria Aveyard’s latest book, Glass Sword, releases February 9th.

glass swordTitle: Glass Sword (Red Queen)

Author: Victoria Aveyard

Publisher: HarperTeen


Mare Barrow’s blood is red—the color of common folk—but her Silver ability, the power to control lightning, has turned her into a weapon that the royal court tries to control.

The crown calls her an impossibility, a fake, but as she makes her escape from Maven, the prince—the friend—who betrayed her, Mare uncovers something startling: she is not the only one of her kind.

Pursued by Maven, now a vindictive king, Mare sets out to find and recruit other Red-and-Silver fighters to join in the struggle against her oppressors.

But Mare finds herself on a deadly path, at risk of becoming exactly the kind of monster she is trying to defeat.

Will she shatter under the weight of the lives that are the cost of rebellion? Or have treachery and betrayal hardened her forever?

Buy on Amazon (affiliate link): Glass Sword (Red Queen)

Does your WIP have a soundtrack?


A lot of writers find that creating a playlist helps set the mood. In Aural Pleasures: The Importance of Having a Book Soundtrack, Jennifer Shirk says:

Once I have a playlist created of about ten or more songs, I can begin to outline and plot… By the time I’m done plotting, I can almost see the book in my mind like a person sees a movie playing out with the soundtrack adding to the emotional feel of it.

She doesn’t actually listen to music while she writes, but many authors do.

Here are some tips on creating playlists for your writing, along with examples of soundtracks to published novels:

Jennifer Crusie shares the Soundtracks of several of her novels. She says:

If my collages are my way of seeing the Big Picture of the book and its characters, then the soundtracks are my way of getting the Big Feeling of the book and its characters.

How to “Soundtrack” Your Novel—Alexandra Bracken talks about how she has always used music to inspire her writing, along with links to soundtracks she made while writing her novel The Darkest Minds. She says:

I was writing in computer labs and the library and needed something to filter out the noise and people around me. I trained myself so well in my writing habits at nineteen that I still can’t shake them at twenty-five! I have to listen to music when I write now, or the words just don’t flow. More importantly, it has to be the right kind of music.

A Personalized Sountrack for Your Novel: Creating Writing Playlists —Annie Cardi presents a step-by-step process for creating and using a music playlist for your writing, using her novel The Chance You Won’t Return as an example.

Twilight Playlist —Stephenie Meyer presents the soundtrack she used while writing the wildly successful Twilight, saying that she ‘can’t write without music’.

How to Build a Novel Soundtrack —Max Booth III describes how he collected fifty-three songs (!) to use as the (un)official soundtrack for his novel Toxicity, using both well known bands and his own cult classics.

Sarah’s Book Playlists —Full playlists for several of Sarah J. Maas’ books, with more on the way, along with a description of how she uses music to outline her novels.

Lunar Chronlicles Playlist —A playlist that inspired the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.

Divergent Playlist —Veronica Roth’s playlist for Divergent, alongside songs used in the film adaptations of the books.

Marie Lu’s Soundtrack —Media related to Marie Lu’s novel Legend, including her soundtracks for the original and the second book in the series, Prodigy.

Create a musical soundtrack for your novel to reach readers in a whole new way —Pavarti K. Tyler talks about how to create a soundtrack for your novel and use it as a marketing tool, presenting songs she chose for two novels, Two Moons of Sera and Shadow on the Wall.

NaNo Soundtracks —Get advice and song recommendations on the forums of National Novel Writing Month. (Note that this forum is most active in October and November.)

A book soundtrack? Playful playlist enhances novel writing and reading —Chris Kridler talks about how he used music as a tool in his writing, providing playlists for his novels Funnel Vision and Tornado Pinball.

Make Your Own Novel Soundtrack —Advice from Jenny Bravo on how to make a soundtrack for your novel from her writing blog.

Five Reasons Why You Should Create a Soundtrack for Your Novel —Exactly what it says on the tin—five reasons to create a soundtrack for your novel.

Nostalgia and Emotional Soundtracks (or how to catch the feels) —Kevin Craig recommends some emotional songs that inspire him as a writer.

What about you? Do you listen to music when you write? Have you created soundtracks specifically for your stories?

Finishing that first draft can never be taken away from you

Finishing stuff is hard. There

Some writers don’t talk much about the writing process. Maybe they think that’s the first rule of Write Club. Other authors share abundantly. Marissa Meyer is generous with her advice. She shares not only basic advice for aspiring writers that many authors share, but she also goes in-depth, as in this nine-part series that guides you by hand through the entire process from brainstorming ideas through outlining, drafting, and final editorial revisions. Her blog series could easily be developed into an ebook, and she even follows up with a post answering questions readers had about the series. That’s not even all that she’s written about her writing process; her blog is peppered with information for aspiring novelists. If you’ve ever wondered what a draft looks like in-process (as opposed to the finalized form you buy at Barnes & Noble), she has a post detailing how she color-codes subplots and characters arcs, complete with pictures of her workspace while this is underway.

Here’s some of my favorite advice from her post about completing a first draft:

Finish it. 

Finish it, finish it, finish it.


So that you know you can.

Finishing stuff is hard, and there’s always a shiny new idea ready to coax you away. But finishing that first draft is an accomplishment that can never be taken away from you.

Also, it will give you something to work with in revisions…

25689074Marissa Meyer’s newest book, Stars Above, came out yesterday.

Title: Stars Above: A Lunar Chronicles Collection

Author: Marissa Meyer

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends, 2016


The enchantment continues….

The universe of the Lunar Chronicles holds stories—and secrets—that are wondrous, vicious, and romantic. How did Cinder first arrive in New Beijing? How did the brooding soldier Wolf transform from young man to killer? When did Princess Winter and the palace guard Jacin realize their destinies?

With nine stories—five of which have never before been published—and an exclusive never-before-seen excerpt from Marissa Meyer’s upcoming novel, Heartless, about the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, Stars Above is essential for fans of the bestselling and beloved Lunar Chronicles.

The Little Android: A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” set in the world of The Lunar Chronicles.

Glitches: In this prequel to Cinder, we see the results of the plague play out, and the emotional toll it takes on Cinder. Something that may, or may not, be a glitch….

The Queen’s Army: In this prequel to Scarlet, we’re introduced to the army Queen Levana is building, and one soldier in particular who will do anything to keep from becoming the monster they want him to be.

Carswell’s Guide to Being Lucky: Thirteen-year-old Carswell Thorne has big plans involving a Rampion spaceship and a no-return trip out of Los Angeles.

The Keeper: A prequel to the Lunar Chronicles, showing a young Scarlet and how Princess Selene came into the care of Michelle Benoit.

After Sunshine Passes By: In this prequel to Cress, we see how a nine-year-old Cress ended up alone on a satellite, spying on Earth for Luna.

The Princess and the Guard: In this prequel to Winter, we see a game called The Princess

The Mechanic: In this prequel to Cinder, we see Kai and Cinder’s first meeting from Kai’s perspective.

Something Old, Something New: In this epilogue to Winter, friends gather for the wedding of the century…

Buy on Amazon (affiliate link): Stars Above: A Lunar Chronicles Collection

Story Ideas on Zillow

real estate in the city

I lived in an apartment in my town for eight years before I decided to buy a house. I’d been to the seasonal festivals, carnivals, holiday activities. I’d met people in the aftermath of storms, when the town had no power for days on end and everyone was motivated to talk because it was the best source for news and updates. It’s the kind of town in which you can pass the mayor on the walking path in the morning or run into him at a coffee shop later on. After eight years, I felt I knew this town.

That was before I discovered Zillow.

Once I started browsing the listings, I realized that I knew the parts of town that were closest to businesses, the library, and our little downtown square. What I didn’t know? The neighborhoods that spread out from the central parts of town. I didn’t know the residential areas.

A Writer’s Guide to Finding Inspiration in Real Estate Listings

Searching through homes in the area became a hobby that lasted after we bought our house and moved in. Here are some ways real estate listings can lead to story ideas:

  • Neighborhoods arose at different times. Houses aren’t built at random. The entire town is like concentric circles. It starts with the large historic houses I’d seen, which are located near the heart of town and around which local tattoo parlors and pizzerias sprung up. Spreading out from there, you have clusters where all of the houses were built in a certain decade, in a certain style. How did the town’s founding families feel as they watched new neighborhoods develop? Was there friction between the old families and the more recently relocated?
  • There is an actual “wrong side of the tracks.” As in, when we looked at houses past the railroad tracks, they literally looked like they belonged to a different place altogether. Was this the result of zoning laws? How long have the railroad tracks been there? How did/does this dividing line matter in the lives of the residents?
  • I was able to browse homes that I would not waste my agent’s time touring. Some were mansions I could never afford, while others were poorly maintained “deals” being sold as-is which would undoubtedly cost more to repair than they sell for. I could see which areas were thriving and which had bottomed out. Why would a four-bedroom, three-bath house of 3328 sq ft be boarded up and listed for only $15,000?
  • I ended up buying an adorable little 1940’s cape cod on a street full of similar homes. At signing, I learned that our street was WWII era military housing, and that the street just south of us was an air field. This led to a discussion with the research librarian and a stack of photocopies. The answers I went home with led to even more questions, and before I knew it I was back on Zillow, looking at every house for sale in my area. Which were built first? Why are they all the same size except these two? Why are they all red brick except this one? A question that leads to more questions is a portal to story ideas.
  • A lot of the houses for sale still have people living in them. Unlike staged homes you see on HGTV, these houses are a peek into people’s actual lives, from their shot glass collections to their Pittsburgh Steelers themed man caves. Some of the homes with outdated floral wallpaper and heavy oak furniture made me wonder if someone’s grandma died there, while others were decorated in a style best described as Pinteresque. I’ve seen writing prompts that involve browsing magazine photos featuring professional interior design, but how much more could you learn about your characters by looking into houses whose design scheme was based on personal interest?
  • One unique home was a Zen home, with Japanese design and clean uncluttered spaces — except for the walk-in pantry, which was packed full of jumbled miscellany. In what way do your character’s closets and storage areas reveal a discrepancy between their public persona and private lives?
  • A gorgeous impeccably-kept house from 1910 came on the market for an exorbitant price. It had only been owned by one family — it was the home’s first time ever on the market. The walls were lined with antique photos that I assume were actual family members who’d lived there over the last century. Why was it for sale? How would the spirits of the original inhabitants adjust to new ownership? Would the house always feel like it belonged to someone else? Would that feeling be imagined or supernatural?

Even if you aren’t in the market for a home, real estate listings can be a tool in your brainstorming kit. You could even use them to do research on setting if you’re writing about a place you don’t live. Short searches in any town can lead to story prompts and insights into character. Experiment with tools like Zillow and who knows what ideas you’ll dream up.

It starts with motivation

%22It starts with motivation, before you can get to inspiration.%22

Author Ruta Sepetys discusses her writing process:

“It starts with motivation, before you can get to inspiration. If you want to write a book, you have to get your butt in the chair, and you have to start typing. And it’s only after you show up and you begin the work, that inspiration can arrive.”

Her book, Salt to the Sea, releases today.

salt to the seaTitle: Salt to the Sea

Author: Ruta Sepetys

Publisher: Philomel Books (February 2, 2016)


For readers of Between Shades of Gray and All the Light We Cannot See, international bestselling author Ruta Sepetys returns to WWII in this epic novel that shines a light on one of the war’s most devastating—yet unknown—tragedies.

World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in one another tested with each step closer toward safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

Told in alternating points of view, and perfect for fans of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Erik Larson’s #1 NYT bestseller Dead Wake, and Elizabeth Wein’s Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this masterful work of historical fiction is inspired by the real-life tragedy that was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff–the greatest maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.

Buy on Amazon (affiliate link): Salt to the Sea