writing process

Writing to Music

1A version of this post previously appeared on Tina Klinesmith's website when she graciously hosted me for the release of The Governess Was Wicked.  Music is a big part of my writing process, but ironically it doesn’t come into play until I’m editing a book. For some reason I can’t write to music, but I love listening when I’m working through revisions. The music helps evoke a mood. It keeps me on track with the emotional direction of a book and makes it easier for me to jump back in after a long day of work and real life.

I wrote my Governess series at what felt like a breakneck pace. I would be writing one book in about three weeks, taking a week to edit it, and then using the remaining week to do a polish pass before sending it off to my editor. All the while, I was usually also tackling developmental edits for the previous book. Because all the books were going at once, I ended up lumping all of the playlists I’d started for each book together and created this one big list.

Here’s the playlist I listened to to hundreds of times while working on The Governess Was Wicked, The Governess Was Wanton, and The Governess Was Wild along with a short description of my top five favorites under the embed:

  1. “Superpower” — Beyonce

Hands down, this was my go to song, especially when I decided to completely rewrite the last half of The Governess Was Wanton. “Superpower” is slow, dreamy, and sexy. It never quite crescendos, and it’s perfect to put on loop while wearing noise cancelling headphones (not that I would know). Every time I hear it now I’m immediately transported back to the world of the Governess series.

  1. “Work Song” — Hozier

Here’s another moody, sexy song. It’s a quiet, reverential love letter and felt absolutely perfect for my story about a slow burn, years-long love in The Governess Was Wicked. Even more of a bonus, it’s by Hozier. I fell in love with his album back in 2014 and think he makes some pretty perfect writing music.

  1. “Hello” — Adele

Every book needs a dark moment, and this felt like a great accompaniment part of all three of my books. Adele manages to pull out such deep, fraught emotion in her songs that it’s hard not to get wrapped up them. I put this one in particular on my playlist because it’s about grieving the death of a relationship. While some of her other songs are also powerful — especially “Someone Like You” — this one fit the books better.

  1. “Love Me Like You Do” — Ellie Goulding

If I had to make a list of rules for romance novel playlists it would probably read something like this: every playlist must have a sexy song for the very sexy times, an angsty song for the dark moment, and a joyful song for the “realization of love and reconciliation” moment. This is my joyful song. There’s something about the buildup throughout the first verses that just sends it soaring about halfway through. It’s perfect for that big “he loves me” moment.

  1. “XO” — Beyonce

Another Beyonce song (one of three but who’s counting). This also falls solidly into the joyful zone. Like, “sing at the top of your lungs because this is your anthem of love” joyful. It also has a big, swooping crescendo, and the lyrics talk about her lover being as “bright as ever” and finding him “in the darkest night.” It’s the perfect way to end a book about love and romance.

How the Governesses Came To Be

The Governess was WickedAsk a writer, “Where do you get your ideas?” And you’re just as likely to get blank stares as you are answers. Many of us have no idea where the ideas come from. They just gel somewhere in the back of our subconscious in some mysterious process even we don’t fully understand because if we did you can bet writing would inspire a lot less hair pulling. If you really want to know where books come from, you’ve got to think of a book like a recipe and ideas like ingredients. You toss a whole bunch of ideas together that you’ve gathered from books, movies, the news, anywhere, and if you’re lucky you wind up with a cake…err…book.

I have no idea where my new Governess series came from, but I can tell you exactly where I was when it sparked. I used to take the 6 train up to the South Bronx every morning to get to my old job. It was an unusually cold day in late October, and I was worrying about what I’d do for NaNoWriMo. Like any good writer, I was armed with my trusty notebook and a pen, ready to write. I just needed an idea.

I got off of the train and headed above ground to wait for the bus that would take me last few miles to work. I probably hunched down into my coat because I’m always cold from October until April. Then, for whatever reason, an idea struck me. What if I wrote a book about a governess?

The Governess was WantonI love dukes and duchesses and all of the shenanigans they get up to in romance novels, but for a long time I’ve been wanting to change up that story. I've always been fascinated by women who lived on the fringes of respectability in Victorian England. Governesses, doctors, teachers, spinsters, small business owners. All of these women were different because all of them did something a woman wasn’t supposed to during this era: they earned their own money.

But despite my fascination with governesses I knew that I couldn't write just one book and call it a day. With my agent’s very sound business advice to think in series in mind, I began to sketch out basic plot lines for two other governess stories. I gave the heroines the names—Elizabeth, Mary, and Jane—that they would go to publication with. I gave them each a different kind of hero (their men’s names didn’t stay the same). By the time the bus pulled up, I had the kernel of an idea.

I kept working and working at my first governess book until I finished a draft and sent it off to beta readers. It came back bleeding with comments, but there was something in it that seemed worth pursuing so I kept at it. Little by little, a draft emerged. My agent was interested. I wrote my scribbled notes for Mary and Jane’s books into synopses. I rewrote those synopses many, many times, learning and re-learning what would make for a good, sellable book. If I wanted to be a writer who could eventually sell on proposal,

Finally the full first book and two subsequent synopses went out on submission, and a couple months later my governesses found a home and a wonderful editor.

The Governess was WildNow that the books are launching this fall, it’s strange to think about the fact that it all started because I was standing at a busy bus stop in the middle of the Bronx, trying to get to work and scrambling to come up with a NaNoWriMo book idea.

If you want to write, I may not be able to tell you where to find ideas of your own any more than I can tell you how I come up with mine, but I can give you these two pieces of advice: keep an open, curious mind and never travel without a notebook.

From now until 9/30 I'm giving away two huge prize packs to celebrate the release of The Governess series. Enter to win below!

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Getting It Together with Workflowy

Get It Together Blog Hop ButtonAll this week the Get It Together Blog Hop is featuring authors revealing their tips, tricks, and secrets for staying on top of constantly moving deadlines, promotional efforts, beta reading, social media, basically everything. Today I'm talking about a new tool that I started using this summer to keep myself organized after my traditional to do list just wasn't cutting it. I'm going to give you a little context for what my writing/real person life looks like right now:

  • I'm an author of writing under two pen names (Julia Kelly for contemporary and historical romance and Vivienne Thorne for Victorian erotic romance).
  • I run First Draught, a monthly writing chat show, with Alexis Anne and Mary Chris Escobar.
  • I have a day job in journalism where I'm a news editor which means keeping on top of a staff of reporters and managing various projects.
  • My immediate family all lives in the UK. I do not. Hello, juggling time differences.
  • I have a lot of friends I like to see frequently including a newborn for whom I'm an honorary "we're not related by blood but she's going to call me her auntie" aunt.
  • I'm single and dating in NYC.
  • I like to have clean clothes, food in the fridge, eat and drink well, and go to the gym a few times a week.
  • I also like to have the occasional weekend off where all I do is soak in a tub, read, and turn into a raisin.

I've got a lot of stuff going on, just like EVERY SINGLE WRITER I'VE EVER MET. Kids, day job, multiple pen names, family stuff, medical stuff, we're all dealing with some combination of things that pull us in lots of directions. We're also a creative bunch, and we tend to overextend ourselves which can be a great thing when those elusive plot bunnies go hopping through our heads. But stray too far off the path, and everything comes crashing down because you've forgotten or neglected things that had to get done.

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Becoming a serious, career-oriented writer means sucking it up and becoming an Olympic gold medalist at time management just to keep your head above water. I've done okay with it in the past. I was lucky enough to get all of my professional training as a TV news producer working with a team while multitasking to meet two show deadlines a day. It meant keeping a lot of balls in the air all at once, and I was good at it.

On my busiest days, I mostly survived off of a very extensive calendar and a meticulous to do list. But this summer, even I had to admit that I needed help because my old methods weren't cutting it. I had way more things on my to do list than normal because of a serial I was rolling out under my Vivienne Thorne name that every day stuff like "Pick up dry cleaning" and "Take recycling out" were getting lost on my list. (That's right, I was so crazy this summer that I made notes to shower, take out the trash, and take out the recycling. It was like being back in college during hell week.)

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And then Alexis Anne linked to a promo for a free trial for WorkFlowy. The site and app are supposed to supercharge your to do lists. I was skeptical because I've never found an organizational tool that really works the way I think. However, when I started using Workflowy, I fell in love because IT LOOKS LIKE MY BRAIN.

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What this program does is it allows you to create lists within lists. Within lists. Within lists. I could go on and on, and it's a beautiful thing.

If you take a look at the graphic above, you can see a little bit of my Julia Kelly to do list (the non-confidential stuff). The first set of bullets are large categories: Personal, Weekend Plan (ie the monster wish list of things I want to do on the weekend of which I wind up achieving only about a third), Work, Julia Kelly, and so on. Within the Julia Kelly sublist, I group all the things related to that pen name. I have a list of things I'm currently writing, what I owe my agent, Emily, and then individual book projects. Each of these subsections gets subsections of their own, just like the newsletter bullet point.

Basically what I'm doing here is creating a hierarchy all within the same massive to do list. If I know that I need to prioritize work on my historical governess series, I can close out the other bullet points and just focus on that task list. I don't need to think about newsletters at that moment, so I can walk away from it until I need to get that newsletter out to my readers. And, hey, when I do I'll remember that I wanted to include links to new works by Alexis Anne, T.J. Kline, Lia Riley, and Serena Bell because I nested that note under Newsletters. If something's really pressing, I can hashtag it #NOW. That link becomes clickable, and I can see all of the things that must get done now. I also have #Weekend and #September hashtags for short-term projects a few days to a few weeks out.

When a project is done, I click "completed" on its little round bullet point. Then, on Sunday night, I go through my entire list and delete all of the completed items. This gives me a sense of what I accomplished this week (even if a lot of them are things like "Pick up shoes from cobbler"), and sets me up for the next week.

And the best part is that all of this syncs to my work and personal phones as well thanks to the Workflowy app.

So that is what my brain looks like. Groups, subgroups, hierarchies, and prioritization all in once place that's searchable by hashtags. Since I've started using the app, I've found that I'm no longer searching for all of the tasks I need to do for my Seduction in the Snow release because they're all grouped together rather than scattered across my unwieldy to do list. It means I'm a losing less time hunting down things I've dropped the ball on and (hopefully) more time enjoying a well earned drink at the end of the day.

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Don't forget to check out the other authors on today's stretch of the blog hop!

And make sure to enter to win a ton of prizes including enough romance novels to keep you busy for awhile! blog-hop-giveaway-510x680

Listen While You Work

Tonight I'm talking music with the women of First Draught. I've been doing my homework before our live Google Hangout and going through all of my old writing playlists. I'll talk more about this tonight, but typically when I start a new project I begin pulling songs that either evoke a certain mood or have lyrics that fit with these love story I'm trying to write. Some songs pop up on my playlists over and over again. I've been dancing Swing, Lindy Hop, and Blues for a very long time, and I've always found those really expressive songs fit my playlists well. They show up on my all the time.

So here you go! 15 songs that I can't stop listening to whenever I write.

Ultimate Playlist

Make sure to watch tonight as Alexis Anne, Mary Chris Escobar, and I talking music with special guests Lashell Collins and Tracie Puckett. We'll be watching out for questions and comments on Twitter and Facebook, so be sure to let us know what you think!

The Writing Process Blog Hop of 2014

Why hello there. When my friend Alexandra Haughton tagged me in The Writing Process Blog Hop of 2014 I was thrilled. I love reading about other writers work, and I'm glad to get the chance to share. With a GIF or two. Because that's how I roll. I. What am I working on right now?

All the projects. I'm working on all the projects right now. Or at least that's what it feels like compared to how I used to work.

When I started writing I had one full-length historical I dedicated all my energy to. Since then I've finished two other manuscripts (one is junk and will never see the light of day and one is a sports romance I love that is in the hands of my wonderful agent right now). Currently I'm working on a second, full-length sports romance, a novella for an indie anthology with Alexis Anne, Alexandra Haughton, and Audra North, and some flash fiction for a blog hop (coming soon). I'm also in the research stages of a mystery based in 1920s New York City. That's a project that makes me so excited I'm practically vibrating like this...

However, I know that I'll come to hate it if I start it without a good research foundation, so I'm reading everything I can get my hands on and holding off on the writing for now.

II. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well isn't this an intimidating question? I write in two genres. Historical and contemporary. Let's tackle historical first.

I studied Victorian sexual and gender history in college. The women I found most fascinating were on the fringes of social acceptability. We're talking governesses, doctors, prostitutes -- all women who gained some form of economic independence and therefore pushed back against the constraints of patriarchy whether they knew it or not. Society typically categorized them as "abnormal" and often saw them as under or oversexed (whatever was most convenient). Those are the women I like to write about.

My first book is set in 1880s London and follows a poor relation who writes a book to earn money so she can strike out on her own. The book sells. A lot. Now she's in the awkward position of having an elevated -- although eccentric -- public persona while her relatives still treat her as a second-rate member of the family. Naturally there's a tall, dark, and handsome marquis who comes along and falls in love with her (you know this ends).

When it comes to contemporary, I want to tell stories about women I would happily grab a drink with. Right now I'm focusing on sports romances. What is more fun that turning the hyper-masculine world of professional sports on its head by dropping in a smart, confident female character who can go toe to toe with a hero? The heroine in my first contemporary romance is a sports agent. She's kind of a bad ass when it comes to the business side of things, however, she's not a "strong woman" (ie so perfect she's unrealistic). She has moments of doubt. She cries. She makes mistakes. I'm happy to see readers asking for strong female characters, but I want us to get to a point where we can have heroines as layered and complicated as our heroes.

III. Why do I write what I do?

I started writing romance as a relief from my masters thesis. I would get home from Columbia University's radio lab late at night exhausted and burnt out. I wanted a mental break, and a woman can only watch so much Dancing with the Stars. I needed a more creative outlet to keep my sanity, so I started writing what would become my first historical novel.

Now I write because I can't imagine doing anything else. I know that's such a cliché, but that doesn't make it any less true. On some level I want to tell those pro-female, sex-positive stories about those complex women I mentioned earlier, but I also just love romance. Some friends have asked me if writing stories that must end with a Happily Ever After is limiting. The answer is a very simple no. The characters dictate the way you get to that HEA, making each story unique. The HEA is just an expectation of the genre -- nothing more, nothing less.

IV. How does my writing process work?

My writing process has undergone some changes since I started scribbling scenes in graduate school. I used to be a pure pantser who wrote whenever the feeling moved her. Let me tell you, that is not an effective way for me to get anything done. I will always come up with something else to do. Then I went to the total opposite end of the spectrum and started to write every single day on an absolutely brutal, unrealistic word count schedule. This was a really stupid idea for someone who works in a high-stress job (producing TV news in New York City, hotbed of crazy). Learn from my mistakes and don't kill yourself. You'll just burn out and wind up curled up in a ball on the floor of your apartment.

Now I use Michael Hauge's "Six Stage Plot Structure" method to plot out character arcs. This isn't a strict, detailed outlining method so it offers me enough flexibility to get creative while still knowing the major turning points in plot and character. I write what I call a Fast Draft which is exactly what it sounds like. I get down whatever I can as quickly as possible. This is usually heavy on the dialogue since I write anchor scripts for a living.

My goal is to write 2,000 words a day Sunday through Thursday for my main work in progress. Anything extra counts as brownie points. If I'm working on a secondary project I'll switch my attention to that once I hit my main WIP word count. I'm out of the house at least 11 hours a day between working and commuting so I write everywhere I can. This includes on the subway and at the laundromat. I like working with background noise thanks to all my years in newsrooms and nearly as decade of babysitting/nannying before that. Don't tell my reporters, but producing and childcare overlap in more ways than one.

I'm the queen of laundromat writing.

I should also note that I've recently moved over to working in Scrivner, so part of my day is dedicated to learning a new program and pleading with it to like me.

After the Fast Draft I go back and do a First Draft 2.0. That's a pass through to fix any character inconsistencies and add in all of the emotional development that might have been lost in the Fast Draft.

Next is the long, slow process of revising. I'll usually do a second draft and then send the MS around to my critique partners. This gets another set of eyes on it and forces me to put it aside for a few weeks so I can better pinpoint problems later.

Next is a few rounds of fiddling with sentence structure and polishing. At some point I realize that by continuing to work on it I'm going to make the book worse rather than better. That's when it goes off to my agent to see what she thinks, and I feel like this for about a week:

Then I start the whole process over again with a new book.

It. Never. Ends.

So that's me in one very long blog post. I'm now tagging Audra North and Mary Chris Escobar. Audra's post is already live on her site (definitely check it out), and Mary Chris will be posting hers soon.

Thank you all, and good night.

Plotting vs. Pantsing

Hello all! I'm resurfacing during a crazy couple months of drafting new stories to share a new author chat with you. Yesterday four of my favorite fellow authors and I sat down to debate the merits of plotting vs. pantsing (ie planning it all out or writing spontaneously). We also shared our methods for finishing that draft. Take a listen and join the conversation by letting us know what works for you!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYplXVUQRPE&feature=share

VIDEO: The Balance Myth

Happy belated new year everyone! I took some time away from blogging and writing to be with family, but now I'm back at it for 2014. Of course, that means figuring out how to fit writing in around a very busy season at my day job. That makes the most recent chat that Alexis Anne, Mary Chris Escobar, and I did particularly topical. Check out our Google Hangout talking all about the myth of balance in a writer's life and whether we think male authors ever get asked how they "do it all." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dl-rv8bKOX8

As always, I'd love to hear what you think. Leave a comment about balance, writing, or your goals for the new year below. You can also reach out on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Happy writing!

VIDEO: Where I Write

My novella is in the hands of some trusted beta readers, giving me the chance to do some housekeeping. I've been meaning to share a wonderful post on Wonkomance showcasing photos of romance writers' work spaces. I'm on there as well as my good friend Mary Chris Escobar who is about to release a new novella. Most writers are creatures of habit, so I love getting a glimpse at what makes them tick. Of course then edits took over my life, and I forgot about that post. The other day I read Serena Bell's interview on Miss Ivy's Book Nook talking about what she needs to write. I decided to record this little video for you guys to welcome you to my writing space (just in time for NaNoWriMo). Where do you guys like to work, and how to do you make it feel like home?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jwUF0L9CKY

A Sunday Break

Golden afternoon light streams through my windows when I look up from my computer. It's time to take a break. I lose myself when I'm editing and often forget about the larger world outside my apartment walls. Determined to catch the last of the light before the early fall sunset, I pull on my boots and a down vest, and clip-clop down four flights of stairs into the street.

I live on the far eastern side of Manhattan. My walk to Central Park takes me past the frat boy sports bars of Second Avenue, through the generic shops of Third and Lexington, and into the Old New York opulence that marks the true Upper East Side. Then, just when I'm beginning to feel as though I don't belong in my Sunday uniform of boots and jeans, I see green.

Trees tower over a low wall that draws the boundaries of the park. There is a little entrance at 79th Street. That is the one I take. A paved path leads me deep into the heart of the park. Cyclists and weekend athletes race past me in. They are working harder than I am, but I am on a break I tell myself.

My path curves to the Great Lawn, and I spot Belvedere Castle across Turtle Pond. It's a strange building - impressive and incongruous. A castle in the middle of the great concrete jungle. It has been nearly a year since I stood on its battlements. I put my head down and begin the climb up wide, gentle steps.

On top of the castle the view is breathtaking. Clouds reflect in the deep blue, undisturbed water of the pond. On the sloping lawn, children play at games only they understand the rules to. Trees just beginning to change colors in the fall chill frame the scene. Unashamed of being a tourist in my own city, I snap a photo and then tuck my phone away so I can watch those around me marvel at this beauty.

Revived I walk down another set of steps and through the park. I examine the plaques on green wooded benches. I stop on a bridge leading to the Reservoir to watch the runners huff and puff, fighting against the burn of ever-cooling air. There is calm here. The mere act of walking through the park washes the rest of New York away. I feel clean and new.

The sun is setting when I finally clear the park walls. On Fifth Avenue I feel the city begin to encroach upon the peace I've found. I push past tourists eager to make their way to the Met before the museum closes.

The walk back to my apartment is quick. Keys rattle in my pocket the entire way. An hour after I decide to take my walk, I'm back in front of my computer. I'm ready to work again.

Write Anywhere

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It took me four years to write my first novel.

Actually it would be more accurate to say it took me four years of starts and stops to write my first novel. I kept picking up the book and putting it down. I was in graduate school when I started it, and I'd been working for three years when it finally went off to agents.

My book would suffer when I would couldn’t find the time to sit down to get a solid block of writing in. I would push my manuscript aside if I felt overwhelmed with work, relationships, living in New York, everything.

Finally I got serious. I finished the book, and I went through edit after edit until it started to look like the romances I read. I decided I would never again push writing aside. I was going to make it a priority.

How exactly was I supposed to do that? How are any of us supposed to do that when we're always swamped. It doesn't matter whether you work, raise children, or care for ailing loved ones. Time is precious.

This is my big secret: you make time for the things you want to make time for. If what you really want to do is write, you can find the time to do it.

This isn't a post about balance. Honestly, I'm a little sick and tired of people telling me I'm supposed to write, hold down a job, dedicate time to my relationship (when I'm in one), work out, cook beautiful meals, and still be social. When I'm in the middle of a draft, balance is the last thing on my mind. I go to work. I eat whatever I can make quickly. I sleep less than I probably should. I write whenever I can. My friends are used to me declining about half their invitations because I'm writing. I have very understanding friends. I try to make it up to them when I resurface for breath after a draft.

Last January I found an article I've long since lost about a NYC-based writer who works on the subway. I should do that, I thought.

Into my purse went a notebook and a pen. I promised myself that for at least one leg of my daily 45 minute commute to or from the Bronx I would scribble.* I've always thought of myself as a skeleton first drafter who does her best work during edits. The words didn't have to be good the first time they go on the page. They just had to be there. I could fix them later.

For a couple weeks I stuck to my plan. On my commute I would write. At night I would transcribe the handwritten pages and pick up where I'd left off. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. At the end of those two weeks I had close to 30,000 words of a first draft. I was stunned. Clearly I'd hit on something.

This is what I've realized since then. Fitting in writing time whenever I can isn't just about hitting a daily word count. Something happens when I transcribe from paper to computer screen. The words flow better. Perhaps it's because I'm not starting cold. Whatever the reason, it's the best feeling.

I've now written in bars waiting for dates because I am always, always early. I've scribbled in a Florida hotel room packed with 3 other women getting ready during a wedding weekend. My notebook comes out on the bus, in the back of cabs, and on airplanes. On trips home my family is used to seeing it during slow football games and while we're all lounging outside. I've even got sand in the thing from days at the beach. I'll write wherever I can lay my notebook flat.

How do you find the time to write? Do you block out time, or can you snatch a 15 minutes here and there like I do? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

*Of course there are hidden dangers in writing on the subway. I was so absorbed while writing this post on the train that I missed my stop and wound up 5 stations away on the express train. A small sacrifice in the name of getting things done.