Determine Your Writing Goals

Schedule your writing. Do I mean select a specific time of day to write? Yes and no. Yes, but only in the case that you can write that way, but no, in case you prefer more flexibility regarding your writing. So what do I mean? There are twelve months in a year. January is almost complete, but what would you like to see yourself accomplish regarding your writing goals in the month of February? What about March? How long does it take you to complete writing the first draft of your novel?

Most people just write. Sure, they have a goal in mind—finish this story and publish it…someday. Then Writer’s Block hits, and it really delays the writing process. However, if you lay your goals out for the year, you’ll have more of an incentive to press on and meet your deadlines. You’ll know if you don’t finish this story by this specific month, then you won’t be able to start on revising and editing it, and if you don’t get through that by this other date, you won’t be able to send out query letters or self-publish your work at the appointed time.

But how do you know when you’ll be finished writing the book? Well, everyone is different. Some people write daily while others don’t. You will have to determine the best way for you to write. The important thing is to set realistic goals and keep them. One way you can do this is by knowing how much you write in certain increments such as the following:

  • How much can you write in 15 minutes?
  • How much can you write in an hour?
  • How long does it take you to complete the first draft of a novel?
  • How long does it take you to revise a draft?
  • How long does it take you to edit a draft?
  • How long does it take you to proofread a draft?
  • How many revisions must you complete before being satisfied with your novel? (This question will likely not have a fixed number because each novel will be different. However, it is still something you should keep in mind.)
  • If you’re seeking traditional publishing or an agent, what is the common waiting time to get a response?
  • If you’re self-publishing and formatting your own work, how long does it take you to format a book?
  • If you’re having other people beta read, proof, or edit your novel, how long does it take them to get back to you?

Now, the answer to every question listed above is subject to change due to numerous circumstances (what you’re working on, who you’re working with, and just plain Real Life getting in the way). Nevertheless, if you can list a tentative answer, it will give you a general idea of how long it’ll take you to reach your goal. With that in mind, you can set your goals.

For example, here are my answers to some of the questions:

How much can you write in 15 minutes? 500 words.

How much can you write in an hour? 2,000 words.

How long does it take you to complete the first draft of a novel? 3-6 months.

How long does it take you to revise a draft? 1 week/1 month.

How long does it take you to edit a draft? 1 week/1 month.

How long does it take you to proofread a draft? 1 week/1 month.

How many revisions must you complete before being satisfied with your novel? (This question will likely not have a fixed number because each novel will be different. However, it is still something you should keep in mind.) At least 5 revisions.

If you’re having other people beta read, proof, or edit your novel, how long does it take them to get back to you? At least two weeks but maybe month.

Knowing this information, I can plot my approach to the writing year. I’m the kind of person who must write daily, and in my mind revision, editing, proofreading, and researching the market doesn’t qualify as ‘writing’. Revision might be the only exception especially if there are major revisions necessary where I have to add an entirely new chapter or section to a chapter. In that case, I am writing. However, with that aside, I like to write in addition to all my other work. Why? So I can constantly have something to publish. In my mind, it looks something like this:

Write Book 1

Write Book 2, revise/edit/proof Book 1

Write Book 3, revise/edit/proof Book 2, publish Book 1

And so forth.

Is this a perfect system? No, because you can’t predict the exact timing of everything, and Real Life just happens, but this is how I work.

In other words, if you really want to become a published author, you have to plan for it. Not only do you have to set the goals, but you also have to determine the necessary steps to reach that goal. Anyone can say, “I want to publish a book one day!” Yet it takes a disciplined writer to say, “I’m going to publish my book at this date, and this is how I’m going to do it…and here’s Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D if Plan A doesn’t work.” So try to plan your writing year.

Also, if you feel as if you’re nowhere near being ready to be published because you’re not confident in your skills handling different elements of writing, it might be a good idea to schedule your year by month and what elements you want to master. For instance, you could say, “In February, I really want to focus on writing good descriptions.” And in March you could say, “I want to focus on dialogue.” Or it could be plot, strong characterization, pacing of a story—whatever you want. Now, not every element requires a month to master it. It may take less than a month or more than a month. You would have to measure the time according to your own pace.

Sometimes a writing mentor can help keep you lay out your goals and keep you on track. If you’re interested in such a mentor, feel free to join my Facebook group and let me know: I mentor writers beyond blog posts and would love to interact with more of my readers and help you reach your writing goals.


The Etiquette of Creating a Book Cover: Author & Artist

Book covers are important. They are the image by which your book will be judged. Everyone says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but honestly, if the cover doesn’t catch our attention, it’s unlikely we will read it. When you sign up with a traditional publisher, they have their own graphic artists who they will assign to your book, and you will work with them. They have their own process. What I want to focus on though is when an indie author is working with a graphic artist to create the perfect book cover for their self-published book. However, when working with another creative mind, there is an etiquette that must be considered for the best results. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure the artist and you work well together.
  2. Come prepared with an idea for the cover.
  3. Don’t settle for less. Follow your gut. Be honest but respectful.
  4. Give the artist creative license.

Make sure the artist and you work well together. As exciting as it is to be at the stage where you need a cover for your book, remember you might not get along with the first artist you encounter. So, before assigning her the task to design your cover, communicate with the artist. How well do you communicate? Are there any misunderstandings? Do you just have a bad feeling about it? Can you be honest with the person? If anything raises a red flag in your mind, do not follow through. It’s better to delay the design of the cover and find the right artist than to force cooperation between the two of you when there is no chemistry. Trust your gut.

Come prepared with an idea for the cover. When I had my first book cover designed, I had no idea what I wanted, so I told the artist the basic idea of the story. When he came back to me with a proof of the cover, I wanted to cry in horror. It looked like a boring textbook—gray and lifeless. But of course the artist didn’t know better. He never read the book. How could he create a proper representation of a story he’s never read? Armed with this knowledge, I sat down and imagined what the book would look like on the shelf of the bookstore—what did the cover look like? From there, I sketched out a very rough idea of the cover and sent it on to him. With that, he was able to work his magic. The lesson learned? It is better to have a vague idea of what you imagine the cover to look like than no idea at all. However, keep in mind, the end result will likely be nothing like you imagine—it should be better than you imagined.

Don’t settle for less. Follow your gut. Be honest but respectful. There will be countless of versions of the cover. With each one, if something doesn’t feel right about the cover, express to the artist what you think the problem might be and ask her if she could change it. The artist won’t see the cover like you do because she is working so closely with it, so you need to point out when something doesn’t feel right about the cover. Neither you nor the artist should get irritated with one another when you’re nitpicking. Both of you should be patient and working with one another. If the problem doesn’t seem to be resolving, take a break. Get away from it in order to look back at it with new eyes. When you come back, you might not see the problem at all—or you might have a better way of explaining what exactly the problem is to the artist.

Give the artist creative license. If you can create your own cover, then do it, but if you can’t, then let the artist do her job. You may present an abstract idea for a cover, but it’s her job to put it into the concrete. Unless the cover is completely illustrated by the artist, most artists will use stock photos for the pictures of the cover, and unfortunately those may not be exactly the look you wanted for this character or that one. The artist should be able to manipulate it to look closer to what you want, but it will be slightly different than what you imagined.

As an author, you may have googled images that you would like to see on your cover, but do not expect those pictures to be used unless they are stock photos. It is okay to find pictures you like and even actors you imagine for your characters, but in the end, accept the fact that none of those pictures will likely be on the cover at all. Otherwise, there is potential of getting in trouble with copyright laws and such. You don’t want that headache. The graphic artist will try to find pictures that are extremely close to the ones you chose, but they will not be identical, and this is good—it makes it unique to your own work.

Now, if you do want to choose pictures that you can use, look up stock photos. Here are a few sites:

And there are many, many more! Find the pictures you like, but don’t purchase anything yet because the picture might not fit perfectly into the cover that’s being created, and an alternative photo will have to be chosen. Show the artist the pictures you’re thinking about, and let them create a mock cover. Once you’re satisfied with the cover, the artist will tell you which stock photos you need to purchase. Is it your responsibility to purchase the stock photos? Yes—unless the artist and you came to some kind of agreement beforehand. This is something you will need to discuss with them just to make sure you’re both on the same page.

When you are working with a graphic artist, the two of you are on the same team. You want the same thing—the perfect cover. Both of you should be patient and professional about it.

Also, authors, if you’re looking for covers and you don’t want to go through the stress of working with an actual artist, you can find pre-made covers for a reasonable price here:

Now artists, you may work with an author who is very insecure and doesn’t feel comfortable asking you to make changes. If you sense that is the kind of person you’re working with, be patient with them and reassure them that you want the perfect cover for their book. When you finally think you’ve arrived at the perfect cover, then here are some questions you can ask such an author:

  • “Is the background exactly the way you want? Should any of the background elements be changed or altered in any way?”
  • “Do the elements in the foreground meet your approval? Does anything stand out that shouldn’t? Or is there something that should stand out but doesn’t?”
  • “Do you approve of the color of the cover? How is the lighting/shadows?”
  • “Are your name and the title positioned where and how you want them? Do you approve of the font?”

If the author approves of everything but you still get the feeling he’s not being completely honest (with himself if not you), you can recommend he think about it for a day, and if he’s still content with the cover, then your work is complete.

If you’re the artist, the last thing you want is for the author to come back to you further down the road and finally confess, “I really don’t like this element of the cover. Could you change it?” When this happens, you have to consider how much you’re going to charge for revisions after the job has already been completed and such. That is stress no one wants to deal with.

If you’re the author, the last thing you want is to be stuck with a cover you secretly don’t like. It’s very hard to promote your work and be excited about your book if you dread the cover. If you’re not excited about it, no one else will be excited about it, and your sales won’t get off the ground. The cover does affect your confidence, so it’s better to be open and honest with the artist during the process rather than regret it later.

However, artists, there will likely be authors who are perfectionists and constantly asking you to change their cover over and over and over again even though it’s really good. There will come a point where you will simply have to put your foot down and calmly but professionally inform them that you can only do a certain number of revisions and after that any additional revisions will be an added cost.

Authors, don’t freak out when I say that to artists. Most artists won’t tack on any additional cost because they really want to work with you and have the best cover for you. Nevertheless, if you push them too hard and are unreasonable, they will stand their ground.

Once you find an artist you work with splendidly and their fees aren’t unreasonable, don’t let him or her go. You can have a wonderful working relationship that could last through book series, and this also allows for consistency of the book covers.

Remember, both of you are creative individuals coming together to create the finished product of a book. Give each other space and respect. Be professional, be honest, but also be considerate.

In the end, you should have an impressive masterpiece.

Deleted Scene File

I’ve mentioned the Deleted Scene file a few times, but what is it? There is a general rule in writing: NEVER ERASE ANYTHING YOU WROTE! Okay, so yes, this can be broken every now and then, but this rule is mainly focused on paragraphs or scenes you’ve written—or maybe a really cool line. You don’t want to lose it because you did after all put all that time and thought and energy into it to write it, so what do you do?

  • Create New File
  • Name File: Deleted Scenes
  • Create New Document
  • Name Document: Deleted Scenes from _____________ (whatever your current story may be)
  • Select the section set for deletion in your story
  • Copy
  • Paste into the Deleted Scene document
  • Leave it

No need for explanation. No need for formal markings to remind you where that part came from in the story—unless you want to remember those details.

So what do you put in such a file? The writing contained in it is not necessarily bad writing. It’s simply writing that doesn’t quite fit the story. Sure, you might be writing exactly what you planned for that scene, but something just feels awkward. The characters aren’t necessarily picking a fight with you or protesting at all, but they’re inching along hesitantly. It’s like they know something’s wrong, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. They do what they’re supposed to be doing, but they’re hoping you will catch on, halt the process, retrace the steps, and take the story a different direction.

Why even have a deleted scene file? How is it different from all the countless of drafts of your novel? This comes in handy mainly when you’re writing the first draft. The story isn’t unfolding the way you were hoping. You can’t keep this material in the same document because it’s taking the story the wrong direction, but you don’t want to lose what you’ve written because it was good writing. This is when you select all the troublesome material and put it in the deleted scene file. Once it’s moved over there, you can delete it from your original manuscript and resume the course you want to take without feeling terrible for erasing all those words.

Will you ever look back at everything in that file? Probably not. However, it becomes a gold mine for story ideas and times when you find yourself writing a similar scene, and you think to yourself, “I know I wrote this before.” You can find it in that file, adjust it to your story, and save yourself the time of having to rewrite the entire scene from scratch.

You might not call it ‘Deleted Scene File’ but rather something else, and that’s all right. This is basically a catch-all file for orphaned scenes or displaced paragraphs/sentences. Is it a requirement? No, but it is an alternative to absolutely erasing anything you’ve written.

To Finish or Not?

One of my students is a young writer—just beginning to get serious about the craft. She has never finished a story before, but then again she hasn’t written much. However, she already has the impression in her mind, “Finish what you start.” That is an excellent notion, but at times it can be detrimental. Sometimes what you started wasn’t a good idea, or maybe you didn’t think it through before beginning. Sometimes you need to stop and ask yourself if it’s worth it.

If you’re working on something, and you no longer feel any love for it, and you’re writing it out of a sense of duty—stop. The idea isn’t going anywhere. The story won’t write itself, and it also won’t walk away. It’ll still be there—in your ‘unfinished’ file in your computer. Put it in the back burner and let it simmer. Some ideas are like wine—they need to be put in a dark place and left alone for a while to become really good. You might discover later on as you pocket away ideas that a story will come along and use all those great ideas in one impressive story, and it’ll be better than you could have ever imagined.

However, say you have a story in mind—you’ve outlined everything, and you know exactly what you have to do, but you find yourself staring at a scene you really don’t want to write. Maybe it’s a talking scene—not much action, and it’s boring. You’d prefer to skip to the exciting part, but you’re heard the warning against that, so you’re stuck. What do you do? Do you skip or press on through it? If you skip, you’ll only have to write it later, and it still won’t be any more exciting. However, if you press on through this difficult scene knowing what happens next will be an epic scene, you have something to look forward to. It’s like crossing a stream. You want to get on the other side, but first you have to wade through water. You can’t run through it because it’s up to your thighs, so you take one step at a time. As soon as you reach the other side, you can run again. Take it one word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, and before you know it the scene will be finished, and you’ll be on your way to that exciting part.

There are times when you’re writing a scene and nothing feels right about it. You just getting discouraged more and more, and you don’t see how it’s going to work out, so pause (not full stop, but pause). Look at the scene and think: is there any other way this scene can unfold? Explore the possibilities, different characters’ POV, maybe change the setting or the approach. Once you get a clearer idea, then copy and paste what you had written and put it in a ‘deleted scene’ file. You never want to absolutely delete something you’ve written because there might be a sentence or a paragraph that you’ve written that you can use later. Once you’re removed the text from your original manuscript, you can now rewrite the scene.

This happens because characters are very stubborn. This is their story you’re showing, and they want you to get it right. If you get any detail wrong, they’ll cringe and wince and then complain and kick and scream. You need to be aware of their discomfort immediately and figure out what the problem is. Once you do that, it will be easier to follow the story, and the characters will behave.

So, if you’re struggling with a story and have genuinely lost all interest in it, let me tell you a secret: you’re not going to like it more once you finish it. On the contrary, you likely won’t want to look at it any time soon—if ever. It’s okay to stop writing a story that no longer captivates you.

Am I encouraging uncompleted stories? No. There will come a part in every story where you won’t want to write it, and you will have to determine if it’s because the story itself has no direction, or if you’re just plain bored with it, or there’s some other interesting idea you would much rather to explore. There are times to press on and write it to completion, and there are times to stop and let the story simmer while you take on another challenge. The dangerous potential with this is writing so much but leaving a trail of unfinished stories, so you will have to challenge yourself to complete something so the sake and satisfaction of completing it.

No matter what, always be writing.

Different Kinds of Death Scenes

There are thousands of ways to die, but when you’re writing a story, there are at least four kinds of death scenes:

  1. Shocking Death—the death occurs as a complete surprise
  2. Pending Death—this death is pending but uncertain—the character may or may not die.
  3. Inevitable Death—a prolonged and absolutely unavoidable death
  4. Inescapable Death but with a Twist—this death is certain, and you know exactly how the character is going to die…and at the last second the character dies but not HOW you expected.

So which of these are most emotional? Before we can dive into that, we must acknowledge that everyone is different. What kind of person the reader is, where they are in life, what they experienced that day, and their current emotional state all play into how emotional the actual death scene will be. Some people won’t cry at all while others will break down at every death. There is no magic formula to conjure tears in your readers eyes, which is unfortunate but true.

Let’s break down each kind of a death scene.

Shocking Death: The death occurs as a complete surprise.

These are shocking deaths—usually so shocking that the reader doesn’t fully comprehend what happened but have to go back and reread the passage a few times to come to grips that this specific character is now dead. Once I was reading a story, and there was a scene where this family went to an ice cream shop for a good time. They stepped out of the shop laughing and smiling, and then there was a drive-by shooting, and one of the characters died. I was so surprised that I couldn’t grasp what happened. Did she really die? How exactly did she die? What happened?

If this is done quickly, the reader won’t feel anything but disappointment and confusion. However, if the scene is dragged out, the reader has enough time to snap out of the shock and scream in denial. This is what happened at the ‘Red Wedding’ in George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’. When characters started being murdered, people were shocked at first, but then more and more characters died, and readers (viewers for the TV series) quickly realized everyone was going to die. This is tricky and quite an extreme. This card only works if more than one character is put to death and if the executions are carried out immediately rather than dragged out. This method should be used sparingly. Otherwise, it becomes predictable and loses its shock factor.

Pending Death: Death is pending but uncertain—the character may or may not die.

This basically summarizes every horror story. A lot of characters are going to die, but some will survive. As the reader, you don’t know who will die or live. You also don’t know how or when a character will die. The method of death may startle and horrify you, but will you be reduced to tears of sorrow? Unlikely. Tears of fear–probably.

Another example of this method is having a character held at gunpoint. Someone is negotiating for that person’s life, but you aren’t sure if the negotiations will be successful. If the character is shot and killed, you might be shocked, horrified, angry, and greatly distressed—or maybe you won’t be surprised at all. This method has the ability to induce tears in the reader, but it completely depends on the relationship between the characters, all the aspirations or failings of the character, how well the reader got to know the character prior to this point, and ultimately the reason why the killer decided to end this character’s life this specific way while sparing the other character. Also playing into the emotional aspect of this method of death is what the readers are personally experiencing in their own life, and that is beyond the author’s control.

Inevitable Death: A prolonged and absolutely unavoidable death

An example of this version of death is a character has cancer throughout the story and dies in the end. This can be absolutely heartbreaking or they can be a complete relief that the character is finally dead and no longer suffering.

There’s a book I read, and I know this specific character dies in the book. Regardless of my knowledge of this, every time I go back to that book and read it, I still get teary eyed—every single time. The series wasn’t focused on her, and she was only mentioned occasionally but always fondly. When you meet her in the story, she’s a fun-loving character but someone who is physically weak. She put much effort into living, but she still dies in the end—a quiet death but taken too soon. These kinds of deaths, if crafted well, are heart-wrenching.

However, at the same time, if the character is suffering horribly, when he dies, even if he was a good person, everyone will be relieved. For instance, in my historical fiction novels, King Baldwin IV suffers from leprosy. There are four books in the series, but after each book, my reader comes to me and asks, “How on Earth is he going to survive another book??” Everyone is expecting him to literally drop dead. Since the series is based on his life story and ends with his death, he does die in the end, but no tears are unlikely to be shed. He was a great and honorable king, but he suffered horribly in his life, so all those around him were relieved when he died because he finally found peace. Although this method of a death scene doesn’t usually invoke tears or sorrow in the reader, it does make them appreciate the life of the character and all they did or tried to accomplish.

Inescapable Death but with a Twist: Death is certain, and you know exactly how the character is going to die…and at the last second the character dies but NOT how you expected.

I’ve only seen this very few times. It starts off much like the last method I mentioned about having an unavoidable death. For example, you have a character who’s suffering from lung cancer. It’s a horrible and painful way to die. He’s weak and feeble but convinces his wife to take him to the beach one last time. They know they’re going to say their goodbyes. He’s getting weaker, can’t stand, and can’t stop coughing. You expect him to keel over dead any moment, and then his wife shoots him in the back of the head thus putting him out of his misery.

This stuns me because it’s completely unexpected. I have to reread it to make sure I read it correctly, and in the end, I’m never sure how to respond to this method. It’s personal but also unrealistic. At the same time, it’s extremely heartbreaking because you know the character who took the life of the other character did not want to do it. She was sparing him an anguishing death.

There are the different kinds of death scenes that exist in fiction. There may be more, but this has been my observation. The actual method of a character’s death is innumerable, and we won’t go into that.

Now, you must determine one important factor when approaching the death of a character. Other than the fact that it’s a turning point for the story, how do you want your readers to react? I once spoke with a student of mine, and she exclaimed, “I want to make them CRY!” While this is a worthy endeavor, it should be the byproduct of the scene—not the ultimate goal. In order to make someone cry, a lot needs to line up—things you don’t have control over. You can write the perfect story with the most heartbreaking death scene, but the reader still not cry. Why not? Well, for one, he could be someone who has tremendous emotional control—crying is just something he doesn’t do. Or she could be someone who has had the worst week of her life, and she’s already cried bucket-loads before even reading the scene, so by the time she reads it, she’s drained from any emotion (on the other hand, it could make her break down and cry all over again. Everyone is different). Or she could be someone who is emotionally detached and analyzes everything.

In other words, making someone cry is a hit-and-miss scenario. However, you can shock people, get them angry, make them confused, or feel numerous other emotions. How the readers respond to those emotions will differ from person to person—some may scream or gasp or slam the book shut or simply stare—holding their breath without realizing it as they quickly continue to read the passage because they’re hoping beyond hope that the character is still alive.

So which methods of death scenes conjure what emotions? Emotions are extremely hard to put in a single compartment, but this is a rough sketch as to which emotion associates with which death scene. (NOTE: everyone is different and may react contrary to what is listed here, but this is a very basic outline.)

Shocking Death

Emotions: surprise, horrified, confusion, denial, anger, sorrow, and maybe disappointment

Pending Death

Emotions: surprise, horrified, anger, denial, sorrow

Inevitable Death

Emotions: sorrow, relief, and maybe a bit of anger and regret

Inescapable Death but with a Twist

Emotions: confusion, shock, denial, guilt, sorrow

There are depths of this I’m not going to discuss because it varies so much from person-to-person and even character-to-character. However, now you can see that a death in your story isn’t just another death scene. There is actually a process to it. Granted, as the author, you don’t have to sit there and think of which method you want to use in order to target specific emotions in your readers. Instead, you should let the story flow naturally.

If your reader doesn’t cry at the death scene, don’t let that discourage you. It could be that the method of death scene you had written in your story for that specific character might not have lent itself to that emotion. However, if you can’t seem to invoke the emotional response you want from your reader, it is always good to look back at your writing and examine it. Did you rush the scene? Did you show enough? Did you show too much? Did you let the characters themselves feel, or did you skim over it?

Keep in mind, if you show ten people your story, you’ll likely get ten different responses, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Just continue to write, but keep this information in the back of your mind when you come to these specific scenes.