Monday, January 18, 2010

Creating the Beast

Happy Monday, everyone! I'm pleased to announce that this week the Wicked Writers will be sharing our novel-writing secrets with you. How do we create a novel? Stop by each day, and I'm sure you'll see that all of us do things a little differently.

I started with an idea and the basic American dream to write a novel. Did I think it would be worth reading in the end? I had no clue, but I had read so many books within my genre that I had a clear concept of what was missing and what I would do differently if I ever created my own book. Those ideas percolated for years. I had a basic premise in my head, but no time, desire, or drive to sit down and write.

I had my opening line, one I’d honed in my mind for a while—“I open the door to find a body at my feet" - and one my inexperience in writing didn't tell me was written in a first person present tense style. I love reading books in first person myself, but I had no idea that the style of present tense I picked was frowned upon by professionals and a lot of the publishing industry.

I proceeded to write with a vague idea of where my story was going. My mentor, Supriya Savkoor, told me I had to know the ending before I wrote too far in—or else what was I writing toward?

One thing the business world has taught me is how to plan. You will never succeed in any venture without one. So I applied that same logic and planned out my entire book. Without knowing how other writers outlined, I just wrote three or four lines describing the action or plot motion I intended for each chapter.

I did what worked for me, and my novel quickly evolved. Once I had written the first ten or so chapters, I did something completely out of the norm—I threw my work out to the public for reader response. I had already joined two critique groups, two writing guilds and various subchapters, and two online critique sites. In less than two months, I had feedback from dozens of writers on my opening chapters.

I launched a Facebook Fan Page (not a traditional profile page, as this one is open to the public), a mere two months from typing "Chapter One" and much to my surprise, real readers loved my story. No one commented on the present-tense style that’s not yet in vogue among my peers. Instead, these readers were pulled into my story and the sense of immediacy they found in my writing style.

Opening myself and my work up to readers was the best thing I ever did. They helped me with character names (which became increasingly difficult to think up), tried to predict where I was going with the plot, and cheered me on while I churned out more chapters. Before I hit more than 2,000 readers through various channels of exposure (and that is just the 2,000 who spoke up and told me their thoughts), I found out I couldn't put more than a small portion of my book out for public consumption or it would qualify as being already published by some publishing standards.

So I formed two private reading groups with about 275 members combined. The first one was with writers (about 30 of them), and the larger group was readers of my genre, urban fantasy. Each set of eyes offered valuable input. It was an incredible learning experience, and I met some great people who became friends. These readers and writers helped me to shape my story; I always had my plan, but they helped me to see where that plan needed refining.

In less than five months, I finished my first 90,000-word erotic urban fantasy. In the end, my way to create a novel was a very unorthodox one, but I wouldn't have changed a thing. I found out last Friday that my book, Vampire Vacation, achieved second place in Dorchester Publishing's America's Next Best Cellar (yes, that is the actual name, I didn't spell Seller wrong) contest that was billed as looking for a “fresh voice in Romance.”

It was the most grueling contest I've been in so far, but I'm glad I did it. My book—which is not actually a Romance in the traditional sense of the word (and anyone who has read it would agree), but a combination of many genres—beat out more than 300 other much more experienced writers to get to the top. I'm thrilled my novel came as far as it did, and I think it speaks huge volumes on the path I've taken. Don’t let anyone tell you, “you can’t do that.” You'll never know unless you try.


  1. Great post, CJ. I like the way you blend traditional techniques with writing for the digital age.

    You might like to know that Charles Dickens's version of an outline was four or five scribbled phrases that told the main events of his chapters. If it worked for him, it can work for you.

    My novel is also in present tense, which bothered several agents and editors, but sometimes it gives the tone and rhythm the story needs, and that's the bottom line, isn't it?

  2. I had no idea your book was done present tense as well! I'm pretty sure Wendy's Twitter novel is and I know Supriya's novel is - amazing that it wasn't a consideration when we formed the blog.

    Thanks Steve - and funny that you should mention Dickens - I had thought of him when I was researching selling my book in chapter chunks for 99 cents on Apple. I thought doing it in bi-monthly or monthly installments would appeal in the same type of concept to iphone readers and may build a following. Haven't taken that plunge yet - but I sill may.

  3. Suzanne Collins' new best-selling novels 'The Hunger Games' and 'Catching Fire' are written mostly in present tense and they are currently chart-toppers, so I expect publishers will be becoming more receptive to this style, though it still is not mainstream.

    I had wondered early on, when you were first posting chapters on Facebook, whether doing so may hurt your publication options. Based on your placings in contests, I'm guessing not! May I ask what was the cutoff point for the public postings to avoid that problem? Was it a certain percentage of the total novel?

    I am also noticing more and more novels these days in first-person point of view, and more and more with a strong female lead. It can only help that you have grabbed that rising trend squarely by the horns and planted yourself firmly upon its back.

    I continue to watch your progress with interest.

  4. First off, a lot of people (myself included) are having a good laugh seeing the word "mentor" in front of my name. Secondly, you have packed more writing experience into a single year than most writers. Though I have been on this journey with you, I continue to be impressed. I have been crediting you with that great plotting technique but thanks to Steve letting us know about Dickens, what an affirmation.

    Great post, CJ!

  5. Yeah, the whole first person present is a gamble. I know I only did it because it seemed natural for a Twitter novel. Also hadn't ever written in that form, but expected it would be easy. I was wrong!

  6. Yeah, I'm curious too what the cut of is? I have to think this is less and less the case. The Internet can only help a new writer find their readers. I've actually loved how Scott Sigler started his career after multiple rejections and have looked to him as a model ( I found him through a free release of Infected. I loved it so much I'll purchase any of his books going forward.

  7. Thanks Matt! And you too Wendy for the link to check out!

    The Facebook fanpage started as an experiment. Before I posted my work on there I posted it on (WDC) for feedback and reviews. A helpful experienced guide on the website was impressed with my work and advised me not to open post the whole novel as I was writing it, explaining that some publishers consider posting openly to that limited forum of 24k members to be publishing your work publicly.

    Since I was already at chapter seven when she informed me I decided to start a private reading group and invite the most thorough critiquers in. I wanted feedback, but I didn't want to blow a future deal so it seemed like the only logical move.

    I felt the postings on Facebook should match what I already had on WDC or people would just go there and read it. Seven chapters in happened to be random - but it also happened to be enough for people to get hooked and want to keep reading!

    I've never understood why some writers aren't willing to take a risk and post more of their work. I think letting readers get a feel for your book with larger excerpts can encourage them to take a chance with trying your work much more than a two or three page excerpt can.

  8. Thanks babe! Should I pay you know or later? ;-)

  9. Hey CJ!

    In my opinion, starting a novel is is finishing it that causes all the heartburn! BUT I had a great author tell me once...that people told him all the time how they'd always "wanted to write a novel...but..." and they always had a good excuse as to why it hadn't been done.

    He told me that just writing one novel and seeing it all the way to completion is worth way more than just dreaming about writing that book. Even if that novel never sees the light of day (or fake lighting in a book store) one can ever take away that accomplishment from you.

    He was so right! You must write because you love it, because you need to get that story out of your head before it explodes, and because you want to make your characters come to life.

    You've done that and so much more. I, personally, am so proud of you, my friend!

  10. Thanks Kerri, that means a lot to me. The past four months have been a long grueling path for us in the Dorchester contest and I'm proud to be right beside you in the line up at the end. Good luck with your latest YA release!

  11. Gregory Marshall SmithJanuary 18, 2010 at 9:52 AM

    A great blog, C.J. I now see what the power of planning can really accomplish. Quite frankly, I'm always three sheets to the wind (great Navy phrase, isn't it?) when it comes to my writing.

    But, I've always been unorthodox. Now, I have to totally rewrite my blog and make it actually sound like I'm giving some insight into creating a novel.

    Your novel was great in present tense, so don't be discouraged. And second place in Dorchester should garner a lot of press (or agent inquiries).

    I'm also going to take some of your examples about putting my work online. I just have some of it on WDC. I might offer a few chapters on myspace or facebook to see what happens.

    And you're right about the online hits. Whenever I put a short story up for a contest or for publication, I have to take it off WDC.

  12. There are many MANY who say how I've approached things is highly unorthodox - I think what ever works for you is what's right. After all there is more than one way to skin a cat! :-D

    Have you done a business page yet on Facebook? It's a better platform than a regular profile page because anyone can access it (well, within limits. Such as I have an age restriction on my page.) Lots of sci-fi/fantasy fans out there, I'm sure they'd be thrilled to find your work.

    Take the plunge! After all, if we survived the anonymous user id's with harsh comments on WDC we can survive anything, right? I can find a grain of truth and useful input in the nastiest ones, I just have to look real closely. ;-)

  13. You have a point. Then again, you show us all that most of us are not utilizing our full potential. I have a facebook account and myspace account but haven't taken the time to fully realize all of the useful functions (arrgh, did I just come up with another blog subject?).

    By the way, has anyone tried Smashwords ( It's supposed to be a venue that allows e-books to be distributed through multiple channels like Amazon and Kindle.

    While you guys think that over, I'll try to come up with a decent follow-up to your most excellent blog. I had a three-page draft ready and then I read yours and thought "Oh, great. Three hours down the drain."