Karen Wiesner Answers
About the FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS Method

Matching plot to character and adding suspense to your character-based novel    Developing ideas    Crafting realistic dialogue
Using the FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS method to plan a series    Where to get started with the FIRST DRAFT method
Teachers using the FIRST DRAFT method with their students    Karen's take on NaNoWriMo and other just-get-it-down methods of writing a book
Preparing a pitch for a conference

FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS Bonus Website

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28. I come up with characters pretty easily, but then I can't come up with a plot that "matches" them. Actually, I can't come up with plots at all--just characters. And when I start coming up with plots, something that would interest me, with a little excitement or suspense or mystery--they all seem dumb. Am I too quick to judge? How do I interest myself, draw myself into plot creation? I'm not a plot person. When I watch a movie, for me it's all about WHO it's happening to, not the WHAT. Any hints?

The area you're in now is one I know so well. When I first started out, all my books focused on the characters. There was little plot outside of the characters, their current situations, how this was influenced by things that happened in their pasts, and of course the romance relationship. The first thing I want to say is that there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with a book that focuses on who instead of what. I love these kinds of books because you can really create a kind of intimacy with your characters that isn't contingent on suspense or danger. These are beautiful stories. You don't have to feel foolish or even that you've failed if these are the kinds of books you write. Readers love them.

That's not to say you can't learn to write suspenseful stories. Learn is the operative word here. It'll take work, but all good writers spend a lot of tine learning about and honing their craft. I remember I used to feel that all suspenseful plots I came up with were ridiculous. I felt too dumb about the whole thing to ever write anything. That was an inhibition, and I think I was too quick to judge myself. Believe it or not, I now think my strength is in writing suspense, with my police procedural books--the Falcon's Bend Series--I write with Chris Spindler and the new action/adventure/kick-ass heroine books I've sold, the Incognito Series. I've learned to love suspense and danger and intrigue of all types. How I got to that point...well, let's get these disclaimers out of the way first:

If you want to write relationship stories filled with wonderful characterization, go for it. Make them the absolute best you can. Don't feel like you're settling for less or giving your readers less. If you think someday you might want to move beyond that and write some romantic suspense, my best advice is to immerse yourself in action/adventures movies and books. This is kind of funny, but back when I cared only about characters, I used to hate the requisite action scenes. We all know the hero and/or heroine is going to get out of this scrape, so let's just get to it. That was hard to get over. Now I love the action scenes. Part of that was forcing myself to watch them and also to analyze them. To those of us who are so character oriented, they might be boring, but think about what makes them exciting to those who love action. What works in an action scene? Many things:

-The unknown. In other words, the scene is set up to make the watcher/reader believe the hero/heroine won't succeed. Study how exactly that's achieved. Viewers and readers eat this stuff up, so I don't think there's such a thing as it being done to death. Not to say that you can't find a way to put a fresh spin on the tried and true.
-A foreshadowing or red herring that brought you to that point. The writer(s) wanted the viewers/readers to suspect this very thing was going to happen. Study why foreshadowing and red herrings can be so powerful to the overall plot and tension.
-Jeopardy and a time-limit. Is a child or a loved one in danger? Is the clock ticking and the hero/heroine has to save this loved one soon or such-and-such will happen?
-Progression and tension. Okay, something really exciting (maybe horrible) just happened. It'll change everything, and, if you're in the middle of the book, that's only going to increase the tension. Look at what it does to the events in the story and even to relationships in the story.
-A glimpse of happily ever after if the bad thing is thwarted...and the viewer/reader's realization of what's at stake if the bad thing isn't thwarted.

There's a lot more than this, but this should get you started in the direction of analyzing what makes an action story so spell binding for the viewer/reader. The more you immerse yourself in the world of action and suspense, the more it should intrigue you and get ideas flowing for you. If that doesn't happen, maybe you're not meant to write this kind of book, and there's nothing wrong with that. Accept it and find out what you do best, then do it the best you can. Also remember that there are no new ideas out there. You can take something that's been done and re-do it in your own unique way--provided that you don't steal or plagiarize.

On a more personal level, and in order to illustrate how to get a plot to match your characters, I want to share with you a problem I had with my 2004 romantic psychological thriller, MIRROR MIRROR. Despite my efforts, this book continued to elude my best efforts to create something wonderful. My first draft of the book was so bad, I refused to send it to my publisher, even if it meant keeping my fans waiting. I made a long list of notes on all that I thought was wrong with the book (believe me, it was a huge document), then I put the book back on the shelf for three months in order to get the story brewing again. After that time, I came up with another unworkable outline. I again put the story aside, a little terrified I’d never finished a book that had already been promoted as the third in my popular Wounded Warriors Series. More months went by, and I had a series of creative explosions for the plot of the book. I re-did all my character sketches, consciously trying to flesh the characters out much more than they had been in the past. That was a key element to moving toward a truly cohesive story.

My first realization about why previous drafts hadn’t work was that the heroine (the main character of the book) wasn’t directly involved in the resolution of the plot. How could this character achieve her full potential if she had her problems solved for her instead of her solving her own problems? That was a biggie ingredient in correcting the most obvious flaws with the book. The entire plot, at least, fell into place when I came to that conclusion. My second realization was that I had to make the plot more cohesive with this main character's struggle to not only accept her own blessing/curse of clairvoyance but to fully use it instead of pushing it away and feeling ashamed for it. I also realized that my little hint earlier in the book that the villain was terrified of dogs was the key to having the heroine save the day. Combine this with the fact that I now knew that the hero and the heroine's pasts had to be merged and paralleled. With this, I had the final ingredient that made one of many reviewers give it 5 stars and a review that said: "An excellent psychic thriller that will have you holding your breath until your lungs ache. Author Karen Wiesner, once again, clearly shows all sides when it comes to the romance parts of the story. I can easily understand why Gwen keeps herself apart from everyone. I can also understand Dylan's past reasons for staying with his dying wife. Then the author uses her writing gift to connect both Gwen and Dylan's pasts with a dark menacing force and tangles a web so strong that readers will not want to stop reading. Breathtaking!" It took me over a year to really get that story as cohesive and suspenseful as I could make it, so it wasn't easy, but it was definitely worth all the effort I put into it.

29. I've enjoyed reading FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS, but I don't remember seeing any place in it where it talked about coming up with ideas for a book in the first place. I've started books in the past, then gotten a batch of pages written, then it breaks down. Now I don't have any ideas at all. Sure, I know that a lot of authors say that ideas are all around you, but how do you take those ideas come up with a theme for the book, then plot the book? Are there places where people can get their ideas from? I've signed up for writing prompts, but none of them even start something in the first place. Sure I can think of things I'm interested in, but I know it takes more than that to write a novel. I'm interested in writing romance novels, which means that the heroine and hero have to meet in the first chapter or even better on the first page.

I write romance novels, and only traditional publishers (ones who don't like to break the rules) will make you have your hero and heroine meet in the first chapter or on the first page. Me, I prefer not to have a publisher tell me how to write a book. Publishers aren't necessarily authors. Anyway...

Your question is an extremely valid one, and you're also correct in saying there's not a lot of discussion about how to come up with an idea and then somehow craft it into a wonderful book. I doubt you'll like my answer, but it's the most truthful and on-target answer I can provide you.

When you first start writing, you're going to spend possibly years writing a lot of stuff that isn't good enough to be a book, let alone published. This isn't something that's personal. All authors go through it and it's absolutely necessary for you to take the time to do it. The point of all this writing is not necessarily to write something brilliant. The point of all those years of mad writing is just to teach yourself writing. To learn to love it and figure out how to get something to work. It takes so much practice to get to the point of finish a novel and then crafting it into something wonderfully readable. It's utterly rare for a writer to draft a first novel that's any good, let alone publishable. Use those years to hone your craft and to teach yourself how to write, using all the advice you can from writing experts. DON'T USE AN OUTLINE unless it feels comfortable for you to do so. Just write yourself silly and enjoy yourself!

The first couple years of committing yourself to becoming a writer will be one of the most definitive in the life of any author. This is where you learn the very foundations of being a writer, where you learn what you can do. You learn that you can extend yourself with practice on those things you thought you couldn’t do. You learn that maybe you really do have more than an extreme hobby. You learn whether or not you have genuine talent! Your goal during these formative years isn’t to be a productive writer or even a published one. You want to be a good writer, a creative one who improves and learns and enjoys the whole darn process. Writing, re-writing and re-writing and re-writing and writing some more is how you grow. All writers deserve to give themselves the time they need to refine and learn to love their craft in whatever way works for them—even if it’s crazy--to believe in themselves enough to take the next, crucial step.

If you're in this stage, just enjoy it and don't worry too much if your stories/ideas peter out before they really become anything solid or cohesive. I wish I could show you the sheer number of stories I started and never finished because I frankly just didn't know what to do with them. I have file cabinets full of them. But do you know what? Miles down the road from where I started, I'm now starting to look at those stories again and I'm finding a spark there that I could use to write a solid, cohesive novel or novella. Don't throw anything away, even if you think it's utter crap. Someday you'll see it differently and you may even be able to use it.

There is a time to move beyond that wonderful early stage, if you believe you’re talented and ambitious enough to succeed as an author. I think you’ll know when the time has arrived for you. You’ll have at least one near-perfect, complete manuscript that you believe in with all your heart. Quite possibly, you’ll have many more than that. You’ll also feel a strong urge for direction and discipline as you approach each project. That is the time to rein in your muse, to train it to assist you instead of control you, and to get down to the business of becoming a productive writer who sells that near-perfect manuscript of your heart. That's the time to really use the FIRST DRAFT method. Until you've had that period of time to learn to love writing for the sake of writing (not to finish a novel or to get it published), you won't know what to do with this instinct toward writing that you have.

My advice to you, though it may seem unsatisfying, is to spend as much time as you can just writing and honing your craft. Practice will help you to learn how to develop your ideas into strong novels, or maybe novellas would be easier for you at this point (though there really is some truth to the fact that it's harder to write a novella than a novel). But, just to get you started, be sure to try the FIRST DRAFT method. If nothing else, trying the pre-writing elements. Those will give your initial ideas a boost, even if you do eventually set the story aside and try something else. Just remember to keep everything. Also give all the brainstorming ideas in Chapter One a try. You may come up with a gem of idea that you can start to develop with the pre-writing

30. How do you make your characters sound different?

By making a conscious effort to do so. Let's face it, not every part of writing is going to come naturally to any of us. At any point in the process of writing a book (and this includes in pre-writing, or even if you've finished a full draft), sit down and make a list of your characters--basically anyone in your novel who speaks. If you know your characters personalities and your characters sketches are at least filled out, you'll have a good idea about things certain of characters would and wouldn't say, and ways they would and wouldn't say them. Are they prone to the vernacular--in other words, they speak street language? Or do they "sound" more like English professors? Somewhere in-between? Do they use a lot of internal dialogue? If you don't know, spend more time getting to know your characters. In Chapter Three of FIRST DRAFT, there's a section called Additional Outline Aids. Page 46 discusses the creation of dialogue sheets. Sometimes it comes easily and you won't need to map out or think about how a certain character would talk. Other times, you'll have to sit down and map out specific words or phrases certain characters would use. Create tags or mannerisms for some of them. Once you've figured out who's going to say what and how they're going to say it, go through your novel from start to finish and mold their dialogue to the specifics you've mapped out for them.

Some very basic tips on learning to create realistic dialogue:

-Use both external dialogue and internal monologue for variety.
-Get inside your characters’ minds through internal monologue (introspection) and external dialogue.
-Avoid “dialogue bullets” (passages of pure dialogue in which the reader can’t figure out who’s talking and they lose focus of the characters in the scene—dialogue fires out like bullets from a gun) unless there’s a need for extreme tension or you have a valid reason for using them. (Note: Dialogue bullets are perfectly acceptable in an outline—as long as you know who’s saying what.)
-For variety, show don’t tell through dialogue.
-Reveal a character’s personality/profession through dialogue rather than through narrative. There are dozens of these books available to help your character speak realistically within the profession or culture you've put them in. Writer's Digest Books has some.
-Occasionally, use dialogue to captivate the reader by having a character act out-of-character.
-Keep in mind that in real life, people almost never use names. If you're talking to one person, you'll almost never use her name in the conversation except in the case that you're trying to get the other person's attention.
-Make your opening sentence in a story an intriguing piece of dialogue/monologue.
-Use dialogue in your outline if you’re comfortable doing it. It really can give you a clearer picture of the characters in the scenes you’re about to write.

31. Can the FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS method be used to plan a series? And if so, how would you go about that? Planning only the first book first? Or would there be more consideration for how things could carry forward into the next book, and the next?

I do talk about using the FIRST DRAFT method for planning a series within FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS, but much of it is about staying organized in your research, etc. while working on a series.

My answer to you is, it's a wonderful idea to use the FIRST DRAFT method in planning a series. As many of you probably know, I've rarely written a novel that I didn't plan on making a series out of--I've even done this with novellas, so I'm constantly thinking two or more stories ahead of the one I'm currently writing. Make sure you have project folders for all the books you have in your series and make notes of any ideas you have for each one. It's also an excellent idea to print a blank copy of the character, setting and plot sketch worksheets in each project folder so you can fill those out in your spare time.

However, no matter how insular a series is, I strongly believe every story in that series had better stand on its own. So I guess the best way to do that is to make your story folders, jot notes when you can, but ultimately concentrate on one book at a time. At all times, keep yourself very organized in preparation for the next book in that series. To do this, it's very important to keep fact sheets and timelines that can be easily referenced later. (See #22 for more information on this.)

32. I had originally planned on using it with a new Young Adult novel I have been thinking about off and on for the past few months, but then I figured new approach/new story. This way I can learn it from the start, without having to unlearn what I did with another story. Would you recommend I work on the FIRST DRAFT method with--that new story or instead use it to finish an old story I had started last fall?

I always recommend that you work on the story that's just dying to be written. So, if you haven't started something yet, go with the one that most inspires you and see it through. Staying focused on one project is really important to productivity, particularly when working on several different projects in different stages (see #25 and #26). Also refer to FIRST DRAFT, which talks about the importance of not jumping from one project to the next while you're in the middle of one and how to do that. Once you finish the outline for one of the two you mentioned above, set the outline aside and get started on the other project. Alternate between the two in the various stages.

One other consideration for which project you want to work on is which one you think you can best sell. If you're not published, you should try to get something out there--you're best, of course--to either an editor or an agent, and try to pitch your stories at conferences as much as you can. While it would be nice if the market wasn't based on what's hot at the moment, you do need to take that into consideration if you're actively looking to get published by a traditional publisher. If you're open to small press publishers, then the world is your oyster! Write whatever you know is going to be wonderful.

33. Have you thought of marketing this book to teachers? The term 'prewriting' reminds me of my years as an elementary school teacher. I think your approach would also help high school students (and their teachers) in prepping for the writing tests.

I honestly don't know if it'll ever be published, but I have a kids' version of FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS (this would work well for anyone up to 7th grade; after that point, the regular version would be the best thing). Basically the kids' version is the same thing as the "adult" version, only simplified. I've had a few homeschooling friends use it, and my local school systems has asked me in a number of times to use this method with the elementary school kids. So, yes, I've more than considered it.

34. I have registered for NaNoWriMo in 2005 and also completed the challenge in 2004. As the author of FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS, what do you think of this and similar just-get-'er-done methods of writing a book?

The basic principle of this kind of thing is completely against my own method of writing in FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS. It's like writing a novel backwards. Why write 175 pages, conceivably much more, of a novel that you'll mostly likely have to scrap in part or in full when you can write a fully useable outline of a novel in a month? FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS way, it's all good. NaNoWriMo and other just-get-it-down ways, it's all uncertain unless you do write that just-get-it-down draft with an outline you completed previously. Write it right from the start, and you'll save yourself a ton of blood, sweat and tears to get something wonderful instead of something that will take you ten times as long to fix. But I bet you knew I was going to say that.

35. I've just discovered that an editor is coming to our conference this year, and I want to pitch an historical manuscript. Unfortunately, it isn't written yet. Not even started. The conference is in 105 days and I work full-time. I need to have a manuscript ready by that time (or as close as I can). Any advice?

My advice to get you, first, is to sit down with a calendar that has all your daily appointments and schedules listed on it, then figure out how many days before the conference you have to work with. Then divide those days between the things you need to prepare. At the very least, finish the outline before your write your pitch. You should already have a project goal sheet finished to project how long that might take. Once your outline is complete, write your synopsis based on your outline (usually 5 to 10 pages), and then write the first 50 pages or so of the manuscript. Most editors at conferences don't request full manuscripts then and there. They'll usually ask to see a proposal, and you want that proposal read to go the second you return from the conference. You should definitely be able to finish your proposal in plenty enough time before the conference, even working full-time. At that point, work on your pitch since you've now completed everything you need to be able to prepare this. Here are some tips on crafting a pitch:

The editor (or agent) is going to want to know the genre. Choose something that really does cover your story. Be sure that you know that the publisher the editor you're pitching to does publish the genre you're pitching, or, if you're pitching to an agent, make sure she represents the type of material you're pitching. Do your homework on that publisher and agent thoroughly.

Once you’ve figured out the genre, give the approximate word length. Do some research on this with the various publishers you’re thinking of submitting to. What’s the average word length they publish? Knowing word length will really help you decide on the major points of your story and how much space you have to go in-depth with them.

Now, sit down and write a very concise paragraph or two (under 20 sentences) about your major conflicts in this story as they relate to the characters. Characters are the major selling point in any story, and an editor will want to see those characters in an intriguing situation.

Here’s an example of a pitch:

DEAD DROP © by Karen Wiesner
Mainstream Romantic Suspense
100,000 words
Roan Emory, operative for the Network, was inducted into the covert organization at the age of twenty against his will. Parris “Perry” L’Engle, the only woman Roan ever loved, was never convinced that the car accident that took his life was legitimate. Alone, Perry gave birth to a child he never knew she was carrying. Twenty-five years later, when their son is approached by the same covert agency that tried to recruit Roan before his disappearance, Perry knows the man she loves isn’t dead. As an FBI agent, Perry is determined to find Roan—the only man who can save their son from the same fate that destroyed both of their lives.

You can see that the conflicts and character motivations are readily identifiable in this short write-up of the book. You also have a clear idea who the characters are and what they want, along with what they’re willing (or not so willing) to do to get what they want.

You'll also want to tell the editor or agent something about you as a writer (i.e., any writing experience, awards, nominations or contest finals) and anything that pertains to why you're qualified to write this book.

It's tricky to pitch "live" to an editor or agent. Get your pitch down and practice it until you can say it naturally without using more than occasional glance at your notecards. An agent once said to me that she was as nervous about private pitches as all the authors are in giving a pitch. So remember agents and editors are human and they understand that it's hard for you. Try to be as natural--and succinct--as possible. Remember, you'll be given a very limited amount of time to pitch this book (generally, 5 to 10 minutes), so you want to use your time very wisely. Don't go off on tangents. Prepare ahead of time exactly what you're going to say, and only deviate from that if the editor or agent asks you to with specific questions.

When it comes right down to it, the strength of your pitch will be in how well you can present an intriguing story. From what I've heard, agents and editors have generally decided whether or not they want to see more of your work within the first minute. Some agents and editors will tell everyone who pitches to them to send them a proposal. Some will only choose those that sound really promising to them. One very memorable pitch I did that ended in the success of getting the editor to request a proposal came, I strongly believe, because I had it all down on notecards and I'd memorized it. The editor was one that had people cowering and getting rejections on sending a proposal to them. I was one of the few she did ask to send her more. Keep in mind that I'm not a natural speaker, but I prepared very well for this. On a previous pitch I did, I was nervous and disorganized, but I got lucky because the agent was asking everyone to submit more. But the one that I felt best about was the one that I prepared well for and had to jump the hurtle of real rejection with. Your preparation is really important.

Now, once you have the pitch prepared, go ahead and continue writing your novel, based on the outline. While you might not be finished with the novel by the time the conference rolls around, you'll certainly be very close to completion and you can tell the editor or agent exactly when you'll be done if you have your goal sheet for the project completed and you've been following it pretty closely in terms of completing the chapters you've set for yourself each day. Editors and agents love to hear exact dates. It makes them feel like they're already working with a professional.

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