Fun Q&A from Kate Cavanaugh

On YouTube, Kate Cavanaugh did a Q&A with questions from her writing community. At the end she challenged her viewers to answer the same questions.

My Q&A responses

  • How do you shelve your passion projects that you know will never “make it” but that constantly invade your mind? I take notes on them, but don’t write them. 🙁 I play the story out in my mind as I go to sleep at night. I enjoy the story; it lives in my mind; but it never sees the page.
  • How do you stop thinking “I must make money from this or it’s a wasted effort”? I don’t think that exactly. I think that non-commercial projects take time and energy from commercial ones. And I pretty much don’t try to stop that thought.
  • Candidly, how many hours per day do you write? I count words, not hours. 500 words on workdays. 1000 on non-work days. I’m employed full-time and work a fair amount of overtime.
  • Why do you want to be published? (Fame, money, success, or something to say?) I don’t know. I’ve known since third grade that I was a writer, and being published is just part of the definition in my mind.
  • If you only had 3 days to write 80K words, how would you do it? I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Not kidding. Okay, I take that back. I would write nonfiction on clicker training. I know the subject inside and out and could vomit words at a ridiculous rate. But I expect I would still fail.
  • How do you overcome crippling perfectionism? I don’t. It’s part of who I am. I am a plotter, though, so there’s literally zero chance that a scene I’ve written will be thrown out.
  • Do you enjoy death scenes? HUH YOU MONSTER? Shrug. Depends on who I’m killing off.
  • How do you find the balance between reading, writing, and other hobbies/obligations? Priorities. I set a low word count goal, and once I reach it, I’m allowed to stop. I try to do those words early in the day, so I’m not torn between writing and other activities.
  • What was the benchmark you used for when to quit your corporate job and rely on writing? How should I calculate mine? I just wrote a blog post that talked about this.
  • How do you deal with Impostor Syndrome? (How often do you deal with it?) I just keep pushing on. I feel like an imposter in EVERYTHING I do. If it stopped me, I couldn’t even work.

Analyzing the Competition: Set Up for Success

Analyzing the competition sounds like a strange topic to have tagged as a writing post. Seems like it should be a publishing post. The problem is, if you wait until you’re done with the book, you may end up with something that doesn’t “fit.” Is that a problem? It is if you want to traditionally publish. It’s less of an issue if your goal is self publishing, but even this is good info to have.

Each genre has requirements. Audience expectations. Required tropes. Expected word count. Expected structure. The more you know as you craft your book, the more likely the finished product will resonate with your target audience.

Read Widely in Your Genre!

ALL writers, no matter how experienced, should read widely in their target genre. Why? Because that helps them understand the required tropes, what’s selling now, what is overdone — or under-represented.

I worked with a writer once who claimed that he was writing his story because there was nothing out there like it. A little more questioning, and he admitted that he didn’t read the genre. I sent him on a hunt, and he was shocked to find that his story wasn’t unique, and there were lots of books in the genre that he was interested in reading.

Read. Your. Genre.

Some writers complain that they don’t like to read (especially in their genre) while they’re writing, because other author’s styles seep into their own. I think that’s all right. That means you’re still developing your own style and voice — and being influenced by others will help you do that. You can smooth out the writing during the rewriting and editing process.

Analyzing the Competition is Different Than Reading

Analyzing the competition is most crucial for those who are relatively new to writing and new to writing in a specific genre. Analyzing the competition means analyzing other books in your genre to understand how they’re crafted in order to discover the commonalities. Those commonalities are likely genre requirements.

Some steps for analyzing the competition:

First, go to a bookstore, and select a variety of books in your genre that were published in the last year.

  • How many? 10-20. If you’re planning to write picture books, go for the full 20. If you want to write fantasy or historical sagas, aim for the lower end.
  • Ask the people who work at the bookstore for help. They know what was published recently, and they know what’s typical for the genre.
  • And yes, selecting books published in the last year is important. Styles change. You want to know what agents and publishers are looking for now, not what they were looking for five years ago. If you can find debut authors, that’s even better, because then you’ll know what they’re buying from NEW writers.

Read them. Enjoy them.

  • If you don’t enjoy reading the genre, you sure don’t want to spend a year writing and rewriting it.

Google conventions for your chosen genre. (For example, Romance-with-a-capital-R almost always follows a fairy tale model and ends with a Happily Ever After.)

  • TV Tropes is a great place to start.
  • Make a list of the conventions, and then compare the list to the books you read. For each convention, figure out the percentage of books that included that convention (i.e., the number of romances that had a Happy Ever After ending).
  • A high percentage tells you that agents and publishers (and readers) are *expecting* that convention. I understand how you may want to deviate. I understand how the idea of a formula drives you insane. I understand that your idea is so much better than any of the drivel you read. *cough* *glare*
  • But if you are an unpublished writer who wants to be published through a traditional publisher, then you need to give the agents and publishers what they want. If you plan to self publish, you have to give readers what they want.

Figure out the expected word count in your genre.

  • This is a good list. It’s a hell of a lot easier to work to this word count from the beginning, instead of overwriting and having to cut (or pad) like crazy.

Now: Analyze the books

Exactly what analysis you should do will vary according to genre. I list some suggestions below. Some suggestions will apply to certain genres more than others.

  • Approximate number of words per page (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Specific rhythm to text? Describe. (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Are there techniques such as onomatopoeia or alliteration to make the verbal reading more appealing to youngsters? (picture books and beginning reader)
  • How “advanced” is the vocabulary?
  • Number of main characters / Number of supporting characters
  • POV / Number of POV characters
  • Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is there a climax? (picture books only)
  • Key plot events and when they occur (10% point, halfway point, etc.)
  • Can the book be divided into clear “acts”?
  • Theme / How is theme handled relative to story?
  • Is the story funny or serious or ?

Clearly that’s a LOT of information. The less you know going in, the more important this step is. This step doesn’t write the book for you, but it provides some guidelines specific to your genre.

Rule of thumb: the more consistent the books were, the more indicative that is that you should follow that guideline.

In my next post, I’ll give an overview of the critical parts of a story.

Analyzing the competition separates the professionals from the wannabes.

Plotters vs. Pantsers

To kick off this series, let’s talk about that age-old argument: plotters versus pantsers. “Plotters vs. pantsers” is a description of how writers write. If you interviewed a hundred writers about their writing process, you’d get a hundred different answers, some polar opposites, none wrong. The writing process is as individual as writers themselves.

Defining Plotters and Pantsers

Some writers start with a character or an idea or a flash of a scene. Just the tiniest spark of inspiration. They start writing, and they let the story unfold as they write. These writers are sometimes called “discovery writers” or “pantsers,” because they write by the seat of their pants, following inspiration where it leads them.

Other writers prefer to plan before they begin writing. These “plotters” want at least some idea of a destination and some semblance of a roadmap before striking out into the unknown.

Plotting and pantsing are opposite ends of a continuum. Although a few writers (including me) fall on one extreme end or the other, most writers fall somewhere in the middle. Some do high level outlines but vary from it when inspiration strikes. Others plan a few scenes ahead. Still others pour their hearts and souls into deep character backgrounds and then let their characters dictate the story events. Individual writers might even find that what works with one story doesn’t work with the next. Writing is individual to the writer, to the story, to the moment.

Why am I a plotter?

I am an extreme plotter. My professional background is in technical writing and instructional design, and my first professional writing was in nonfiction. Through nonfiction I learned how organization could make or break content, how structure determined whether content would be effective.

My first truly creative writing was screenplays. Structure is as critical — and omnipresent — in screenwriting as it is in a sonnet. With screenwriting I learned that structure could be the difference between mediocrity and art.

I also had the importance of pre-planning drilled into me by my mentor, a man who had made his living as a television writer for many years. It was, he taught, much easier — and faster — to make massive revisions at the outline stage than when you have a finished draft in hand.

And so, those were the lessons I carried with me when I began experimenting with prose fiction. To my delight, I discovered that nearly all of what I learned about story and structure in screenwriting could be successfully applied to novels as well.

I also found that the method I had worked out addressed many of the concerns and pitfalls that seemed to plague other writers. Pacing, character arcs, intertwining of events all falls neatly in line. I decided to share my method with others in hopes that someone else could skip over some of those concerns and pitfalls as well.

Come over to the dark side!

Do I think my method and ideas are the only way to write a novel? Of course not! Do I think pantsers should abandon their preference and come over to the dark side? Yes! No, I’m kidding.

I do think, however, that even die-hard pantsers will find something useful here though, because even pantsers have to deal with structure and organization during the rewrite phase.

Come on. I know it’s scary. Just give it a chance!

Ready for the next step? Let’s talk about what to write about.

Baby Pflouff -- she'd definitely be a plotter