Wednesday, March 30, 2011
What sort of magic?
My story ideas tend to start with an interesting character or two in a situation, usually a single vivid scene that grows in my mind. I live with the mental plot bunny for a week or two, and if it still excites me I start worldbuilding. By now I'll know my main characters well, but will probably have several storyline options and sometimes the whole thing is still a bit amorphous. So I start pinning things down by asking a series of questions, and one of the first is always: What sort of magic?
There's no system of magic in my paranormal romance Beauty and the Bastard, which takes place in a "hidden in plain sight" urban fantasy world. Magical events occur when supernatural characters use their personal gifts. Demons exercise talents such as super-strength and hypnotic mind control, while the hero, Saul, a fallen angel trying to redeem himself, is a martial arts street fighter whose hands turn into blades during combat.
My urban fantasy novel Quarter Square, coming from Carina this June, explores a world where three physical realities occupy the same space. There's our normal world; the magical realm known as the Wild; and in-between places called havens, where magical people who make their living in the normal world can enjoy freedom and peace.
My hero Joe lives among the magical street performers whose home is the Quarter Square haven, so in this book we'll see different sorts and systems of magic. Easiest and most frequently employed is glamour, which street magicians use to mask the real magic and which hides everyone's true nature from the stare of outsiders. But once Joe ventures into the Wild he discovers the existence of deeper, older, more powerful and far more dangerous forms of magic.
Although Quarter Square takes places in a world that's bang-up-to-date, the magical systems are the most classical I've written so far.
The Weaverfields Heir (coming very soon – the day after tomorrow in fact!) is a different animal altogether, because the magic in this paranormal fantasy novel is a secret science. The saga follows several generations of a strangely gifted family, and zooms in on the lives of a few particularly creative individuals who inherit a supernatural talent to see the net, which is the system of relationships between cells, and the building material of the universe. The net looks like a web of gossamer threads connecting everything, but very few people are gifted with the ability to see it and even fewer can manipulate it to bring about change.
This is how my heroine is affected when a reclusive and estranged relative dies and she inherits the net without warning:
The northbound traffic clogged up to a fuming jam that stuttered past the airport. Kate leaned back against the headrest and stared down her nose at the car in front. One more day. One more day. One more day...
After Roborough, the traffic jam dissolved and she took her place in the synchronised escape from the city. She was up on the moor, five minutes past Princetown, when she suddenly felt very ill. She pulled into a lay-by and opened her door slightly in case she had to throw up, thinking it must be the heat. She turned the engine off and closed her eyes.
Dizziness left her unable to move, as if a big net kept twisting and tangling her up, tighter and tighter. A hot flush spread through her chest, and her mouth tasted sour. Her heart throbbed in heavy, painful waves, making her arms ache and her fingertips prickle. Her neck stiffened. Darkness gathered on the edges of her vision and raced inward.
She panted in pain and panic. She was dying.
She saw her dream home in dappled sunlight. The pool water chuckled and hiccupped over the dam. A big fish swam placidly just below the surface, watching her, and deer grazed the lawn in front of her big house. She was dying and she didn’t care because she was going home.
Her chest exploded. She wet herself and her world faded to black.
* * *
Slowly, a lifetime later, she became aware that she was still alive. Her vision cleared, and she saw blue sky, purple moor, grey sheep and dusty black tarmac.
She saw everything in everything: the tiniest molecules in whatever she looked at. She looked into her windscreen, into the glass, saw every flaw, every colour. The liquid glass flowed in an intricate pattern. She retreated from the windscreen and saw her eyes, saw their colours, saw the cells through which she saw. She looked into her heart. Good grief, she could see her heart, beating her back into the outside world.
A web of gossamer threads covered everything in sight. Kate blinked hard to clear her vision, but it was still there when she opened her eyes. The web was everywhere, like a net, linking everything. Golden traces glowed and stretched to infinity in every direction. She looked through it, concentrated on the moorland, and the everyday world returned to its normal focus. She relaxed and let the net glow again and saw deep into everything.
A nearby gorse bush gleamed and pulsed with life. Patterns spread and contracted within its frame. The moor behind it remained three-dimensional while her gorse bush became its own vibrant world, tiny models of itself forming intricate combinations and multiplying throughout the whole: smaller and sharper, smaller and sharper.
She shut her eyes and fought her fear. What could it be? Epilepsy? A brain tumour? Madness? She filed these possibilities away for later. All she needed to do now was gain enough control to drive safely. A wet seat was the least of her problems.
Now it's your turn. What sorts of magic do you like to read and write?
(Edit to post: Unfortunately, The Weaverfields Heir release has been delayed. It will now be available on the 22nd April.)
Monday, March 28, 2011
The Fine Lines Between Good and Evil
I started writing way back when. It was something I’d always loved to do for fun, and I'm not even sure I remember how it became more than that, but now I’ve written paranormal romance for almost four years. My first heroes were human (at least at one time) turned immortal warriors who took on big bad demons to keep all hell from breaking loose—literally...but in some of my next books, the demons weren’t necessarily the bad guys anymore. After a while, the “good” and “evil” ceased to be so cut and dried.
The more I write the more complicated my characters become. Which is great, it means I continue to grow as a writer, and I love that. I think it's important for every writer.
It can also create problems for my plots.
When a character has a choice, that choice is much easier to make if one’s conscience is clear, if there aren’t opposing forces pulling him or her in different directions. But when those lines are blurred, when good and evil mix and no one’s sure which one will be stronger...things get murky.
That’s the dichotomy faced by the hero of my upcoming Carina Press release, FALLING HARD. Gabriel is a hard-core rocker who’s led a life of drugs and booze and bad choices. When he finally gets himself cleaned up, he’s determined to make up for all the damage he’s caused…only to discover that he shares his soul with Lucifer, the devil, who is slowly but surely claiming more and more of that soul. Now it seems that any attempt to do good would only be a waste of whatever time Gabriel has left, and normally he wouldn’t even have bothered, but you see, there’s this girl...
Of course, there’s more to it than that, and over the next few months leading up to FALLING HARD’S release date this July, I’ll be sure to give you a few more peeks into the world of my warring angels, including an introduction to Amelia, the glowing white angel warrior who is determined to prevent Lucifer from claiming Gabriel’s soul and bringing war to her people once again.
What draws you to the paranormal end of the reading (or writing) spectrum? Is it the characters, the settings, the twist and tug between good and evil? All of the above?
Friday, March 25, 2011
When a Favorite Character…Isn’t a Character
One of my favorite things about steampunk is that it embraces characters outside of humans. I can hear it now, Seleste, lots of genres do that. Paranormal has supernatural creatures, sci-fi has robots and aliens and sentient planets. All of that is true, but except for rare exceptions (two of which I’ll mention below), the characters in those genres still rely on being thinking creatures, and more than that, thinking in ways that tend very much toward human (if sometimes mentally unstable human).
Steampunk though goes a step further. When I asked my readers who, other than my hero (Spencer) and heroine (Ever) they’d like to see on a set of Badlands trading cards, their answers weren’t Henrietta or Zeke or even Senator Mason. I got a unanimous vote for Spencer’s ship, Dark Hawk. The second most popular request went to the clockwork birds.
Granted, most of Badlands takes place aboard Dark Hawk, but to request it on a trading card means the ship went beyond a setting for many readers. For them, the dirigible became a character all it’s own. It’s like the Millenium Falcon or the Winchester boys’ Impala. It’s not only where the action happens, it’s also the thing that pushes the characters together. The Dark Hawk is the glue that holds the story together—without it there’s no reason beyond being a good guy, for Spencer to help Ever. Without it, the story falls apart. Quite honestly, I can’t imagine a Badlands story without that ship as an integral part. I think that’s part of what makes the Dark Hawk so important to readers as well. Human characters can die, and do, but something about that poor trading dirigible makes it eternal. I probably would risk less angry fan mail by killing any of my human characters than I would if I destroyed the Dark Hawk.
I love the idea of something being so important to my readers. And that goes for the clockworks too. While the Dark Hawk represents a constant in the world of the the Badlands, the clockworks are transitory. One is an old model of aircraft that refuses to die, the other is…expendable. The clockworks in my world are only around so long as they’re useful. Once they’ve been used up or worn out, their makers destroy them or set them free. They are a metaphor for death and the passage of time, just as the Dark Hawk symbolizes immortality.
How many places do people embrace both the darkness and the light within a story, especially when neither of those things is even remotely human?
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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Monday, March 21, 2011
The Magic of Scotland
Half-Fae Laird Duncan MacDougall is cursed. His nights are haunted by Otherworld creatures sent to kill him. The only way to stop them is to possess the magic bow currently in the hands of his enemy half-brother, Kinnon MacClaren. In desperation, Duncan plans to take MacClaren's bride-to-be hostage and exchange her for the bow.
Lady Alana Forbes has never met her intended, but she hopes he is handsome-and a good lover, for Alana is no innocent virgin. On her way to Castle Claren, Alana and her escorts are intercepted, and she is kidnapped by a man with extraordinary abilities-and every attribute she longs for in a mate.
Duncan didn't expect the woman he thought of as a mere pawn would be so beautiful, and so arousing. Alana is drawn to him as well-but Duncan still needs the bow, and Alana is betrothed to another. How far will Alana go to save the life of the man she's come to love?
Why do I love writing stories set in Scotland?
Scotland is a magical place. It’s beautiful, breathtaking, inspiring, fun and fierce. Scotland’s history is violent and tragic, the people brave and strong. The country has hundreds of castles in every condition from total ruin to castle hotels. The amount of history to be seen in some of these castles is mind-boggling.
I confess… Scotland has cast a spell on me. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m captivated. It doesn’t matter to me that Scotland is cold and damp and cloudy most of the time. Actually, I’ve experienced just as much sun and warmth in Scotland as I have rain and cold. But either way, my spirits are not dampened when I’m exploring Scotland. I feel like a kid again, gazing in wonder at the beauty of the landscapes. And I can hardly sleep for the excitement before I go.
I’m obsessed. I force myself not to talk about Scotland too much to friends and family. I know they’ll get sick of it and realize I’m… er… obsessed.
If I’m in a bad mood all I have to do is think of Scotland and remember some of the places I’ve visited, and I feel much better.
I suppose all of this is a good thing since most of my romance stories are set in Scotland. Below are some of the inspiring, beautiful and magical places I've visited.
View from a window of Dunnottar Castle, a ruin on the east coast overlooking the North Sea. Below is Dunnottar also, as viewed from the approach path along the rugged coast.
The chapel ruins at Dunnottar.
Anytime I write a story set in Scotland, I’m there in spirit, attempting to make history, myths or legends come to life.
Click here to read a first chapter excerpt of Laird of Darkness.
Friday, March 18, 2011
I love writing. I love creating the characters. Developing the plot. Asking myself what happens next. Scrambling to find the right words to express my ideas. Everything about the craft of authorship appeals to me. But unfortunately, with a relatively recent entry to the professional publishing world, I can’t write one hundred percent of the time. Hence the “other career.”
My “other career” is full time and very demanding. I’m not going to go into the nitty-gritty details, but I will say that there have been days where I’ve arrived at work at 9:00am and not gotten home until after 7:30pm. Then, when you take into account my husband/evil genius, two very demanding cats, an overly affectionate 150lb. dog, and a 10-month-old godchild, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for my writing. In fact, most of my writing is done in small snatches of stolen time early in the morning, late in the evening or on lunch/coffee breaks at work. (To be perfectly honest, I’m typing up this blog post while scrounging a fifteen minute lunch).
It’s been difficult. I know my limitations. I’m not one of those people who can get up at 5:00am and get anything resembling coherency written before work. So I’ve found ways to manage my creative energies while not neglecting my other career. Somehow I’ve managed to churn out three published novels, two more which are still in consideration and more ideas than I have time to manage. It’s become a rather precarious balancing act, and I’m not sure how successful I’ve been. I can’t count the number of notes scribbled into the margins of otherwise pristine meeting minutes about so-and-so character or plot point. Entire chapters have been typed (and often humorously autocorrected) on my iPhone while waiting for a presentation to begin.
I can’t vouch for the quality of these hastily scribbled notes or points, of course. More often than not I find myself looping back to them and wondering what the hell I was talking about. Or trying to figure out obscure references that probably made perfect sense to me before. One such note references “the yeti thing.” I cannot for the life of me figure out what “the yeti thing” is, what relevance it had in the grand scheme or things or even what project it was meant for. If it wasn’t memorable, it’s probably not a huge loss. Yet I can’t help but think to myself that someday far in the future, it’s going to strike me. “Oh...that yeti thing.” (It remains to be scene if the thing in question is awesome, merely interesting or unspeakably horrifying).
For the most part, it’s a system that works. With the recent completion of my newest novel, I’ve been bouncing around ideas for what I want to work on next. Do I want to continue my Carina Press Society series, or finally follow through with the high fantasy novel that’s been bouncing around in my head for several years? Or something entirely different.
Interestingly enough, I’ve discovered that I’m actually less productive at work when I don’t have something I’m working on. Maybe because the creative juices that get flowing when I’m working on my writing have a significant impact on my ability to effectively perform my other duties. Maybe I just need those stolen moments and quick snippets to get me through the day. (One thing’s for certain, though, I need to get working on something quick, or people are going to start to notice).
So how about you? Are you struggling with a similar situation? I know that for me there never seem to be enough hours in a day, and eking out even the smallest amount of time can sometimes be the creative equivalent of eating an elaborate ten-course meal with one of those nifty knife-spork combinations. If you have ideas or suggestions, send them my way. Who knows? You might be able to help me find those extra minutes in my day so I have time to elaborate on my notes and avoid future yeti-related phenomenon.
Monday, March 14, 2011
In Love with Legends
The turning point was T. H. White's The Once and Future King, a novel that retells the story of King Arthur. White made me want to be a writer. After reading it, I bought a copy of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. It is written like this:
How King Arthur pulled out the sword divers times.
Now assay, said Sir Ector unto Sir Kay. And anon he pulled at
the sword with all his might; but it would not be. Now shall ye
assay, said Sir Ector to Arthur. I will well, said Arthur, and
pulled it out easily. And therewithal Sir Ector knelt down to
the earth, and Sir Kay. Alas, said Arthur, my own dear father
and brother, why kneel ye to me? Nay, nay, my lord Arthur, it is
not so; I was never your father nor of your blood, but I wot well
ye are of an higher blood than I weened ye were. And then Sir
Ector told him all, how he was betaken him for to nourish him,
and by whose commandment, and by Merlin's deliverance.
(If you read it, be sure to get a version with modernized spellings, as above. Otherwise, you'll really have a hard time reading it.)
Of course, I had to try my own hand at writing a King Arthur story. I came up with this young knight who was incredibly clumsy--except when he was in battle. No one could best him, so he journeyed to King Arthur's court to be bested by Lancelot, himself. And so he was. I still laugh every time I think of that story. But I was onto something, I think. I wanted to write about a legendary person who had a foible--or a flaw. And not necessary a flaw that is admirable, or that anyone would want to have. (We all go to job interviews and say that our flaw is that we are perfectionists, or that we are too driven. Not those kind of flaws.)
Willard, the hero in my fairy tale retelling, The Sevenfold Spell, is nothing like a legendary hero. He is homely and does his duty to his family rather than to go along with Talia's romantic notions. When she offers herself to him, he doesn't nobly turn away--he eagerly partakes. He's a boy, not a man.
He's not alone, because Talia is not much like the legendary heroine. She is ugly and poor. She becomes something of a tramp. She argues with her mother. And she's desperately lonely. But she can build one heck of a fine spinning wheel ... with a little help. And she never forgets Willard.
I wanted to write about the other people in the story--the ones barely mentioned (like the spinster with the spinning wheel) or not mentioned at all, but affected nevertheless. Ones without fairy godmothers, or wishes, or even much hope in their futures. People kind of like us, except either ugly, or lame, or glaringly different.
And best of all, I wanted to give them a chance to be legendary. Maybe its silly. Maybe I should have just grown up, instead.
But this is more fun!
Friday, March 11, 2011
Why I Lean West
When I think of the West, I think of the picture above. Open spaces, vast deserts and beautiful skies. I also think of this.
Mountains, water so clear it looks like a mirror reflecting heaven, and dark green pines filled with life. The notion of living during the old days--in the Old West--when one could explore without tripping over another human being is thrilling for me. Lawless lands, wild places, and interesting people who sparsely dotted the West make for terrific fodder for storytelling.
When it comes to books, I know a lot of readers are taken with the Victorian age and England. But for me, the American West has its own lure. Rough, unconventional, and a place where only the strongest can survive. And let's not forget some truly important characters. Cowboys.
These muscular, er, tough guys, spent most of their time under the sky and stars. Sleeping on bedrolls in the fields while they watched over cattle or rounded up wild horses. Sure, I'm simplifying, but part of the Western sell is that times were simpler. No technology, at least, not the kind we think of today. Back then, folks used horses or wagons for transport. What you ate was what you killed or grew, without chemicals, thank you. And a man or woman made do with what they had in life. They didn't sit for hours on end in front of a computer dreaming. Nor did they date through Match.com. Everything was so much more real. Visceral. Touchable.
A man and his horse pretty much ruled the landscape. Farmers, mountaineers, cowboys, lawmen, shopkeepers. Occupations that are so much more understandable than the things people do today to earn a buck. And they all involved manual labor. (Hence the muscles on the fine cowboy above.)
I'm also especially fond of Western dress. The duster and hat are just killer. What person wouldn't look sexy wearing that combo, man or woman? Chaps? Lassos and leather? Granted, I'm not so fond of female garb back in the day, but I'm all for jeans and a button down shirt. And don't get me started on boots. I LOVE 'em.
There are so many, many reasons why I lean West when it comes to reading and writing. Next month I'll introduce a whole new Western steampunk world when my debut with Carina comes out. But that's next month. So for now, enjoy the West. It sure is a magical place--and time.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Introducing the Gaslight Chronicles
One of my favorite scenes in any romance is that first kiss, so, here's a teaser for Steam & Sorcery, book 1 of the Gaslight Chronicles, out this week from Carina Press.
Sir Merrick Hadrian hunts monsters, both human and supernatural. A Knight of the Order of the Round Table, his use of magick and the technologies of steam power have made him both respected and feared. But his considerable skills are useless in the face of his greatest challenge, guardianship of five unusual children. At a loss, Merrick enlists the aid of a governess.
Miss Caroline Bristol is reluctant to work for a bachelor but she needs a position, and these former street children touch her heart. While she tends to break any mechanical device she touches, it never occurs to her that she might be something more than human. All she knows is that Merrick is the most dangerously attractive man she’s ever met—and out of reach for a mere governess.
When conspiracy threatens to blur the distinction between humans and monsters, Caroline and Merrick must join forces, and the fate of humanity hinges upon their combined skills of steam and sorcery…
Monday, March 7, 2011
Writing Under the Influence
Are you addicted to writing? Do you write under the influence? Stand up and share your addictions!
Disclaimer: never allow your addictions or impairments to cause injury or injustice to others. ‘Cause Dude, that just isn’t cool. Unless it leads to a lot of drama, angst and naughty happiness.
Friday, March 4, 2011
How did you learn how to write? Or maybe the better question is, how did you hone your writing skills?
For me, it started at the library. See, I'd written a Star Trek fanfiction, realized I could never sell it, and wanted to learn how to create worlds of my own, so I traipsed about a mile to the downtown San Diego library and returned with a backpack full of writing booksto pore over.
Book learning is one of the cheaper ways to learn to write, but writers can't write in a vacuum. Critique is invaluable; trust me, you can't find all of your own mistakes, and talent alone will only get you so far. Moreover--critiquing the work of others helps you refine your own writing. Plenty of professional authors I know still get together and critique each other. Here are a few of the genre-friendly ways I know to find people to read your work.
Don't feel like leaving the house? There are online critique groups. I spent some time with the Online Writer's Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy , which does have a yearly fee, but gives you a chance to read the work of others and have your own work looked at. Generally, you can post up to three excerpts and you earn points when you critique other pieces, which allows you to post more. They have an ever-expanding list of participants that went on to get published. A similar workshop is Critters, which I've also heard good things about.
There are also plenty of options of face-to-face critique groups, anything from a local group that meets from time to time to paid, professionally run workshops. Mileage on local groups can vary, anything from newbie writers to pro writers. It often works well to have varied levels of writers. You need to find people better than you so you can learn, otherwise your writing can get stagnant. If the group keeps saying the same things, or no one ever moves on or gets published, it's time to leave.
For a fairly inexpensive option, try looking at your local community college. I had some wonderful good luck with mine, and it gave me the chance to put my writing in front of a whole class for the first time (Eeek! Scary!) and get feedback as well as learning basic writing skills and story structure. Most of them are open to any genre. If it weren't for that class, I wouldn't have written the stories which got me into Clarion.
There is a huge, ongoing debate about whether or not college degrees are worth it, especially for genre folks. Some MFA programs snub their noses at genre. Others, like Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program, embrace it with open arms (including Romance!) I received a degree from there (an MA, they added the "F" last year) and enjoyed the teaching, the practical, useful classes on how to write, submit, do query letters and more. It's low-residency, which means two week-long visits a year plus online work and critiques with a pro writer mentor and two or three classmates. A similar program is at Stonecoast, which also has pro SF/F writing mentors.
Then there are the "boot camp" style workshops. There's Clarion (formerly in Michigan, now in San Diego,) Clarion West in Seattle, and Odyssey in New Hampshire, all six-week long workshops in which students generally write a story a week, learn about craft, and get feedback from professional SF/F authors. For those in Australia or thereabouts, there is also Clarion South.
There are shorter paid SF/F workshops. Think two weeks in the mountains of Taos, New Mexico sounds like a great writing atmosphere? It is! Taos Toolbox is run by SF author Walter Jon Williams along with a guest author and lecturer, and is geared toward novels rather than short stories and is for more advanced writers. How about a week in Martha's Vineyard hanging with editors and pro authors? Try Viable Paradise. If you're part of the LGBT community, you might try the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices. They take any genre, have fabulous authors running the workshops (Nicola Griffith for fiction last year, woohoo!) and guest lecturers.
Several Science Fiction and Fantasy conventions also have writing workshops as part of the convention. For instance, WorldCon, the largest, traveling SF/F con, has a workshop. You have to pay the con fee, but you get to submit a piece of writing to a workshop with a pro author, a newly pro author, and three other workshop attendees. This year the con is in Reno, next year, Chicago, and likely London a few years from now. Check your local SF/F con. If they don't have a workshop, it can still be worth it to go to a con and meet pro authors, listen to panels, and go to the parties and chat with the authors and other attendees on an informal basis.
However you choose to get feedback and improve your skills, there is another benefit to workshops and groups--connections. You get to find fellow writers and hopefully continue a relationship with someone who understands your work and wants to help you with it. You meet pro authors, who can introduce you to other pro authors and editors and agents. And, more importantly, you have friends to cheer you on and lift you up when you need it.
Good luck, however you choose to learn, and may you always keep improving.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Magic? What Magic?
Note to self: find a better word than "figment"--implies smallness, when, in fact, Stewardsville takes up a huge chunk of my brain.
Sooner or later, however, I must step back, take in the vista of the world beyond my computer screen, and roll up my sleeves. For me, editing is not magical--it's structural and mechanical. If you'd like to believe in the fantasy of the magical writer channeling entire stories a la Jack Kerouac ON THE ROAD, stop reading here.
Otherwise, I'm about to show you the inside of the top hat and roll up my sleeve so you can see where I've hidden the coins.
My first drafts are hot messes. I'm a pure pantser, which means that my first draft is 100,000 words of plotting. My characters talk back to me (and they're never encouraging). My descriptive passages are chock-full of "notes to self" to find better words than I've written--and more often than not, I hack those paragraphs out anyway. But, after one good novel and a few, ahem, false starts, I have process that works for me.
Step 1: Write the crapdraft. 100,000 words minimum. This is the time to stick in all of those pretty little side episodes that don't lead directly from beginning to end. 75% of them will get deleted later. 25% will become major plot turning points.
Step 2: Trim the toenails. Run spell check. Cut/replace to create contractions. Jump around looking for squiggly lines and see if you can make them go away.
Step 3: Cut the hair. Eliminate most dialogue tags. Cut variations of "to know", "to realize" or "to think." Do a document-wide frequency check for words and phrases (God bless the creators of WriteWords ) and edit the overused ones away.
Step 4: Amputate fingers and toes. By now, you've been all over the document at least two or three times. You've already gotten a feel for those paragraphs and scenes that really do not work at all. Move them over to a "bits and pieces" file because you can't stand the idea of eliminating hundreds or even thousands of words at a time.
By this point, I'm narrowing in on a specific word count target--about 85K. Why 85K? By 85% I'm at the target length for the final book. The story of Stewardsville itself is infinite--every character is the potential hero or heroine of a subplot or even a novel of his own. At some point, therefore, each book's content must be an arbitrary choice, or I'll never see my real-life family again. My hero and heroine get 85K to tell the story of their love with the backup singers of their choice. After that, it's some other couple's turn to take over my brain.
Step 5: Wipe up the blood and see what's left. Create a scene list (I divide my chapters out at this point as well). Identify the page, the POV character, the action of the scene and the hook that will take it forward. Discover that you've been in the same POV for 50 pages. Discover that several scenes are pointless. Discover that others are missing. Discover that your scenes have neither action or nor hook. Drink Scotch.
Step 6: Two-day hangover.
Step 7: Go back to page one and fix the problems you identified in Step 5. Revamp that scene list as you go because that's the core of your true synopsis, if you need one (as opposed to that thing you plotters write before you write the book that you CALL a synopsis).
Step 8: Send your file to Kinkos (or whatever they're calling themselves these days) and print it out in hard copy. Read it out loud. Read it backwards. Mark the heck out of it and fix those problems, too.
Step 9: Run spell check again just so you don't embarrass yourself in front of your beta readers, then send it off. And guess what? You'll embarrass yourself anyway.
Step 10: Do what they tell you (or don't--working with critique partners is a whole 'nother blog post).
It's a bloody, messy, unsexy process. But when you're finished, your rough lump of brain vomit is a pretty, polished, princess-cut diamond that glitters especially well under the influence of scotch.