What Makes a Best Selling Writer?

I’ve been studying Michael Connelly’s The Reversal the last week.  I have a paper version of the book, and I’m typing it to see how he is a page turner.  The typing of just the first chapter yield other things, so I will have to look back through to figure out what exactly he did.

One thing I picked up: If a character is interrupted, I don’t need to say, “George interrupted,” because it’s obvious from context.  Always a lot of things to learn.

The Washington Post has a big article on best selling writers today.  It does mention productivity being important (and without putting it down!), but the discussion on the writing side missed the mark a little.  It reminded me on when I was on message boards and writers were periodically trying to figure out why a book became a best seller.  The writers would often come up with a really superficial reason.  Here, they talk about the characters and the story, but skims along that superficial reason.   These writers are masters of their craft–not just story and characters, but grabbing the reader and keeping them in the story.

Why does this book attract readers and another doesn’t?  It’s not just the story and the characters.  It’s how the writer does it.

Organizing vs. Organizing

I just saw another one of those posts where an outliner writer tried to describe a pantser (person who doesn’t outline), and ended up making it sound like the pantser was terribly disorganized because they didn’t outline. It’s nothing new actually, but it hit me differently this time.

It was on organizing itself, where there’s about the same response to people who are creative and messy. Organization tends to be associated with being neat, though that’s not a qualification of being organized. Yet, if you travel the organization sites, a lot of them pound their fist and say that being messy is a sign of disorganization.

Whereas, for anyone creative, the process functions in a very different way.

When I was in the Army, I got a lot of this from my squad leader. I never quite understood it at the time; I knew where everything was, and I was working on it besides. And it didn’t help that HIS desk was disorganized and messy. What was he complaining about?

I even had another sergeant hover—actually hover—over my shoulder while I was cleaning up two supply drawers, then go back and “straighten” everything out after I was finished. Like I hadn’t done it right.


So I came out of the Army thinking I was horribly disorganized. Every time I tried to organize in the “proper” way, I would lose everything.

One day, a coworker in my civilian job admired how organized I was. I was flabbergasted!

The perception is like the outliner seeing the pantser: They can’t see how it can work the way it does, so it must be wrong.

I’ve been looking at organization these last few weeks because it’s the end of the year, and also because I do need to look at things from the perspective of starting my own publishing business eventually. Honestly, it’s best to do it now while it doesn’t count, then learn how at the wrong time. And I still see how much all the advice that I’ve heard over the years that doesn’t work for me gets into how I do things.

Things I’m trying for working out my process:

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Most systems get pretty complicated pretty fast. I’ve found over the years that too many digital subfolders means I have to remember where things go, and sometimes I don’t always remember the same thing later on. The result has been that essentially stuff gets into an “inbox” and never comes out. I created an info dump digital file, renaming individual files and dropping them in there. Only files currently being worked on stay elsewhere. I’ve been amazed at how much old stuff I was storing with current stuff. And also how much disappeared behind layers of subfolders.

Top Drawer Current; Bottom Drawer Last Year.

Bookkeeping files are hard to save because you’re always going to have more past files than current ones. For the creative person, they become part of the big picture, rather than the logical sequential order of things. Moving the older files to the bottom drawer keeps them available but out of sight, and out of mind.

Separate folders for bookkeeping years

About five years ago, I bought a system called Filing Solutions, which works great. It’s prelabeled files so it was easy to set up. The one flaw is there’s one folder for, say, all the phone bills. Because everything was in one file, all the years got mixed together. It took quite a while to make sure I got all the old records that needed to be shredded, because I had to touch everything. I separated them by year in the bottom drawer, so next year, I can just pull one folder.

10 Stories in 10 Weeks Update

This next story was a time travel story, which was for a specific call. When I got the idea, I thought it was going to a particular type of story, kind of nice and feel good.

Then, as I started it, I stopped to read the guidelines and thought that I needed to get time in up front. So I typed the first sentence, and it was a different story.

So the other one can also be a story as well …

Learning Thing: Writing science fiction and time travel. I typically write more fantasy, but I want to venture into science fiction. That’s a muscle I’m going to work again.

The Why of Organizing Writing Files

My post last week triggered some interesting comments on organizing, so I thought I would address some of the major reasons of WHY.

Why #1

I’ve always just created a folder, slapped some name on it, then saved files to the folder. I wasn’t always careful about naming the files or the folders because I was always rushing off to do something else. So sometimes the file names didn’t make much sense to me later.

Then there was the Doc1 files, where I just saved the default …

Then there was the novel project …

I was trying one of those Write Your Book in 30 Days, which had all these different worksheets for each week, and it was a lot. I tried naming them the best I could, and I was trying to save backups of my writing files as well. I ended up with at least fifty files in one folder, and it was a like a visual clutter to me. Even though they were dated and sorted that way, I had trouble finding the last thing I worked on because there was too much chaos.

Then I’d need something from an older version that I’d taken out — but because of how inconsistently I’d named them and from the visual clutter of all of them, I had trouble finding what I was looking for!

So an Z – Old Files Folder preserves the files, but controls how much I have to wade through on a daily basis.

Why #2

In December, my computer failed. I’d done some backups of the story material on flash drives, but I hadn’t backed all my documents up.

I thought I could use what I had.

I was missing two stories. They somehow didn’t make it over from the other computer.

I continued to make flash drive backups of my current computer.

A third story has disappeared.

So I paid to have the hard drive recovered. On my new computer, I have 2K of files. With the additional files, it went to 6K. I also found that I hadn’t lost three stories — it was four, plus one poem. I had short stories in three different main folders. The four were all in a folder that never made it into the backups. The poem was called “wra.” The name even looked like it wasn’t anything important. I only found it because I opened the file to see what it was.

I almost deleted it unopened.

I’m also finding duplicates, caused because I wasn’t consistent in what I named the files. Couldn’t find the file, so I recreated it. Instead, I had 2, 3, or even 4 files.

I’m also finding files where the context was needed to understand the file name, and the context is no longer there.

But the real reason is that I shouldn’t be making more work for myself when I write, or when I do something else on my computer. It’s easy to think that the name isn’t that important, but I’m having to spend a lot of time figuring out what the files are, which should have been unnecessary.

Organizing the Writing Files

Most of the time when I Google organizing + Writing, I get a lot of articles and posts on outlining. So not what I’m looking for.

Writing, by its very nature, is paperwork. Like:

  • The story itself
  • Other versions of the story (i.e., drafts, publisher wants it in rich text format, etc.)
  • Correspondence (i.e., submission letters, rejection letters, general correspondence)
  • Contracts

And there’s even more.

It’s also easy to lose paperwork, especially if it’s not labeled correctly.

Because of space limitations, I want to do electronic filing. But what I’ve found out there on organizing isn’t very good. Most of them seem to be left-brained, very terse and with generic one word titles like “Docs.”

I can’t find stuff in folders like that!

I can’t even figure out where to put stuff with folders like that!

So the way everyone says really doesn’t work for me. The result I’m trying to figure out what does work for me because I really need to.

Goal #1

It should really obvious where a file should go. At one of the places where I worked, they redesigned a shared folder structure based on a senior boss’ email. The problem was that person had organized the system with those very terse words, like Meetings, Reports, and Presentations. If you’ve been to meetings, you know that the contents of said meeting could fit in all three folders!

Goal #2

Another goal is to take the time to make sure that what I name both the folders and the files makes sense to me. That’s been a problem at work where I’ve often just saved a file with someone else’s name and that doesn’t always reflect what I know about the document.

On the writing side, I just simply don’t always take the time to name them properly.

Goal #3

Find files without mining through files that are not relevant. Some files do become out of date, but still need to be saved.

Naming Stories

So what I’m trying to do is spell out the full name of the short story. Just normal spaces. None of this lines for spaces nonsense (and I know some programmer out there is horrified). When I read, I hop form word to word. The space is a natural hopping spot. With lines, no hopping. It looks like one word to me. So:

Name of Story

But I also have different versions of the file. I might send it to this magazine, who wants it in .doc format as opposed to .docx. Or another magazine wants no contact information on the manuscript at all. So:

Name of Story vDOC

Name of Story vNO INFO

That way, if I run into another magazine that has the same requirements, I can simply reuse it. (My old method was to delete the extra file, which makes more work for me). The “v” means version.

Files like rejections look like this:

04-08-2015 – Rejection – Publication name – Name of Story

Naming the Folders

The short story folders are in a folder called “# Short Stories.” The number sign is so that the folder will pop into a particular order. In this case, I can’t control the folders other programs install in the Documents file, so this forces a different sort order.

Inside, the short stories are organized simply by their name. In the folder title, it’s the name first, then genre, and subgenre. If I don’t have that on the folder, I won’t necessarily know what genre the story fits. I currently have 39 active stories, so they can really run together.

I thought about breaking it down into genre subfolders, but that started to get more complicated and increased the risk of not being able to find a store because it got stuck in the wrong folder.

The format looks something like this:

Stain of Ghost – Fantasy – Steampunk

Inside the folder, there are more folders, because there can be lots of files. So far, what I have:

  • Submission Versions – This is where I put all the different versions for submitting stories. I just make these up as I need them, so it’s not automatic that I create one without any identifying information or a .DOC file.
  • Record of Submissions – Submission letters, rejection emails, acceptance emails. I also saved the User Agreement on a site I submitted to and saved it here as part of the submission.
  • Contracts – For any contracts associated with the story.
  • Research Notes – Any notes I did for the story.
  • Old Files – That folder gets named Z – Old Files, so it falls to the end of the folder structure. Pretty much, it can be anything that’s not current. I want to be ruthless with this one because it’s really easy to get a bunch of old files in the main folders that I now have to search through to find current file. Just like at work. If I submit a leave slip, once the leave is over, it’s an old file.

I still have to think about what’s going to work for me for the more generic paperwork — author biographies, author bibliography, that kind of stuff.

What’s your filing system like?

Productivity, Word Count, and Fiction Writing

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been about seven years since I broke up with my cowriter.  We had a manuscript in submission and had even received a request for a full from an agent.  Things had already waded into the deep end at that point, and there were frequent sinkholes abound.

One was finishing a book.  I noted that publishers had a year deadline for finishing projects, and frankly, I was alarmed because our rate of finishing a book was quite a bit longer.  So I said something about us needing to learn how to write faster, and he poo-pooed and said everything was negotiable.  I was horrified.  I had this immediate picture him blowing off the deadline as negotiable until the last minute and me stuck with trying to meet it.

That was a wakeup call for me because I realized that he didn’t have writing on his priority list.  Everything else was more important.  So I started writing every day.

And you hear that everywhere.  NanoWri is this month, and the focus of getting 50K done in a month is hitting the mark of about 1700 words a day.  I’ve also seen writers admonish from their blogs:  “I write X words a day.  I sit at my computer and don’t leave until I have X words.”  The implication, of course, being that everyone else should do the same and that we aren’t being productive if we aren’t.

Then there’s the other crowd that goes with slow writing.  I haven’t quite figured out that definition.  In typing this blog post, I hit 267 words in about six minutes.  Sometimes I type fast, sometimes I pause to think, and sometimes I make a lot of typos.  I often do a lot of pausing as I’m figuring things out.  So exactly how slow are people writing?  One sentence a day?  Or are they talking about not writing that often?

These conflicting opinions create a certain negativity that has filtered into my writing at times, and I’ve had to fight to keep them out.  At one point, I was trying to produce words every day, so I brought a laptop to work and did it at lunch, then went home and wrote some more.  Then suddenly I was starting to hate the writing because it felt like work rather than anything fun.  Sometimes I wanted to read a book at lunch, and instead, I was thinking, “I have to write.”  I felt guilty on weekends when I had all this time available, and I spent half a day running errands.

In other words, I focused on doing it, rather than focusing on writing.  I suspect though there’s a lot of people saying that’s what they do and not actually doing it.  Two K a day is 500,000 words a year.  That’s five or six novels, or more novels if they’re shorter.  It pays to check the person and see if they actually have a lot of books or not.  I looked at one who is selling a book on productivity, and she has, well, not a whole lot, to be telling people how to produce.

So is there a secret?  These are some things I’ve learned:

It’s really important to have fun while doing the writing.  If I’m fighting with a scene, I’m not going to get much done.  I can think of all times when I was working on a past project that had run way too short, and I had my eye on that word count.  Every time it dropped, I just berated myself.  That sucked the fun totally out of the writing.

Now I sometimes have to go back a scene and think about why I’m not having fun.  For me, it’s usually that I went too dark and didn’t catch it.

Yet, so many writers talk about much work it is, how they enjoy having written, but not doing the writing.  Why write then?  This is something purely optional, and certainly, if it’s not fun, it’s awfully hard to find any motivation to do it.

Another area is I found to help is NOT focus on word count goals.  Those often get labeled as a sign of success because it’s very measurable, but it’s very easy to think about completing the goal, not about having fun writing it.  Or at least it has been for me.  On an early story, I tried do it in thirty days.  I mapped out how many words I needed to accomplish that, and towards the end, I ended up adding scenes to  the story to get the word count, not because the story needed it.

What works better for me is say that I’m going to work on the story for an hour.  Then I can stop and do something else.  This tends to give me 800 -1200 words.  It’s not a straight through type — I have these pauses where I’m trying to figure out what the heck is supposed to happen, and sometimes I’m trying out something and it doesn’t quite work the way I’m thinking of.  Sometimes I’m dashing off to look a word up in the dictionary.  I still can get at least 800 words usually.

After I finish my hour, I stop for a while.  Usually it’s watch TV.  Then I come back and do some more.  Often, I’m wanting to come back and do some more!  And sometimes I’m just tired or my sinus are acting up (this time of year is sinus headache time).  Just about 90 minutes a day like this and I can do 8K-10K a week.

Finally, I also forgive myself if I have a day where I just don’t get to writing.  Yesterday, we got a cold front in, and my sinuses took a nose dive.  I had such a bad sinus headache that I couldn’t concentrate on anything.  So, no writing even though I wanted to do it.  I couldn’t get my brain functional enough.  Yes, there’s so much guilt-trip stuff out there that sets everyone up for failure that’s easy to feel like if you miss one day, you’re instantly behind.  There are some days where it’s not going to happen.  That’s all there is to it.

But a lot of it, really, is simply making the time, even if it is only 15 minutes.  The only failure is not writing at all.

Week 2 of Story-A-Week

Two weeks ago, I finally declared an emergency.  I’ve been struggling to work on a novel for a while.  My intent was to produce both a novel and get short stories submitted.  Neither was really happening.

Time was not the issue.  I could make the time.

The problem has been that my job is a currently a creative drain.  We just had a reorganization — really, do I need to say more?  I think they’re the one thing all employees really hate, and ours will probably take a year to work out the bugs.

So I can get home and need two hours before I can even attempt writing, and sometimes I end up in front of the computer for another two hours and not much to speak for it because I just can’t wrap my brain around a large project like a novel.

Even when I got to the weekend, I needed time to decompress by going out to places and just getting out.  Meanwhile, my head’s going, “But all that is writing time,” and I’m thinking, “But I need me time, too.”

Then I got Jay Lake’s Writing Rules.  He passed away a few weeks ago, but the rules are one of his legacies.  One of them was a typical one I’ve seen: Finish a project a week.  Then I saw this part:

Length is irrelevant.  This is important for two reasons — time management and idea sizing.  Even on a terrible week with sick kids and overtime at work, you can carve out an hour somewhere to rip off a 500 word flash piece.  Then you’ve met your goal.  On an easy week, you can work on a novella.  This helps you meet the goal more consistently, where a word-count target would be in greater jeopardy.

I could do that.  Flash fiction is very manageable and regular short stories can be done on weeks when things are less of a creative suck.  So I’m going to set aside novels for right now and do a story a week, each with two goals.

For Week 2, I did Flash fiction, contemporary science fiction/time travel.


  1. Don’t go dark: This has been a problem I’m battling since I veer toward such dark ideas that I can’t sell them (as in small situation resolved; big situation not resolved).
  2. Get temperature into the story: As a pantser, I tend to leave out a lot of the details, like the setting .  So I picked an element to make sure I did something with it.  In this case, I used the humidity of Washington, DC that we had last week.




Life of the Planner Challenged

This post comes from from Sonia G Medeiros and Lisa Phillips, who asked about the planner I’m using on Twitter.  You see, I’m planner challenged.  I didn’t use one at all until a few years ago after I managed to scheduled two doctor appointments at the same time.  What invariably would happen is that I would buy a new planner and after a few weeks, it would go to the planner graveyard.

A tornado with fists punching out of it.We’re having to make do with less, and I keep getting new things added to my plate, some of them quite diverse and unrelated to each other (time management books tend to forget that the managers are delegating to another person).  It was hard for me to keep track of everything, and standard ‘to do’ lists did not work.  My schedule sometimes was out completely out of my control.  I might have an emergency and suddenly the entire day was gone.  The result was I’d look at how much stuff was accumulating on the list and feel like I’d gotten into a wrestling match with a tornado.

In 2012, I went through 10 planners (while I may have typos in the post, that number is not a typo).  I kept hopping from one to another, trying to find something that worked.  But most of them were different in appearance but really the same thing.  It seemed impossible to keep track of so many different things, some of them quite small.

Which is where the PlannerPad came in.  I’d seen it before, passed on it, but I ran across a mention of it in a blog.  The PlannerPad has a vertical ‘to do’ list across the two of two pages, with each column a category.  From that ‘to do’ list, it funnels into the second row where you pick what you need to get done on a specific day.  Below that is the appointment area.

One of the things I discovered right away was that I had to limit each of categories to no more than 3-4 items, and I could only have up to 4 items per day — and only if one of the items was simple, 2 minute item.  More than that, and I started having problems with being able to do it when the world tilted on its side and went off into crazy land.

Though I should note, I’ve included writing in the categories, and that’s not counted as the 3-4 items.

A black hole
The black hole of doom

The big change I had to make was putting things into categories.  I’ve always tried to do things as they came in, especially if they were small.  I also do better if I bounce around some.  I’m not someone who can do one thing for hours and hours without feeling like the character in The Scream.  But as I got assigned more and more stuff, bouncing became a freaking black hole of doom!

Initially, I tried sticking post-its in the book so I could just write them down as I got to that week.  But that ended up being overwhelming, so my next step was a simplified ticker file — five folders, one for each day of the work week.  Then I can group stuff with its category in the folder.  The big or important stuff gets on the vertical list, and the small stuff just gets lumped in with it.  But I still have to work to put a new item in the tickler file and wait instead of jumping on it.  Once I put it in its category, I don’t touch it until that day.

Must … resist … must … resist…

Once I get it into the folder and out of sight, I’m okay.  Both the PlannerPad and the modified tickler work together mostly.  I’m still figuring out what works for me with this.  After the first week, I went to highlighters to mark off when something is done, and this week, I decided it would help me to make sure I used to same color highlighter for the week to keep from it from seeming too chaotic.  But what I have noticed is that I don’t forget it.  I take it with me, and I remember to open it.

What’s your planner life like?  I hope it’s not as scary as mine!  What’s worked for you?

3 Organizational Tools For Revising

The first part of the How to Revise Your Novel workshop deals with simply going through a paper copy manuscript and identifying problems–no actual marking up on the words or sentences.   But the paper copy is a lot of pages and quite heavy, so breaking it up into smaller sections works pretty well.  I can do that and take a small part with me to work to do over lunch.  Of course, I could just jam it into a envelope and be done with it, but part of the fun of writing is playing around with all those stationery products.  Toys!  Here’s a list of a few things to explore:

  • Plastic envelopes.   These are very budget friendly because they only cost about a dollar.  They come in a wide variety of colors and are clear plastic so you can see what’s inside.  So you can buy different colors and associate it with a project or a task, or just pick a color because you like it.  I’ve found these at Staples and chain drugstores.
  • Patterned file folders.  Gone are the need for ugly plain folders with little color.  You can pick up packages of file folders in different patterns and colors.  They usually come in packs of five, so you can buy small quantities as the project requires.  I’ve seen them at Office Depot, Target, and even dollar stores.
  • Two pocket folders.  These are used for businesses a lot, but you can find a lot of more interesting ones, particularly around when the school year starts.  A very inexpensive option also, and practically available everywhere.  The only hard part would be finding ones that aren’t TV/movie ties!

Though I have one annoyance, since I’ve been making the rounds to both Staples and Office Depot.  Every time I make a purchase, the clerk asks me if I’m a member of their reward program, then tries to persuade me to join when I say I’m not.  Enough already!  The only rewards program I’ve seen that has any benefit to me having the card and using is the grocery store.  I do get some great sale prices.  For everyone else, you have to accumulate a lot of something before you see any benefit, so all I’m doing is giving them marketing information.

Getting More Organized in the New Year

The New Year is always good for resolutions, like ‘get more organized.’  I’ve always struggled with organization, particularly with paper (it breeds like tribbles!).  It’s only been in the last few years that I discovered I wasn’t chronically disorganized but that I was right-brained in a left-brained world (thanks to the book Organizing For Your Brain Type).   The majority of filing systems and tips are for left-brained people.  Nels Highberg says (and this is absolutely true for me also!):

The biggest epiphany I had while reading the book came in the chapters on physical space and paper management.  In a nutshell, I realized that drawers are evil.  Putting things away in a drawer means allowing them to disappear from my mind, with the emphasis fully on “disappear.”

And not just file cabinets.  Accordian folders and 3 ring binders.  The most common way organizing novel materials is a 3 ring binder, and it’s a black hole to me.   Then what?

The book Take Back Your Life: Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organized and Stay Organized gave me some ideas.  Admittedly, the book is about email, but some of the principles were useful.  It does do too much drilled down detail for me.  But it did do was introduce organizing by task.  One of the problems I consistently ran into is that when I started submitting stories, I had trouble finding material because they were mixed in with revisions and research.  So I created folders like:

  • 1a: Create Project Title
  • 1b: Revise Project Title
  • 1c: Edit Project Title
  • 1d: Submit Project Title

These are the top level folders–not folders under a project name.  New papers go into the front of the folder.  The folders are color-coded–again, fairly simple.  The project I’m revising is in orange folders; the new project is in blue folders.   As long as I associate the color with the project, I don’t even have to put labels on the folders.  Everything goes in an Elfa cart, which is open all over, and I can see everything.  No black holes!  I liked this so much that I’m also using it for my electronic files.

Any changes to the way you organize your novel files for the New Year?