Mad Drafting Skillz Part II: Pre-writing RESEARCH

You know that really annoying saying out there that says – WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW? And as creative people, we kind of HATE THAT? Because we write mythical creatures and experiences and things we’ll never actually KNOW? This is why research is so important.

I spend a lot of time thinking about a novel before I actually sit down to write – usually between a month to over a year. This isn’t ALWAYS the case because the book I wrote this July I thought of at the end of June. But USUALLY, an idea solidifies in my mind for quite a while before I tackle it. So, just know that there’s no perfect formula for anything. No one thing that works every time, but thinking about a book for several months gives me a lot of time to get some research in before I draft, which means my drafting goes much faster.

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I want to preface everything I say below with the idea that I have zero problems leaving unfinished details in my manuscript as I write. If I’m not positive that Chevy had a convertible Camaro in a certain year, I just say INSERT CAR HERE, and continue writing. But I do know that if an author doesn’t do a certain amount of research about a place in the world or a time period, or a culture, chances are very good that the author will end up with a plot point (or many) that don’t work with that time period/culture/place in the world, and the changes after draft one will be major re-workings or re-writes rather than regular edits and revisions.

EXAMPLE: About five or six years ago, I wrote a love story set in the WWII time period that takes place over several years from several points of view, and I LOOOOVED it. Since my granddad fought in the war as a young volunteer, I asked him to read it. After talking to him, I had to make an enormous fundamental shift in which person did which job – and as you know, someone’s job can (and in both cases did) define much of who a person is. Only just now have I been able to redefine those people in my head to get the story right. The point of this mini-Jo-history? DON’T MAKE MY MISTAKE AND BE PUT IN THE POSITION TO RE-WRITE YOUR NOVEL.

  1. I cannot imagine writing a story that takes no research, and so far, I’ve written a LOT of contemporary novels.
  2. Don’t assume that because someone else used a specific thing in their fiction, that they got it right. LOOK IT UP. (I see rampant mistakes about the criminal justice system, but that’s because I know the CJ system. My guess is that doctors would say the same thing, as would any professional).
  3. You may not know all the little things that are going to come up in your novel, THIS IS OK, you don’t have to research every detail. You have to research enough to know your subject, and to know what will and won’t work for the overall plot. We’re not talking about micro-revision here, we’re talking about drafting. Just learn enough that you’re not pausing to go to google because we all know what can happen when you leave your MS to check something online……….
  4. BONUS: If you have drafting days when you’re not really feeling it? You can look over the notes you’ve left in your MS and fill in those blanks with research.
  5. WHEN RESEARCHING SOMETHING TOTALLY NEW TO YOU – start with a children’s book. I’m not kidding. You’ll get a general overview of the subject, and then you’ll know how to ask questions about the bigger stuff, and know what specific parts of that topic you’d like to focus on or learn more about. I’ve done this with cancer, history, ghosts, oceanography, mechanics and architecture. Also, there are usually pictures😉
  6. Everyone has their own way of keeping notes on things – I keep mine in google drive and there are always LOTS of links. Find what works for YOU and use it to death.
  7. If you’re going to write someone in a wheelchair, PLEASE ACTUALLY TALK TO SOMEONE IN A WHEELCHAIR. If you’re writing someone with wings? Feel free to spend a lot of time imagining that person.


USE WHAT YOU LOVE to do the research for what YOU WANT TO WRITE.

EXAMPLE: I have a friend (Jennifer Moore) who is in to history and old ships and nearly all of her vacations take her to places she’ll use in her historical novels. She gets to research while also doing something she loves = WIN. (Yes, I realize we can’t all travel, but we do have a million travel sites that can still help).

Use WHAT YOU KNOW, to write what YOU DON’T KNOW.

EXAMPLE: My Alaska writing friend, AdriAnne Strickland, is a commercial fisherman. She used the idea of casting nets and “fishing” in a space opera (Shadow Run) that sold at auction and comes out this fall. She used something she knows (fishing) as part of something she doesn’t know (what it’s like to live on a spaceship, though, she does understand life on a boat).

I want you to honestly think about the things you’re passionate about, your feelings, the way you see the world… ALL of that will end up in your books. I’ll never write a book that includes a setting or a hobby that I have no interest in. Most people won’t. So, keeping all this in mind – happy pre-writing research!

Thanks, Jo

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Mad Drafting Skillz: Part I – Pre Writing, Characters

So, at the Storymakers Conference last year (link here), I taught a (packed) class on MAD DRAFTING SKILLZ, because I’m a dork who can’t even give her official class a normal name. It was a LOT of information to digest in an hour long class, so I’m going to break it down here for funsies and for the people who were stuck with lame Brandon Sanderson instead of me (Please know I’m TOTALLY kidding, Sanderson is an amazeballs teacher).


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Yes, we’ll talk characters, but FIRST, I feel like we should cover some simple vocab – Plotting and Pantsing… In simplest terms – Plotting is writing out the plot, pantsing is letting the plot happen as you write.


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And don’t worry! You can have it all…


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Yes, I’m a dork, and yes, I’m a little surprised you’re here, too.

So, with that in mind –

PRE-WRITING: Characters!

  1. I write enough to know if I like my character and have a feel for their voice. Usually 2,000 – 7,000 words. Without a connection to my character, my word count is dead before I begin. VERY often, this isn’t something that makes it into my MS. I know that Dan Wells (author of I’m Not a Serial Killer), writes some kind of essay from the MC. I tried this once, and really focused on how my MC felt about the way their story wrapped up. SO VERY HELPFUL for character arcs (if you know the ending), and a brilliant way to get the creative mojo working to start a new project.
  2. If the character doesn’t FORCE me to keep writing, this is the point when I step back. UNLESS I have a deadline. If I have a deadline, and the character isn’t talking loud enough to dictate decisions and plot, then I spend a little more time outlining than I normally would. See how the shift between plotting and pantsing changes even after you’ve started the process? Embrace change. It means you’re letting the story influence your process.
  3. Research what that character has gone through (more on that next post), or just spend time trying to get into their head – sort of like what an actor would do when preparing to play a role. When I do dishes, I think about how my character would feel doing dishes – Would they know what a plate was? Would they love the feel of hot water on their hands? Would they be bored? Whiny? Resigned? Worried? And just like that, I’ve taken a boring every day task, and turned it into book research. (this is great WHILE drafting, not just pre-writing).
  4. IF YOUR NOVEL IS SO PLOT OR WORLD DRIVEN, THAT YOU FEEL THIS DOESN’T APPLY, PLEASE REALIZE THAT YOUR PLOT OR WORLD IS YOUR MAIN CHARACTER, AND TREAT IT/THEM AS SUCH! Don’t feel weird about this! You make stuff up and spend hours writing it down and worrying about word placement – you crossed the line into weird a LOOOONG time ago.
  5. PHOTOS – Use the internet! Actors, Pinterest, stock photos, friends, family… Having a perfect visual representation to go with what you’ve learned by writing an essay from your character? GOLD.
  6. Character sheets – If you google search this, you’ll come up with more ideas than you’d ever want to use. Some of the details feel boring, but I usually answer AS the character, which is INFINITELY more interesting.


So, that’s the CHARACTER part of pre-writing. The other parts we’ll cover are: Research, Plotting tools, Visuals, Blurb/Pitch, and Setting the Mood…

Thanks for popping in! If you have things to add, PLEASE DO!

Thanks, Jo 

P.S. Finishing off this post with shameless self-promotion. I won’t do that often. Promise.

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Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma-Chameleon…

nerd logoIf you get the reference of the title, you’re either OLD or HAVE COOL PARENTS or a ROCKIN’ CHOIR TEACHER.


On the original version of BEEN WRITING? I had the awesome and talented author and editor CASSIE MAE on to give some tips on common mistakes, and she KILLED it, so I wanted to re-share that here.

SO! For your learning/viewing pleasure – Commas and Dialogue by Cassie Mae (only her titles are SO MUCH BETTER)


Two COMPLETE sentences joined by and, but, so, or, will use a comma.

A sentence using the word and does not automatically mean a comma unless it is used in a list.

Traci flew across the room and answered her phone.

Traci flew across the room, answered her phone, and tapped her foot against the carpet.

Traci flew across the room, and her foot tapped against the carpet as she picked up her phone.



“A lot of times I’ll see this!” She said.

“Or this?” She asked.

“Sometimes, even this,” She grumbled.

Would you capitalize This in the middle of a regular sentence? Think of dialogue in one sentence.

“It will look like this!” she said.

“Even when it’s a question?” they asked.

“Absolutely.” She nodded.

“Wait… you capitalized that one!” They stood with accusing fingers. “And that one!”

“Yes,” she said. “Nodding is not a dialogue tag. It is an action. Therefore, it has its own sentence.”

Think of it this way…

“You can say something here.”

She nodded.

And that structure makes sense.

“But if you say something here.”

She said.

That does not make sense.

(Common actions that are used as dialogue tags and SHOULD NOT be: laugh, nod, grin, sigh.)

“Does this all make sense?” She sighed. “I hope it all makes sense,” she said.

“What do I do when I need something in the middle of a sentence?” he asked. “Where do commas go?”

“Oh,” she said, “when you pause in the middle? Just like this. If it is one sentence use commas and continue on the sentence as if you never put the dialogue tag in. However”—she scratches her chin—“if you pause with action, you use em-dashes. No commas.”

“There are too many rules to this.” He sighed.

“I agree,” she said with a laugh.


Cassie is one of the best editors I’ve worked with, and I love her books to teeny tiny pieces. You can find her editor self HERE, and her author self HERE


In Brief: Music and Writing Books

Think of all the new hits you’ve heard in your lifetime that you loved from the first time you heard them.

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You end up singing along to the chorus before your first listen is over. There’s something familiar about the chord progression, OR the beat, OR the lyrics OR a combination of the three. But there’s also something different enough that the song feels new. That we feel like – YES, I’ve found something awesome! And suddenly that song becomes personal to US.

Anyone who has learned to play the guitar knows that by learning about 6-7 chords, you can play a massive percentage of the songs out there. This means that many, many artists are simply rearranging the beats, rhythms, and progressions of those same chords to create something new, but not entirely new.


So, how on earth do we relate that to writing?

Write something that’s different but not too different?

Familiar but not been done before?

A new twist on an old theme?

Um… Yes, yes, and yes?

Is Harry Potter the first book about a wizard?


Will it be the last?


Is it the best selling?


So, think about all the things we love about the Harry Potter stories (unless you don’t like them, then think about something else): The underdog is the hero, it is NOT the “cool kids” who win, and the wins sometimes come with great losses. We feel love and sacrifice and loyalty while reading those stories – none of those emotions are new. BUT, the way the author brought all of those familiar things into a story, with a twist of something new, means they worked brilliantly. She changed up the progression, the rhythm, and added in some really cool new lyrics😉

So. Just something to think about while we’re writing – not that we should be writing the next Harry Potter, but that we should be looking for those themes and ideas that are familiar to us, and if we are true to that idea of creating something new from something old, and then adding in a dash of something that is all US, we might just find ourselves in a perfect jumping off point for a new story.

Happy Writing!!

~ Jo

P.S. I’m so very well aware that there are incredibly awesome ground-breaking stories out there, that have truly brought something VERY NEW to the table, but even there, you’ll find themes that we’ve all seen and heard before.

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In Brief: Drafting with the Timer Method


So, I’ve taught this a few times, and it’s not the first time I’ve talked about fast drafting, or drafting, but I wanted this small snip of fast drafting IN BRIEF.

FIRST – Do whatever you need to do to set the mood. Here are some ideas:

  1. Music playlists.
  2. Snacks.
  3. Re-read the last bits of what you wrote
  4. If you left yourself notes, look over those.
  5. Remember or ponder on WHY you wanted to write this book and what you want to say.

NEXT – Set a timer for 30-60 minutes (it’ll depend on YOU, and what stage of drafting (or revising) you’re at).

  1. Don’t stop. Leave yourself notes rather than research. Give yourself a placeholder like qqq to word search for later if you forget a name.
  2. Don’t check emails, go online, or answer your phone
  3. Write, write, write
  4. Don’t panic if the words aren’t coming. Just write yourself random notes and ideas on your story if the drafting just isn’t happening.

LAST – When your timer goes off, IF you’re still in the groove, keep on going! If you’ve been fighting for words, YAY! BREAK TIME!! If you can, leave yourself some notes as to what you’d like to write next. If you’re not sure, YAY! BREAK TIME!!

  1. Move your body. Anything from a good stretch, to just doing some random housework, to a full-on workout.
  2. While you’re moving, keep your brain in that book. Either think about the notes you left for yourself, or what you’d like to happen next.
  3. Go outside!
  4. When I had small kids at home, I’d only do this once or twice a day. As soon as that timer went off, my kiddos knew that it was time to do something fun with Mom.

SOCIAL MEDIA is not a “break” from writing – you’re on the computer, and you’re in the same position. You need time away from that screen. If you plan on setting another timer and writing again, I wouldn’t suggest reading either.

Set the mood.

Start your timer.

Begin again.

When I take the time to do this, I get more words down than at any other time. And of course, this won’t work for everyone. And like always, bonus points if you make this your own. HAPPY WRITING!!!

~ Jo

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In Brief: Whacking off LIMBS

I know authors who get their first pass edits, start a whole new document, and re-write their novel.

You think that’s crazy?

I know people who have favorite scenes they can’t let go of, and will fight and work and re-work a novel to keep that scene in, when it no longer makes sense.

You think that’s crazy?

I’m not saying one process is better than the other. What I’m saying is that, as writers, we should be open to the idea that starting from scratch may be better for our IDEA than trying to re-work the words we already have.

I’ve been working through a big revision. When I started the MS, I wanted to write magical realism. But then the slightly magical parts got too big for that genre. By the time I’d finished my first draft, the scary parts became my favorite parts. So… I had major revisions to do.

I fought through the first 30K, re-working, re-wording, re-organizing, and adding. When I got to a certain point, I wondered – WHY AM I DOING THIS TO MYSELF?

And then I made the mistake of glancing over the original 40K that was left. I remembered writing the scenes, what I felt, what I’d want a reader to feel… And I realized that if I left those words in the MS, they’d be a lot harder to let go, and they needed to be let go.

So I cut them off, and my MS will be better for it.

Still, you might stand/sit in front of your MS and be like, “Holy crap, I cut your arm off!” and your MS will say…

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Because the IDEA is down and in your brain.

And the CHARACTERS are down and in your brain.


You can re-write that story/chapter/ending/beginning/middle section. And it’ll be easier the second time.

Is this always the answer?


But don’t be afraid to whack off that arm. Sometimes that solution is much simpler than the maze of new and old you’re creating for yourself.

Happy Writing! Or maybe I should say, Happy Re-Growing Limbs! (seems like there should be a spell for that…)

~ Jo

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In Brief: Mooshing 2 Genres/Writers Into One Book

I’ve read a few posts on this already, but I’m going to throw my few cents into the conversation.

Okay. No cents. Just words. I’m lame.

We have this idea that if we write a book that crosses genres rather dramatically, we will widen our audience to epic proportions.

So, if we write a book set on a space ship in the far reaches of another galaxy, but it’s not about the space travel, it’s about a murder and the intricacies of the legal case, we may think – I’M BRILLIANT!!! ALL THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE SCIENCE FICTION AND ALL THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE LEGAL BOOKS WILL READ MY BOOK!!!

MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! *rubs hands together in the knowledge we’ve hit upon a brilliant plan*

But in 95% of cases, here’s what actually happens:

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Now. Will there be outliers? For sure. Will there be people who love both those genres but hate your book? Yup.

I feel like this is the case half the time with collaborations. I used to think that it would gain me more readers, and gain my writing partner more readers, but after writing a lot of collaborations, I’m not so sure. I think that happens SOME of the time, but I think MORE of the time, the audience shrinks to mostly the people who like BOTH of the authors.

So. If you’re wondering why your space book with dragons isn’t selling. This might be the reason. That’s a big risk for publishers. Yanno, we’re back to that idea of Different, but not too different…

And yes, please bring up Firefly. That show is genius. It was cowboys and space, and because the writing was freaking brilliant, and the casting was perfect, it worked. But please know that’s the exception. Not the rule.

Happy writing everyone!!

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