WILDCARD–Get in the Zone

WILDCARD–Get in the Zone

Thanks to bensound.com for our intro and outro music!


From Patti Lincecum Miinch via Facebook: Good question, Jacqueline (about how to know what advice to listen to from beta readers). Now, for the other side of the equation, because I’ve been a beta reader several times and . . . well, at least one experience was difficult to say the least. Here’s my question: How can we best prepare and educate our beta readers? For example, what information should we provide, at what point should we share with them our manuscript, etc.?

Aaron: Fine question. Very insightful. I’ll answer the last question first: when should you show your beta readers your manuscript? By definition, a beta reader reads your completed manuscript. I wouldn’t show it before you’ve written “the end.” If you do, you’re dealing with alpha readers, and that’s a whole other can of worms. If, however, your question is more about whether or not you should show them an unpolished first draft, I’d say no. My beta readers get the closest thing to what my publisher sees. I want it as close to perfect as possible to make their job easier.

Secondly, you’ll want to make sure you’re properly orienting your reader. We talked last week about the importance of your beta readers sharing your vision for the project. They can’t do that if you don’t tell them what that vision is. It should be clear for the project, but it never hurts to be explicit. “This is the story of a boy going fishing, and what he learns along the way.” You don’t have to be super specific, but you should share with them your heart–why you wrote it, what aspects you want to highlight, etc.

Then, ask them to look for specific things. “I think my characterization of this secondary character is weak. How can I improve it?” Or, “Does this character seem too good to be true?” Or, “Is the romance working the way I want it to?” Or, “I’m shaky on some of my scenes. I’m not sure they earn their place. Can you look for scenes that can be cut so I can keep my word count down?”

In short, you should be intimately familiar with your project and vision, and already have a good sense of what’s working and what’s not. I’ve been known to ask, “At what point does my story jump the shark?” If the answer is, “It doesn’t,” I’m super happy. More often than not, my readers are able to pinpoint the place I need to work on most.

AL: The only thing I can add to this discussion is to avoid what Aaron calls “alpha readers”–people who read parts of your manuscript before the books is finished. I think it’s a bad idea, unless you’re asking an experienced writer to help you solve a problem in a chapter. Otherwise you may be creating problems for yourself. People don’t want to read pieces of a story. Ask yourself why you want someone to read your work before you done. (Chef’s don’t usually ask customers to taste the food before it’s cooked.)

MJ: For starters, I want to say I love that Aaron said “jump the shark.” That’s not always a phrase we hear or understand, but if you’re a fan of Happy Days you’ll know how it all started and what it means. So, TV reference. Bonus points. I’ve been a beta reader a few times myself, and it is daunting. As a writer, I will expect my readers to have a grasp of the story I’m trying to tell. I like Aaron’s idea of telling them a bit of the plot ahead of time. Going in “blind” is not always the best way to approach being a beta reader. [Pops disagrees with this. Insert sad face here.]  I will tell my readers the areas I’m not happy with or had difficulty writing, and ask for suggestions. Overall, I would ask that they read with an open mind and in the end just give me their honest thoughts: do they like it or not, what works, what doesn’t, what did they like the most, what did hate the most. That feedback gives me the opportunity to strengthen the story where it needs it, and I would let them know ahead of time what I’m looking for.

Firsts in Fiction

WILDCARD: Get in the Zone; Stay in the Zone

This week we’re going to take a look at how to “get in the zone,” and then how to “stay in the zone.” By “the zone,” we mean that sweet spot where your writing is just pouring out of you, when you’re routinely topping your word count and surprising yourself with how wonderful your writing is.

Let’s begin by talking about why you’re not currently in the zone. Here are some possible causes:

  • Too much time away from your project
  • Writer’s block
  • Too much stress from the outside world
  • Too many distractions/interference
  • Not focusing on the one thing.

With those in mind here’s how Aaron get’s in the zone:

  • MIND LIGHTNING: I begin by doing a lot of brainstorming about my project. I spend time with my characters in my mind. I ask them tough questions. I ask them to tell me a joke. I imagine the different paths they may take to accomplish their goals. I ask what would keep them from moving forward. Essentially, I spend time in my world as much as possible. I do this while busy with other chores (dishes, vacuuming, commuting, cleaning out the litter box, etc.).
  • A PICTURE IS WORTH 1,000 DAYDREAMS: I also like to look at images that inspire my imagination. This can be surreal photography, fantasy artwork, urban skylines, sprawling landscapes, photos of celebrities on whom I’ve based my characters etc.
  • REVISIT OLD WORK: One of my most trusted tricks is simply re-reading what I’ve already written. This allows me to remember where I was, where I was going, and how I wanted to get there. It reacquaints me with the project, with the voice I’d been using. This is vital for consistency in style. This is perhaps the most inspirational of my tricks, and it’s one I use often.

Pops, how do you get in the zone?

AL: I’m tempted to say, “Caffeine. Lots and lots of caffeine.” That, however, would be completely true. A quick bullet list.

  • I remind myself that what I FEEL at the moment doesn’t matter. What I DO with the moment does.
  • Working writers–writers who make part or all of their income from writing–have to produce, even if they would rather be doing something else.
  • I start writing but I don’t judge the material until I’m in the flow. I just start. I can always throw it away if I have to, but the more I write, the less I have to throw away.
  • I set daily goals for my projects and do my best meet and surpass that goal.
  • I have a visual modality. I do best when I can picture the scene, so I take a little time to paint a picture in my mind.
  • There have been times when I’ve read a couple of pages from a capable writer and found inspiration.



  • TALK TO MY CHARACTERS: To a non-writer, this probably sounds strange or even crazy. As a writer, I say “Embrace the crazy!” I love being in the moment with my characters. I ask questions, too. What did they have for dinner? Did they have a good day? What do they want to see happen in the story? I set dates to meet with them: “Okay. 6pm. My laptop and writing desk. Bring coffee.” I ask their opinion. And, when I have writer’s block, I yell at them. I’ve mentioned before, I was stuck for quite a while on a scene. I finally yelled at the computer “What do you want from me?!” Got up, walked around the house, and when I sat back down, my male protagonist told me what I needed. Other times, I’ve told my characters to talk to me in my sleep, and when I wake up, I have the next scenes.
  • MUSIC: I have my iTunes playlist and several Pandora channels I’ve created, and depending on the scene I’m thinking about, I’ll put on whatever works for the moment. I’m currently hooked on Otis Redding and Louis Armstrong. My characters will show their personality through songs and lyrics. I can often figure out the next paragraph or two when my characters either sing along or tell me to skip to the next song.


  • TV/MOVIES: So I like screen time. I’ll put on a DVD or watch TV if it’s set in New Orleans, or a mystery. I go for that “did NOT see that one coming” affect, and ask my characters what they would do differently.


  • RE-READ: Aaron already hit on this one. I read past chapters to refresh myself, and each time I do, I fall in love with my characters and the story all over again. It’s revitalizing.


Okay, so now you’re in the zone. You’ve knocked out twenty pages, and you want to make sure you do the same thing tomorrow. This is how Aaron keeps himself in the zone.

  • MANAGEMENT: I manage my schedule. I make sure I have the writing time, and I think about what I’m going to write before I write it. That way I can maximize my productivity, even when my schedule is busy.
  • WRITE EARLY; WRITE OFTEN: On that note, I try to keep my writing up front. I like to do it earlier rather than later, before I get worn down with the day job and chores and the like. I know other writers wait until the evening because that’s when they’re better able to focus. Whatever works for you, so long as you know what time you write the best, and you carve out the time to write in those moments.
  • CONSISTENCY: I have to be consistent. Even if life happens and my writing time is compromised by something that requires my immediate attention, I’ll still write, even if it’s only a few words, or a sentence, or a paragraph. It helps me keep my mind in the project.
  • HANG ON TO THE CLIFF: I try to leave off at points of conflict. I write little cliffhangers for myself so that I’m more likely to WANT to come back, even if I’m having a bad day, or I’m tired, or I’m busy. The cliffhanger will get me back into the project, if for no other reason than to write what I want to write.
  • DON’T STOP IN BORING PLACES: I avoid leaving off on scenes that are necessary but not exciting to me. You know, the crucial conversation that has to happen, but it’s not exactly exciting. I’ll try to knock that scene out quickly so I can get to something more interesting (a love triangle, or an action scene, or a crash scene, etc.)
  • ACTIVELY DAYDREAM: If I can’t get to my writing right away, I may take some of those images that have inspired scenes or characters and put them on a slide show on one monitor so I can be thinking about my project while I’m doing other mindless tasks. You know, zombie paperwork and the like.
  • WRITE THE END: I also notice that the closer I am to the end of a book, the more quickly I write. With Harrison Sawyer, I wrote the ending as soon as it came to me, and that inspired me to keep going, to keep pressing toward the goal. I did the same thing with a sci-fi I plan to write after I finish the next installment of HOA. I’m chomping at the bit to get back to work on in as we speak.

Pops, how do you stay in the zone?

AL: First I want to address one issue. It is a mistake to think that what works for one writer will work for all writers. One of the first thing a serious writer must do is discover how his or her brain is wired. We all think and process ideas differently. Winston Churchill wrote standing up. So did Thomas Wolfe. Some must write in near darkness, others need to be in a cafe or coffeeshop (JK Rowling wrote while sitting in the corner of a cafe with her baby resting in a stroller). So…

  • Discover what works for you. Listen to what others do but never feel compelled to do the same unless you know if fits your brain.
  • Remember, the goal has always been and always will be to write a great book, not mimic another writer.
  • That being said, I stay in the zone by
    • Writing daily.(Asimov used to complain when reporters wanted to schedule interviews, “But when will I write?”)
    • Inserting myself into the story. I close my eyes and imagine that I’m in the scene watching. I try to make it as sensory rich as possible.
    • I practice the art of the Constructive Walk Away. If I bog down, then I step away from the computer. Writing is more than putting words on the page. The brain needs time to process ideas.
    • If I’m bogged down on a scene, I skip it and move onto something that I already have figured out. I’m surprised how often that leads to solution to the problem scene.



  • VISUAL: I keep visual reminders around me. Frogs, fleur de lis, photos of New Orleans on the computer wallpaper.
  • ACCOUNTABILITY: I have a group on Facebook I started as a way of building pre-marketing for NOLA, but in truth it also helps keep me motivated. I like to post updates every few days and connect with my Swarm. I also have my alpha readers, and Aaron. He tends to nudge me if he knows I haven’t written in a few days.


  • VISUAL ACCOUNTABILITY: Coffee mugs. I collect mugs and several friends have blessed me with mugs from New Orleans and Cafe du Monde, so I’ll often use them when I’m writing. It not only inspires me, but reminds me that others are waiting for me to finish my novel.


  • KEEP NOTES: I keep post-its on my desk at the day job and as soon as I get a thought, I jot it down. Just enough to remember what I’m thinking. When I get home, I pull my notes out and process them. Sometimes it’s for the current scene/chapter, sometimes it’s a reminder to check a character trait. Sometimes it’s a character’s backstory that may never make it into the book, but it gives me insight into how to present them to the reader.
  • JUST DO IT: It’s easy to get out of the writing habit, it’s just as easy to get back into it. I find that as soon as spend as little as five minutes with my characters, I love it. I love them, and I love their story, and I want to see it progress. So I’ll talk to them, read the last chapter, and write. Some weeks I only write a few hundred words, some days I write over two thousand. As long as let my characters know they’re important enough for me to spend time with, they circle the wagons and keep filling me with information I need to write their story.

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