Speed writing

Sharon Ashwood
February 1, 2012  •  No Comments

In this era of work hard, play hard, it’s not surprising that authors would be required to write hard. Not that writing isn’t hard already, but the current marketplace would like us to produce works every few months. This means writing faster, hopefully without producing the literary equivalent of undercooked porridge.
Since deadlines have put me in the writing-faster zone this spring, I’ve given this some thought. In my opinion, one writes as fast as one writes. However, a person can make sure no time gets wasted putting energy into the wrong place at the wrong time. Here are a few techniques that help my process:

1. I planned my timetable. It took me a while to figure out that I can’t write faster, or at all, unless I sit down and do it. If you’re like me, unless that time is blocked off in the calendar, it won’t happen.
2. One must be kind but firm with children, spouse, Facebook, parents, and the dog that great artists must not be distracted. I give in to the cat, because the cat always wins. I just surrender and get the adoration session over with so I can move on.
3. It helps to know what I’m writing about. If I start the chapter with at least a few notes to get going, I skip the whole blank screen stare-fest. This is one of the few writing tasks that actually can be accomplished away from the keyboard. I think about what’s going to happen, what conflicts need to be there, and how it advances character development. Once I started doing this, I was pleasantly surprised how much meatier my chapters were even on the first draft.
4. I gave myself permission to put in “xxx” instead of spending half an hour on Google looking stuff up. I save the surfing until last, once my brain is fried, and then go back and fill in the missed bits.
5. This is the big one for me: just finish the first draft. I plough through it with abandon. I promise myself no one will read this version until I have time to fix it. I give myself a word count and slap down those words every day until I reach the end. The draft is awful, disgusting, horrible and painful to reread, but if I have something to work with, I can edit a book fairly quickly. I can’t edit what’s not there.
6. There is a saying that writers should not be afraid to “murder their darlings.” In my experience, I go down this violent path if I spend too much time fussing with details too early in the drafting stage. Gustav Flaubert could spend a day searching for just the right word for his Madame Bovary, but that’s a waste of time until I know what scenes I actually need in the finished product. This is a hard lesson to learn, and I have spent days polishing chapters I eventually had to throw out because they didn’t fit the final structure of the book. The moral of the story is: fine tune last.

Like so many examples of “good writing advice,” I am sure mileage varies. However, I managed to write a book, give it three edit passes, and turn in a manuscript in just over three months. I don’t think I could keep that pace up forever, but it’s good to know it’s possible.

You are what you read

Sharon Ashwood
January 25, 2012  •  No Comments

It’s a long story, but a mildew incident recently forced the disposal of a cupboard full of magazines in my house. As I reviewed the titles of the masses of periodicals I was forced to throw out, it really made me think about how magazines say something about the subscribers. Mostly, how different titles describe different phases in one’s life.

I had to put out years and years of the old Victoria magazine (in my opinion, the old ones were better than the new version), Tournaments Illuminated, a complete series of a small publication I worked on once upon a time, and a whole lot of writing magazines. I did manage to save a huge stack of sheet music.

When I got through the unpleasant mildew business, I reviewed my current magazine rack. It says a lot about who I am.

First, there’s the writerly stuff: Romantic Times, Romance Writers Report, and Publisher’s Weekly. Fellow authors will recognize those titles, and so will a lot of avid readers.

Then there is Maclean’s, which is a bit like Time or Newsweek, but with a Canadian focus. It’s my weekly dose of in-depth news. Otherwise, I pretty much rely on the morning radio to keep me abreast of the world’s goings-on.

Then I read Chatelaine for the women’s perspective–and possibly because it was always in the house growing up. I think it’s a connection with my childhood while at the same time having some really good recipes. Kind of a twofer.

And then there are the wish fulfillment magazines. Two minutes to a sexier you. Gorge your way to the perfect body. Tips and secrets to being the confident businesswoman you know you can be. Etcetera.

Yes, there are always a few of those around for the combo of reproach and hope, a powerful mix in any female’s life.

So there I am: a reader and writer, somebody who tries to be alert to the world at large, but who loves home and comfort, and has the same insecurities and dreams as every other woman. It’s all there in my magazine rack, along with the TV guide.

What’s in yours?

January update

Sharon Ashwood
January 17, 2012  •  No Comments


January has been a bit disorganized for me.

However, I did finally get some stuff checked off the list. Kitchen wallpaper removal and paint job is done. The last bit was replacing the heater, so now everything is working, clean, and toasty-warm:

Demon Lord of Kitty Badness inspects the work:

I really have enjoyed the finished product. I was puttering in the kitchen over the weekend, which let me see the results in daylight (we’re still at the point of the year when I’m coming and going in the dark). I like the gentle, sunny yellow. I also don’t miss the trailing bits of paper where the paper was parting company with the walls.

Now that I had a working kitchen again, I finally did my Christmas baking, although it was on January 14 (this is the outcome of the recipe for Dundee Cake I posted a few weeks ago):

cakeAnd I submitted a manuscript—book one of my new Nocturne series. I still don’t know the title or release date, but this is the one I was working on during Nanowrimo. Of course, I’m now charging ahead frantically on the next manuscript, before #1 comes hurtling back to eat my writing time. You might say it’s business as usual, working, writing, sleeping and keeping up with the odd bit of trash TV, but there are times when routine is welcome.

A little extra Christmas chaos

Sharon Ashwood
December 28, 2011  •  No Comments

So, I make a lot of plans for my holidays. I’m no different than most people—I procrastinate tasks for “when I’m off” and always think there is more time than there actually is.

This year was no exception, although I quite sensibly (I thought) confined most of my ambitions to revising one manuscript and starting another. Oh, and there was a fat file of contest entries I had to judge, Christmas stuff, and a bunch of appointments I’d made for my theoretically “free” time. I made a chart just to ensure I paced myself properly. This year, I was going to be organized and maximize my days off.

And then the gods laughed. I live in a 1911 house that’s had a lot of renos and renters before I got here. Most seemed to have a casual attitude to wiring and mildew and no decorating taste, but the place was affordable.

Back in the summer, I’d booked a guy to strip my kitchen wallpaper and paint. This is the final phase of a kitchen update that has been going on forever, each stage taking place as money and time allowed. I’d already put in a new stove, lights, a stainless steel backsplash and shelving. This is the last of it—not a huge job, but a very fiddly one involving a lot of repairs and who-knows-what’s-behind-that surfaces.

Of course, I’d booked the painter in the summer but schedules are never what you think. I had to back out, then he got delayed and, well, it was months later. But he had a few days free, if I wanted him to come December 27, right in the middle of holiday chaos. With a sigh I gave up on my holiday timetable and figured I may as well get while the getting was good and start 2012 with the project finished.

Here is a picture of the kitchen in its present state: the counter and floor is okay, but the baseboards have almost no paint left and the wallpaper is torn and water stained. I think it was intended for a bedroom, not anyplace where water and food were around.

Here is a picture of my living room, with all the kitchen stuff piled in it. I’m not living here, I’m burrowing in a heap of possessions!

JingleVamp Special Order Hero

Sharon Ashwood
December 21, 2011  •  2 Comments

x-posted from Lori Devoti’s 30 days of Vampires

In answer to the age-old question, authors DO have their sources for characters. I get mine through mail order.

I’ve owned the Dark Hero, Vampire Edition 3.2, for a few years now. He came in a box, all minty fresh with that new hero gleam in his eye. Of course there were limitations. Dark wash only. Do not leave in direct sunlight. I had to get a separate unit, the Djinn Slave 4.0, for household use. However, I have to say I have been a fully satisfied customer.

Of course, all equipment subjected to heavy use eventually needs replacement—and believe me, the 3.2 saw a lot of action since he came out of the carton. He’s held up well, but his cape is getting a bit threadbare and the poor dear gets stuck in the brood cycle more often than is good for him. I’ve had to call the manufacturer’s help desk to unlock the “furrowed brow” setting three times now. So, when I was browsing through the catalogue to see if their new line of minotaur was available yet, my attention was caught by a coupon offer for the JingleVamp Special Edition.

I confess, the notion of a vampire with a “ho, ho, ho” plug-in was vaguely disturbing. I wasn’t sure about the reindeer antlers, either, but I figured what the heck. It would make a change from the usual sort of holiday decoration. So, I placed an order.

darakantlers2The thing I didn’t realize was that, unlike the full-priced Dark Heroes, JingleVamp came unassembled and that the instructions were in the non-language universal to children’s toys and cheap furniture. Soon my living room floor was covered in an explosion of sardonic laughs, sultry glances, and sparkly white fangs as I unpacked and sorted and tried to make sense of the diagrams. Fortunately, there was more information enclosed in a separate envelope:

Hello, and welcome to your new JingleVamp! Here are a few pointers to make sure you fully enjoy your new purchase:

1. Note JingleVamp must be rebooted when changing “naughty” and “nice” settings.
2. When recharging, do not plug JingleVamp into the same circuit as your Christmas tree. Spontaneous carolling may result, overriding your Dark Hero’s patented Sinister Velvet® laugh cycle.
3. Exercise caution when using JingleVamp near pine boughs, holly sprigs, pine trees, or other pointy wooden objects.
4. JingleVamp may consume eggnog while set to “party animal.” Caution: Glassware recommended. Paper cartons will leak if bitten.
5. Do not engage JingleVamp in reindeer games without permission of local wildlife authorities.
6. Your JingleVamp will not pull a sleigh, no matter how nicely you ask.
7. Note that Dark Hero units cannot be set to “shopping” mode prior to noon, December 24. “Wrap” mode defaults to intermittent setting. “Write cards” mode is automatically disabled. Contact manufacturer for override instructions.
8. Shopping list plug-in sold separately. Unit is supplied with only “black negligee” and “toaster” options.
9. If you wish to disassemble unit, use stake provided.

Thank you for purchasing the JingleVamp Special Edition! We hope you enjoy your new Dark Hero’s version of Christmas Cheer.

Merry Fangmas to All!

Dundee Cake

Sharon Ashwood
December 14, 2011  •  No Comments

I’ve been trying to get into a Christmas mood. Helpfully, the good folks at my day job have been heaping the goody table with all manner of Bad4U food. This is absolutely part of the whole holiday tradition, and I salute their determined efforts to send us all into a sugar coma guaranteed to last until at least March.

It reminds me how much food is part of the festivities. Christmas as a kid used to start in mid-November, when my mom began marinating ingredients in a bath of rum for days and days before baking and wrapping fruitcake. It “aged” in the refrigerator until Twelfth Night, when it would come out of its tin foil coat to fill the room with a sweet, alcoholic scent. Since that was my Dad’s birthday, it doubled as his birthday dessert. I have indelible memories of snow and candied fruit, wrapping paper and pipe tobacco. I also recall if one of those cakes fell on your foot, it could break bones.


Cream 6 ounces of butter (about ¾ cup) of butter with an equal amount of brown sugar until fluffy. Beat in 4 eggs one at a time, then fold in 8 ounces (about a cup) of flour, ¼ cup of ground almonds and a pinch of salt and mix well. Stir in ¾ cup sultana raisins, ½ cup currants, ¼ cup chopped peel, ¼ cup glace cherries (chopped) and the juice and grated rind of an orange and a lemon.

Grease an 8 inch cake tin and line it with baking paper, then spoon in the mixture. Smooth the top and hollow it very slightly, then decorate with whole blanched almonds. Bake for two hours at 300 F and don’t open the oven for the first 30 minutes. Watch toward the end to make sure it isn’t browning too much and cover with foil if necessary. Once completely cool, the cake can be wrapped and stored in an airtight tin for weeks.

Variations of this recipe date back to eighteenth century Scotland.

NaNo Reviewed

Sharon Ashwood
December 6, 2011  •  No Comments

So I missed last week’s post. I was out of words.

National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) ended a week ago. The goal of NaNo is to make 50,000 words during the month. I ended up a few thousand short, clocking in around 47,000, but something in me broke around November 29. I scraped around my brain and couldn’t find one more sentence. Not even a phrase. I hang my head in shame.

On the bright side, I finished the draft I was working on by Sunday night—a whole lot sooner than if I hadn’t been under the sway of November novel madness!

So what did I learn by all this? Practically speaking, it is possible to draft a novel in about six weeks. It’s true that keeping a routine makes the pages add up faster. Also, if you fall behind, it’s really hard to make up the word count.
On a more esoteric level, I found the exercise interesting from a “you don’t know what you can do until you try” sort of way. It also demonstrates what you really find important, because the extras fall off your personal map pretty quickly. Needless to say, my living space looks like Viking raiders invited the Mongol hordes over for a frat party.

Would I recommend it to others? Yes and no. This is a hard enough task that someone has to really want to succeed.

Would I do it again? Absolutely, if the circumstances were right. I got a lot out of it because I had my piece ready to go. If I’d been waffling around without a clear outline, a lot of time would have been wasted writing nonsense. Also, having the external goal of a January 15 submission deadline lifted the daily word count from “nice to do” to “get with it, girl.”

The Summary – NaNo or Not?

– Prose, and lots of it.
– An excuse to avoid awkward social engagements
– You can say you did

– Social alienation
– Brain damage
– Health department quarantines your kitchen

xTreme word count

Sharon Ashwood
November 23, 2011  •  No Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I did my first NaNoWriMo check-in, and here I am back again. My goal was to finish the first draft of this manuscript by the end of November. As I write, I have nine days to go.

Yes, that was a wail of pure panic.

On the other hand, I can say I’ve only fallen behind by about 7,000 words, which is something I could conceivably make up as long as I don’t want to, say, sleep.

I did have a brilliant flash of insight this past weekend. Okay, maybe not brilliant, but important. I plot a fair bit before I start writing. I do discover stuff along the way, the plot shifts and twists, but in the end I stick fairly close to a general outline that I have in place before I begin. If I don’t have a road map, I generally write in circles. Or at least I thought this was how things worked.

However, because I’m writing this fast, I realized that I deviate far more than I suspected. Those thousand small adjustments can be handled gradually if I’m writing at a normal pace. Hurtling along at NaNo velocity meant that my average 2% variation sent me flying from an off-ramp worthy of a motorcycle stunt rider—and not in a good way. Something about speed x word count x plot variation = edit squared. There was time lost Saturday as I sat down and pondered things like plot structure and the zen of backspacing.

The words I’ve written are fine, the book is fine, but it’s not what I expected. The result of rushing through the manuscript is not that it’s bad, it’s just that I haven’t had a chance to get to know it like I normally would. During my first edit pass, I’ll be reading Chloe and Sam’s story more like a reader than the author.

Which leads me to wonder – why is it that we don’t absorb the book merely by the act of writing it? Is part of our brain switched off, so that the writing function can be in the “on” position? Or am I the only one who experiences things this way?

The creative mind is a very curious thing.

A little retail therapy!

Sharon Ashwood
November 16, 2011  •  No Comments

Halloween has barely cooled its pumpkins but, when I was tearing around the streets of the downtown on my lunch hour, I noticed Christmas decorations. I was about to go into a huff about it being far, far too early for such things and then realized we’re pushing into the middle of November. Christmas Eve is six weeks away! For once, it’s not the retailers who are ahead of themselves; I’m just out of touch with the calendar.

I easily succumb to glitter. I like shiny. I like snow (in small doses) and turn to sentimental goo at the sound of carols. In other words, I’m a merchandiser’s dream around this time of year. The catch is that when I go shopping, I turn out to carry home as many parcels for me as for everyone else because this is the time of year all the really cool stuff comes into the stores.

I’ll throw in a disclaimer here: I actually buy a lot of presents at craft fairs because the money goes straight to the artisans and I can find really unique items that aren’t otherwise advertised. Here, though, I’m posting about things you can get through the web, because what’s the point if you can’t share the fun?

So here we go: Sharon’s shopping picks, 2011

If you know any folks who do work at home, this might be a hit. I know I want one! This is a heavy vinyl mat that will take an office chair rolling back and forth – and yet it looks like a Persian carpet. This is definitely on my Christmas list because my place is small, so my office is in my living room. I need to get a chair mat to protect the carpet, but most are so ugly that I’ve been stalling. This would go a long way to a compromise between practical and pretty.


Speaking of pretty … one of my very favourite craftspeople is Melissa Caron, who does amazing silver work. I love the organic feel of her designs. Click on the ring to visit her Etsy store and I guarantee that you’ll spend a lot of money, at least in your imagination! I came across her booth at a local craft fair last year and one of her rings followed me home.


Speaking of Etsy, drop by the Steamworkshop to check out these decorative USB drives. They are both practical (they work for real—I have one from this seller) and fun—and could probably survive an airship crash. Just about everyone uses jump drives, so it might be the ticket for a hard-to-buy-for. I like having a bunch of different USB drives to keep my novels-in-progress separate. The more unique-looking, the better for telling them apart.

Please keep in mind that while I’ve had good experiences with the Etsy retailers listed, it’s always buyer beware out there in the land of on-line shopping. This is not a paid advertisement nor is it a guarantee. However, I’ve had good service and a lot of pleasure out my purchases.
So, what nifty items are out there that you know about? Care to share?

NaNoWriMo Lessons Learned – report one

Sharon Ashwood
November 9, 2011  •  No Comments

I’m beginning to think the National Novel Writing Month should be retitled to the National Why I’m Not Writing My Novel Month. If you want to find out why the words are not showing up on the page, this is the exercise that will bring all that to light. In my case, it’s mostly because my idea about what I do with my time and what I think I do are some distance apart. Like, in different towns.


Keep in mind that I’m not talking about scheduling inconveniences like landslides, volcanoes, or abduction by space aliens, although as the month carries on, those might seem like attractive options. Let’s face it, if a crisis is big enough, writing falls off the radar and rightly so. What I’m encountering is the part where writers are nibbled to death by ducks—in other words, small things that gum up the works. 🙁

That’s not to say anything super-unusual happened, but my attention has been drawn to the fact that I undertake many “writing-like” but not actual writing activities. A night out at a lecture to gather ideas. A night out with my critique group. A night out talking about writing instead of doing it. And then there are the weekly classes at my gym. All worthy endeavours, but not bum-in-the-chair writing time.

Now, one might argue such things are vital to a balanced life. Yes, they are. However, NaNoWriMo is not about a balanced anything. It is imbalance in favour of writing 50,000 words in 30 days and these, lovely, social moments are exactly why the word counter isn’t climbing the way it should. Ironically, I always considered myself something of a hermit. Apparently I’m not as antisocial as I thought!


The lesson? If you’re going to bite off a heroic chunk o’ wordage, there will be sacrifices. Perhaps modern communication devices should be the first to go. Then, perhaps all social acquaintance. If that doesn’t work, a stint in a cloisters might be in order–at least for the month of November.

Have you ever made an unexpected discovery about the way you spend your time?