The Half-Full Glass is Just Fine

So, Kristen Lamb and I spent a lot of time last week talking about self-help (among other things, including podcasting, serial killers, and why the NSA doesn’t get better phone tap tech – we can hear the clicking!).  As the daughter of a psychologist and a social worker, I am genetically predisposed to be twitchy and see cult-like induction strategies in almost all self-help books/groups/techniques/merchandise.

Anyway, we’re talking about self-help. I broke out in hives. Kristen laughed. She said the word, ‘positivity,’ just to see how I’d react. I went into convulsions. She was laughing so hard that the 911 operators could barely understand her. *le sigh*

But today, I want to talk about something that is a bit more related to my post last week about the absurdity of Perfect Productivity, or this insane concept the self-help industry has sold us on that we can achieve 100% optimal productivity at all times in all things from sleep to sex to sending emails.

Because when we peek at chapter 3 (because admit it, you skimmed all those positive affirmation exercises in chapter 2), we see that there’s actually an even MORE insidious goal embedded deep in the overarching goal of just trying to get us to spend our money on these systems.

The thing is, whether it’s stated or implied, the purpose of Perfect Productivity is to get us operating at peak yield…in order to do more.

More is better. Greed is good. And Perfect Productivity is killing us.

Chugging Opportunity

You ever done anything you regretted at a bar or a party? Maybe it was that shot on a dare (seriously, never ever ever accept a dare to drink a ‘Pickle Barrel’ shot – so gross!). Maybe it was the stupid beer hat. Or the keg stand. Or the, “It’s so sad to leave a wine bottle unfinished.”

What follows the next morning is regret, at least when aren’t praying for death or at the very least for GrubHub to hurry up with that greasy recovery breakfast we ordered.

Even a glass of water. Chugging a whole 8 oz. in one go can leave us feeling a bit queasy and sloshy on the inside.

Perfect Productivity is designed to make us believe that chugging is the only way to drink anything and that the fact we feel sick after means there is still something wrong with us and we need MORE help.

Because if we are doing everything right and being truly productive, we should have the time/capacity/energy to do MORE! Accomplish MORE! Double that to-do list and still have time to add the next post to your Pinterest cupcake fail blog that you started because the program told you to force yourself into being adventurous in a new creative venture in order to ‘re-inspire’ yourself to dream bigger and achieve even more in your day job and better organic Japanese lunch box art for your kids to take to school…

Sorry, it’s almost too easy to pick on this stuff.

Basically, self-help wants us to chug that 8 oz. so we can drink another, and another, and another…

And that way lies alcohol poisoning…of the soul.

The Cheap Liquor of Fulfillment

Cheap liquor is designed to get you wasted. And the point of getting wasted is so that we don’t have to feel or think, and we can float on fluffy pink clouds of contentment…at least until we get arrested for starting that bar fight or puke our brains out.

But for that little bit…we are happy. Things are okay. Things are good. The only thing we have to do right now is enjoy the right now. Because when we drink, we are not expected to do anything (in fact, we are quite reasonably FORBIDDEN to much of anything else) other than drink.

Go home, Goose. You’re drunk.

We turn to self-help to help us…feel fine (*hums Indigo Girls and accidentally gets time-teleported back to college). Why buy the small bottle of really nice whiskey on the top shelf when we can get two big bottles of <insert Irish/Dew/Rose/something here> instead?

More is better! Right?

Right????

More books on Amazon with our name on the cover! More plot bunnies brought to life! More projects, deadlines, commitments! More income….*crickets*

Eh.

Sure, I can see why it’s addictive. I mean, who doesn’t want to have a 26-book backlist in just under 26 months? Every release day is a party to celebrate us! Compliments on the cover! An ARC team whose quasi-literate boilerplate reviews are absolutely worth every single daily $5 Amazon gift card raffle…sorry *stuffs my cynicism back in its box with some Schopenhauer to keep her quiet*).

Back to the issue at hand. Whatever the idea of ‘MORE’ is doing to the quality of literature aside, ‘MORE’ is the biggest culprit in our declining quality of life.

But until we learn to see the value of LESS, we will chase MORE until we have NOTHING left.

Capsule Wardrobe, Capsule Life

If you don’t know already, I am a Pinterest junkie. Yes, I collect recipes and actually make them. Yes, I have occasionally tried crafting from Pinterest. No, I will not show you my crafting results.

Mostly, my Pinterest is a hoarder’s paradise of historical clothing, strange/weird history topics (from cryptozoology to marginalia, and Victorian memento mori to Lalique hair ornaments). If you are needing a rabbit hole for distraction, come visit!

As an aside, with almost 50k monthly views, I could probably do something interesting in using my Pinterest profile for marketing, but I choose not to. In fact, I probably will never do so. Why? Because Pinterest is the ONLY social media I do for pure fun.

Anyway. One of the things I discovered on Pinterest was the concept of a capsule wardrobe. What is this encapsulated creature? It is the concept of building a complete wardrobe (annual, seasonal, etc.) out of multi-purpose and multi-season items, from coats to clothes to shoes.

There are lots of approaches, styles, and even fads within the capsule wardrobe trend. But the driving principle is to simplify your complete wardrobe so that while you have less, you wear more.

I won’t be diving deep into how you build a capsule wardrobe (though I have a Pinterest board on it, LOL). But I have been doing it for about 3 years now, and I truly love it. Having less has allowed me to have better and wear more.

No longer do I have the pieces in the back of my closet that occasionally emerge like a lost tribe that time forgot coming out of the Amazonian rain forest. No more do I come away from shopping trips with guilt that weighs heavier than the impulse purchases in my bag. In fact, two drawers of underthings/pajamas/workout wear aside, my entire wardrobe (coats included) fits on one 3-ft long closet rod.

Which, unfortunately leaves a lot of room in my closet for purses. Hey, I never said I was perfect.

It’s not that I don’t see amazing, beautiful pieces that also look amazing when I try them on (I’m not made of steel). It’s just that I have drummed it into my head over THREE YEARS that, “I lived just fine without it yesterday, and I will live just fine without it tomorrow.”

Weird how that makes us feel uncomfortable, right? How sad is it that we have to work hard at reconditioning ourselves to be content with less?

It’s not that ‘less is more.’ It is ‘less is enough.’

Redefining ‘Perfect Productivity’

So, to bring this whole thing full circle, part of the reason we are so hung up on achieving ever-higher yields from our time and effort is because we have been suckered into chasing ‘more.’

I’m not saying this is an excuse to slack off or give up. In future, posts, I’ll be talking about how/why we need to use ‘less is enough’ to fuel extraordinary effort to achieve extraordinary results.

What I am saying is that we need to stop the knee-jerk reaction to the half-empty glass. We have been conditioned to mobilize our efforts to do whatever it take to make that glass FULL! Because FULL is complete! FULL represents the proof of success! FULL is the hallmark of Perfect Productivity.

Maybe sometimes the glass does need to get to FULL. But, maybe…sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe sometimes, the glass is complete with whatever it contains in that moment. Maybe there’s a bigger glass we need to fill. Maybe this is our cue to drain the glass to the bottom.

Okay, I’ll stop with the metaphors. For now.

Not saying they won’t be back at some point (i.e. next post).

What do YOU think about the value of LESS? Agree? Disagree? Want to talk about them Red Sox (yes, still basking in the glow, thankyouverymuch)? Gimme a shout in the comments! I love hearing from you 🙂

Also, be sure to check out my YouTube channel with Kristen Lamb – Reynolds & Lamb.

Unproductive: Why the Productivity Industry is Killing us

productivity

Last week was one of *those* weeks. You know the ones I’m talking about. A Sisyphean series of tasks that kinda sorta moved forward but never really got finished. A black hole of productivity where effort went in, but nothing came out.

productivity

Yeah…that kind of week.

In my case, the causes of that kind of week could be any number of things: anxiety, procrastination…the need to do the dishes above all other income-generating work.  

The results can range from snail’s-pace productivity to complete paralysis, emotional stagnation, and work stoppage. This leads to a fear of failure, which feeds back into the vicious cycle, which leads to self-fulfilling sabotage, which leads to the motherfucking rabbit hole of all rabbit holes on Pinterest.

Productivity

But, the thing is…it doesn’t have to be like this.

Even worse? We are getting bamboozled, fooled, scammed, and robbed by the self-help productivity industry. In fact, I’m pretty sure they are at the root of it all and wouldn’t be surprised if they had a super-secret global cabal that met quarterly and outlined evil task priorities in their planners.

How can I say this? Because I figured it out. Just today. While walking my dog (which is pretty much when all amazing, brilliant, razor-sharp life insights happen).

This way madness lies…

You know the old chestnut about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result leading to madness?

That is exactly what we are doing with the productivity self-help industry. Sure, the details of the approach might change (the tomato thing, the micro-task-delegation page planner, the subscription-based app to organize and motivate us), but they all share the same goal…

…and that goal is what is killing us.

productivity

The self-help industry doesn’t want to make us more productive. Their only goal is to SELL us on the idea that we CAN and SHOULD be 100% PRODUCTIVE EVERY DAY.

While we actively engage in debate about idealized body image, relationships, politics, etc., why are we not questioning the acculturation of the idea of PERFECT PRODUCTIVITY?

Perfection is not attainable. Ever. In any way, shape, or form. It is the great existential challenge of humanity to be aware of this wisp of an ideal just beyond our full comprehension and grasp, and yet to learn to see flaws as part of a whole that has become perfect in and of itself because of those flaws.

…um…sorry, my inner academic nerd is peeking out. *stuffs back in box with a copy of Plato’s Republic to pass the time*

My point is this: all absolutes are guaranteed to fail eventually.

(*side-eye at quantum physics and the like* You may be excused until further notice.)

So, if absolute perfect productivity is unachievable at worst and unsustainable at best, why are we so determined to bang our head against that wall?

The Bad Day Tax

I don’t have all the answers to what will help make us more productive. I’m not even sure we NEED to be more productive.

productivity

Shocking, I know, but work with me.

Say we make $50k per year. Break that down into a 40-hour work week, then we are earning (rounded) $24/hr…before everything gets taken out. If we get more productive, work more hours, get more stuff done…we’re still making $50k per year, but even going up to a 50-hour work week drops our ‘hourly rate’ to $19/hr.

So, our employer is getting more work, more productivity, more hours out of us…for less money…because we believe we need to work harder, smarter, better, etc.? And you laughed at my international productivity self-help cabal conspiracy theory…

In a way, we could look at that $5/hr we lost as a ‘Bad Day Tax’ that penalizes us for imperfect productivity. We can’t even throw teabags around our cubicles in protest because…we’re not protesting. While we are trying to keep up with the email (or Slack for those sharp techno-progressives) chain, we are tacitly accepting the rule of Perfect Productivity.

Damn you, Rousseau!

productivity

We can’t change society expectations or recover from our own conditioning overnight. Maybe not even in a generation. This mindset has been a long time in the (*coughIndustrialRevolutioncough*) making, and it may take just as long for us as a society to learn balance. That, or a zombie apocalypse that will wipe out everything and force us to start all over again.

What we can do now is stop tripping ourselves up with the idea of 100% Perfect Productivity. If productivity is a flow, then it must also have an ebb. Forget that little detail and we’re on our way down the garden path to anxiety, depression, exhaustion…you know the rest.

Equal and opposite reactions, baby. Newtonian physics for the win!

The Old College Try

Even ‘trying your best’ is an effort that cannot be sustained at 100% at all times.

productivity

Usain Bolt doesn’t sprint full-out every time he runs. He doesn’t even jog to the supermarket. His attempts to ‘try his best’ are reserved for specific, confined bursts of time – workouts and races. And trying his best is no guarantee of any result. It’s just his intention to sustain superlative effort for a set period.

Biologically, we are not designed to function at 100% capacity at all times. Yet, we chase the perfect body weight, perfect sleep patterns…and optimal work capacity. And since our brain is a resident member of our biological ecosystem, the same rules apply to our psychological health and mental abilities.

In all seriousness, we need to accept that we will have good days when we set ’em up and knock ’em down, and we will have bad days where trying to get something done feels like riding in a bumper car without a seatbelt.

productivity

That’s just the way it is. And, that’s okay. Take a deep breath and really think about it.

You are no longer expected to be perfect and achieve all things on your to-do list today. Yes, obviously, some things have to get done and are non-negotiable (feed the dog/children/partner/goldfish).

The best we can do is to aim for putting forth our best effort for a certain amount of time for a certain task/set of tasks. This doesn’t guarantee results. Lots of stuff might get in the way, both legitimate and procrastinatory.

productivity

Bad days will happen, thwarting our best efforts. BUT, giving our best efforts EVERY DAY means that there will be GOOD DAYS when we zoom through our to-do lists, finish projects, and reach major milestones.

The good days and bad days will balance out until we are operating at the level of productivity is that is optimal for us. Nature will always seek its level…and nature is inexorable.  We can nudge the needle a little through practice, habit, and knowledge, but the only real way to change is the unglamorous, unmarketable reality of plodding persistence over time.

Earthquakes are quick and exciting, but gentle water over time carved the Grand Canyon.

Does this mean I’m doomed to serve fries forever?

Probably not.

Yeah, I know. Not the answer you’re looking for, but hey, I’m gonna side-step that trap of absolute guarantees.

productivity

I feel your pain. I fight ‘Fryolator Flunkie Fear’ every day, and this past year, I’ve struggled with more bad days than good days. But, I haven’t given up yet.

All I can do is give my best effort today, accept what I did and did not accomplish for what it is, get up tomorrow, and give my best effort again.

You with me?

(Oh, and I have a lot more to say about the evil productivity self-help industry, so there will be more posts on that! LOL)


WANANANO?

I have lots of things coming up to help you get through NaNoWriMo! As usual, I will be right there alongside you, slinging words and pulling hair.

On November 1, Kristen Lamb and I will be doing a LIVE ALL-DAY WRITE-IN on our YouTube channel – Reynolds & Lamb.

NaNoWriMo

For the first time, and for FREE, you can hang out with me and Kristen, chatting, putting words up on the board, and getting jazzed for NaNoWriMo! We’ll probably also be dishing out expert writing advice…because we can’t help it.

But seriously, if you’ve never seen us together, you are missing out on doctorate-level snark, random goat noises, and 10 million watt energy!

I’m also offering two classes – one to help you get ready for NaNoWriMo, and one to help you get through it. Check them out below!

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $77.00 USD (both classes live/recorded AND bonus gift!)

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: (see below)

Get two live classes plus all recordings for 30% off!

And, did I say bonus gift? I did! That’s right. When you buy the WANANANO Class Bundle, you will get a FREE copy of my “Book-in-a-Box” template that you can keep and use for all your stories.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in Boston with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. She likes history, science, Jack Daniels, jewelry, pasta, and solitude. Not all at the same time. When she isn’t enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

 


Book-in-a-Box: Get Ready for NaNoWriMo like a Doomsday Prepper!

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: MONDAY, October 29, 2018. 7:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

The best part of NaNoWriMo is the worldwide energy and camaraderie that fuels the writing community. The worst part of NaNoWriMo is facing the fact that we are trying to write a story from beginning to end in 30 days.

For many writers, planning out our NaNo novel ahead of time feels like cheating. Well…so what? It’s not cheating if we don’t add the plan into the word count. In fact, it’s what I like to call SMART WINNING.

Yet, those of us who are planners and plotters still want to be part of the slightly-giddy, euphoric rush of pseudo-pantsing through NaNo with millions of other writers.

Fear not, Wordy Warrior! I am going to share with you my Book-in-a-Box Method that will give you the ability to plot and pants as much or little as you want while helping you stay focused on the finish line.

This class will cover:

  • The Book-Before-the-Book: the secret magical well that you can come back to every time you get stuck or blocked;
  • The Serial Killer Wall: capturing, tracking, plotting in real-time (string and duct tape not included);
  • Stress-Free Plotting is not an Oxymoron: how to cruise through all three acts, figure out chapters, and keep the action going…all without breaking a sweat.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

THE WANANANO CLASS BUNDLE! (with a bonus gift!)

Get two live classes plus all recordings for 30% off!

And, did I say bonus gift? I did! That’s right. When you buy the WANANANO Class Bundle, you will get a FREE copy of my “Book-in-a-Box” template that you can keep and use for all your stories.

REGISTER HERE!

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in Boston with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. She likes history, science, Jack Daniels, jewelry, pasta, and solitude. Not all at the same time. When she isn’t enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.


The Sticky Middle: Get out of the Swamp and over the Finish Line!

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, November 16, 2018. 7:00 P.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

So…how’s NaNoWriMo going for you?

The first 10k words? No problem. Another 5k? I can pants that.

Now…I’m at 18k words with 14 days left…and 0 clues about where to go from here.

Sound familiar? This is what I call ‘The Sticky Middle,’ and it is a treacherous swamp that can swallow even the most accomplished, focused writers. It is the moment when writers are most likely to be pulled under by the forces of writer’s block, insecurity, and exhaustion.

The Sticky Middle is the root cause of 98% (I’m guessing here, but I’m pretty darn sure I’m right) of all unfinished first drafts. This class will teach you how to get out of The Sticky Middle…not just for NaNoWriMo, but for every book you write from now on!

This class will cover:

  • Walking into Quicksand: Half of getting out of The Sticky Middle is knowing how we got in there in the first place…and how to avoid making these early mistakes next time;
  • Maslow Stripping: Assessing where characters are when we get stuck…and what we need to take away from them in order to move forward;
  • The Treasure Map: Making sure we have our eye on the prize (i.e. the ending), and how to use that to get through The Sticky Middle;
  • Stop! Break it Down!: (Couldn’t help myself with that…) A blunt, practical way to tackle the amorphous goo that is The Sticky Middle and wrestle it into realistic, achievable, bite-size steps.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

THE WANANANO CLASS BUNDLE! (with a bonus gift!)

Get two live classes plus all recordings for 30% off!

And, did I say bonus gift? I did! That’s right. When you buy the WANANANO Class Bundle, you will get a FREE copy of my “Book-in-a-Box” template that you can keep and use for all your stories.

REGISTER HERE!

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in Boston with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. She likes history, science, Jack Daniels, jewelry, pasta, and solitude.

These Women Should Scare (and Thrill) You…

What better way to celebrate Women’s History Month than to share women authors who scare the shit out of me?

Okay, so sometimes, it’s not straight-up terror that they inspire. Sometimes, it’s just heart-pounding action, relentless pacing, and the unraveling of a mystery so intense that I have to stay up all night reading until I finish the book (I’m looking at you, Tana French and In the Woods *side eye*).

There’s nothing faint or die away about these tales. Whether it’s the elegant psychological horror of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger or the gut-wrenchingly gruesome moments in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, these books go straight for the psychic jugular.

Who needs a king when you have queens?

I confess, I am not a fan of Stephen King. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate his craft, his sheer volume of production, and his insights into horror. I just…I can’t get into his stories.

The same goes for James Patterson and Dean Koontz. I enjoyed Robert McCammon’s Matthew Corbett series, but couldn’t really get into his other work.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t GREAT male writers of horror and mystery/thriller. There are. But, today, we’re taking the spotlight OFF men with mass media marketing machines behind them and putting the spotlight ON women who deserve to be household names, too.

Women authors aren’t strangers to the grisly and the ghoulish. They have been writing scary stories for centuries, despite being often constrained by the mores and style of the time (not to mention legal issues about receiving actual money for their work).

Let’s take a moment to be thankful to Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Anne Bannerman, Charlotte Brönte, and so many others…

Today, women have established their right to a seat at the table of police procedurals (Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta), private detective stories (Sue Grafton’s alphabetical adventures), and contributions to the sub-genres of crime/thriller by Lisa Jackson, Catherine Coulter, Allison Brennan, and so many others.

These women proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that our frail, fragile female hearts could more than stand the strain of writing and reading about the darkest, most deadly aspects of human nature. For this, we bow to our queens.

My own personal catalogue of nightmarish women

You may be familiar with my “Shelf of Fiction I Would Save in a Fire.” If not, let me fill you in. I didn’t get the nickname “Picky B*tch” because I’m a nice person and leave five-star reviews because I feel obligated. I don’t have so much a DNF (Did Not Finish) pile as much as I have a WNEHPIUITFP (Would Never Even Have Picked It Up In The First Place) pile.

That said, the fiction that I love and still respect in the morning, even if it gave me a book hangover, pretty much fits on one shelf (okay, maybe one-and-a-half). The following women hold places of honor on this shelf.

(There are other women authors I have on my Shelf of Fiction I Would Save in a Fire, but they’re not really grouped in the genre I’m talking about today).

So without further ado, here is a Cait Reynolds Catalogue Raisonné of some scary chicks and their scary writing!

women authors history horror fiction cait reynolds catalogue raisonne

Reading Links:

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

In the Woods by Tana French

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Room by Emma Donohughe

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart

Upcoming classes with me!

Join me on Friday to learn by the back story really is the book behind your book!

BACK STORY: THE YARN BEHIND THE BOOK

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $50.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, March 16, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Behind every good book is an entire story that happens before the reader ever opens to page one. This is the backstory, and done right, it is what sets the stage, provides clues and cues, and rescues you from writer’s block.

A good backstory will help with logic and consistency in the plot, developing complex motivations for characters, and sorting out exactly what needs to happen going forward as you either plot or pants your way to the end.

This class will cover the following topics – and much more:

  • The elements of a backstory;
  • How to take your current plot idea and work backwards into a backstory;
  • Integrating character profiles and the backstory;
  • How the backstory relates to the logline and synopsis;
  • Using the backstory to dig yourself out of corners and shake off writer’s block;
  • Why a backstory is crucial to writing a series.

***A FREE recording is included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

Doing Due Dilly Dilly Diligence for Faux Medieval Fantasy

If you know me at all, you know I get a bit twitchy when it comes to what I like to call ‘faux medieval fantasy.’

It’s not that I have a problem with dragons, magic, or even princesses-in-disguise (okay, well, yes, I have a problem with that). What makes me turn into a biter is the way so many writers take the easy way out with world-building.

You now what I mean. It’s the fantasy where everything is vaguely medieval, as if The Princess Bride, Shrek, and Lord of the Rings had a threesome that they really, really regretted in the morning.

There are stone castles and towers, flowing gowns, crowns, kings, warriors, sorcerers, the systematic oppression of women into traditional gender roles, etc. You know, the usual.

I think one of the reasons writers pick this model is because instinctively, it feels like it should be easy. I mean, from Errol Flynn to Flynn Ryder, we’re constantly exposed to effortless interpretations of medieval culture.

The thing is, to build a faux medieval fantasy world that is compelling, unique, immersive, and most importantly MEMORABLE, we as writers need to stop taking the EASY way and start taking the RIGHT way.

The easy medieval way and the right medieval way

Walk with me through a hypothetical situation here.

We’re writing a scene where Seraphina, a thief-princess-in-disguise *twitch*, is tending Sir Taylor’s sword wound. For our purposes, the scene requires some description of the healing process.

The EASY way to handle it is to fall back on a spurious mix of the BBC’s Robin Hood, Harry Potter, and maybe the Tudors if we’re feeling highbrow. The description would go something like this:

Seraphina took some willow bark from her pouch of herbs and dropped it into boiling water to make a pain-relieving tea for Sir Taylor. She fetched clean bandages and wrapped up his wound as best she could.

First of all, why is it ALWAYS willow bark? It’s like that’s the one fact about old apothecary practices that writers have picked up, and they toss it into their manuscripts so often, it’s practically a  ye olde opioid epidemic.

The RIGHT way might not require us to spend half-a-day researching 13th century wound care, but, just a simple Google search immediately yields a great Wikipedia article. Another Google search for medieval folk remedies turns up a few more useful articles.

Fifteen minutes of skimming later, I haven’t miraculously become an expert in medieval medicine, but I’ve gleaned some good details that will make my descriptions more vivid.

I know that dressing a wound might involve grease, honey, stuffing it with absorbent dressing, turpentine (I know, right?), and clay. Hot oil was often used to cauterize wounds, especially in cases of amputation. There were many herbs and plants used as painkillers, not just willow bark. Also, remedies available were highly dependent on geography and economic resources.

So, if I were to rewrite Seraphina’s loving care of Sir Taylor the RIGHT way, it would go something like this:

Seraphina carefully packed the tufts of wool into Sir Taylor’s wound and smeared honey around the edges, all the while praying the surgeon would arrive soon to stitch him up. She then held to his lips a cup of wine to which she added a few precious drops of pain-killing extracts of poppyseed and belladonna.

Okay, I know we’re all cringing a bit at this point, but we can now visualize tastes, textures, movements more clearly. Our reader brains have glommed onto these details as a subconscious affirmation that this world is believable, and we settle even deeper into the story.

but magic! fantasy!

But if it’s fantasy, we can do what we want, right? We don’t have to worry about accuracy. We don’t have to worry about details like that. Right?

Ehhhh….

Technically, no. But, we can’t pretend to be surprised when our books don’t get long-term market traction.

There are several reasons why skating by with a working knowledge of The Princess Bride just won’t work in the long run.

The most fundamental rule of fantasy is that….there are rules. Magic must have limits. Kingdoms must have borders. Dragons must have soft underbellies.

Without rules and limits, there is nothing for the characters to struggle against, no odds to win over, no room to grow or become wiser.

How does this apply to the application of wool, honey (and possibly turpentine) to Sir Taylor’s wound by Seraphina? It’s nuanced, but work with me here.

We can change out the pain relieving herbs (if absolutely necessary – see my next fundamental rule of fantasy), and we can add magic to the healing (if it fits with our world-building). BUT, in addition to creating limits to healing magic, we also need to know the limits of whatever medicine and medical techniques our characters are using.

Why do we have to be so specific about the medicine and medical techniques? Because that is the craft: adding details to descriptions that turn the illustrative into the evocative.

Maybe it’s not medicine. Maybe it’s the fletching on an arrow, or the design of liveries for footmen and pages. It could be how long it takes to bake bread, or what kind of cheese travels best for weeks-on-end without refrigeration through varying climactic conditions. (Because it seems like no self-respecting fantasy ever has anyone traveling without bread and cheese.)

Skip these details, and the result are bland, cookie-cutter, forgettable settings with characters who subconsciously annoy us with their anachronistic behavior.

I’m not saying we have to become professorial-level scholars. However, I am saying that to write good faux medieval fantasy, we should become excellent lay scholars.

Yes, it’s a pain at first because it feels like we have to look up all kinds of little things. It makes us feel like writing is less a flow and more a stop-and-start process. The thing is, though, like all good habits, the more we do this, the more knowledge we acquire, and the more knowledge we acquire, the less we have to look up.

I probably won’t ever need to look up general wound care for the 13th century again. I might need to research sleep remedies, amputations, and fever treatments, but again, once I learn about those, I’ve got that knowledge, and it’s one less interruption to the writing flow.

just because we can fantasy! doesn’t mean we should Fantasy!

The next fundamental rule of fantasy (whoa, way to bring us back to the point, right?) is that we only change and create that which is absolutely relevant. 

There is no need to create a whole other word for apple if apples have nothing to do with the plot or the climate/geography/world-building…especially if we are working in a faux medieval fantasy setting.

If we were on an alien world, then maybe there might be a reason. But if we are looking to add dragons and magic to a faux medieval northern European setting, then apples can stay apples.

Just to prove I’m not a total raving bitch when it comes to world-building and history (oh, who am I kidding? I totally am a raving, twitchy bitch about this stuff), let’s look at a case where apples might be something else.

I’ve just spent ten minutes digging around Wikipedia, online old Norse dictionaries, and following a couple of footnotes. I can now tell you that if we wanted to write a story about a quest for golden apples of immortality (à la Idun in Norse mythology), we could use the word ‘epli‘ for apple.

Without going into a minor diatribe about etymology (though, that’s another post coming soon), let’s go with the idea of ‘epli.’

First of all, I would probably have the term ‘golden apple’ be the common usage vernacular for everyone in my faux medieval world. It wouldn’t be the first word to have a casual nickname. We do it all the time – even to this day…like the new additions to M-W of ‘googling’ and ‘facebooking.’

I might change up the actual spelling of epli for fun and to keep it from being strictly identifiable as old Norse (again, the etymology beast pokes its head up, but I tuck it back down for later). Let’s go with eppele because it keeps the general feel and sound of the original.

In my little world-building, the word eppele is a formal, sacred word, used only to refer to the ‘golden apples of immortality.’ Only nobility and religious figures would use it, and probably only on formal or nonsecular occasions. It would be the equivalent today of using ‘prithee’ in conversation. Awkward. Not done. Saved for drama or religious services. Unless you do have a habit of using ‘prithee’ in everyday life, and if so, bonus points for you!

Now…let’s make things even MORE fun. Yes, this is fun. Seraphina and Sir Taylor are closing in on what they think is the end of their quest, the orchard of golden apples. Except…PLOT TWIST! When they get the apples, the apples don’t do what they’re supposed to do. No rush of immortality, no instant healing of Sir Taylor’s wound.

That’s when they meet the guardian of the orchard who reveals their mistake. By just taking the term ‘golden apples’ at face value, they’ve chased down the entirely wrong object. If they had researched the term a bit more, they might have discovered that the formal world eppele actually referred to any fruit or nut. What Seraphina and Sir Taylor are really searching for is the golden acorn of immortality in the next sacred orchard over.

How did I come up with that? Easy. In my little ten minute skimming, I read that the old Norse word epli was often used to denote any fruit or nut.

So…pulling this all back to the point I’m trying to make (yes, there is one), we can change the word for apple if it is relevant to our plot/world, but by using a solid grounding in medieval history and mythology, we not only embed details that help the reader sink deeper into our world, but we discovered a cool little plot twist.

proof i’m not a total bitch about faux medieval fantasy

I’m here to help. No, really, I am.

I’m also here to attempt to insidiously inculcate a love of non-fiction in writers…and the public in general.

To that end, I now give you a very special Cait Reynolds Catalogue Raisonné: Ye Olde Before it was Olde.

This is a collection of general medieval history (and a little fiction) that ranges from the deliciously quick read to the super-dedicated months-long study.  Reading order and Amazon links below.

medieval, faux medieval fantasy, history, middle ages

Reading order:

The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danzinger

1215: The Year of the Magna Carta by Danny Danzinger and John Gillingham

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis

In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor

The Edge of the World by Michael Pye

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchmann

God’s Philosophers by James Hannam

Want more reading? Check out my whole PAGE of Catalogues Raisonnés!

want to see what else i’m a bitch about? Check out my class this week!

FROM FIZZLE TO SIZZLE: THE SECRETS OF WRITING SUPER HOT ROMANCE ( <— CLICK TO REGISTER)

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $65.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, March 9th, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

We all know that book…the romance novel where we skip over the bits of description and the actual plot until we get to the next part where the romantic protagonists interact again. We also all know that other book…the romance novel where we devour every word because every piece of it is so hot, it should come with a flammability warning.

It’s not hard to notice the differences between the two types, but when it comes to articulating them, and what’s more, putting them into practice, we often find ourselves struggling against ‘Fizzle Factors’ such as trite dialogue, trope-y characters, and a plot that is so doughy, it’s mushier than the trite dialogue.

In this class, we will take apart and analyze piece-by-piece the ‘Fizzle Factors’ and then learn how to use the ‘Sizzle System’ to turn the heat allllllll the way back up!

Topics will include:

  • The two super-secret elements of every single mega-successful romance novel;
  • How to create a plot that doesn’t interfere with and actually supports the romance;
  • The easy way to create truly memorable characters that readers will care about;
  • ‘Russian’ literature: the problem of rushin’ into conflict and rushin’ out of it in romance writing;
  • Coming up with an original and unusual ending that STILL fits the Happily Ever After requirement.

Note: If you have taken one of my ‘How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes’ classes before, this is going to be different in that I won’t be covering specifically how to craft a sex scene. I will be talking at a bigger picture level about plot structure, character development, and fine points of the genre.

REGISTER TODAY!

***A FREE recording is included with purchase.

About the Instructor

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and small, neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, reading nonfiction, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

 

Editing the Concept of an Editor

editing, editor, editors, writing

The editor.

The dreaded arbiter of your writing. The judge and jury of your style. The only thing standing between you and publication. The unrelenting taskmaster. The sensei of craft to your grasshopper of words.

An editor should be all these things, yet all too often, many freelance editors are not much more than glorified beta readers. They catch inconsistencies, make some suggestions, and run your manuscript through an automatic proofreading software program, all for less than a penny per word and a guaranteed quick turnaround time.

editing, editors, editor, writing

Ask yourself when was the last time an editor really dug into your story from a conceptual and structural point-of-view, demonstrating a solid understanding of plotting, world-building, character development, and pacing? When was the last time an editor pushed your development as a writer? I’m not just talking about nagging you about using too many adverbs. I’m talking about challenging you to sharpen your prose and cultivate your unique voice.

Don’t get me wrong. Not all freelance editors out there are bad. But, to be perfectly honest, the good ones are few, far-between, and usually booked up or running behind. They are also expensive.

Editing is one of those things where you really do get what you pay for. A fraction of a penny per word is great for your budget, but probably not so great for the quality of your book. It’s worth delaying publication and saving up to afford a really top-notch editor.

The Editorial Checklist for Editors

How do you know you are getting a good editor? Well, here are some things to look for:

  • Look at their website. Is it clean, professional, and well-written?
  • Look at the other books they have edited. Take a read through one or two sample chapters. Does the author still overuse adverbs, trite descriptions, and too much stage direction? If so, move on. This is not the editor for you.
  • See what the editor has to say about developmental vs. line-editing. Developmental editing means the editor knows the science and art of plotting and structure inside and out. Developmental editing means the editor has the ability to understand your world-building and think logically about what is missing/inconsistent/inaccurate – especially with genres like epic fantasy, historical, and science fiction. Developmental editing means being able to spot where the story slows, where to slash and burn, and what to put in its place…and being unafraid to make these suggestions to the author.
  • Line-editing has some absolute basics than any editor MUST demonstrate: knowledge of correct vocabulary usage, grammar, and punctuation. It’s a total turn-off and disappointment to read a book that has been “edited” and find words used incorrectly. Editors should also be able to point out areas where you can improve your writing overall. Is your dialogue stilted? Your editor should be able to help you learn to write better dialogue. Do you spend too much time on description? Your editor should be able to demonstrate and teach you how to write more concise descriptions.
  • Do you have an authorial ‘voice?’ If so, a good editor works with your manuscript in a way that keeps your voice conceptually and helps you refine it on a practical level. If you don’t have a real style or voice, a good editor can help you develop one by identifying your strengths and weaknesses, and helping you experiment with different styles until you find what fits.
  • How long does it take an editor to turn around edits? Beware the fast turnaround. Serious editing is hard, time-consuming work. Reading the manuscript as an editor takes much more time than reading it as a lay reader. Working through the plot and concepts takes thinking time, struggling time, and writing time. Line-editing, if done right, takes a high degree of concentration and time to work and review. But, in the end, you get a better book, and isn’t that worth it?
  • Will the editor provide a sample page or chapter of edits? Will they critique a synopsis? Can they articulate a clear philosophy of editing, standards for their working relationship with the author, and expectations for a project?
No Pain, no gain…and no bargain, either

This probably makes working with an editor sound more daunting. It should. Editing should be a daunting process, a crucible that burns away the useless in your manuscript and leaves a cleaner, purer story. Editing shouldn’t just be accepting changes in track changes mode. Every time you work with an editor, you should come away with a little more polish to your writing, a better technique for approaching your weaknesses, and a sense of a battle well-fought.

editing, editors, editor, writing

Does this mean you have to work harder to find an editor? Yes. Does this mean that editors need to up their game? Absolutely. But, in the end, holding everyone involved in a book to higher standards is the only way that self-publishing is going to survive as an industry.

(Full disclosure, I do provide developmental editing services, but this is not a pitch for business…these are opinions I’ve come to after years of working in publishing, both as a writer and an editor.)

Amazon–no, the OTHER Amazon (A Catalogue Raisonne)

amazon exploration
Amazon rainforest
Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

It’s that time of year again. You know what I mean. Time for diet sabotaging, socializing with people we can’t stand, and going way over budget on Amazon.

But, there’s another Amazon, one that can take us away from all this noise (i.e. non-stop Christmas music), hustle (sit DOWN, Black Friday), and bustle (don’t even think about it, traffic jams!).

I’m talking about the Amazon that is south of the border. Really, really south. Like, WAY south.

That’s right. Today, I’m bringing you a slice of Amazonia, courtesy of a Cait Reynolds Catalogue Raisonné. I’ll be sharing some of my favorite non-fiction and fiction about South American rainforests, rivers, and exploration.

The best part? There is absolutely NO risk of flesh-eating parasitic infections, malaria, or being eaten by one of the many, MANY things that can kill you in the Amazon.

The Rainforest Shmainforest episode of South Park is a classic and must be watched on a semi-regular basis. Because.

Oh, and just for a quick refresh, a catalogue raisonné translates to ‘annotated bibliography,’ but I like to think of it as a curated syllabus.

Yes, there is a difference. Yes, I am a geek.

No Camping gear required for this amazon

I do not like camping. I’m just being honest. I don’t enjoy dirt and discomfort. God gave us indoor plumbing for a reason, and it seems a shame to dishonor His gift by squatting in the woods.

I will be the first to admit that I do not have what it takes to be an explorer, at least physically. This is probably why I am endlessly fascinated by people who are driven to go to such extremes to either prove something, discover something, or solve something.

Frankly, the Amazon sounds like one of the more challenging and unpleasant places to do that…which is why it’s so delicious to read about when I’m all cozy with a cuppa and a puppa under a blanket.

Amazon exploring dog
This is not the face of an explorer. This is the face of a dog who likes his thousand-thread-count sheets, tyvm.

The books I have selected for this catalogue raisonné are, as usual, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I am going to list them in order of how I think they should be read, because really, they do build on each other.

And, frankly, I’m having a hard time not adding in yet another catalogue raisonné specifically dedicated to Dutch exploration just in this post because it dovetails so beautifully…but, I will refrain. Until next week.

Without further ado…

amazon exploration

READING ORDER

The Conquerors by Roger Crowley

The Gold Eaters by Ronald Wright

Measure the Earth by Larrie D. Ferreiro

The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker

Exploration Fawcett by Col. Percy Fawcett

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

River of Doubt by Candice Millard

If you like my catalogues raisonnés, check out a whole page of them here!

Also, I’d love to hear from you about topics you’d love to see a catalogue raisonné on!

Unsticking the Sticky Middle of Your Book

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Actual photo of Cait Reynolds emerging from the Sticky Middle. Photo by Nathalie SPEHNER on Unsplash

We’re two weeks into NaNoWriMo, and I’d wager that a bunch of us are stuck in the morass that I like to call the ‘Sticky Middle.’ We have made it through the first heady 5,000 words. Maybe even 15,000 or 20,000 words. But, now?

The words are coming slower.

The ideas are coming even slower than that.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

We are in the vast wasteland between the OOH of the beginning and the AHH of the end, where it’s mostly…

MEH

EH

BLAH

ARGH

In other words…the Sticky Middle.

Why do we get stuck?

The Sticky Middle is mushy, amorphous mass of words that unfortunately form the bulk of a book. For a body of words that is so unwieldy and difficult to structure, the Sticky Middle unfortunately carries the weight of providing order to the plot while keeping the reader deeply engaged.

In a three-act plot structure, the Sticky Middle is Act II. Therein lies the problem.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Most of us can take a wisp of an idea and fake it ’til we make it with Act I. Beginnings are relatively easy to set up and rough draft (yes, yes, I know that according to Dune, beginnings are a delicate time, but Irrulan never tried writing genre fiction, so she can suck it).

Even Act III isn’t a complete mystery to us when we start, no matter whether we are plotting or pantsing. The final product might change, but most of us have at least a sense of how we want to dole out the happy endings, prison sentences, and golden apples of immortality.

But, Act II?

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

It’s easy.

Well, that is to say, I’ve figured out a fairly simple technique that helps me, and I’m going to share it with you.

Training ourselves to walk through quicksand

I promise we are going to get to Act II and the Sticky Middle technique, but I need to take a moment and set things up.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

First, I’d suggest checking out my blog post about how to structure a chapter and figure out your sweet spot word count pace. In a nutshell, though, I basically recommend a couple things:

  • Practice timed writing so you get a sense of the average word count you can achieve in 30 minutes, an hour, etc. You’ll also get a feel for what your most comfortable span of concentration is and your peak quality output. For example:
    • I know that I can write about 500 words in 30 minutes;
    • I am most focused and productive in 30-40 minute segments;
    • I can produce 2,500 words of solid writing per day, but anything more than that and the quality of my rough draft writing goes down drastically.
  • Learn the discipline of chapter structure now in order to improvise later;
    • A scene/chapter has four parts to it: the Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat (read the post for descriptions of each of these);
    • Each of these four sections should be about 250 words each, or doubled to 500 words;
    • That means that a 1,000-word chapter is made up of 1 scene with four sections, and a 2,000-word chapter is made up of 2 scenes of 1k words each.

For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to use my personal sweet spot of a 2,000-word chapter.

Greasing the skids with Act I

The logic behind the structure and mechanics of Act I is another book-like blog post for another time, but for our purposes, let’s compare Act I to the stages of grief.

Why?

Because we are about to massacre the characters’ everyday existence…all in the name of setting them on the road to adventure. And, like with any death, our characters need to react to and grieve for what they are losing/have lost.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

I use the following stages (yes, I know there are five stages, but I only use four—whatever! Grief is a personal thing! LOL):

  • Denial: The curtain rises on our characters, and we get a glimpse of their day-to-day life. It’s not perfect. In fact, they’re probably in denial about all the things that are wrong and should change/be different.
  • Anger: This is the first thing that happens that simply cannot ignore that will set them on a collision course with the quest. It’s startling. Different. Disturbing. They don’t like it and try to go back to denial.
  • Bargaining: The characters are having second thoughts about ignoring the signal that change is coming. Or, maybe they can’t stop thinking about it. Whichever it is, they are now teetering on the edge of trying to cling to denial while acknowledging anger and bargaining to see if there’s a compromise.
  • Acceptance: Yeah, no help for it now. The quest is real. It’s in-your-face, beating-you-over-the-head-with-a-2×4, and the characters have no choice but to go down this new, uncertain, and possibly dangerous road.

While it is fun to play around with cute categorizations, we are still faced with the same question for Act I that I posed earlier with regards to Act II:

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

Nowwwww, we’re getting somewhere.

We really are. Trust me. I’m like a human GPS. I know where we’re going.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

At least to start with, I plan for:

  • Denial: 1-2 chapters
  • Anger: 1-2 chapters
  • Bargaining: 1-2 chapters
  • Acceptance: 1-2 chapters
  • Each chapter will be 2 scenes of 1,000 words each or 1 scene of 2,000 words;
  • All scenes will follow the pattern of Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat.

Therefore, I know that:

Act I will have 4-8 chapters and be 8k-16k in length.

BOOM.

Now, all we have to do is take this and apply it to the Sticky Middle.

Piece of cake. Right?

RIGHT?

Unsticking the Middle

Remember those two questions? Yes, you’re going to come to hate those questions…almost as much as you hate the fact you can hear my voice in the back of your mind whispering, “Is it really relevant?”

And, if you didn’t have my voice in the back of your head, you do now.

You’re welcome.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Anyway. The questions.

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

Let’s tackle the first part. How do we figure out everything that has to happen?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s completely up to us so long as we follow one rule. The bad news…is that it’s completely up to us so long as we follow one rule.

That rule is super easy to remember: ALWAYS MAKE IT WORSE.

Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: physiological (food/water/sleep), safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Now, create plot points, clues, and twists that strip all of these away from your characters.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

No matter what, never give your characters a break, coincidence, relief, or opportunity. Happiness is boring. Cheerful coincidence could create the dreaded bookmark moment, or worse, condemn our book to the DNF (did not finish) pile.

The whole point of Act II is to take the protagonist to the moment when all is lost, everything has gone wrong, and leave them pretty much completely unprepared to face the climax…because that’s fun (at least for the reader).

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Act II

As you might have guessed by now, I’m going to break this down even further into structured segments.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

So, in Act II, we need the following:

  • Weird Shit & Things Get Worse
    • This is the chunk of the book where we start stripping the protagonist of her Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs under the guise of plot points, clues, betrayals, etc.;
    • This is where the bulk of the clues are going to come into play;
    • Decide how many facts the protagonist is going to need in order solve the problem and then set up an increasingly difficult obstacle course for each clue – this will help you figure out how many scenes and chapters you need…
    • …also, it helps keep a lid on irrelevant side-trips like the Mary Sue Shopping Spree;
    • Try to create a crescendo of severity of the risks and consequences of learning each piece of crucial information;
    • This naturally build to…the TWIST!
  • Twist and Shout!
    • The protagonist thinks she might have everything figured out, but surprise!
    • She doesn’t!
    • She could be totally wrong, blindsided by her own biases, have dismissed a key fact as unimportant, or trusted the wrong person for the right reasons;
    • WARNING: the twist MUST follow logically from all the clues we have been doling out. The twist cannot come out of left-field. It should be the fruit of our own hard work at thinking about the story and sacrificing our chance to enjoy guessing whodunit in real-time as we write. We have to know who the murderer is from the beginning so we can work backwards on how to hide the clues. It takes practice, but it’s far better than deciding that the twist will be…uh…she’s a werewolf! when what we’re really writing is a contemporary YA romance but haven’t thought far enough ahead about what is going to be the twist…
  • Sharknado! And, Sharknado II!
    • Or, rather…DISASTER!
    • As a result of the protagonist being ignorant of and unprepared for the twist, the consequences of the twist are the worst possible scenario come-to-life;
    • This is our chance to strip away that last shred of the Maslow Hierarchy that the protagonist has desperately been hanging onto;
    • It’s okay to do this. We apologize to our characters, let them know that we’re going to get them out of the hole, and then proceed to smash their world to pieces;
    • Remember, the disaster part of Act II is like Sharknado and Jaws had a love child who then dated Snakes on a Plane.
  • All is Lost
    • This is an optional section. That’s right. I’m giving you a choice. Booyah!
    • Basically, this is that quiet lull the comes right before the protagonist figures out the one thing that can change the course of everything and allow him/her to take up the mantle of the hero;
    • You know this moment…every Disney move has it…when Belle weeps over the dead body of the Beast and the last rose petal falls; Elsa and Kristoff are too late to keep Anna from turning completely to ice; in Disney’s Hercules, it’s the moment when Meg dies, and a mortal Hercules is not only helpless to save her, but has also failed to protect Thebes and the rest of humanity;
    • The purpose of an all-is-lost moment is to show the protagonist at her truest and most raw. There is no more pretense, excuses, illusions/delusions, false idols. She stripped to her foundations, forced to face her faults and fallacies, and in that moment, decide whether she will give into them or make one more attempt to put things right and become better than she was;
    • Again, this is optional because it doesn’t work for every story. It can depend on pacing, character arc, whether it’s a part of a series, genre, etc.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Now, ready for the magic formula? Remember, I’m working based on every chapter being 2,000 words and 1-or-2 scenes, and all scenes will follow the pattern of Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat.

  • Weird Shit & Things Get Worse: 6-8 chapters
  • Twist and Shout!: 1-2 chapters
  • Sharknado! And, Sharknado II!: 1-2 chapters
  • All is Lost: 1-2 chapters

Therefore, I know that:

Act II will have 9-14 chapters and be 18k-28k in length.

BOOM.

Consider the Sticky Middle UNSTUCK.

A slick finale

All of this is not meant to regiment our writing in the equivalent of literary whalebone corsets.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

(Yes, I will cover Act III, but that’s another book blog post!)

But, if you—like me—struggle with the Sticky Middle, then this can be a map for making your way through the morass. The ‘Sticky Middle’ is that moment that determines whether we are going to make through November, NaNoWriMo, or throughout the year with every book we try to write…or that we finish.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve got an AWESOME new class this Friday!

BAD BOYS: DANGEROUS LOVE FROM REJECTION TO REDEMPTION

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Some Bad Boys have tattoos and motorcycles. Others wear three-piece suits and eat mergers & acquisitions for breakfast.

Whatever Bad Boy flavor you like, there are key characteristics they all share…and there are some common mistakes writers make that will turn his sexy, wolfish grin into the simper of an anxious bichon frise faster than you can say, “How you doin’?”

This class will cover:

  • How to leverage all the classic Bad Boy traits while making your character unique.
  • Keeping the Bad Boy on the tightrope between attractively arrogant and annoying a$$hole.
  • From macho to marshmallow: how to avoid the traps that turn your man soft mid-plot.
  • Write like a man (because no Bad Boy should ever come across like a soccer mom with an attitude problem).
  • Redemption vs. realistic redemption: creating the arc for a Bad Boy we can live with.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

 

What is the Burning Reason You Must Write This Book?

Did you just stop and ask yourself that? Did the Burning Reason trip off the tip of your tongue, or did you stare blankly at the screen and think:

a.) “Oh, crap, there’s ANOTHER thing Cait wants me to think about and that I probably need to up my writing game.”

or

b.) “What the fuck is a Burning Reason?”

Both are totally valid responses, and you are not alone. When I first started writing with a goal to becoming published, I had no clue about the Burning Reason.  I just wrote because…uh…I wanted to tell a story.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

Yeah. It was a story. Beginning, middle, end. Happy ending. Tra la la and all that jazz. But, then, I wrote a story that accidentally really meant something to me (Duet of Desire, if you must know).

I was not just enjoying writing. I was passionate about it. Driven to finish. Driven to make a point. Okay, so I might have taken liberties in using Sarah Bernhardt and Worth to make my point, but at least I had a point to make.

The result was a book that is both a lovely little romp in historical erotica and a story that (hopefully) touches the reader’s heart and soul in a way that goes beyond the pat satisfaction of a Happily Ever After.

So…yes, I digressed. Back on track, then.

What IS the Burning Reason You Must Write This Book?

The Burning Reason is a thought, belief, truth, or emotion that forms the foundational bedrock of every story worth telling.

Skip thinking about the Burning Reason when you are getting ready to write, and you risk producing a story that is rote, forgettable, and does absolutely nothing for your brand or reputation.

Today, I’m going to take you through a little bit more about what a Burning Reason is, and what it does for our characters, plots, writing, and marketing…and of course, why every writer needs a Burning Reason to Write This Book.

That Itchy Feeling in Your Brain? That’s a Burning Reason.

Think about what sticks with us after we have either a very positive or very negative interaction with someone.

We replay the scene over and over again. We analyze the other person’s words, actions, motives, seeking causes, explanations, and often excuses. Then, we compare all of that to our own set of beliefs and and values, seeing how well everything lines up. When it doesn’t, that’s a moment when we either define our own position more clearly, or it challenges us to grow.

All of this usually happens unconsciously, but there’s that faint, itchy sensation in the back of our mind as we inadvertently puzzle out our personal philosophies.

We don’t even realize that the conclusions we reach are sometimes really profound statements of our core values. It’s easy to toss out, “Oh, she shouldn’t have done that because cheating on your boyfriend is wrong.” But, if we take a second look at those words, a deeper meaning emerges.

It could be wrong because we hold to religious dictates about fidelity. Or, we believe that cheating damages the fundamental trust that is crucial to a relationship. Maybe, we have been the victim of cheating, and we believe that no one should have to go through that pain.

Any one of those statements would make an excellent Burning Reason.

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. It can be, but it really doesn’t have to be.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

At the end of the day, the Burning Reason is simply something you believe in and want to share because it is the one way that you, as a writer, can truly use your craft to make a difference.

Seraphina and Taylor do not have a Burning Reason

You know my Mary Sue stand-in’s, Seraphina and Taylor, right? They go on adventures. They fall in love. They go to balls and parties. They save the world.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Ad nauseam.

Every utterly forgettable (and/or terrible) book tells a variation of the Seraphina and Taylor story.

It doesn’t matter if we change the color of their hair from raven to flaming, or if we decide their magical powers can make them control dragons instead of commanding fire. It doesn’t matter whether the drug lords who are after them are from Colombia or China, or if the stalker ex appears normal or comes off as plain batshit crazy.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

Without a Burning Reason, Seraphina and Taylor are just going through the motions, over and over again. The Burning Reason is why we remember Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy but not the names in that romance we borrowed on Kindle Unlimited last week.

If a character arc is made up of a past, present, and future, then the Burning Reason gives depth to their past, consequences to their present, and meaning to their future.

The Burning ARC

Using the Burning Reason helps us define the mistakes, false beliefs, and fears that bring our characters to that moment of Toxic Normal (phrase courtesy of Kristen Lamb) when the story begins.

For example, say my Burning Reason is I want to share my belief that we can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we react. By keeping this in mind as I create Seraphina’s backstory, I begin to see a character who has a central fault of emotional knee-jerk reactions.

This fault has led to failed jobs, relationships, and a general sense of depression. That is where she is when the story starts.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

I know that once I begin to nail down the specifics of the plot, I am going to create obstacles, problems, and twists that require Seraphina to admit to, face down, and finally overcome this fault.

At the end, Seraphina might not have completely overcome her tendency to react slightly hysterically to situations, but at least now, she is aware of it. She is working to change her behavior, which in turn helps her achieve (or gives her hope of achieving) her happy ending.

The Burning Reason also works for the antagonist, secondary characters, etc. The more we think through how the Burning Reason applies to all the characters, the more we create deeper, more complex, more realistic, and more compelling relationships

…which in turn make for better problems in a plot.

Burning it down: plotting and the burning reason

Though I am a pretty good writer (*muscle cramp from patting self on the back), every now and then, Kristen Lamb needs to beat me over the head about not letting my plot degenerate into simply a series of bad situations.

There are a lot of techniques writers can use to prevent the slide from story to situations. The Burning Reason is one of the quickest and easiest.

When we are figuring out all the things that have to happen in the story, the Burning Reason helps identify what kinds of problems will become plot points. It also acts as a scale against which we can measure the increasing gravity of obstacles, risks, and consequences.

I harp on ‘relevance’ a lot, and, yup, you guessed it. The Burning Reason provides a way to spot-check the relevance of plot points. Let’s go back to the example of Seraphina’s knee-jerk reaction ‘fault’ and the theme of choosing how we react to things that happen.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

Every scene should be relevant in some way to Seraphina’s ‘fault,’ allowing her to deny it, face it, explore it, struggle with it, etc. In the first draft, it’s easy to accidentally slide into a scene or chapter where she is just going shopping, or having lunch, or making out with Taylor.

Once we begin editing, checking every scene against the Burning Reason that is behind Seraphina’s ‘fault’ helps us identify sloppy and/or superfluous writing.

This is also a great technique for breaking through writer’s block. Stuck on where to go or what to say? Look at the Burning Reason and think about how it could make things worse or bring out another aspect of the character’s faults and struggles.

Even the conclusion and resolution of the story is helped by keeping our eyes on the burning prize. Happily ever after is all well and good, but what does happy actually mean to our characters if we don’t know what has made them unhappy or caused them to struggle.

Cue the Burning Reason. *shifty eyes*

a reasonable brand

These days, authors have to be brand conscious and marketing savvy.  It feels like almost every week, there’s a new trick to getting newsletter subscribers, book sales, and Instagram followers.

Yet, I wonder if we aren’t overlooking something so fundamental that no amount of Facebook posting can make up for its lack.

In our rush to get to tell the stories in our head, get to market, and corner the market, we might be forgetting to think about the most important aspect of marketing: THE READER.

The readers are giving us the gift of their time and money, and we risk losing long-term fans if all we do is take advantage in the short-term without giving something back. (Producing a 20k word novella every two weeks doesn’t count as giving back unless you are the next Brontë sister or have a last name like Koontz.)

We have to respect and show our gratitude to the reader. The truest and most sincere way we can do that is to produce the best book we are capable of writing.

Part of writing a book that gives something back to the reader is offering up a Burning Reason.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

It’s something for the reader to think about, to mull over, to feel deeply moved by, to rage against, to remember often in years to come, or be pleasantly surprised by remembering it in a random moment.

We don’t have to be self-righteous, sententious, obvious, or pedantic about the Burning Reason. But, by writing a story that is built on that foundation, we are giving back to the reader the best possible thing we can: a connection with the beauty, tragedy, hope, and power of the human experience.

“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” Anais Nin

 

Two Tricks for Getting the NaNoWriMo Word Count

Ah, November, the annual hunt for the 50,000 word count.

The mating call of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is the sound of a million fingers tapping out 1,667 words a day for 30 days.

There are lots of tools and encouragement to help us cross the finish line: NaNoWriMo’s coaches, Twitter and writing sprints, write-in’s, and all other kinds of traditions, tips, and even superstitions (but seriously, this isn’t the playoffs, you really need to change your socks!).

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, sometimes climbing the 50,000-word mountain just seems impossible. It’s an immense amount of words to get down in just 30 days.

If it’s not trying to figure out what is going to happen next, it’s trying to curb a meandering scene that just won’t die, or struggling to come up with just another 50 words, or making the best use of a stolen 15 minutes.

However, having worked for years to figure out my own writing styles and rhythms, I’ve discovered an inherent structure to scenes and chapters. This structure is the word count reserve that I will use to tell this part of the story.

And, I’m going to share it with you.

COUNT ON IT

If we write as a hobby, any pace is fine. We can write 3,000 words one day and 45 words the next, and it won’t matter. However, if we are professional writers, then knowing our sweet spot pace is crucial.

It doesn’t matter if you are a plotter or a pantser. Professional writers work at a professional pace, and almost all of us can tell you what our sweet spot pace is and what our best and maximum word count per hour and day is.

For me, my word count pace breaks down as follows:

  • 30 minutes: 350-500 words
  • 1 hour: 800-1,000 words (sweet spot pace)
  • Daily best quality maximum: 2,500-3,000 words
  • Duress pace (deadline): 5,000 words

Does it happen like this every single day? No. Of course not. But does it happen like this most days when I write? Yes.  Yes, it does.

As a result, when I set up a project or need to know how long it is going to take me to write a book, I look at my pace, and I know what a realistic timeframe is for completion.

This isn’t just for NaNoWriMo. Learning your sweet spot pace is a discipline that will serve you for the rest of your career as a professional writer.

TRICK ONE: COUNT TO FOUR

You don’t have to have your entire book plotted out (though, I usually do) to take advantage of this trick. When we are about to go into a scene or a chapter, just remember:

THERE ARE FOUR PARTS OF EVERY SCENE AND/OR CHAPTER:

  • The Problem
  • Progress
  • But Then
  • Death Threat

The Problem is the situation that the chapter or scene starts off with. Depending on the plot, the Problem can either be a continuation of the problem the characters are dealing with at the end of the last chapter, or it can be a new issue.

Whatever the case, the Problem sets the stage for moving the plot forward. It determines which characters will be present in a scene, what clues will be revealed, actions taken, etc.

Progress is what the characters do to attempt to resolve the problem. It can be discussion, interaction, information, etc. However, it is crucial that Progress does not end up solving or resolving anything. Why? Because then we can’t get the…

But Then, which is when Progress gets interrupted by a twist, obstacle, confrontation, or any number of delightfully disruptive options. The But Then takes whatever is happening and makes it worse. Never better. Because better is boring.

The Death Threat finishes up the whole thing, takes the But Then (which was already pretty bad) and puts it on the knife’s edge of disaster. It’s not always a literal Death Threat to one of the characters. It could be the death of a clue, the death of a character’s trust in another character, the death of a lie or a hope. But the Death Threat is what keeps the reader turning the page to find out what happens next.

trick two: COUNT TO 1,000

When you start writing with this four-part structure, the easiest way to get used to it is to break it into four 250-word sections.

  • The Problem: 250 words
  • Progress: 250 words
  • But Then: 250 words
  • Death Threat: 250 words

That means that every scene or chapter that uses this structure will be 1,000 words. If you want to write a 2,000-word chapter, you can do either two 1,000-word scenes or one 2,000-word, scene, in which case, each of the four sections would be 500 words.

NaNoWriMo word count

But here’s the beauty of all this…if you know your Sweet Spot Pace, then you know exactly how long it will take you to write each of the 250-word sections. 

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT…INDIVIDUALITY

I know this kind of structure can feel restrictive, especially at first. Putting any kind of *gasp* limit on creativity seems like anathema, a cruel symbol of the cold, corporate nature of publishing.

However, we should think of it more like playing the piano. Before we can play Tchaikovsky, we first need to learn how to play scales. Basics before mastery. Scales, then exercises, then simple pieces, more complex compositions, the ability to play masterworks, and finally, the ability to improvise and even compose our own work.

In this age of quick hits and quick fixes, there are still some truths we cannot deny:

  1. Taxes will always be a bitch.
  2. Cat videos can cure almost anything.
  3. There is still value in taking the time to learn, practice, and learn some more because mastery is achieved in no other way.

Okay, okay, I admit it. That last one is actually the real point (but CAT VIDEOS!). So, maybe for NaNoWriMo, the goal isn’t just to write 50,000 words in 30 days, ending up with a manuscript that looks slightly less coherent than a cafeteria Sloppy Joe.

Maybe, we need to use NaNoWriMo to grow by challenging ourselves to find our sweet spot pace, practice writing consistent chapter structures, and hit predictable word counts.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? What will you be writing? Leave me a comment with what you are going to work on and a Twitter handle so I can follow you! You can also find me almost every single day on the live chat room on WANATribe.com where writers from all over the world come together and sprint all day long…ALL YEAR LONG.

Good luck! May the word count be ever on your side!

Obsessed with the Catalogue Raisonné

catalogue raisonne

What on earth is a catalogue raisonné you ask? (And very reasonably so.)

A catalogue raisonné is a systematic, annotated catalog. Put another way, it’s a critical bibliography.

Or, put most simply, it’s my guide to little reading projects on a topic. 

Want to know about Victorian Murder? South American exploration? Ancient Greece? So do I. I’m insatiably curious. This is why I like to read both fiction and non-fiction on any given subject. You can read more about my non-fiction fetish here or why I struggle to find good enough fiction that makes the cut for one of these lists.

THE FIRSST SIGNS OF THE DISEASE

Over the years, what started in college as a head-over-heels love affair with reading every book on the syllabus turned into a truly integrated fiction and non-fiction exploration of any given subject.

What’s even worse (yes, worse), is that I love, love, love talking about these lists. I love talking about books and writing in general, but more than that, I love pointing out the connections between books, their approaches, and their conclusions.

This makes small talk extremely difficult for me. Someone asks me about the weather, and I end up telling them about the evolution of the differentiation between astrology and astronomy in the 16th century German university scene.

I can’t help it. It just spews out of my mouth. Ask Kristen Lamb. She once asked me an innocent question about the equivalent of a 19th century bra, and I gave her the entire history of bustle era underpinnings, from the truth about corsets, to the fact that underpants and pantaloons hadn’t become commonplace until the Regency era.

catalogue raisonne
I’m not obsessed. I’m…thorough. I like the word ‘thorough.’

So, what has all this led to?

incurable and incorrigible

This leads to me having to buy more bookshelves. But, aside from that, it also means I arrange my bookshelves. By time period and topic.

Quite properly, fiction is on its own shelf, arranged by time period and genre. *shifty eyes*

It also means that my Amazon wishlist is obscenely long. (My goodness, how did I get to 35 pages of books?)

It ALSO means that YOU get to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

THE CAIT REYNOLDS CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ

You won’t have to go digging through my posts to find a catalogue raisonné. I’ve collected the all here on one page for your easy access. I even put a little link in the site menu.

Yes, it’s awesome. I’m awesome. I look forward to bringing you even MORE of obsessive reading! (Because that’s how I’m justifying all the books. Really, that’s basically it.)

Do you want  to see a catalogue raisonné from me on a particular topic? Leave me a comment and let me know!

(Chances are, I own books about it, LOL.)