Karen S. Wiesner is an accomplished author who has published fifty-six books in the past ten years and has eleven more releases forthcoming spanning many categories and formats. Karen’s books have been nominated for and/or won sixty-eight awards, and they cover such genres as women’s fiction, romance, mystery/police procedural/cozy, suspense, paranormal, futuristic, gothic, inspirational, thriller, horror, and action/adventure. She also writes children’s books, poetry, and writing reference titles such as her bestseller, First Draft in 30 Days, available from Writer’s Digest Books.
What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?
Years before I was published, a critique partner of mine told me that my stories read like someone trying to cram too much into a suitcase—that I should follow my heart with every story instead of trying to fit everything in that was popular or currently selling. She was absolutely right in that I was wasting all my time trying to follow trends, trying to give publishers what I thought they wanted. I never got anywhere that way.
That critique partner’s advice to follow my heart freed me completely. Once I’d given myself permission not to conform and stand behind the traditional boundaries, I was able to write my books the way they needed to be written. I only worried about who would buy it or read it later, when the book was done. Doing this was the only way I could love each book and feel good about the labor I put into it—and that’s more important to me than just giving a publisher what she wants without having a heart for it myself. This is not to say that I don’t or won’t work with my editors on specific revisions. A good editor can make a book stronger. I know that. But the most important part of being a writer to me is being true to myself and my fans with each book I produce.
What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?
Some readers are missing this disclaimer (which is at the end of First Draft in 30 Days), and I think it’s crucial for everyone to know:
The whole point of First Draft in 30 Days is to find out how you work best. Your outline is for your own use. What do you need (and need to do) to make the story vivid in your mind? Take as long as you need on all the worksheets and sketches. However, if you can’t seem to finish them, move on to something another step in the process. Try to continue progressing always. If you stall, work on another step. The more you work out, the clearer your story will be, and you will be able to fill in the last holes on those worksheets and sketches. And, if the worksheets don’t work for you and you prefer to just do free-form summaries, or even just work it all out in your formatted outline, you’re free to do what works best for you. Many of the worksheets are provided to give you help in pinpointing problem areas. If you're not having a problem in a certain area, you might want to skip certain worksheets and only use them if you're running into problems. If you’re spending too much time on something that doesn’t seem to progress the story, move on to another step. You’re layering with all of this, building on what you’ve come up with, trying to develop it into something bigger and something that bonds cohesively.
I want to stress that, as with all writing systems, you should avoid redundancy in the First Draft in 30 Days writing system. The point is to have a clear picture of your characters (internal conflicts and goals and motivations), settings and plot conflicts. If you find yourself re-doing a lot of aspects from the worksheets, or coming up with information you just don’t need, avoid it. Just do what you need to do. Everything you find in First Draft in 30 Days (and, incidentally, also in From First Draft to Finished Novel: A Writer’s Guide to Cohesive Story Building, my September 2008 release from Writer’s Digest Books) is designed to stimulate you to work through each step in order to come put with a detailed, scene-by-scene outline. The entire goal of the system is to make sure you have everything you need to write instinctively. When you sit down to write the first draft, you should be able to start writing immediately because it’s all there in your outline, scene by scene.
I have a lot of experience writing books after having 50 of them published, with 17 more on the way, so I write instinctively. I immediately jump into writing the formatted outline. I don’t do sketches anymore because I can get a clear picture of everything during the course of my outlining. Only if I have problems do I go back and do the pre-writing aspects (i.e., fill out worksheets) of the system.
If you don’t feel like any of this is instinctive for you yet, go through the steps as I’ve set them down. But if you eventually get to the point where you don’t need anything but the formatted outline … well, that is the goal of this writing method. Only do what you need to to get that clear picture of the story, scene by scene.
What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?
Not working in stages. I’m never working on one project at a time straight through. I think a writer is always fresher when working on manuscripts in stages. Plus, I’m always working six months to a year ahead of releases so I’m never rushed and can always be working on new projects.
The way I see it, there are several very distinct stages in writing a book, and these are discussed in-depth in From First Draft to Finished Novel. They include:
3. Setting the outline aside
4. Writing the story
5. Setting the novel aside
6. Editing and polishing the story
Working in stages is essential for keeping my creativity at its peak. Brainstorming occurs, most ideally, over a period of years before I have enough details accumulated to begin an outline. Once the outline is completed, allowing it to sit for a couple of weeks—or even months—before writing the first draft can only help it. The next time I pick up my outline, I’ll see more of those connections that make my story infinitely cohesive.
Another reason for setting projects aside between stages is that I’m like most writers in that I get to the point where I can’t stand the sight of the thing. Setting it aside between the various stages the project goes through really gives me back my motivation for it and creativity (and love!) in spades. The next stage in the process becomes easier, too, and that helps my writing to be much better.
Also, the more books I have contracted (17 at present), the more I seem to need these breaks in-between stages, or even when I feel a project isn’t working. If I put it aside for an extended period of time (as long as I can possibly allow and still meet my deadlines), amazing things happen. By the time I return to it, I can usually find new ways to fix the problems.
I honestly don’t know how a career author could do anything else and still meet deadlines without constantly burning out or facing writer’s block.
What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
Time to write! I’m a person who wants to work, and I need to write a full eight hours on weekdays in order to stay sane. But when my son is out of school for the summer, it’s very difficult to find time to do that. I need to be alone when I write. Generally, I try to work on outlines and revision exclusively in the summer, mostly trying to relax and get my brain fertile again. Sometimes it’s a wonder I actually survive this time of year!
What does a typical day look like for you?
Considering the number of genres I write in, the number of series I’m working on, and the number of publishers I write for, I'm extremely disciplined. Everything is planned well in advance, and I keep tweaking my schedule to make it as productive as it possibly can be. For my novels, once a story has been brewing for a considerable amount of time and I’ve amassed the necessary research (which is done between books and well in advance of a project), I start with an extremely detailed outline, which is, in essence, the first draft of the book. The outline can take anywhere from a day to week to work out, depending on the complexity of the book. Because of the way I’ve worked my schedule, I’m able to set my completed outline aside for a month or more, then come back to it and make sure it’s as solid as I thought before I set it aside. As soon as I’m ready, I can begin writing. In general, I’ll write two scenes per day (regardless of how long or short—this and the outline itself inevitably prevent burnout and/or writer’s block). My annual goal sheet can then include accurate timetables for researching, writing, and revising outlines and novels. I also use project goal sheets, so I can know down to the day how long it'll take to finish a book. Completing a 100,000 book generally takes me a month, usually considerably less. Once that “second draft” (which is really my first draft) is completed, I again set the book aside for a month or so before I begin revisions. Depending on the project, revision amounts to minor editing and polishing. In this way, I alternate my time between novels in various stages of completion, and I can write at least five outlines/books per year. To show how well this works, look at my progress over the last several years:
- outlined 2 novels and 4 novellas
- wrote 5 novels, 6 novellas and 1 writing reference
- revised and edited 8 novellas, 8 novels, 1 writing reference, and 4 Jewels of the Quill anthologies
- outlined 4 novels and 8 novellas
- wrote 5 novels, 3 novellas, 1 writing reference
- revised and edited 4 novels, 3 novellas, 3 JOTQ anthologies, and 2 writing references
2008 (so far)
- outlined 2 novellas and 2 novels
- wrote 2 novels and 2 novellas
- revised and edited 5 novels, 2 novellas, 1 writing reference, and 3 JOTQ anthologies
I believe momentum is a powerful force in any career. Keep track of my works in progress here: www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/WIP.html. First Draft in 30 Days and the upcoming From First Draft to Finished Novel are the secrets to my success.
How do you go about developing your characters?
I was recently talking with a critique partner, who asked me what the different is between a book that practically writes itself and one that comes hard. I think the answer to that comes down to characters. Even if I don’t have a book sitting in my head, brewing on a backburner for a long time, if I connect with the characters, I can write them as if I’m just following a movie those same characters are showing in my head. The writing of the book is simplicity itself then. But when characters are hiding and won’t show me their internal workings, it’s harder to write a story. When characters hide, I do a lot of character sketches and a Story Plan Checklist, which is included in From First Draft to FinishedNovel. This book goes in-depth into this vital need for a cohesive trinity between characters, settings and plots, and that’s part of what makes a novel work and what makes one complicated to unknot.
Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?
A best-selling author once told me that any writer who wants to be published has to be a bit of a prostitute. I know—pretty shocking, and I couldn’t imagine how a statement like that could be true. I still hesitate to use that particular word to describe the relationship between author and editor. I prefer to consider it like a marriage. In other words, if an author and editor don’t work as a team, neither will see the book become all it possibly can be. An author must weigh carefully everything the editor suggests because an editor will never suggest changes lightly. The suggestions are given for a reason. If the author agrees with the suggestions, it’s her job to see that the changes made appropriately. If the author doesn’t agree, she has to find a way to compromise and rework in a way that satisfies both members of the team. A good editor can make a diamond in the rough shine like the sun. Everything the author was trying to impart is coming across with all the wondrous, rich impact it should convey.
What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishments?
First, First Draft in 30 Days continues to amaze me. I have countless writers telling me that I’ve finally gotten the writing process to make sense for them. Or they could never finish a novel and now have finished several. That they’re moving forward in their career. That they’ve learned things they’ve never imagined. That book was intended for writers who haven’t gone to school to learn how to write. It’s a basic plan that can be used in whatever way works best for the individual writer. It’s flexible in the utmost, and it works in such an awesome way for so many different kinds of writers.
I once had a writer tell me that nonfiction authors are like vampires preying on gullible, needy readers who don’t know they’re being swindled. I was stunned to hear someone claim something like that about me because I don’t write nonfiction for love. I write fiction because it’s the very heart and soul of who I am, but I truly do kind of dislike writing nonfiction. I do it only because I know what I have to offer writers can help them in life-changing (career-changing?) ways. I do it for love of writers, I guess you’d say. Sure, the money’s been nice, but what I’m most proud of in my career is how I’ve helped others reach their goals through my writing reference titles.
Second, I’m incredibly proud of my promotional group Jewels of the Quill (www.JewelsoftheQuill.com). In every way possible—the group members, our multi-award-winning anthologies, the strategy involved in setting up this kind of continuous promotion and making it so incredibly successful—Jewels of the Quill is a reward to me I can’t even describe. This group is my pride and joy. For more information on how to set up a promo group like Jewels of the Quill, see my book The Power of Promotional Groups at www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/nonfiction.html.
Read an Excerpt!
Layering a story takes precision and patience. Click here to read an excerpt from the introduction and learn more about the philosophy of cohesive story building.
Check out the Karen's book From First Draft to Finished Novel.