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shana galen

How to Cheat on Your Book (And Why You'd Want To)

Oh come on, admit it. You do it. We all do it. We all cheat on our manuscripts from time to time, especially when a newer, cuter idea strolls onto the dance floor of our imagination.

But I'm here to tell you that cheating is okay. I'm here to tell you that sometimes cheating is even necessary.

I don't know how many of you have gone to the author chats at the RWA national conference, but just about every year I go to hear Jayne Ann Krentz, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Nora Roberts answer questions from writers hoping to learn these ladies' secrets. In fact, for several years, Krentz and Phillips have hosted a workshop loosely titled Secrets of the Best-selling Sisterhood.

These chats are almost always held in one of the large rooms and are usually full. We writers crave assurance and affirmation. We want to know if what we do is "right." We want to know the rules. Several years in a row, an audience member has asked whether these best-sellers work on more than one project at a time. As a block, the panelists have answered "NO." Krentz, Phillips, and Roberts work on one project at a time, devoting all their energies and creative endowments to one work and one only. These best-sellers are icons of monogamy. They can be. They make enough money from one book to live for a year or two (or more) while devoting themselves to their next love.

For the rest of us, monogamy isn't an option. We have to cheat, and our reasons are as varied as the selection of vodka at a martini bar. Published authors cheat because if you're not on the New York Times list, it's tough to live on one book every nine months. PROs cheat because an interested editor or agent likes her work, but wants to see what else she has. Beginning writers cheat because the day-to-day drudgery of writing a book is tedious and hard.

Heck, we all cheat because writing is hard.

But what's a girl to do when, despite all her instincts and successes, she's told cheating doesn't pay?

Cheat anyway.

Okay, now this advice is not for everyone. If you don't have that cheating heart, if working on more than one project at a time doesn't work for you, then don't start cheating. Do what works for you. This advice is also not for the author who's never finished a book. By all means, finish at least one book before you start writing another. You've got to show that you can be faithful and see at least one relationship to its conclusion. Finally, this advice is not for the writer who is having trouble focusing or finishing a second book. You know who you are. You write into the Yahoo loops asking for advice because you've got fourteen projects going at once and can't finish any of them. There's probably another article out there for you.

But for those of you who can't be faithful, stop feeling guilty. It's okay. It can even work to your benefit. You rarely get bored when you've got more than one project going at a time. You also rarely get writer's block. While you're mentally working on a problem in one manuscript, you can happily be making progress on another.

Finally, for most brand new writers, cheating is the only way you can make any real money. And for the new writer who's just stumbled into the publishing club and is trying to navigate the loud, smoky dance scene, working on multiple projects can drive you insane.

Here are a few tricks I've garnered from friendly bartenders.

1. In your manuscript drafts, use different fonts for different projects. I use Courier for my chick lits and Times New Roman for my historicals. If I'm working on another project as well (like this article), I might use Arial or Garamond. Over time, I begin to associate a particular font with a particular project, and if I have to switch, I can get my head into the story more quickly.

2. Use visual cues. I admit it; I thought the collage craze was touchy-feely fluff. But something weird happened when I actually made collages for projects and used them in conjunction with those projects. I found that when I looked up and saw my historical collage, the feel of that book came back to me. When I looked at my chick lit collage, I remembered the special feel of that book. As an added bonus, I sent the collage to my editor when she and the design staff were having a cover conference, and the visual really helped the art department to create a cover with characters who correlate to those in the novel. Another variation of this is to make a soundtrack for each novel. I pull songs that remind me of the manuscript in progress and burn them all onto one CD.

3. Reread. I know you're in a hurry. You want to jump back into that book and knock out some pages. Take at least 20 minutes, a couple of hours if possible, and read over what you've already written. Don't just read the last scene. Look back at the first chapters. When you have to pause in the midst of a project, sometimes the sections don't flow as well as if you'd written it straight through. Reread the first chapters and recapture the tone and the mood of the book before you leap back in.

4. Make notes. I don't always do this, but I almost always wish I had. When I do follow my own advice, I create a binder with character charts, comments from my critique partners, information or pictures of settings, research sites, early drafts, synopses or outlines, and so on. Organizing your notes can make it much easier and faster to recall details (like your hero's eye color) without having to skim through hundreds of pages of manuscript.

So stop feeling so guilty for your manuscript infidelities. It's okay to cheat. However, consider using the above advice as protection. Safe writing!

© Shana Galen

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