5.5.16 - On The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

By JT Ellison

From the time I was able to hold a pencil and write, perfection was my friend, and mistake my enemy.

It was a paralyzing combination.

I wanted to be an artist, but when faced with a blank sheet of paper, I was terrified. Not with fear that I couldn’t draw, couldn’t create. I knew I could. No, my fear was I would ruin the pristine paper with a line out of place, and I’d have to throw it away.

I would have ruined the paper with a mistake.

When I realized writing was a simpler thing for me than drawing, I had the same issue. If I misspelled a word, or miswrote a word, that was it. The paper was ruined, and I had to start over.

Nothing but perfection was (*ahem* is) acceptable.

This holds true for most everything I do, all these years later. Now I understand that this urge for perfection is a manifestation of OCD, and I find ways to push past the early paralyzing moments when faced with blank pages. For new novels, I have a formula for starting. This includes building a book journal, building a file, naming the book, putting together epigraphs… little things that mean the pages aren’t entirely blank.

But that’s easy to do when you’re in a computer screen. When you’re doing it by hand, it’s a whole different story.

All these years later, I’m still always terrified that I’m going to make a mistake on that first page and have to rip it out and start over. Trust me, there are a number of notebooks in my house with a first page missing.

I’ve been examining these urges lately, because I came across something interesting. It’s a story about how dependent we’ve become on the Cloud, and how we’re losing a lot of our history because everything is typed on computers.

Thinking about this, I had a realization. This is directly related to how we’re so carefully curating our lives for one another. If you think about it, we are always striving for perfection in our written work, so much so that we’ve become dependent on spellcheck and grammar checks, and nothing that makes it to public consumption hasn’t been edited to death.

What are we losing by working electronically? What bits of genius, or specialness, are we losing when we can so easily delete and write something fresh?

Not only are we curating our lives for one another, we’re curating our thoughts… for ourselves.

Whether your desire to have a clean, perfect document is pathological or simply a result of the way you want to present yourself to the world, we are eliminating some of our finest work when we edit ourselves online, on the computer screen, in our writing programs.

Think of what we’re losing? That original thought, that original impetus, the original words, edited into coherent [[thoughts]]… *

*I JUST did it. I saw the words “thoughts”, and even though it’s correct, I immediately backward deleted to come up with something else, something unique that isn’t a repetitive word. It’s instinct; I do it without thinking. Which makes me wonder: How much do I delete throughout a day? I don’t keep track of how many words I type in a day, I keep track of the end product. At the end of the day, I have X number of words.

What if I didn’t delete and rewrite? What if I was forced to write by hand, in a notebook, and had a record of all those words I decided weren’t right, weren’t correct, were misspelled?

I’ve always wanted to write a book by hand. I do a lot of handwritten work already, from journals to note taking to planning and processing ideas. Could I stand to write a whole story by hand? Could I stand the XXed out words, the arrows drawn to realign paragraphs, the hundreds of mistakes I make in a day of writing? Moreover, how many words am I REALLY writing in a day? I’d bet I write two to three times as much as is recorded at the end of the day, trying out sentences, trying ideas, words, themes. I immediately delete when something isn’t working.

What if I stopped doing that?

We’re talking a monstrous sea change for me. For us all. Paper isn’t the precious commodity it used to be. Ink and pens are easy to work with. I don’t know that I could give up my laptop—the ideas seem to go through my brain directly into my fingers onto the page, without stops or bypasses, and I don’t feel that flow when I’m writing by hand.

But it’s doable. It’s totally doable.

And I would have a record—a real record, a true record—of the words. It wouldn’t be perfect, and all that markup would probably give me hives, but it’s something worth thinking about. At the very least, I’m going to try and be more intentional about how I self-edit.

In the next few weeks, look for a few more posts with the theme of perfection stifling our art. It’s something I really want to explore.


What say you? Are we losing our culture to autocorrect and spell check and the keyboard? Do you write by hand or by keyboard?

Via: JT Ellison


5.1.16 - Sunday Smatterings

By JT Ellison

Happy Sunday, lovelies!

Did you have a good week? Yesterday was my birthday—thank you for all the love, by the way!—so I’m still riding high on birthday weekend bliss and brand-new hardwood floors (which came after a leak in the kitchen, so… not planned, but certainly not unwelcome, either). Here’s what they look like! I’m over the moon. I think they count as a birthday present, right?


Here’s what happened on the Internets this week:

Oldest Libraries

Check out some of the oldest libraries in the world. So cool!

Productivity Hacks

You know I love a good productivity hack, something that helps you figure out how to do something you do every day even better. This list doesn’t disappoint (alert: it’s long—a podcast transcript, no less—but it’s worth a read!). Especially important are ways to find deep work time, time without interruption that allows you to really focus on your work, and how to delegate. Writers are infamous for trying to do too much with too little time. This is a great guide for how to get the most out of your creative work life.

Wild by David Achord

The man who taught me all about crime, David Achord, retired homicide detective, and the reason Taylor and her team come to life on the page, has a new book out, plus it’s free on Kindle Unlimited.

Andrew Luck

Colts QB Andrew Luck has started a book club—and he has good taste. Wouldn’t it be cool if all our heroes started staring what they read?

writers museum

Who wants to go visit this new museum with me?

And closer to home:

Margaret Atwood - A Word on Words

So I got to meet Margaret Atwood (swoon!). She’s just as whimsical and wise as you think she’d be. Check out our chat about her newest book, THE HEART GOES LAST (and when you figure out what that title means, I guarantee you’ll shudder…).

Don’t forget: I’ll be doing a Twitter chat with book club extraordinaire She Reads this Thursday, May 5 (Cinco de Mayo!) at 7 pm CST. Use the hashtag #srbkchat to follow the fun.

Joel Gott Zinfandel 2013

Over at The Wine Vixen, Amy talked about a lovely light red that’s perfect for your spring dishes.

Deep South Magazine

Also, I had to share this with you because it’s so cool: Deep South Magazine put together a Nashville travel guide based on landmarks in NO ONE KNOWS!! It is comprehensive and does a lovely job showing off our fine city. Thanks, DSM!


Oh: and the WHEN SHADOWS FALL ebook is on sale for only $0.99! Get yours now—this sale expires in a couple of days.

Alright, folks, that’s it from me! Y’all stay out of trouble, and we’ll talk again soon!


Via: JT Ellison


4.28.16 - The Most Popular Post on My Website

By JT Ellison

This is the most popular post on my website—and for good reason. This information is evergreen, and I hope you find it useful.

P.S. If you haven’t been to my For Writers page in a while, check it out. I’ve reformatted the essays for easier digestion, and added pretty pictures. Who doesn’t love pretty pictures?

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

Are you as intimate with them as you should be?

Coming up with a character is easy. You give them a name, an occupation, and a reason for visiting your story. Developing that character into a living, breathing, vital aspect of your manuscript, one that successfully propels your story forward, is another phenomenon entirely.

There are a few things that are an absolute for me when I develop a character.

The Most Important Is A Name.

As I begin writing a new manuscript, I make a cast list. All the main characters are there, as well as all the secondary characters. Everyone who is going to make an appearance in the story is named and accounted for.

A couple of rules that I like to follow when it comes to developing character names:

  1. Make the name pronounceable.
  2. Especially for secondary and tertiary characters, make their name fit. If you’re writing a story about white slavery, an unhappy stripper named Tatiana will convey the message more effectively than an unhappy stripper named Jane.

Where do the names come from? I’ll admit, there have been the times, (in the past, of course, cough, cough) I’ve been in a pinch and looked to my reference bookshelf. I pick a first name and last name at random. Problem is, when you’ve been working on a manuscript for four straight months with the same bookshelf of reference material, you’re going to duplicate yourself. I was caught by one of my readers. I’d used Richard Curtis and Curtis Richard. For shame. Now, I use every available resource. Magazines like Maxim and FHM always have great names. There are websites that use algorithms to mix and match names to degree. You get the drift – finding sources to pull from is easy.

Since I generally write series novels back to back, I’m intimately familiar with my main characters and the people they work with on a daily basis. Secondary characters that are making their second or third appearance are simple to keep up with. But the new primary and secondary characters need defining, and I need a new list of tertiary characters and one-timer throw-in names.

My very first step is to build the list of names.

In my new book, there is a big cast of secondary characters. A big cast. My list has sixty-eight new character names on it. I know I’ll use up at least twenty-eight right off the bat. I have a new character who has a whole team behind her, so there’s another nine. See where I’m going? I never want to be left out in the cold when it comes to naming my characters.

Unfortunately, as well intentioned as I am with my cast list, there are characters who pop up unexpectedly and announce, “Hey, I’m here. This is what I’m going to do to wreck havoc on your story. But I need a name, please.” Hence, the pre-built characters list.

What works for me is to name my secondary characters off the bat, but leave some of the tertiaries for later. That way I can satisfy my spontaneity gene and grab a name at random a few times through the book. Now that I’m a little wiser, I only take it from the proscribed list of tertiary character names, rather than inventing off the top of my head.

But What’s In A Name? There Needs To Be More To Make A Character Come Alive.

Some characters are so big and bold, they parade right out of your mind onto the page with no effort. Some need to be coaxed a bit. For the reluctant characters, there are a few absolutes that must be answered before they get to show up in print.

The first things I decide on are age, hair color and eye color (subsequent to race), height, weight, and level of education.

While it’s generally easy to define a character by social class and educational status, I have the joy of writing books that are based in Nashville, Tennessee. This is a southern town, and there are many colloquialisms here that can be misinterpreted by outsiders. Brilliant, well-educated people here use terms that Yankees would deem dim-witted at best. I try to be especially careful when I dip into that particular well. It’s a unique issue that’s been written about by many more capable writers than I. Suffice it to say you need to be aware if you’re writing regionally specific characters.

Back to building a character. Age, looks, race, education and socio-economic status are first. Those are the main ingredients for me.

Now it’s on to the spices.

I can’t say that I do the same thing for each character. Some have more information on them than others. Some I know how they walk, what they wear, how their hair is styled, whether they are straight or gay, who their family is. Some I just have a mental picture of who they are. If they are a one-timer, I try to be cognizant of their surroundings, so the character can help me set the scene.

One of my writer buddies, Jennifer Brooks, came up with a brilliant idea while writing a book with an omniscient POV and several main characters. The BMW’s (my critique group) were having trouble keeping all of them straight, and we badgered her to do something about our inability to “get” who was who. (Many times, POV problems are a result of not knowing your characters as well as you should. If you know exactly how your character will react in a certain situation, what they’ll say, how they’ll feel, your POV will fall into place.)

Have you ever been sent an email survey by one of your friends, the kind that has a huge list of questions that either you or said friend must fill out? They ask detailed questions that are meant to show how much you really know someone.

My friend, in all her brilliant glory, decided to fill out the survey as her characters. Since many of her characters are in relationships or strong friendships, she allowed the characters themselves to ask the questions of their friends and lovers. It gave her a stronger grasp of who each character is and how they can be presented in the story to help us, the readers, keep them straight. It worked wonderfully.

Another quick note on character building.

One of the most important questions I ask each of my characters is, “What do you mean to the story?”

A tertiary or one-time, one-scene character can steal the show. Let me rephrase that. They should steal the show. I try to make my one-timers feel special. Give them something important to do or say. You should never have a character who doesn’t advance the story in one way or another.

Sometimes, even these tricks aren’t enough to really give you a sense of who your characters are. Since we’re talking crime novels here, let me point out that victimologies are vital to the success of your book. If you don’t have a victim, you don’t have a crime, and you don’t have a book. Making sure your victims are as well developed as your speaking characters – it makes a big difference.

I tried something a little different in my first manuscript. I had several girls who were killed. They were all in different states, and they shared a physical resemblance. I was struggling with their deaths, mainly because it’s so hard to kill someone in a book, no matter how gleefully we might go about it. There was one that I felt so close to, it hurt me to kill her. My protagonist was struggling with the issue, just as I was. I had him on a plane, desolate, looking at the MISSING posters that accompanied each girl’s disappearance. I envisioned him getting off the plane, going into his office and tacking up the MISSING posters. Hmmm.

The next thing I knew, I was up to my, ahem, elbows, in imaginary dead girls. There are a couple of glossy color magazines here in town, so I went out and bought them, looked to the society pages, and cut out pictures of girls that fit the killer’s profile. I then mocked up the MISSING posters. Based on actual fliers from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website, they each had a picture of the victim, all her particulars, where she was last seen – all the information I needed to use to drive the story and build the plot.

Since that worked so well for me, and my second manuscript had the same kind of situation, so I took the time and picked out my victims. In the manuscript, these pictures go in a dossier for the antagonist to peruse. They go in a dossier in my files as well, so I can experience what my character experiences as he looks at them.This has been one of the most successful tricks I’ve learned.

Dead characters deserve as much respect as living characters.

Bringing them to life makes it harder to kill them off, but the goal is to create believable, sustainable characters for your readers. And you’ll stay away from being gratuitously mean to them, which is the goal.

I also make my setting, Nashville, a character unto itself. I know people have received those constructive rejection letters that claim the reader didn’t get a good “sense of place”. Make sure your setting is a character just like your protagonists and antagonist, and you’ll never hear that again. Get to know your characters, and they’ll never let you down.

Via: JT Ellison


4.24.16 - Sunday Smatterings

By JT Ellison

Happy Sunday, chickens!

Did you have a good week? I’m fresh off a whirlwind of travel, first a writing retreat in the desert followed by a weekend at one of my favorite annual signings, Southern Kentucky BookFest. I’m not sure which time zone I’m in, let alone which zip code, so I’m looking forward to a week of recalibrating . . . before we replace the flooring in the house because of a leaky dishwasher.


Ain’t no rest for the weary. But we’ll soldier on, won’t we?


Here’s what happened on the Internets this week:


First of all, can we talk about Prince? I’m devastated. But I send him thanks: for always pushing parameters, for showing it’s ok to grow and reinvent ourselves, for always reminding us that even though we may differ on a lot of things, we’re all just trying to survive. You’ll be missed.

Freedom app

Y’all. The ADD in me won’t let me sit still sometimes; even when I’m writing, I’m compelled to check all the things—because I can keep all the plates spinning, right? Well. I can’t. *sigh*. But thankfully, my favorite productivity tool, Freedom, has a brand new, major update: the Freedom app. When I turn it on, I can choose to block access to certain apps that I know will be a time suck (hello, social medias). It prevents me from becoming my own worst enemy and I love having it on my phone and iPad, I’m addition to the laptop.

earliest English women writers

If I were in England, I’d totally visit this exhibit: Books by earliest women writers in English on display together for first time.

young librarian confidiential

Modern technology has changed the way we collect and distribute information; this can be seen probably most clearly in the way we use libraries. Check out how this young librarian is building a community of readers and thinkers for the 21st century.

Persuasian quotes swoon

Fellow Austenphiles: these 15 quotes from Persuasion will make you soon. Swoon!

Jane Eyre book lovers

Like Jane Eyre? Here are 17 books you might love.

And closer to home:

Cycles Gladiator Syrah 2010

On The Wine Vixen, I shared a $9.99 Syrah that’s gonna pair beautifully with both spring and fall dishes (check out my pairing suggestion—all I can say is YUM!).

She Reads Twitter Chat

Twitterverse: wanna join the She Reads Twitter chat about NO ONE KNOWS? Join the conversation at 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. CST on May 5, and use #srbkchat to follow along.

Murder by the Book

You and I both value indie bookstores. Like I’ve said before, walking down the street to a store owned by friends and neighbors, to have a gathering place for your local tribe, is vital. The torrential rains in Houston have flooded Murder by the Book and put quite a dent in their book sales. I’ll be visiting in June, and I’d like to encourage you to purchase FIELD OF GRAVES (or any other book, for that matter) from them to offset their losses. Let’s keep this indie afloat!

A Word on Words

And on the Tao, I talked a little bit about my TV show, A Word on Words—and show you one of my favorite interviews so far: with All Souls Trilogy author, Deborah Harkness!

Are you signed up for my monthly newsletter? If not, you’re missing out on exclusive treats, yummy recipes, the latest book news, and more! If you aren’t signed up, now’s the time to do it, because…

I’m giving away 3 ARCs of my new Taylor Jackson prequel, FIELD OF GRAVES, to my newsletter subscribers!

Newsletter giveaway

You can join the list here. Oh, and if you’re already on the list, you’re already entered into the contest. But hurry—I’ll draw names on April 26!

Alright, y’all, that’s it from me! Enjoy the spring weather, go pet a kitten, and I’ll talk to you soon.


Via: JT Ellison


4.21.16 - About That TV Show I've Been Doing... (BONUS: watch my interview with Deborah Harkness!)

By JT Ellison

Photo Credit: Nashville Public Television

Last October I told y’all how I became a TV host.

And it has been quite the surreal experience.

Every time I get on set, wherever we’re shooting in Nashville that day, I’m overwhelmed with just how lucky I am to do this. I get to launch into full reader-nerd mode, ask brilliant people how they do their work, and learn at their feet.

Plus, I’m conquering personal milestones, i.e. my fear of public speaking. I haven’t nearly barfed on someone since I interviewed sweet Patti Callahan Henry. That that, stupid phobia!

Anyway, my fellow readers, I thought you’d like to see what I’ve been up to, who I’ve been chatting with. I have a wonderful co-host, the hilarious and talented Mary Laura Philpott, who’s been bringing her A-game in her interviews (go watch her chat with recent Pulitzer Prize winner, William Finnegan). And I can’t say enough about Linda Wei, Matt Emigh, Will Pedigo, and the rest of the Nashville Public Television crew. Your unparalleled vision and crazy talent have brought something very wonderful back into our city. And you guys are so much fun!


This interview’s one of my personal favorites.

I got to interview Deborah Harkness, whose All Souls Trilogy I just adore.

After this chat? I may adore her more!

Wanna watch more? Check out the A Word on Words website.


Via: JT Ellison