Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sandra Orchard's Writing Process

I'm delighted to feature novelist Sandra Orchard today! You guys may remember the lovely and talented Jennifer Orchard, who was on Go Teen Writers back in April talking about writing articles. Sandra is her mom.

Aside from raising a very talented daughter, Sandra Orchard won the 2009 Daphne DuMaurier Award in the unpublished category and sold to Harlequin’s Love Inspired Suspense the following year. Her newly released debut novel, Deep Cover, is the first book in her Undercover Cops series: Fighting for justice puts their lives—and hearts—on the line. Sandra hails from Southern Ontario, Canada, and is an active member of ACFW, The Word Guild, and several RWA chapters.

Today she's here to talk to us about her writing process. In addition to that, she's offering a 3-page critique to one commenter. Which - hooray! - means this is not limited to US residents! To get entered to win, you may either ask Ms. Orchard a question about her writing process or share something you found interesting from her post. Please, please, please make my life easier by leaving your email address. (Contest closes Thursday, September 15th) 

And, this isn't a requirement, but I thought it'd be fun: If you don't mind, would you tell us where you live? I don't want your street address, obviously, just like "California" or "Tanzania" or wherever. Thought it could be fun.

Enough of me talking, let's hear from Sandra Orchard!

I’m delighted to share with you how I write my romantic suspense novels. The idea for my newest book came when I was visiting a friend at the same time her homecare nurse, a really good-looking guy, came to check on her. I decided he’d be the hero of my next book and so the process of writing a new story began.

1) First I brainstorm the plot with friends. I write down every idea that’s proposed and weed through them later. The key to brainstorming is to shout out everything you think of no matter how off the wall it sounds. Others in the group often play off your ideas and they grow into full-fledged scenes. 

2) Next, I wade through the ideas and sequence a suspense plot: What throws the couple together? What’s going to keep them together? What will change the course of action? What will be the big black moment when all seems lost? 

3) Next, I work on my character plots. There are 3 main aspects: 

  1. I decide what the occupations of main characters will be, their character types/personalities, their backgrounds, and their looks etc.
  2. I decide what they value, what they fear, what they’d never do. And then I figure out what would make them do it. 
  3. I determine their external goals and the internal need/goal they may not be aware of. Then I ask why? Why? Why? Getting to the root of each character’s motivations is essential to building multi-layered characters. 

4) Next, I set up the conflict. The conflict is in the back of my mind through steps one to three. My choices are calculated to maximize conflict between the heroine and heroine and villain. There are three layers of conflict to consider in a romantic suspense. The romantic conflict-why can’t this couple be together? The external conflict-related to the suspense plot. And the internal/spiritual conflict, which is ideally woven into the other two conflicts. For example, the hero must overcome his character flaw to save the girl and win her love. 

5) Finally, I start writing. I try to turn off my internal editor and write as much as I can until I get stuck. Then I go back and ensure I have the elements I need for the opening chapter such as starting in the middle of the action, and setting up the stakes. By the time I get to the third chapter, I make sure I have some sort of ticking bomb to drive the story forward. 

6) At this point, I usually write the synopsis, because my editor wants to see proposals with a synopsis and the first three chapters. 

7) Then I keep writing. I send a few chapters off to my critique partners to ensure the story is working. We’ll brainstorm new ideas to raise the tension when things start to sag. 

8) Although, I’d prefer to finish the first draft before stopping to revise, I tend to do some revising as I go along, because earlier scenes often have to change as the story veers in a new direction.

9) Once I’m done the first draft, I put the story away for a couple of weeks.

10) Then I revise. I do this in stages. First I look at the pacing and rearrange or delete/add scenes as needed. Then I layer in more emotion and tension, and make sure I’m showing not telling. 

11) In the last rewrite, I polish. Check for use of the five senses. Choose strong verbs and nouns to convey the character’s mood etc. 

12) Finally, I send my chapters off to my critique partner for copyediting.


  1. Hi Stephanie, so happy to be visiting today. I hope everyone will feel free to ask any questions. I'll be in and out throughout the day to check. :)

  2. I was wondering about emotion. I am writing a short story and there is a ton of emotion and inter thoughts involved. I mean a lot. How do you portray lots of emotion without dropping the scene?

    Stephanie I am sorry, but I can't comment my e-mail. But I can tell you where I live. I live in New Jersey.


  3. No problem, Alyson! I know how to reach you :)

  4. Ms. Orchard, how did you decide to write Romantic Suspense? Have you written in any other genres (published or unpublished)?

    Thanks for stopping by to help us out :)

    Jordan from the Sonoran Desert
    (doesn't that sound a whole lot more romantic than Arizona?)
    Jordan at gnuhaus dot com

  5. Oh, Jordan. that has such a nice ring to it!

  6. I like the sound of your proccess, especially when you get stuck going back to previous notes!
    I'm from a very, very rainy upstate ny

  7. I really liked this post! I loved the first part of it, Ms. Orchard, when you said the hunky homecare nurse inspired the next hero for your story because I do the same thing all of the time. I'll be at the store, I'll see someone, and instantly my mind will be occupied on how to fit them into my next story. My problem is, if I do see a potential character for one of my stories, I tend to stare at them... and then kinda creep them out. I figure it's just an occupational hazard. :) I've been trying to work on that...

    My email is cbk994(at)yahoo(dot)com
    And I live in the beautiful state of Michigan. :) Though I did live in Mississippi for several years, so I can y'all with the best of them too. ;)

  8. Hi Alyson, how do I show emotion without dropping the scene is a great question. It is especially important in suspense, because while the reader wants the emotion, she doesn't want the pace to slow for long. Word choice plays a huge part. I'm actually blogging on this very topic in a couple of posts later this month on a writing site for homeschoolers. Sept 16&23 at Anovelwritingsite if you want even more details. But the main idea is that you are telling the story from a character's pov. To convey that person's mood without naming it, paint its colors in the word choices you use. Does she feel wounded? She may notice the clouds "bruising" the sky. If she's angry, she'll storm across the room not walk. Metaphors and similes are another powerful way to convey emotion without naming it. The most active way to convey emotion is through meaningful action. For example, in my novel the heroine hears so me news from her mother that is very hard to take. She crushed the dress she's holding, then starts refolding things, and avoiding conversation, all actions that show she does not want to face this. I could go on and on, but that's a start :)

  9. Great post, Ms. Orchard! Thanks! I do have two questions:

    1. Is there anything in your writing process that you think you would do differently if you wrote a different genre?

    2. Have you ever had to change your first three chapters AFTER you sent them off to the editor?

    ellyn (at) gibbscorner (dot) com

    I live in the lovely, misjudged state of Minnesota :) That doesn't sound quite as poetic as Jordan's, but I still love my home :D

    - Ellyn

  10. Hi Jordan, I fell in love with RS after reading Dee Henderson's books. When Love Inspired launched their suspense series a few years later, I knew I'd found the niche I wanted to write in. I have written what some call a cozy. It's not a typical cozy as it has a lot of danger to heroine suspense, but the title, which I love--Murder by Marigolds--makes it sound cozy and there just isn't much market for that in the CBA at the moment. But one day I hope to finish that series and see it published. At the moment, I'm focusing on the Undercover cops series though :)

  11. Mrs. Orchard, What is your personal cure for writer's block? I've started writing a story and am now having a hard time coming up with what I want to happen next-ugh. If/when you do come across a block, at what point of the story does it normally take place?

    I live in Pennsylvania and my email is bekaboobear@gmail.com. Yes, those are my actual nicknames and yes, the address tends to evoke laughter from people (my sister's fault :) )

  12. Thanks Tonya, we've got rain up here in Niagara, Canada too. Good writing weather :)

  13. That's a hoot, Clarebear. I made the mistake of admitting that I watch people in a recent newspaper interview. Now I'm afraid no one will want to have me over ever again!

  14. Ellyn, great questions!!

    1) Yes, and not just for a different genre, for a different length. Love Inspired Suspense is called category romance and reader expectation is that danger will be hinted at immediately, hero and heroine will both be introduced in the first chapter and ideally, they will meet if it suits the story. Absolutely, by the end of the second chapter they have to be together on the page.

    Single title Rom Susp is very different. Often the heroine is introduced in the first chapter, there's a lot more set up, you may not have any sense of where impending danger will come from. The hero might be introduced in his world in the second chapter. And their worlds may not collide until the third. But you'd better have "a ticking bomb" by the end of the third chapter. i.e. the sense of urgency and danger. Since single title has 30,000+ more words to play with they can afford to do this. For myself, I usually have a hard time getting into single titles until the third chapter, which is probably why I prefer the category length.

    As for other genres, every genre comes with built in reader expectations. If you read widely in the genre you wish to write you start to see them. Another quick example, a mystery usually starts with a dead body, often someone else dies somewhere along the way, and at no point does the sleuth (typically the heroine) need to be in danger. In suspense, you're not trying to figure out who dun it, you're running from impending danger. Since this is already a long post, I'll answer your second question in a new post.

  15. Ellyn, I got so into answering your last question, I'd forgotten your second one had a one word answer. Yes.

    Every single time.

    Revisions are par for the course. Some requests are minor, some are major. In my third book, my heroine was going to be ADHD, in the end my editor asked me to change that. That was a major revision.

  16. Yes, Rebekah, I face writer's block about halfway through almost every book I write. I'm actually blogging on that topic at Seekerville on Sept 19 if you want the long answer. Typically, I jump ahead to a scene that I know how it supposed to play out and start writing it and a solution to my earlier problem often presents itself. There's some creative exercises I do, too which I explain in the blog, couldn't fit in a comment box. But another effective method is to brainstorm with someone. Read the scene your stuck on to others. They're not married to the story and will often spot the problem you can't see. The past few Wednesdays on my own blog, we've been brainstorming a story idea in the comments. I find just that creative exercise (even if it's not your story) often gets the ideas flowing again for your own story.

  17. Whew, it took me an hour, but I think I'm all caught up! Thanks for all the great questions. It's wonderful to be with such a keen group of writers.

  18. Thank you so much for the help. As it turns out I'm home schooled :)

  19. Cool, Alyson, I homeschooled my kids. Jen who visited here a while back took the Jerry B Jenkins Christian Writer's Guild 2 year Scribes course as part of her English program and loved working with her mentor. Something you might want to nudge your mom about. :D

  20. I've been following this blog for a little while, but this is my first comment. I absolutely love it here!

    That was a great post, Mrs. Orchard. My question is:
    How do you make each of your characters' voices sound distinctly different? What techniques do you use so that the reader will know who's talking without you saying?

    I also noticed that you're from Canada, like me! Awesome! I live in Saskatchewan.

    Stephanie, I am unfortunately not allowed to leave my email address in a comment. I could email it to you maybe...

  21. Thanks so much, Jyllenna-from-Canada! Did you know that Love Inspired author Lois Richer is from SK? Big province, I know, but fun fact :D

    Let me start my answer to your question by telling you what not to do. Don't give each character quirky accents and weird spellings of words that nobody can read. It makes for a difficult read and doesn't do the job, because everyone reads with their own accent so you don't achieve what you think you are.

    The best example of this was when I roomed with a Texan gal a few years back. Needless to say, I didn't even have to hear the "Bless, his heart." to know she was Texan. {That btw is a good way to show distinct voice, used in moderation, i.e. giving a character a pet phrase, something distinct to him.} All she had to hear me say way "sorry" to know I was from Canada.

    Do you know why? Because in the Great White North we say "sorry" phonetically sss-or-e (-or- as in this "or" that). In the South, they say sss-are-e (-are- as in "are" you ready?)

    ... blogger is not allowing me to post my comment, so I'm going to post this and then the second half and see if that works.

  22. Back to how to do it...listen to people. Learn what kinds of phrases different age groups use, people from different regions use, people in different occupations use. When someone goes on and on about something meaningless, northerners might say "get a life." A Texan might say "bless your heart." Again, don't over use pet phrases, it's just a simple way for me to demonstrate differences in voices.

    The classic difference between male and female characters is that men typically use short, incomplete sentences, small words etc. They get straight to the point. No "I'm 'pretty' sure..." No 'ly' adverbs modifying every fourth word.

    Women on the other hand like to chat as a rule. Their sentences will be longer, a bit more flowery. This is true both in internal thought and dialogue. Try to keep the voice the same in both a character's dialogue and thought. One character might have a habit of always interrupting someone while she's talking. Another might be slow to get his words out.

    Use words appropriate to the characters' age, vocation, lifestyle and region. A kid running in a street gang will talk much differently than a NYC fashion designer.

    Read your story aloud, especially the dialogue. Early on in my writing. I'd read my male dialogue to my son and he'd stop me occasionally to say that a guy would never say that. Happily, as he's reading Deep Cover, although it's too much in the heroine's head for his tastes, he had to admit that I nailed the guy :D

    Study other authors whose books impress you for the voices of the characters (as opposed to the author's voice-something different again) Read the different characters' dialogues aloud. You'll probably hear a different cadence for different characters. This is often an intuitive thing on the part of authors.

    In Deep Cover, I have a mentally challenged teenage character so her voice was easy to make distinct. I did include a mispronounced word, but I also truncated sentences. And used wrong words such as "Me want to go" rather than "I want to go." Listen to a child learning how to talk...very distinct voice.

    The other part of your question was about techniques to show who is talking without saying. Giving the character meaningful action. Emphasis on "meaningful". ie. action that defines the character. Don't populate your story with he smiled, she grinned, he nodded, she blushed. Occasional use is fine, but these are great opportunities to go deeper into character. If there are only two characters in the scene, and you alert the reader to who is saying the first bit of dialogue. A new paragraph is sufficient to clue the reader into a new speaker for 2-3 exchanges, then include an action tag or thought to ground the reader once again. Or...you can use body language. This is a great way to bring subtext into your writing. The character says one thing, but the reader knows by the tone of his voice or expression or change in position that he means something very different.

    Clear as mud? :)

  23. I love how you set up your plot. It sounds like something my sister would do to plan her story. I'm am (unfortunately) an out and out pantser. I just can't plot or I get bored with the story before I even start writing it.

    Stephanie, please don't enter me in the contest. My writing's not far enough along to warrant the chance of a critique.

    Oh, an I'm from Australia. And Alison, I'm homeschooled too.

  24. Stephanie, I have to echo imoven. I don't have anything ready for critique right now. Forgot that earlier

  25. An out and out pantser, huh, Imogen. Well...I reformed a few of those with this guest post a couple of weeks ago:
    NOT, that I'm trying to refer you, just want to give you an idea of the basics that you need to know to write a complete story. Many pantsers do this intuitively, those who don't are multi-draft plotters. :D

    To both Tonya and Imogen, I can give you lots of writing tips based on any page or two of fiction writing. Don't feel that you have to have something polished. Even just an opening paragraph, is a treasure trove of opportunities for writing tips.

    Oooh, I almost forgot, Imogen, Australia, Cool!!! My daughter wants to go there next year to work at Teen Challenge. I'm sure she'd love to ask you lots of questions if you're interested email me and I'll connect you(she's super-busy now with college, but...sometime soon)

  26. Hi Sandra! Love your post!

    I have a few questions, when making characters for your books how do you make then appear real? All great books make characters seem real and transport you, how do you do that? What makes a story stop being " just a story" to something that has an impact on your life?

    thank you:)

    - Elisabeth Greenwood from the Land Down Under :D

  27. Kia ora Sandra, loved the post :) . Had lots of nuggets of wisdom I can't wait to put into practice :) . Loved what you said about laying, making sure every layer is full - romance, intrigue, spiritual/internal (my stories often come across bland and I think not doing this is why). I also love the way you brainstorm. :) .
    From Bex, living in the incredible Land of the Long White Cloud :) (New Zealand)
    Can't post email, but will send to you Stephanie if necessary.

  28. Hi Elisabeth, another reader from Australia, this is so cool! (can you tell I don't get out much? hee!hee!)

    I think what makes a story have an impact is the stakes. If they resonate with a universal, yet personal, fear or longing or whatever, that makes the stakes personal to the reader, too. The deeper you layer the struggle, which oftentimes means you have to go there yourself, the more you will draw the reader in. What do I mean by stakes? Public stakes might be a pending terrorist attack. A real fear, but if that's all a movie is about, say, it's not going to touch us much. Add a personal stake, ie. one of the guys struggling to stop the attack has his own daughter in the target zone and he can't get her out. (universal fear of losing child) Give him impossible choices, does he try to save the city or his daughter. That ramps up reader interest.

  29. Hi Bex, from New Zealand :D

    So glad the answers have resonate with you, layering will definitely make your story come alive. Look at your dialogue, too. Is it "on the nose"? i.e. saying exactly what the reader means. If so, try for more subtext. I do a lot of this in my undercover cops stories because the heroes don't want to outright "lie" so they have to say things in such a way that they're mostly true or lying by omission etc.

  30. Love how your latest story was born! I'm curious - did that good-looking homecare nurse know he sparked the story for a published book? lol! That is so cool! :-D

    Haha, I laughed when you said, when working on your characters, that you figure out what they fear and would never do...and then find a way to MAKE them do it. lol, sounds so cruel, but that's so true! :-)

    Not editing while your writing the story is hard, for me at least, lol. I find myself always wanting to stop, go back, and perfect the scene. But! I am learning! ;-)

    Thanks for the chance to get a critique! I live in the sunshine state of Florida. Love it here! Today is especially beautiful -- not too hot and with just a touch of autumn in the air!

    Stephanie - Anything I can do to make your life easier. ;-)

  31. Katie, Oh, yeah, I've run into him a few times again. Took his photo, asked permission to blog about him :D Haven't done that yet, but posted his photo on by FB page awhile back www.facebook/SandraOrchard if you want to peek. You'll have to scroll through the photos at the top to find him because the newest ones covered him up :(

    Like you, not editing along the way is a big struggle for me, too. Even when writing blog comments!! Florida sounds beautiful today, but those high temps in summer would do me in. :D

  32. Hi Sandra! :)

    I was wondering how would you recommend making sure you show not tell?


  33. Hi Jazmine, showing is a challenge for most writers. I don't worry about it on the first draft. I just try to get the story down as quickly as possible. And then on subsequent passes, I look for opportunities. Anywhere you name an emotion is a potential opportunity. For example, instead of saying "she felt tired" Show her going to the fridge, forgetting what she went there for by the time she opened the door, yawning, putting something in the wrong place, details that convey she's tired and give us a glimpse of her life.

    Once you start doing that, you'll begin to see other potential opportunities. Be alert to good examples when you read. I read with a small post-it pad handy to mark lines that really impress me so I can go back and study them later. Hope that helps. Great question!

  34. Thank you so much!!

    How do you choose character names? I have a hard time finding names that really fit my characters.

    I live at the Gateway to the West, St. Louis, Missouri. Lewis and Clark (and many others) came down our rivers and traveled over our lands.


  35. Hi 4readin, I'll be in St. Louis in a couple of weeks for the ACFW conference!

    I choose last names by searching the phone book. I try to keep in mind the nationality of the characters so the surname fits. For first names I just go by what sounds good. I've started a list of cool names I like and might use. As much as possible I try not to have names of characters start with the same letter, readers mix them up too easily. I also had a critique partner point out to me once that most of my names in a particular ms ended with the "y" sound. So now I watch for that and change it up a bit more. What kind of character are you trying to name. We could brainstorm :D

  36. Sandra,

    I enjoyed reading your post!! I'm working on doing the research and planning the plot of my next project, so it's nice to hear from others who do a lot of the major work before word one! :)

    Your first step sounds so interesting to me. I never thought about doing the brainstorming with other people. Do you run your story ideas by other writers mostly? Or just anyone who you think might be interested (like family or those with similar life experiences to what your characters go through)? I'm really curious as to how such a brainstorming session would work...I'm one of those isolated writers, who writes with the door closed and "don't interrupt" sign on the door. LOL

    I was homeschooled, too, and I graduated last year!! I'm in college now, which reminds me I should probably get back to my homework. :) It was nice hanging out here at GTW, as always. I love all of the comments above!


    Rachelle from South Carolina

  37. Hello Sandra,

    Thanks for sharing your writing process and answering our questions! I'm from Ontario as well, and just in the process of drafting my first story (I'm still too shy to call it a novel).

    I have a couple questions for you:

    In choosing a location, what factors came into play when deciding to create a fictional town in Niagara, as opposed to choosing Niagara Falls or Niagara-on-the-Lake, for example?

    And did you have any qualms about setting it in Canada rather than the U.S.?


    Oh, and my email address is: childofprussia (at) gmail (dot) com

  38. Hi fellow Ontarioian! For my story I wanted a town smaller than those and more rural. I'm familiar with most towns in this are, but none were exactly what I needed so I picked and chose different aspects from different ones.

    I didn't have qualms about setting it in Canada, but US publishers do!! Harlequin (that's who owns Love Inspired) was the only publisher I talked to that was fine with it being set in Canada, the rest strongly preferred US settings. That's why I chose to set it on Lake Erie so I could throw it on either side of the lake :D

  39. Thank you, Sandra, I appreciate hearing your take on this. I've lived in Niagara and so wanted to set my story there because of how much I love the place.

    But I wondered how a story set in Canada would be viewed by publishers, and I find their preference sobering. But I suppose, if absolutely necessary, the story could take place on either side of the border.

    Hmmm... lots to ponder about this. Thanks again!

  40. You're welcome. Another thing to keep in mind when you use a "real" place is how much it changes over time. I know one author who had to go back and make some significant changes to a story that was accurate at the time of writing, but by the time it went to publication some significant aspects of the city had changes. Not nearly as major a before and after 9-11, but significant enough that people who knew the area would call her on it.

  41. I hadn't thought of that before, and it's an excellent point. I'll keep it in mind!

  42. I loved reading about your writing process -- both the post and the tips you've given in the comments. I think the idea of brainstorming with other writers is a great idea, like Rachelle said. Since I'm plotting (trying to, anyway -- I'm a natural pantser) a new project, I have a feeling I'll be returning to this again and again. Thanks for sharing that and answering all our questions!

    I'm from Oklahoma, but I don't have much of an accent. My grandma was from New York and New Mexico and all sorts of places, so maybe she rubbed off on me.


  43. You're welcome, Jenna, I've had lots of fun being here. It's funny you should mention accents rubbing off, because these evening I phoned a friend in Texas and by the end of the conversation 20 minutes later, I was already talking with a twang!

  44. Hi everyone, I'm not sure how many of you have subscribed to the comments, but for those who have, since you were such a great group, I wanted to tell you about a giveaway for my book (and I am willing to mail it across the ocean :) ) I'm on Margaret Daley's blog today. Tell me What undercover cop assignment you would find most intriguing to read about for a chance to win a signed copy of Deep Cover.


  45. Bex, you're our winner! Congratulations! I have your address from writing prompt contests, so I'll put you and Sandra in touch with each other.

    Sandra, thank you so much for being a guest here on Go Teen Writers!