A Peek Inside the Writing Life

Craft books and novels in progress

What does this “living a writing life” look like in real time?

This week, I’m submitting a partial manuscript to two literary agents I pitched last year at my first Chicago Writers Conference.

Panera writing session

Getting the submission ready includes the following:

  • Knowing and following the guidelines given to me by the agents during my pitch sessions.
  • Ensuring my first 50 pages are formatted and the best they can be at this stage of my development.
  • Preparing a one-page synopsis. This is not an outline, nor is it enticing cover copy. A synopsis has to spell out what happens in the book, including the ending, while revealing the voice and flavor of the novel.
  • Including a well-written query letter along with the manuscript and synopsis.

Once I get that all emailed, I will note it on my submission tracking sheet then dismiss it from my mind and get on with finishing the rest of this draft. It can take months to hear back on submissions, even if they were invited!

Engaging means improving my craft. That makes me chuckle. It used to sound so pretentious to me when I tried to think it let alone say it out loud.

The reality is I do work at the craft. I read, study, ask questions, practice, read some more. I am in the middle of three different books on craft today. They are: Save the Cat, The 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction WritingWriting 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.

Engaging means reading as much fiction as possible. I’m enchanted by the idea of writing a real world story with hints of magic ala the very talented and successful Sarah Addison Allen.

Craft books and novels in progress

I’m working my way through all of her novels (just finished my third). Plus, she’s recommended a few of her favorite books by other authors, and I’ve tracked one down from an interlibrary loan: I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chappell. Reading this before bed each night.

Playwright Michele Lowe recommends that writers always have more than one idea or project to work on. She’s brilliant so I listen to her. I’m collecting ideas and snippets of scenes for what might be my next book-length project.

I’ve started researching and am in the middle of a fascinating book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by journalist Rebecca Traister 

The idea that there will be a next book feels like a gift I’ve given myself. Three years ago I wasn’t even sure I could finish one book.

I’m also planning ahead for the fall. I might take a class, go to a conference, or sign up for a retreat. For me,  I need to build in time and space for meeting other writers, talking books, learning from more experienced authors.

My vision of “living the writing life” means engaging in the world of writers and readers on as many levels as possible.

Last week I published a book review on Blogcritics.org and am preparing a list of interview questions for the debut author, Abbey Campbell Cook.

I met an inspiring young writer at a family graduation party in Minnesota a couple of weeks ago. Ellie is 14 and a voracious reader and writer.

We talked under a canopy that provided scant relief from the blazing sun. We commiserated about the difficulty of creating interesting characters and working in solitude.

Last week, I received an email from an old friend who recently joined a writing group. We didn’t discuss writing, just exchanged book recommendations.  But there’s an energy exchange that takes place just knowing she writes!

This week I’m looking forward to a coffee date with a writer I met at a retreat last summer. She recently finished her first novel, and I was honored to get to read the first few chapters. More energy, more writing flow.

And I’m two weeks away from attending my second StoryStudio’s Ragdale Retreat.

A mentor of mine—a talented author and inspiring coach—recently recommended a list of short stories.  She compiled a curated list of stories with craft elements that shine in each. Can’t wait to get started on this!

Engaging means following the careers of other writers and supporting them whenever you can.

I’m eagerly awaiting Jennifer David Hesse’s first novel in July and have been sharing free bookmarks with my friends and family. Be sure to look for Book #1 Midsummer Night’s Mischief (A Wiccan Wheel Mystery). 

Midsummers Night Mischief

Living the writing life means making choices. I spent Sunday afternoon in Panera, wearing ear buds and flip flops (and clothes, I was wearing clothes), brandishing a purple flair marker as I went over what I hope is finally the final draft of my partial manuscript submission.

I could have been poolside with a margarita. And a part of me wanted to be.

Sometimes living the writing life means saying no to things (like hanging out at the pool). Twice this month, I turned down opportunities to write and publish (once for pay, once for a byline).

So I will miss out on those two opportunities. My time is limited. I have a day job and a family. To finish this novel, I have to focus.

Write where you are

Sometimes that means writing in the car, then walking in the nearby park

To make all of this possible, I continue to invest in my health and wellness. That means making room for life. For good food and movement and mindfulness.

All of that makes room for my dreams.

Long walks with a girlfriend or my husband or my son, walking my daughter’s dogs, doing pushups, sharing grilled chicken and an episode of American Pickers with my husband, talking to my mom on the phone, all of this is life.

Social media (will that be the phrase that sounds the death knell for all of humanity?) is both a resource and a drain for a writer. I belong to a few great writing communities online.

The best of these have provided inspiration and opportunity and are worth maintaining. It’s getting sidetracked on dancing puppy tangents that can suck away what little time I’ve carved out to actually write.

It’s also time to update my website, invest in new business cards and an updated author photo.

Deadlines approach for an essay I want to write and a residency application I’m nervous to submit.

Living the writing life means not being afraid to fail.

I know there are more of me out there, closet writers not sure they have talent.

You do. But it’s mostly about the work.

A brilliant author friend said during a recent conversation “if we’d known what was involved in writing a book, we never would have started.”

She’s right. But I’m ridiculously grateful I did.

 

4 Thoughts on “A Peek Inside the Writing Life

  1. Great post, Suzanne! Thanks again for the shout-out, and good luck with those agents!

  2. Elaine Richards on June 29, 2016 at 3:23 am said:

    So excited for you to finally get those pages sent! Thanks for reminding me of what I might/could be doing if I weren’t, er, ‘otherwise engaged.’

Five Words That Will Change Your Writing Life

Aha moment Do the work

Hard hat

You have questions.

And the internet is a rabbit hole of answers.

When is the best time to write? How do you tackle revision? Should you write in the morning? Do you need a Mac or is Windows still ok? Word or Scrivener? Music or no music? What kind of music?

Suggestions are everywhere.

Truman Capote only wrote lying down. Philip Roth writes standing up. Writing in long hand boosts creativity. Your desk should face the window. Your desk should never face the window.

How do you know you’re doing it right?

On a snowy night in late March, I  sat with two other writers in an Irish pub discussing our works-in-progress (all first novels, two Women’s fiction, one hard Sci-Fi).

We all needed answers.

I had a new chapter to workshop. The Sci-Fi guy, a proud new dad and entrepreneurial mogul, was making progress but wanted to write more consistently. The other WF writer, an MBA and busy VP Marketing executive by day, had just finished her rough first draft and was “stymied” by revisions.

Creative Commons: www.skinnyartist.com

We tossed around suggestions over appetizers and a vodka tonic (don’t judge—the drive in from the suburbs was horrendous).

Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” method which I saw him describe in a TV interview, struck a chord with Sci-Fi guy. I’d brought along four books on revision to help MBA tackle her second draft. Sci-Fi guy produced a three-foot long stapled printout from Scrivener illustrating how he kept track of character arcs and timelines, because I’d lost count of the draft I was on.

This was good stuff. Stuff we could act on.

Aha moment Do the work

Creative Commons: blogs.worldbank.org

Still, we pondered. Were we doing it right? Maybe we should try that new book or class! Then Sci-Fi guy said something that we strained to hear over the music and revelry of the pub:

“Or, we could just do the f$#king work.”

My eyes locked on MBA’s, and together we turned to Sci-Fi guy, not sure we’d heard him correctly.

The look on his face was what I imagine Ben Franklin looked like when his uncredited minions helped him discover electricity. It was a literal “Aha” moment.

I resumed my book recommendations, pointing out a chapter MBA might like on setting. Sci-Fi guy grinned at us (I’d say maniacally but, you know, adverb) for a few seconds. Then he interrupted, louder this time:

“Or, we could just do the f$#king work.”

No problem hearing him this time.

MBA: “Wow, this meeting just took a turn.”

Jack Nicholson The Shining

We all laughed, until he said it again.

Sci-Fi guy: “I’m serious. We need to just do the f$#king work.”

Maybe a rowdy Irish pub wasn’t the best place for a critique group, now that we thought about it.

Fast forward two weeks to a snowy April night (that’s right, snow in April . . .my kind of town, Chicago is…), MBA and I sat in the same pub and shared an order of fries.  She provided specific, generous insight that helped me interpret feedback I’d received from a professional editor

Then MBA said she had a question for me.

MBA: “What notebooks do you use? Like, how many different ones and how do you organize them?”

I laughed out loud, repeated Sci-Fi guy’s memorable suggestion and then said, “No, seriously. I have like one for the novel, and another for interviews. . .”

So what’s the point? The point is you have questions. You need advice. You need to learn craft. And you will find endless answers. That’s what fantastic blogs like Writers Helping Writers and Womens Fiction Writers and Bang2Write and are for.

The point is no matter how far you are into your essay, or memoir, or novel, you may always feel you’re doing it wrong.

The point is no matter how many books you read, or how many lists you study, or how many podcasts you listen to, no one way works for every writer.

In an interview on Writers on Writing, Author Sari Wilson put it this way:

“The process has its own intelligence. Committing to the process through all the different obstacles that are presented has its own logic and its own power, and it will take you through the process. There will be an end.”

In other words, the doing of “it,” whatever “it” is, teaches you how to do “it.” You have to DO. You have to mess up.

All the “Habits of Great Writers” lists and viral posts in the world can’t change that.

Sometimes you’re just scared and stalling. How can you tell the difference? How do you get from stalling to writing?

Just Do The F$#king Work

Here’s the best of what’s worked for me:

Set a goal. Any goal.

What should yours be? Who cares? Time spent, words added up. It doesn’t matter. My first one was 500 words a day/5 days a week (flexibility was key).

Refer to a few trusted guides (don’t overload).

Go for tried and true, review recommendations. In the end, the voice that speaks to you matters. I like Wired for Story, Immediate Fiction, and Stein on Writing.

Stay in touch with your project as often as possible.

Don’t fall prey to the drift. I like Seinfeld’s approach. When I had the flu, it all went to pot. Touching it every day makes it easier to get back in. Staying in touch can mean reading a paragraph, or rewriting a whole chapter. You decide.

Practice. Reading about how others do it isn’t enough.

Find a suggestion that resonates? Put down the damn book and go try it. Then and there. Share what worked and what didn’t with your peers.

If you believe you don’t have time to write, keep a time/activity log.

I claimed to want a writing life as I munched on popcorn watching The Voice for the third time in a week. That’s not writing, that’s lying. Make your intentions match your actions.

Make contacts with writers you admire who will call you on your BS.

Go out on a limb. Take a class. Go to a conference. Be brave. Be bold. Have business cards or a pen and notepaper (you’re a writer, after all). Get contact information. Email people. Invite them for coffee. Bam!

Eventually, as Sci-Fi guy knew, we all just have to do the f$#king work. And that’s the only answer you need.

Are you ever guilty of avoiding the work? How do you get back to it? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.

 

 

 

4 Thoughts on “Five Words That Will Change Your Writing Life

  1. How do I follow you on Word Press?

A Fine Mess: Writing and the Scientific Method

Writing is Scientific

I’m sitting in a middle school gymnasium wondering how I could have forgotten the deafening, high-pitched squeal produced by over one hundred 13-year-olds. My daughter, a research biologist, coaches a science Olympiad team on invasive species and my husband and I have come to cheer them on.

Bob the Bubble Man entertains the students waiting for their final scores and medals to be handed out. He repeats over and over that science is all about asking questions. If we want to make this bubble bounce on our hand, what’s the best way? Should we use a dry hand, a wet hand, or maybe a gloved hand?

Bob the Bubble Man

Writing fiction is all about asking questions. How would our protagonist react to this situation? What is the more dramatic choice in this scene? Would telling the story from a different point of view reveal more character?

My daughter’s team scores two big victories and over a celebratory dinner, I chat with the head coach, a Ph.D. entomologist, about projects she and my daughter are developing in their day jobs for the same scientific company, and I update her on the progress I’ve made on my novel. She’s a big reader and curious about the writing process.

I share the stops and starts, how detours down one path have led me to revelations about changing the point of view, even the tense I’m using to tell my chosen story. How I’ve narrowed down—finally and after three full drafts—what my story is actually about. How I feel like I have the tenuous grasp of a spine that I’m building on and how all the “mistakes” have gotten me to this point.

Writing is Scientific

She nods knowingly and shares how she must coax the junior scientists on her team into making mistakes on purpose. She encourages them to pursue unusual avenues in the hopes of uncovering something new.

Sometimes, she’s frustrated with the younger scientists who, having mastered one testing method, become comfortable and want to stick with it. She has to nudge and push them out of their comfort zone.

Writers have comfort zones, too. We identify as pantsers or outliners. Like scientists, we can benefit from trying different methods or inventing new methods.

As a former die-hard pantser, I hesitated to use even a beat sheet, but in later drafts, outlines have helped me shape my character’s focus and purpose.

The doc reminds me of a development project she worked on and how the genesis of the idea came to her in the shower. She asked “what if” questions and hit on a unique solution that continues to pay off.

She leads a team of researchers and is responsible for encouraging them to move past their fear, to encourage them to look at what would they try “if they weren’t afraid of being wrong,” of wasting time or resources. She teaches them to expect dead ends and detours. It means they’re exploring possibilities.

Back to Bob the Bubble guy. He asks the kids to predict how best to bounce a bubble on their hands. He recruits three volunteers and they try all three options. Turns out the dry hand pops the bubble, the wet hand causes the bubble to stick and on the third try, on the gloved hand, the bubble bounces over and over, glistening under the gym lights.

Cool Scientists

Cool Scientists!

What would you try if you weren’t afraid of being wrong, of wasting time? What would you create?

 

 

4 Thoughts on “A Fine Mess: Writing and the Scientific Method

  1. great observation!

  2. Painting/drawing. I have it all in my mind, but it doesn’t ever come out that well in reality! Perhaps I am afraid of being crap at it! So I don’t try. Like a true hedgehog.

    Thanks for dragging me out from under the safety of the leaf pile!

    A xx

Yes, You Can Write Without This

03-52-By-Diego-Diaz-via-Flickr-Creative-Commons-License

03-52-By-Diego-Diaz-via-Flickr-Creative-Commons-License

You’ve read countless author bios that include some variation of this:

I’ve been making up stories in my head since before I could read. My parents said I lived in a dream world. Characters come to life in my head and speak to me, I see whole worlds before I even start to write.

This isn’t me, and it got me doubting. Again. Can I write fiction if my mind doesn’t work like this?

Writers often obsess over the processes of other writers. When do you write? Where do you write? Do you use a laptop, pen and journal, retro typewriter? It’s as if we think adopting the traits of those that came before will improve our own odds of success. How do you do it?

If we don’t do it the way Author X does, we must be doing it wrong. If it doesn’t come easily, we’re not talented. My comfort zone with writing is non-fiction: essays, news features, memoir, commentary, humor, etc.. Writing in these forms is reflexive for me.

I’ve always written stories as well, just not naturally or easily, or sometimes competently, as it turns out. Enrolling in my first fiction workshop stretched my writing muscles, occasionally resulting in a cramp.

When I started this blog almost two years ago, I wanted to share my journey as a newly committed writer. I wasn’t new to writing, I was just new to allowing it to take up space in my life. I reviewed over 100 of my previous posts and found a lot of them were thinly veiled attempts to quiet the voice of self-doubt.

Today I came across a blog post by a lovely writer waxing on about her imaginary worlds peopled with fascinating characters that talked to her and interacted as if alive. She couldn’t remember a time when her imagination was without a menagerie.

My heart sank. This isn’t how things worked for me.

I almost accepted it as another sign from the universe that I shouldn’t be wasting my time on fiction. Despite a novel in revision and numerous short pieces, my dream of telling absorbing, made-up stories felt threatened.

Then I remembered the freewriting exercise I did before bed last night. I didn’t have made up worlds and people living in my imagination for days prior. But, as my black Flair felt-tip flew across the pages of my notebook, a movie unfolded in my head.

Full Moon

Full Moon Silhouette. © bilbord99,

Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw Donald, a naughty little boy, as he tip-toed out of his house, without permission, to gaze at the glowing cheese moon up close. I smelled the cigarette smoke from Donald’s next door neighbor, ancient, senile James, and heard the creaking of the old man’s webbed lawn chair as he rocked back and forth. And I felt my chest tighten when a cold, rough hand closed around Donald’s ankle and pulled him off the wood pile. I swallowed a lump as another hand closed over the little boy’s mouth.

Donald and James arrived in my notebook, without making any previous appearances in my head. They’re not moving around there now, and if they’re talking, it’s not to me. I think they’re just waiting in Donald’s back yard where I left them.

I may return to them. I may not. I’m asking the what-if questions. My objective is to bring them to life in the mind of the reader.

Podcasts, blog posts, and social media links promise a magic tip or trick that will confirm we’re doing this writing thing right. Or, more in line with our anxiety, that we’re doing it all wrong. We’ll switch tactics and that will be the missing link in our quest to get published, score 5-star reviews, or sell our screenplay.

Maybe this is just another form of self-doubt, our inner gremlins trying to keep us safe in the land of the easy: Don’t try fiction, it’s too hard. You can’t make up stories if you don’t do it this way.

All the good stuff exists beyond the boundaries of the familiar, the comfortable. Does it matter that I don’t have entire worlds in my head? For now, I’ve decided it doesn’t. Fiction is challenging, it’s exciting, and I don’t want to stop yet. I’m learning to tell stories my way.

This is how it’s working for me. One writer’s process. My plan is to keep learning, keep seeking, keep writing.

You’ll find no magic tip here, just gentle encouragement. Your way is the right way for you, too.

 

 

 

 

 

4 Thoughts on “Yes, You Can Write Without This

  1. Oh, this SO resonates with me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing a post that validates ANY method we have as writers for getting words on the page. Sometimes my characters are there in my head, and I can watch them in motion. Other times, I need an inspiring snippet to read in my research to get them started. Sometimes, they disappear for days and weeks at a time, while other parts of my life take up so much room I can’t allow them to be part of it. Yes, I’ve made stuff up all my life, but not full stories. Adaptations of other author’s work. Mostly, I’ve imagined writing. Over the past year, though, I’ve let writing become a fuller part of my life, internally and educationally. I’m slowly going through the process of “becoming” a writer. It’s both the hardest and must gratifying process I’ve ever engaged in, besides parenting.

    • Your comment resonates with me, Wendy! At a time in my life when many contemporaries are enjoying down time from parenting, just relaxing, I find myself gearing up and taking on this huge writing challenge. It takes hours and hours every week. You put it well “the hardest and most gratifying process besides parenting.” I think that’s how we know it’s ok to keep doing it! Write on, sister, write on! And many thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Thank you for the encouragement, Suzanne! Your words are so reassuring. There is no right or wrong process when it comes to writing. …I know this is true, but those darn doubts can be so persistent. I’m glad you decided to share your journey!

One Easy Exercise for Your Writing Muscle

Exercise Your Writing Muscle

Exercise Your Writing Muscle

It’s a snowy Midwestern Monday and I’m on a time crunch. My vision board* is winking at me, saying “sure, you said this stuff was important to you this year.” My stomach is rumbling for lunch, and that annoying red light on my phone tells me that I have day-job email that needs tending.

But as they say, perfect is the enemy of the good (or at least useful), so here is my imperfect post I promised last week about asking “What if . . .?”

Do you do morning pages? Do you have a million story beginnings, scenes, or vignettes that might have a nugget of a story but you don’t know what to do with them? Most writers do, regardless of experience level.

Morning Pages example for blog

My handwriting is its own security system – uncrackable.

For any beginners out there that have a mash of wrinkled pages and ink blots, try this and see if you like it. It might help you feel closer to finishing. It made me feel a little uncomfortable but like I’d accomplished something.

Choose one of your unfinished scenes or vignettes and outline it until the end. That’s it. That simple. You don’t have to write the whole story. Doesn’t even matter if you’re not an outliner. I’m a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants (pantser) by nature.

You’re exercising a muscle. Maybe it’s one you use all the time like that eyebrow furrowing thing you do when your kid leaves his smelly socks in the living room. For me, it reflects my perception of my creativity muscle as a flabby tricep that I don’t flex enough.

I picked a random morning pages exercise that I was kind of fond of, and then outlined to an ending with some story beats. You can Google “story beat sheets.” I liked this one from paranormal author Jami Gold.

Beat Sheet example from Jamigold.com

It ended up looking like this. Don’t worry about not being able to read the actual words. Look at the format, the steps.

Finish Story Exercise Jan 2016

Morning pages are not about trying to write a story. They’re about getting the juices flowing.

This exercise is not about editing or revision. Not yet. This is a rough, rough first draft with some ideas of where it could go. The practice was in asking the question, and in trying out some answers. Taking a leap.

Ideally, you would keep going. Keep asking what if. Discard the first few ideas that surface. Meander down the path.

Ask “what if . . .?” and you just might find something. My goal is to do one a week from the prior weeks warm-up exercises. Do you have a regular warm-up? Do you do morning pages? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

 

*More on the vision board in a later post.

 

2 Thoughts on “One Easy Exercise for Your Writing Muscle

  1. Thanks for the shout out to my beat sheets! 🙂

    I love the morning page you did with the story structure from the beat sheets. Have fun with it! 🙂

Have You Finished Your Book Yet?

uncle-franks-chevy-2
uncle-franks-chevy-2

Creative Commons http://rutheh.com/tag/vintage-car/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing up, I was a curious kid. I wondered about things to a sometimes annoying degree. If we’d had the internet back then—the age of brontosaurus burgers and dodo birds, according to my kids—I would have fallen down the Google wormhole and never emerged.

Alas, having to travel to the library to look things up in an encyclopedia limited my research. One thing I didn’t understand until my late teen years was the process of invention.

If man could build an airplane or rocket, if the human brain could figure that out, why did we bother with the Model-T Ford or the Wright Brothers? Why not skip right to the harder stuff?

The concept of building on a body of knowledge was a hard one to grasp.

When I spun my first complete rough draft of a novel, I wondered the same thing. Why didn’t it feel the same to read as books I picked up at the bookstore or library?

I wanted to be able to write the perfect novel on my first try. I wanted to go straight from horse and buggy to Apollo 13.

When friends or family ask me about “my book,” I try to find the right words to convey a complicated, mysterious process that I’m only beginning to comprehend myself. Today, I spent an hour geeking-out with a fellow writer on the magic of figuring out this writing a novel thing.

Because the cool thing is . . . I am figuring it out. Draft five (yes, you read that correctly, I’m in my fifth rewrite of a 260-page novel) is a billion times better than that first rough draft. And yet, it’s still so far from ready. According to an interview I heard, Station Eleven, a popular novel by Emily St. John Mandel released earlier this year, took over 20 drafts to complete!

Writers are taught to avoid clichés like the plague (see what I did there?) yet the study of the craft of writing follows many. One of the standards is “writing is rewriting.” It wasn’t until this fifth draft that I was able to use some of the tools I learned about in my first class on writing fiction.

Like the internal combustion engine, there are specific working parts to a story that runs. Reading a zillion books over the last 42 years did not make me capable of writing one. Just as driving a car for the last 34 years has not given me the ability to build one from scratch.

Studying fiction, learning to read like a writer, finding out what the parts of a novel are and how to put them together is a work in progress. I needed to learn to build on the body of knowledge I was accumulating.

There’s a survey floating around on the internet that shows over 81 percent of Americans want to write a book. Many do and they’re horrible. Most never even try, some try and never finish a draft.

Many more write wonderful stories that never make it to publication. A few are both publicly and critically acclaimed. With modern technology, many publish their own books without ever learning what makes a novel work.

I didn’t want to do that. My goal is to learn to write stories like those I like to read, books that you get lost in and never want to leave.

So the latest update on my book is I’m working on it! And, it’s starting to take shape. I described it this way to my fellow writing geek friend just today:

It’s like I’ve been hiding in my garage using odds and ends to build a car from the ground up. And it runs! There are creaky parts, parts that fail to spark, parts that clunk where they should click, occasionally a foul cloud of smoke puffs out of nowhere, but it’s drivable.

Writers often refer to first novels as “under the bed” books, books that will never see the light of day because they’re not good enough. The rare whiz-kid turns out a masterpiece on her first try. That has not been my experience. I couldn’t have gotten to this draft, to this level of improvement without writing that first awful draft.

For any beginners out there working on their first draft, or for any of the 200 million out there that think they have a book in them, you learn how to write a book by writing a book. Study craft, technique, read, practice, write, screw up, delete, add, write some more, then do it all again.

The jury is out on whether or not this particular book will be hidden under my bed, or left to rust in the garage. Either way, I can tell you this, the process of getting it running has been one of the most challenging and exhilarating of my life.

 

8 Thoughts on “Have You Finished Your Book Yet?

  1. Great article.
    I do believe many feel/know they have a book in them. Some of us persist. That “eternal itch”.

    20% talent, 80% dog with a bone. Always in my head, even if it’s background.
    Accumulating ‘material’. Working the puzzle of plot.

    Knew it at 9, still persists into my 50. The scenes, dialogue, settings in mind’s eye.

    Inspite of parenting, FT work and caregiving, lurking there more than often.
    Yourself and two writing friends have trod thru this mind jungle.
    It’s true then, I guess.
    As Cheri Adair says, ‘just write the damn thing’.

    • Great way to put it – “dog with a bone.” I guess that’s why everyone says persistence is the key. Thanks so much for reading. It helps to know we’re not alone! I’m workin’ on it, Cheri Adair!

  2. Nice article Suzanne. You are right on all counts. I published my first novel, The Mystery At Sag Bridge, in April, and I lost track of the number of drafts. Somewhere mid-process I kept patching the same one for a while. The final count probably came to eight, not counting the proofing process, which involved another three or four read-throughs.

    A writer starts with so much enthusiasm, but it’s not easy to critique your own work. Critique groups, beta readers, and editors are so important to the process. I was fortunate enough to have an editor who “suggested” instead of “demanded”, but after thinking things over I usually realized he was right. At that point the fear comes out of the process and enthusiasm returns – along with the final draft.

    • Thank you for reading! It’s good to know that you found the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had great and helpful and difficult to hear but ultimately useful feedback. You’re right, it makes all the difference. Congrats also on your beautiful book! Loved your website.

  3. Loved it. Great article. You are only in your “fifth” rewrite. That’s okay. My first “under the bed” novel took me twenty-seven rewrites until I published it. From first draft to last, completely different stories. I guess I can say I’ve written twenty-six books that will remain “under the bed” and am now a published author with one book 🙂 My second novel is on its eighth rewrite going into ninth after my editor returns it to me. So, it really doesn’t matter the rewrites, the main thing here is perseverance of finishing the book, and giving yourself the forgiveness to write it. Keep doing what you are doing.

  4. Definitely dog with a bone…and just write the damn thing. Great post and the only answer I have for patient supporters who live vicariously through someone in the writing process is, “Do you have a book in you?…How about a blog?” Memories, history, different brains, create magical stories for our tribal collection, Getting it from brain to book to readable takes time 🙂

New Stuff to Read!

Bang2Write

Excited to be featured on Lucy V Hay’s Bang2Write site offering writing craft tips for screenwriters and novelists.  Please share if you like the post!

Also, my review for Eighth Wonder: The Thomas Bethune Story can be found on Blogcritics this week! Stay tuned for a cool interview with the author, Anita M. Cal.

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How to Finish Your Stuff: Avoid The Drift

The Drift - Writing Advice Suzanne Brazil

The Drift - Writing Advice Suzanne Brazil

You know the feeling. You’re in the middle of a project (a book, an essay, a short story) and then you’re not. You’re on the edges of it or miles away. It shimmers in the distance like a mirage and you’re losing it.

I call it “the drift.”

You suddenly realize it’s been three days, then a week, then a month since you’ve made any progress.

It feels stale. You find yourself bored by the characters. You think it’s a sign you need a new project. A fresh start. So you let more time go by.

The foundation of your sand castle has blown away. One day at a time. One missed writing session at a time.

How does this happen? It happens grain by grain.

How do you stop it? The same way.

Famous authors all have recommendations to write every day or develop a routine. I like Jerry Seinfeld‘s advice: Don’t Break The Chain. Just grab a calendar and for every day you work on your number one project, mark a big red “X” – then just make it your goal not to break the chain.

Girl-Writing-ruifernandes-flickr-creative-commons-375x395

Drop in on your project whenever you can. You’ve got a day job, your dog has diarrhea or  your kid has a science project due. You don’t have time to brew a perfect pot of tea, don your favorite sweater and light your literary pipe.

So do what you can. Drop in on your characters. Reread a page or a paragraph, or jot down some ideas for a scene. I think of it as being less precious about the whole thing. Conditions don’t have to be perfect, you just want to keep in touch with your story.

“Drop in on your project whenever you can.” 

Steal time. Think of it as something you GET to do instead of another task to check off your list. Print out a couple of pages, stuff them in your purse or briefcase. Pull them out on your lunch hour, or on an extra long bathroom break during that interminable staff meeting.

Don’t fall for the allure of the new project because you’ve lost sight of the old. It’s not about rigid routines and perfect practice, it’s about action. Whatever you can do, do that. But do something.

sand-castle

“It’s not about rigid routines and perfect practice. It’s about action.” 

Stay tethered to the world you’ve built, the characters you’re developing and the story you’re telling. You’ll save time by not having to reorient yourself each writing session. Best of all? You’ll finish stuff.

 

4 Thoughts on “How to Finish Your Stuff: Avoid The Drift

  1. I love this, Suzanne! Especially this line: “You don’t have time to brew a perfect pot of tea, don your favorite sweater and light your literary pipe.” I need to remember it’s okay to just plop down at my computer any chance I get, and not wait for the so-called perfect conditions.

    …Similar to Seinfeld’s calendar chain, I always glance at the “date modified” for whatever Word document I’m working on. If I at least check in on my project every day, then that date stays current. If not, then it becomes obvious I’m starting to “drift.”

    • Thanks for reading, Jennifer – and what a great idea on the “date modified” as a reminder! That’s how I make sure I’m on the correct version but it’s a great visual aid, too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. CathyShouse on November 1, 2015 at 6:41 am said:

    I read these tips a few days ago and have since gotten some momentum going on a project I had drifted from. 1. Once I get started, I find myself stealing more time to keep going. 2. It’s surprising how much I get done when I keep in regular touch with the world I’ve created. Thanks!

    • That’s great news, Cathy! I think it’s physics and most writers are not in love with physics. Still, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, which is why it can be so hard to get going once we stop. Planned days off are ok as long as we’ve planned a re-entry strategy. Thanks for reading!!

Top 10 Tips for a Do-It-Yourself Retreat

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Sawyer Writing Collective - Warren Dunes, MI

Google “Retreats” and you’ll find price tags ranging from $499 for a budget plan to the $3,000 range for deluxe accommodations. Excluding travel costs. If you need to get away on a budget and aren’t looking for a guru or instructor, try a DIY Retreat.

A weekend away with acquaintances who share a common goal can be more regenerative and productive than a best girlfriend getaway. Whether you’re in need of a yoga/fitness intensive, a relaxing spa experience, or a creative workshop weekend, you can save a ton of cash by planning your own.

Last month, I spent a perfect weekend with two fellow writers I met in a novel workshop. Elaine, Puja, and I shared a rented cottage on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan for 2 ½ days and spent an average of $106 each (excluding food).

Suzanne Brazil DIY Retreat

By the time we packed up for the late Sunday drive home, we’d already decided on a name for our group and plans to squeeze in another retreat before year-end.

Here are our Top 10 Tips for a Perfect DIY Retreat:

Once you’ve agreed on a date, schedule a meeting to decide the following and then confirm one way to communicate, email, text, Facebook, etc.

#1 Communicate vision or goals: Each attendee should be up front about what they want out of the time away. For example:  I want to walk outside and would love company; I want to hole up in my room and not come out unless I’m hungry; I’d love to share ideas.

As writers, we all craved uninterrupted writing time for our current works in progress. We originally decided on a group sharing for our second night. As Saturday approached, we were all making progress and wanted to stay focused on writing, so we cancelled the reading.

Lake Michigan Dunes, Sawyer, Michigan

#2 Decide on a budget: Be honest! The idea is to save money by arranging a DIY retreat, don’t lose sight of your spending limits. Your budget will likely determine the distance you’re willing to travel and preferred locations.

We chose the Harbor Country area near the Indiana/Michigan border. We divided the original cost of an available house by five people (the original number interested in going). We ended up with three writers and stayed within our budget, we just downsized the house.

Sawyer Writing Collective Writers' Retreat

#3 Book your lodging: One person arranges, collects the money, acts as liaison for booking, etc. For their trouble, they get first choice of room or the master. Alternatively, agree on sharing the researching duties and draw straws for the top spot.

Elaine emailed us with a few choices from the Airbnb website. We voted, Elaine booked, and we paid her via PayPal or personal check.

#4 Confirm meal arrangements: Plan on at least one communal meal. Depending on your location, you may decide to venture into town for one or more meals. As for groceries, everyone bring what they want but be willing to share. Label if it makes it easier, confirm what’s off limits and what’s open season.

We originally agreed on grilling Friday night and dining in town on Saturday. We brought our own entrees, shared salads and enjoyed a great meal. The next night, only two of us went out because the other writer was on a roll with her project. It worked!

#5 Discuss sleep schedules: Is one of you a late riser who needs morning quiet? Are you a confirmed snorer? Bring ear plugs and respect everyone’s preferences.

I was up early, Elaine had to have 8 hours, and Puja was at the mercy of her dog’s schedule.  First one up agreed to get the coffee brewing.

Warren Dunes, Lake Michigan

#6 Discuss bathroom arrangements: Know the quirks of your home for the weekend. Agree on a schedule if necessary.

As first one up, I showered while the others slept which gave the hot water tank time to refill (per our hosts’ instructions).

#7 Discuss house rules: Do you have smokers in your group? Pets? What about TV and Music? If you aim to be as courteous as possible, the others will reciprocate. Aim for inclusion, consideration, and respect for privacy.

We all traveled with earbuds and our laptops, went TV-free, and kept conversation to a minimum unless we were all on a break together. Elaine and I accompanied Puja when she had to walk her dog late at night. Puja knew I was skittish around dogs so made sure to sleep with the door closed and the puppy safe inside.

#8 Mark the opening and closing of your retreat: Don’t run off to unpack in your rooms the minute you arrive. Take a moment to toast the time you’ve carved out of your overstuffed lives and maybe even write down what your goals were when you booked. Post this somewhere in the common area so you’re all reminded why you’re there.

Elaine wanted to reach 10,000 words on her rough draft. Puja wanted to incorporate the various pieces of her project into one coherent document, and I wanted to revise chapters 1-5. We wrote this on a piece of paper and kept it out on the dining room table.

Sawyer Writing Collective - Goals

#9 Exchange something: Going away with others offers something a solo retreat does not, the opportunity to learn, interact, and share energy for a common interest. Think of one thing each of you can contribute: i.e., a new pose, a healthy recipe, an inspiring quote, a book recommendation, or a playlist geared toward your activity.

One of the benefits of having a hive mind is the serendipitous ideas and tips that arise. Be open to bumping into someone in the hallway and trying out an idea. Consider sharing a trinket of some kind to mark the occasion, it adds a little something. I had a variety pack of three notebooks with fun sayings on the cover. Cost? Less than $4

Writing Retreat, Sawyer, Michigan

#10 Evaluate Post-Retreat: Agree on follow-up questions ahead of time. Would you return to the same location or prefer someplace new? How did the meals work out? Did your group share great chemistry? Would you want to add or subtract attendees next time?

We each reached our goals and gave our retreat 5 Stars!

The Sawyer Writing Collective’s second retreat is scheduled for next month and I can’t wait. Our cost this time is only $86. T-Shirts are in the works, and we’re considering new members.

Books on Sawyer Writing Collective Writing Retreat

We came away with new books to read, interesting angles on our stories, and a deeper camaraderie around our passion: writing.

Have you been itching to get away? What would you like to accomplish or focus on in the last quarter of 2015 or the start of 2016? Why not find a yoga partner, classmate or acquaintance with similar interests and suggest a DIY retreat? If you follow the steps above, you’ll have a blast, and return to your regular lives refreshed, energized, and with cash to spare. Don’t you deserve it?

You can read more about my first retreat experience here.

Elaine Richards has an MBA, and a degree in journalism from USC. She is at work on her first novel. Connect with her on Twitter @Elaine_yr

Puja Mojindra is a graduate of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)’s MFA Acting program and is currently at work adapting her one-woman play, A Great Dive, into a novel. Follow her on Twitter @PujaMohindra

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Thoughts on “Top 10 Tips for a Do-It-Yourself Retreat

  1. colleen on October 14, 2015 at 12:38 pm said:

    Great post, Suzanne! So glad you got to get away. So important to do. :O)

  2. My friends do this often just for getaways – I don’t know why I never thought of doing this for writing!

  3. Hello Suzanne, I’m revisiting this piece in advance of a retreat coming up in April. I’ve read several build-your-own retreat articles and your’s is still one of the best. Simple, thoughtful and obviously written by a writer who’s been there. Thanks again.

14 Takeaways from the Chicago Writers Conference

Chicago Writers Conference

Chicago Writers Conference

On a rainy Saturday many years ago, I crept into the ballroom at a hotel in the Chicago suburbs where romance writers from all over had gathered to network and learn.

I wasn’t a romance writer. I was a closeted writer. I perched one cheek on the upholstered chair, ready to bolt if someone asked for my identification card.

My terror level was so high that my takeaways were few: 1. I was told repeatedly that my name would be great for a romance writer. 2. There was electricity and camaraderie oozing out of the tote bags and participants.

Last weekend, I attended the Chicago Writers Conference. Here are my top takeaways whether you’re just beginning and not sure what to expect; or whether you’re a pro who’s curious about this particular event:

 #1    Register early and sign up for any newsletters/updates

Got the early bird discount but didn’t understand how signing up for small sessions and other events worked.

Read everything. Follow on social media. Do pre-work.

 #2    Go to as many small sessions/intensives as possible

Most of the large general sessions were geared to the basics with explanations for standard terms, craft tips, etc.

The intensives and small sessions covered topics more in depth and allowed for information sharing, and connection between all the participants.

 #3    Beware absolutes

Experts shower you with do’s and don’ts for eight hours a day. Remember that in writing as in many other creative pursuits (or any pursuit), don’t get paralyzed by rules.

Trust yourself.

 #4    Go to panel discussions when offered

These are often shaped by audience questions and it’s useful to get as many viewpoints as possible from multiple panelists.

 #5    Follow the agents/publishers

Not literally. Like, not to the bathroom and stuff. Leave them alone there. Go listen to them speak.

They’re looking for good work. They’re direct. They’re specific. They’re not unkind. You will learn a lot.

Author Karen Abbott reading at the Chicago Writers Conference

Karen Abbott reading from her NY Times Bestseller “Sin in the Second City”

 #6    Go to at least one social event

By far, meeting other writers is the most energizing and positive outcome of a great conference.

The cocktail parties or dinners are the most relaxed environment for this. You will be tired. Your feet will hurt. Go anyway.

 #7    Bring business cards.

 #8    Don’t panic if you don’t have business cards. (You do have a  smart-phone, right?)

 #9    Dress professionally but comfortably.

#10    Volunteers run the show

Treat them well. Thank them. Ask them questions. Things will not go perfectly. Microphones will short out. Rooms will be too hot/too cold. Handouts will go missing.

Be patient. Be nice.

#11    Respect the authors and speakers

Remember they’re people. NY Times Bestselling authors get thirsty. They like to sell books. They’ve achieved and may or may not be getting paid for speaking.

Let them pee in peace. But do strike up a conversation elsewhere. Be curious. Be courteous.

#12    Writers are the nicest people

Numerous opportunities to help or receive help will pop up. Be alert. Recognize them. Do not squander them. Do not hoard them.

#13    Get out of your comfort zone

CWC encouraged writers to pitch to agents even if they weren’t 100% ready. DO IT!! If a different conference encourages you to be 100% ready, listen to them.

Make space at your lunch table for others you do not know. Offer someone a beverage, or an apple, or some cashews.

#14    Follow up with EVERYONE about EVERYTHING 

Pass on information to new writers you meet. Help someone. Use what you learned.

 

CWC was well-organized and featured professionals at the top of their craft including renowned authors Rebecca Makkai and Karen Abbott.

It was a total-immersion weekend for me. I deepened connections with writers from my small circle. I added writers to my circle. I pitched (successfully!), I learned, I cramped (there’s a lot of sitting).

Each conference will have its own vibe, protocol, successes and challenges. The best advice I’ve received and practiced is to go open to receive and willing to share.

Favorite quote from speaker: “Follow your ‘nah’ “

What feels like “nah, that’s probably not for me” is where you should be. Try something new.

Update: Speaker was Mare Swallow – Founder of the conference!

Favorite quote from a fellow writer: “No, you have. Yes, you get.”

By not doing anything, you’ve got a “no.”  Take a risk, you might get a “yes.”

Update: fellow writer was Maija Rothenberg (we met at a Ragdale retreat – fabulous!) Check out her writing here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 Thoughts on “14 Takeaways from the Chicago Writers Conference

  1. Great take-aways Suzanne…posting to my FB page 🙂

  2. Suzanne – Thanks for this great post. We’ll do a better job of explaining how to sign up for sessions in the future. And the “speaker” you’re thinking of is Mare Swallow. 😉
    Cheers, and Happy Writing.

  3. Amanda Claire Buckley on October 13, 2015 at 1:08 pm said:

    Love this post! Look for it to be featured in our upcoming newsletter!

  4. Mary Balice Nelligan on October 14, 2015 at 12:36 pm said:

    “No you have. Yes you get.” What a great quote! Wish I had said it. Thank you for this excellent recap! Meeting you in person was one of many highlights of this year’s CWC. A great event all around. I look forward to being in your “writers’ circle” for many years to come.

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