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.’

Mom vs. HuffPost: Mom Wins

Fried eggs in my restored Iron Skillet

I spend half my time trying NOT to become my mother, and the other half wishing I were half as good as her at some things.

For example, I didn’t want her wide hips and flat chest, but no one asked me. Likewise, I’d have loved her singing voice and brilliant blue eyes; again, no one asked me.

So when the potato and sea-salt video from HuffPost lit up Facebook last week, I hitched up my britches and decided it was time to rescue my rusty iron skillet from the bowels of the garage.

Iron Skillet Potato Sea Salt

My Actual Pan and Potato (eyes removed): A smidge of rust is visible to the right, but the entire bottom was flaking and rusted, too.

After all, my mother and all of her ancestors wouldn’t dream of cooking in anything but an iron skillet. She bakes in them, fries eggs in them, makes cornbread in them.

I’m a decent cook and can follow a sewing pattern, both things my mom excels at. But I’d burned something in our one iron skillet over a decade ago, and let it soak and rust.

Oh, the shame.

When the magic video made the rounds, I thought I’d redeem myself and my pan. Thank God for HuffPost, right?

I called mom to ask about the potato and sea salt method.

She scoffed.

I told her I’d heard I shouldn’t use soap.

She scoffed.

We had two potatoes. Well, there were two slightly mushy, alien vegetables with tentacles in a basket on the counter. And, I had purchased a new box of kosher salt in December.

(I’d had an Etsy-spasm a month before and was determined to make organic olive oil facial scrub to give as gifts. Instead, I bought anti-bacterial soap and tubes of Chapstick in bulk.)

The box of salt remained full.

I sliced off the bulging potato eyes and filled the pan with salt and water and started scrubbing.

And scrubbing.

And scrubbing.

For 90 minutes.

Until the skin peeled back from my cuticles and the potato was mashed.

Still, rust remained. I watched the video a second time.

sos pads

The part of my brain that is like my mother’s kicked in. I chucked the slimy potatoes, recycled the empty $3.50 box of salt, and reached for a .30 cent SOS pad.

Fifteen minutes later: Voila, my pan was restored.

Skillet after

I spent the rest of the day seasoning it. Baking in it. Fried two eggs in it. Took selfies with it. Compared it to my hips and chest and then called my mother.

Fried eggs in my restored Iron Skillet

She was proud. My family’s bellies were full. Mom: 1, HuffPost: 0.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Thoughts on “Mom vs. HuffPost: Mom Wins

  1. colleen on May 29, 2016 at 12:08 pm said:

    Ha ha ha! Good ol’ SOS pad. Mama so often knows best! :O)

  2. Too funny, Suzanne! That sounds like something I would try. Good to know it doesn’t really work! 🙂

How Do You Do Character?: Scientific Poll Results

Inside your main character
Inside your main character

Flickr: State Library Queensland Creative Commons

Do you become your characters, or do you observe them from outside?

I posed this question to writers in a very special Facebook group back in February and promised to report on my findings.

And no, I wasn’t just being nosy. I was reacting to all the craft books overflowing my bookshelves.

You know how it goes—you read a piece of writing advice and then immediately fall into a Ho-Ho binge because you’re not doing something the right way.

Once again, turns out there is no right way.

A few writers weren’t even aware that they favored one method over another until they tried to answer the question.

Ho_hos

In case you’ve forgotten or never met a Ho Ho.

Here’s my original query and some of the fantastic responses shared by writers with a wide range of experience and styles.

When writing your scenes, are you IN the body of your main character trying to feel/see/hear what she does, OR are you watching her to see what she feels/sees/hears? Curious!

“A bit of both, really. I usually first see the scene like a movie in my head, then I describe it while trying to feel like my character.” ~ Kelly M.

“Listening. Sometimes watching. And then, empathizing.” ~ Wendy G.R.

“I never realized it but yes I become my characters and write their story and feelings.” ~ Wendy T.

“In their body, usually. But it also depends on whether I’m in first person, close third, or omniscient. And what psychological distance I’m trying to convey.” ~Tamara L.

“I am the observer and write down what I see, what comes to me.” ~ Esther L.F.

“I think more in . . . ” ~ Lynne L.

“If writing in first person, I’m in, if writing in third, I’m observing and in.” ~ Dorothy R.

“Great question! Actually both . . . sometimes I feel what she feels and sometimes I try to look how she has to look, feeling it.” ~ Miranda M.

“Inside his or her head. More immediate, more fun to write.” ~ Nikki C.

“Both, but not at the same time. Usually as I write the story/scene that is there I’m in. Then I’ll do another pass from the outside.” ~ Jennifer B.

“Living it as much as I can.” ~ Julie H.

“In. Usually so in I find it difficult to use my character’s name even though it’s third person POV.” ~ Rachel V.

“I don’t even think about it. It’s whatever I wrote.” ~ Linda A.

Woman playing with Barbie dolls

Creative Commons http://www.odditycentral.com/tag/barbie-collection

“I just finished a piece yesterday and was in tears, absolutely as devastated as my MC, feeling what she felt. Sometimes I think they channel through us. Sometimes, though less often, it’s like I’m hanging out with the characters—this is especially true for dialogue—and kind of just transcribe what I hear when they’re talking.” ~ Cristel G.O.

“Depends on which POV I’m writing from, which I never fully realized before. Interesting question!” ~ Cathy M.

“In the room with her which makes writing sex scenes awkward, because then I feel like a voyeur.” ~ Gill R.

“All in.” ~ Sherry Anne

“Totally in. So deep I don’t realize I was in until the scene is complete.” ~ Kiarra T.

“Watching. Definitely watching.” ~ Lisa C.B.

“I try to feel what she feels! I often play music that I feel she would like. That helps.” ~ Maire F.

“My friend calls me a Method Writer. I am IN the body of ALL my characters the entire time while writing, which can get really weird, uncomfortable, and straight-up physically and emotionally exhausting since I write hybrid horror/Sci-Fi/fantasy/speculative fiction, among other things. My husband has even come home and told me I wasn’t speaking like myself, and I’d realize later I was actually speaking in the voice of a character.” ~ Sezin G.K.

“I’m sitting on their shoulder so I have POV and can hear them speaking the words I give them to say.” ~ Sally W.

Scientific Poll Results

Of course I’m a writer so the science behind this is based on pretty fonts:

Inside the character – 46.6%

Both inside and observing the character – 34.9%

Observing the character – 13.9%

Two responders could not confirm their own method (writers!).

And there is no statistical margin of error (see pretty fonts).

My goal was to figure out if I was doing it all wrong. I found myself more of the observer type, but with most everything in this novel writing process, I’m learning as I go.

I’ve spent more time trying to see my book world through my main character’s eyes and that’s made a difference. There is no one right way.

How do you get inside your characters? Are you a biography maker? A note taker? Do you have a favorite worksheet or method you care to share? Would love to hear about what works for you!

 

 

2 Thoughts on “How Do You Do Character?: Scientific Poll Results

  1. Such a great question Suzanne. I found out these past few months that I did both. It was an interesting psychological experiment on myself that was observed during therapy treatments called EMDR (Eye Motioning, Desensitization and Reprocessing). I noticed that when I wrote “outside” watching my character (me–I write memoir), it was in the form of a disassociated state caused by trauma. After treatment I no longer am able to write “outside” me, only inside. It has brought about a complete change of perspective, tone, and quality to my writing.

    • That’s fascinating, Deb! Thanks for sharing – I noticed I was having trouble getting to the heart of my character in an opening scene because I was observing from the outside. This prompted my original question. It’s still not a default state for me but I’m learning so much from going “inside.”

9 Ways to Waltz Write in to a Better 2016

The King and I

The King and I

When I was 13, my mom took me to see Yul Brynner in The King and I at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. She’d been flinging us around the kitchen, belting “Shall We Dance, da da DAH,” for as long as I could remember. Seeing him twirl his co-star around the stage, along with every ballroom scene from every Disney Movie ever made, ignited a lifelong dream of mine to ballroom dance.

So what does this have to do with writing? Turns out, just about everything.

Most creative pursuits happen in the face of fear; all are driven by action. Whether you want to dance, play an instrument, learn to draw, or write, here are a few things you can try to jump start your 2016:

Action 1: Identify Resistance and welcome it as a guide. According to Stephen Pressfield in The War of Art:

The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Resistance manifests as procrastination, doubt, and sometimes physical anxiety. Treat yourself to Pressfield’s book and learn to recognize resistance as a sign you’re on the right track.

Action 2: Make a Vision Board. Sure, might be corny, but research proves we’re more likely to achieve things we’ve envisioned and documented.

Neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action.

There are many ways to practice visualization. Doing something concrete matters. Here’s a picture of my vision board for 2016. For some other great visualization techniques, check out this article in Real Simple Magazine.

Vision Board

Three days after making my board, I received an email announcing a humor essay contest. If you zoom in, you’ll see the following on my board: laugh, contest, we have a winner!

Action 3: Choose a word of the year. I first saw this on Author Jennifer Davis Hesse’s blog and I thought it was genius. She cites Christine Kane as the inspiration behind this movement. Did you know that by January 17, most of us have abandoned any resolutions we’ve made?

Go with Kane’s plan and pick a word or theme instead. Easier to remember. My word for 2016 is “Do.” It appears prominently on my vision board.

Action 4: Leap. In Tara Mohr’s Playing Big, she encourages readers to take an action for which they believe they’re not quite ready. Hang gliding might not be the best example of this.

Instead, send a story to that lit mag you’re not quite ready for, make one call to volunteer to teach a class, or sign up to read a poem in public. My January leap was to lead at least one friend in a visioning exercise. It was a blast!

File Folders

Action 5: Take up space. Claim a spot for your writing. Stock it with colorful files, inspiring quotes, and your favorite books. I love TJ Maxx for great deals on journals, note cards, and unusual office supplies.

Action 6: Schedule Your Year. Hang a calendar and load it with writing events. Block out time for morning pages or your work in progress. Schedule at least one weekly writing-related activity such as a class, a live reading, a retreat, or if you’re on a budget, a podcast or video lesson. Again, better to have too many things to choose from than too few.

Action 7: Develop a Growth Mindset. Read Mindset by Carol Dweck. Seriously, or get the Audio CD. We all have the ability to substantially improve in any area, provided we foster a growth mindset.

Change your mindset, change your life. It helped me to earn my degree, complete my first 5k, and get off the junk food. Writing my first novel was just a bonus. It’s not magic, it’s hard work. But it’s possible.

Action 8: Pick a number, write it down. Send in that many submissions this year. Better to shoot high and fall short than to aim too low. Shoot for the moon and all that but really think about it. If you write down 10, and you do 9, not bad, right? But what if you write down 25, and send in 11? That’s more than 9. See, I’m good at math!

Action 9: Find Your People. Contact one new acquaintance each week this month who shares your passion. Call them, email, or connect via social media. Invite someone for coffee. Exchange links to helpful articles. This is a trial and error undertaking but we all have to start somewhere.

Boldness required. Don’t worry about how others respond. Just do the action. Check libraries, the local paper, bookstores, online groups, or form your own on Meetup.com

Broadcast your desire for a network and you’ll manifest one. Tinker, revise, and keep building. Groups have a shelf-life. There’s one out there for you.

Dream, but don’t stop there.

You don’t have to try all 9 actions. Even doing one or two will propel you into motion. Don’t forget to celebrate each attempt.

Sleeping Beauty

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/292030357059749178/

If you look off to the right on my vision board, you’ll see a picture of dance shoes. Last Friday, I waltzed. Sure, I was wearing jeans instead of 500 yards of satin, but I waltzed.

My husband and I never got around to ballroom dancing lessons before our daughter’s wedding last June. A few months ago, I asked him if he’d be interested in going. He was less than enthusiastic, and it was my dream not his, so I went without him.

Voila, within 40 minutes, a charming instructor named Zach had me twirling around the dance floor, making another of my visions a reality.

I perspired a little, I cried a little (happy, joyful tears). I think I made him nervous, but he hid it well. My audition for Dancing with the Stars is a long way off, but I couldn’t be more pleased with the results. (Turns out, I’m “advanced.”)

imperfect-action-better-perfect-inaction-motivational-daily-quotes-sayings-pictures

We’re all energy in the universe, and I believe that Law of Attraction stuff is for real. DO ONE SMALL THING.

And don’t forget to pass it on. Encouraging others and celebrating their successes will bring you closer to your own dreams. You never know who you’ll inspire. Someone is looking up to you.

What will you start today?

7 Thoughts on “9 Ways to Waltz Write in to a Better 2016

  1. Uplifting and thought-provoking as always, dear Suzanne! Or should I call you ‘Twinkle-toes?’ 😉 xx

  2. YES! This all rings true. There’s a lot here to consider and delve into. I need to claim and pretty up my writing space, schedule my year, and network more…among other things.

    Good luck with the humor essay contest (I see you have comedy on your vision board too!), and congrats on following your dream to dance! That’s awesome.

    Thanks for the shout-out too. 🙂

  3. Thanks for remembering, its one of my very favorite memories!!!! Love you….Mom

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!

The Forrest Gump Effect: Is Your Stubbornness Making You Miss Good Stuff?

Ignoring Advice

The Forrest Gump Effect

“OMG, OMG, you have to see this movie.” Friends, family, the media . . . everyone wanted me to go see Tom Hanks in THE BEST MOVIE EVER!

Of course, when I finally bought my ticket and popcorn, I was disappointed. With all the hype there was no way the film could have lived up to the push. It had been oversold.

This happens with motivational sayings and life hacks, too. When someone oversells the latest self-help book or when a piece of advice is repeated ad nauseam, it becomes background noise. We resist.

I made this mistake recently trying to get my son to read a book that I’d found beneficial. I tried giving him a synopsis. I quoted from it every other day. I shared examples of how it had helped me overcome a bad habit.

As he resisted, I started leaving it “accidentally” where he might stumble on it, as if finding it in his car would make him more likely to give it a try.

Stubborn Kid Won't Read Book

Creative Commons – Click on Photo for Link

He is now convinced it is THE WORST BOOK OF ALL TIME. I blew it, and he’s missing out on some good stuff because of his stubborn refusal to give in to his mom.

Anytime we dismiss the too-often quoted or ignore advice with a “yeah, yeah, yeah,” we could be missing a life-altering nugget of truth.

There’s no shortage of advice out there for writers, either. We’re faced with never ending truisms about craft or the creative process and we often become conditioned to ignore the most common.

After this post about learning in layers, I had an epiphany on the idea behind “truth is stranger than fiction.”

In the popular book Immediate Fiction, Jerry Cleaver reminds his students that fiction is heightened, concentrated reality.

. . . you think there’s nothing to it, that writing a story is just like life. Like life, yes. But not life itself. Creating stories is a special craft—a special way of capturing reality on the page. It feels real, but it isn’t. You can’t just break off a piece of reality and stick it on the page. It won’t work. It won’t work because fiction is concentrated, heightened, intensified reality. It’s the essence of reality. All reality doesn’t contain such essence or truth, but all fiction must. You, the author, must create it.”

That’s a gold standard of writing advice but no less true for being familiar.

I’d read this excerpt at least five times and highlighted almost every other section of the book except this one.

It wasn’t until several drafts into my current project that a light bulb went off. Readers don’t care how long it took your main character to get to the bank, or the route he followed. They care that he was robbed at the ATM. Eventually, I was able to use this in my manuscript, cutting extraneous conversations and flabby descriptions.

Look around your shelves, you probably have how-to writing books galore. Try looking at an old one a new way. As your skills improve and experience grows, an old has-been could become the new go-to.

As for the book my son steadfastly refuses to read, I’m ordering the audio version for him. I’m hoping that in a weakened state he’ll accidentally hit play and absorb the information via osmosis.

Ignoring Advice

Creative Commons – Click to Follow Link

Don’t dismiss an overused motivational quote or the latest popular self-help trend just because they’ve been done to death. Practice looking at things in the revised context of your most up-to-date self.

Give resources another read. Reconsider tips or advice based on your new level of experience or different life circumstances. You may absorb useful information and find yourself able to apply it in meaningful ways.

As for “Gumping” something myself, I learned my lesson with my son. There’s this book I think would be great for my daughter who is just starting out in her career. But this time, I controlled myself and only mentioned it once about a month ago.

To paraphrase Forrest, Christmas is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. The CD version arrived yesterday and is already wrapped and under the tree with my daughter’s name on it. She can listen to it passively on her way to work. Something’s bound to rub off.

 

 

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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 🙂

10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

Christmas Letter Photo
Christmas Letter Photo

The most requested photo.

It’s that time of year again, time for the beloved tradition of the annual family Christmas* letter. These letters are often a chore to write and for many, to read. Last Christmas, my mother-in-law asked me if I was tired because the letter wasn’t as entertaining as usual. You can’t please everyone.

I skipped one year thinking no one would care, but we actually got phone calls and notes requesting one. I know, shocking, right?

This year, I will send our 23rd letter inside a traditional Christmas card along with a family photo.

Family 1993

For more than two decades, I’ve forced my family to pose in front of the tree or under a picturesque pine frosted in snow. It almost always ends in tears, mine or the kids. My husband cries on the inside.

Choosing a card is usually the first step and I’ve developed some unbreakable anal retentive habits. For example, I can’t buy a card with three snowmen on the cover (or three stockings, or two penguins) because there are four people in my family. It’s like I’m killing one of them off.

circa 1997

I’ve tried to order photo cards or pre-printed cards to save time, but when the holidays roll around, I can’t go through with it. My mother’s voice echoes in my head that at least once a year, everyone deserves a personal note or hand-written signature.

Below you will find 10 things I’ve tried to avoid doing in my letters. It’s personal preference of course, and along the way, I may have been guilty of one or two of the things on the list . . . but never more than two in one year!

10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

  1. Start out with a complaint, you know, something original about the cold weather or how fast the year went by.
  2. Brag about your kids’ trophies or grades without acknowledging they’re on parole, slated for rehab, or at least halo-free.
  3. Share the cost, make and model of your new car, or other luxury purchase. Nothing says Peace on Earth like taking inventory of our stuff.
  4. Detail the exotic vacations you’ve enjoyed while we’ve been stuck at work. You didn’t take us with you. We do not care.
  5. Write it from the viewpoint of a family pet. Seriously. We dare you.
  6. Whine about how everyone starts celebrating too early. Because your timeline is universal and everyone should fall in line.
  7. Rub your busy holiday itinerary in the noses of the lonely and depressed. They need to know someone is more fortunate. You’re providing a service, really.
  8. Describe all the medical procedures undergone by you and your relatives. Include lots of squishy details about incisions and bodily fluids or anything in the hemorroidal area.
  9. Include lots of photos, at least 12, and make them tiny, so we need a microscope.
  10. Make it more than two pages long and single space it. Why wouldn’t we want to know more about your family than we do about our own?

10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

One of the reasons I still do a letter is my husband loves it. He’s not what you’d describe as a touchy-feely guy, but the fact that he let me dress him up in long-johns for a Christmas photo tells you something.

I wanted to include some of the awful photos, the ones where you can tell someone has been crying but they reflect poorly on me. Do you still send cards? What about a letter? What’s the worst card or photo you received?

 

*Christmas is what my family and I celebrate so that’s what I write about. Feel free to substitute the word “holiday” or whatever holidays you and your loved ones celebrate.

 

6 Thoughts on “10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

  1. Ha Ha Ha! This is cute. Love the red long johns! Now I’m all inspired to write a Christmas letter… keeping in mind your advice, of course. Thanks for sharing your tradition!

  2. LOVED this…hilarious. I remember our card drama. It was a drama or a farce. I had them dress up for “Christmas Around the World”. Each year a new country. The dog quit when she had to wear a sombrero. We also did pirates and American Gothic Christmas. The best pics were the outtakes. Sharing on FB

  3. This is awesome 🙂

Interview with Anita M. Cal, Author of ‘Eighth Wonder: The Thomas Bethune Story’

Eighth-Wonder-Thomas-Bethune

A.M. Cal Author

I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of Eighth Wonder: The Thomas Bethune Story and was riveted by the life of this musical prodigy and by Cal’s storytelling. She is a double doctoral candidate at Pepperdine University, an accomplished journalist, television writer, film producer, and can now add novelist to her repertoire. You can read my full review of Eighth Wonder here. Cal agreed to answer a few questions about her writing and research, as well as the process of turning a true story into a novel.

Congratulations on the book launch. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you chose this story to write about?

I’m a former journalist. I covered education for the Greenwich Times in Connecticut and covered general assignment, education, and police for the Los Angeles Times. I transitioned to graduate school, studied film and screenplay writing, and became a professional TV writer and independent film producer. I discovered Thomas Bethune, known as Blind Tom throughout the world, while researching prodigies for my thesis in graduate school. He was in a book of prodigies, his picture and story amid Beethoven, Mozart, and Stevie Wonder. I was mesmerized by that photo, a well-dressed slave boy standing next to his master and a fancy grand piano.

Why a novel vs. a biography? What was the research process like?

I’m a creative, fictional storyteller. I love drama, dramatic plot, the journey of a protagonist and overcoming obstacles. I wanted this bigger-than-life, almost mystical slave prodigy to endure in a theatrical, literary manner.

The research was extremely intense and spanned several years. My journalistic background spurred me to explore every piece of information I could find, from news articles to photos, to personal testimonies, medical journals, poems, concert flyers, and Civil War journals, anything I could find about the slave prodigy.

Eighth-Wonder-Thomas-Bethune

There are varying accounts of Colonel Bethune and his treatment of Thomas Wiggins. Did you specifically set out to make him a sympathetic character? If so, why?

Good question. Slavery is a hot-button topic, still emotional to this day, and even in slave narratives there are wide-ranging accounts of treatment from masters, from horrific to paternalistic, even kind masters. To that end, while workshopping the screenplay version of this book, I received passionate, earnest feedback across cultures in writing classes: please don’t make the Colonel a devil, please don’t make the Colonel an angel. I strove to paint the closest shade of truth I could from my years of research. The facts are, the Colonel saved a blind, autistic, slave child who was seemingly useless, seemingly worthless, and I concluded only a man with a decent heart would do such a thing. I always went back to that day he rescued Thomas, weighing the Colonel’s initial actions in the smokehouse against his more calculating actions, like declaring Thomas insane so he could maintain control of him.

At the end of the day, the goal of a creative historical fiction writer is to entertain. Conversely while entertaining, we strive to so by sharing historical facts, while consciously blurring those facts with fiction in order to enthrall, engage, and captivate readers. In making my creative choices, I took into consideration the middle America pleas of workshop writers that a one-sided, unsympathetic Colonel would ultimately not serve the story well in terms of audience. Ultimately, though, based on the Colonel saving Thomas with nothing to gain, provided the underpinnings of a nuanced man, with both great qualities and questionable issues of character.

You based this on historical facts but have altered some events in Thomas’s life. Was this a conscious choice?

Yes. For the purposes of story, some fabrications were made and that is one of the delicious differences between biography and historical fiction.

Throughout the novel, morality is not black and white, but shades of grey. For example, outsiders judge Col. Bethune harshly, but he steadfastly defends his love for Thomas and the reader sympathizes with him. Was this intentional? If so, why?

Imagine my shock the first time I learned some truths about John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, all arguably great men with blurred morality or specious social views. Humanity is flawed, heroes are flawed, and often in life there isn’t that clear cut perfection that we crave in man, but a delicate balance between goodness and treacherous.

What discovery about Blind Tom most intrigued you? Was it more difficult writing a story that has a factual origin?

The process was excruciatingly difficult at times. I struggled with finding Thomas’s voice, sifting through the biases of the reporters at the time, taking into consideration the socio-cultural milieu was a constant battle. What most intrigued me about Thomas was the amount of privilege he was allowed because of his immense talent and his insistence that he could hear angels sing.

Why did you choose to self-publish vs. traditional, especially considering you already have an agent for other creative pursuits?

Great question. Initially, I considered an agent and received more than 50 rejections. The book wasn’t ready. Actually, the book is with a few big agencies right now, but the more I thought about it, I didn’t want to wait for some outside force to judge whether my work was worthy to share with the public and then change what I’d written—if they deemed it worthy. I didn’t want the pushback from publishers and/or their editors. Let the people, the readers decide. I did my best to write the novel as if a big publisher were backing it. It feels great that SELF-e Library Journal of U.S. librarians recently honored the ebook as a highlighted book for November.

Do you outline or are you a “pantser?” What is your routine? Do you set daily word goals?

I’m an outliner who also likes to write in the moment, while taking into consideration plot, and the desire of the reader to want to know what’s coming next. I try and write daily, but I don’t have word goals. I write, rewrite, and polish all in the same sitting, then move forward, and repeat the process.

What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received?

Don’t be afraid to write bad, because for me, it just comes out bad. I think, a better way to phrase that piece of advice is “don’t be afraid to just write.”

What is your future project? Will you return to novels, TV, etc.?

I’m moving towards writing more novels.

My next book project is also historical, or as I like to say, biographical novel. There is a difference to me. The next novel centers around a phenomenal fashion designing figure who rose to the top of the design world in the 1950s-60s, an African-American woman only known in the elite circles in which she designed. I’m working on polishing episodes for a series entitled, Beacon Hill, a 1970s family t.v. drama with some name talent already attached. It’s a passion project with great friends and seasoned stars.

For those attempting their first full-length novel, do you have any advice? Best tip for emerging writers?

Take a class or join a workshop! I wasted the first two and a half years because I had no clue. It’s essential to share, learn, and explore with other writer’s under the tutelage of an instructor who’s been where you want to go.

Get to Know the Author:

Best book you’ve read so far this year or book you’re looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to The Wedding by Dorothy West. I finished Feast of All Saints again, by Anne Rice, I’m fanatical about that book, I love that story and I’ve read it about fifteen times.

Favorite book or author growing up?

Growing up, I’d have to say Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, as well as the Great Brain! I loved Edith Wharton in high school and the Bronte sisters.

Favorite place and tools for writing?

The couch and preferably my old Macbook.

Favorite sport or leisure activity?

Love watching NFL football, college, and pro basketball. Seahawks, UW Huskies, and the Lakers during the Jerry Buss years.

Favorite food?

Anything chocolate.

Something you wish others knew about your life as a writer?

It’s not a choice, it’s who I am.

Thank you for taking an interest in learning more about me and my debut book.

You can find out more about Anita M. Cal on her website, follow her on Twitter, and visit her Facebook page.

 

 

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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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