Friday, May 14, 2021

Facing the Fear of Finishing Your Book

There's a kind of romance that happens between a writer and the book they have been working on for months or years. A relationship, at least, if not romance. They begin to have feelings for each other, a certain fondness, from all they've gone through together. It hasn't often been an easy road but it's been all-consuming. We live with our books, day and night. In waking moments, we're mulling over plot ideas. At night, we may dream solutions.

This bond forms ever more strong as time goes by and the book is still in progress. Sometimes, as an editor, I see writers hanging onto their manuscripts, fixing one more thing, not wanting to let them go. As a writer, I get this--my characters and the place I'm writing about and the situations all occupy so much of my interior life, I am loathe to release them.

Not all writers have this experience. Some I've worked with have little or no emotional, spiritual, or mind-twisting involvement. It's just something they work on every day, as best they can. So be it. That hasn't been my luck.

But eventually, the book work comes to an end. Either there's an agent or editor who's waiting. Or there's another book idea starting to surface. Or we just plain get embarrassed at how long it's taking. We have to, eventually, release the thing into the wider world.

But often, at least for me, as my manuscript gets closer to final revision, a weird feeling arises. I have to say goodbye. And it's like a small death.

I just experienced this earlier in the year, when I sent my latest manuscript to my agent. She's been deluged with writers' work (thank Covid for that, she tells me) and I knew it would take her some time to respond with her suggestions and edits. The first weeks after the book was away (at summer camp, as one colleague wryly calls it), I was lonesome. I moped. I had other projects, but they all seemed as tasty as stale cereal. I found myself deep cleaning the house, writing letters long overdue, cooking soups, and doing other normal life things that I'd put aside during the intense revision phase. A few weeks went by and I began to forget--what was the book about? what were the names of those characters who occupied my every thought?

This week, my agent wrote back, finally. (Publishing is super slow right now, in general, or so I've heard from many authors, so I wasn't worried). She gave the new manuscript a big thumbs up, has great suggestions, and wants me to get busy right away so she can begin to shop it. I'm a little disoriented, because I really did lose track of those characters, that plot, that place, right? I forgot.

One of my clients is stalling on finishing her book--in fact, several are. They have even expressed fear at finishing, because who knows what's next? What will they do with themselves? And worse, will the manuscript be welcomed, loved, published? They are first-time authors-to-be, and I wanted to reassure them--and any of you reading who relate to this--that fear of finishing is real and valid. It can take many forms. Here are some remedies I've used or heard of, if you find yourself in this weird place.

Fear of not having the story to live in and work on--before you finish, make an idea list. Brainstorm other topics you want to write on. Make a collage of ideas. Root out those old notes or partially completed drafts. They may not amount to anything, when you pick them up again (you've gained in skill and may be far beyond them now), but they'll remind you of the other fish in the literary sea.

Fear of being all dried up, that this book is all that's inside and you'll never write again--go online and order or reserve at your local library three books in your genre that look new and interesting. Fill the well with other authors' excellent writing to juice up your own. You'll be reading, a nice break you haven't had time for, and suddenly a story will nibble at your toes.

Fear of letting the manuscript go into the cold world, where nobody will appreciate it--this is the most common and hardest one. Have a serious morale-boosting talk with yourself. Get real about how long it takes to find and sign with an agent (a year is normal, with steady effort). Let go of the fairytales. And ask yourself, do you want this book to be in reader's hands more than you want to protect it (and yourself) from rejection? Because there will be rejection. It's the name of the game. Think of Steven King who started submitting stories when he was a teenager and urban legend says papered his bathroom with rejection letters.

I found it most helpful, for myself, to acknowledge the fear and try to get deeper into the particular kind I'm experiencing. Writing friends help! Don't be ashamed to talk about this with yours. Most writers will understand and often, just by verbalizing what you're experiencing, the charge lessens.

If you are very close to finishing, but you find yourself dragging your feet, go get help. Discuss the concerns you have, let them reduce to their own size. Face the lion, a good adviser once said. Often, it's got some important information for you.

Friday, May 7, 2021

How to Keep Writing When You Have No Time--or Energy or Enthusiasm--for Your Book. Or Do You Need To?

My spouse and I just adopted a puppy. He's adorable at 14 weeks, and full of energy and sharp growing-in teeth. He is slowly, after a week with us, learning how to use the yard for his bathroom duties rather than our rugs. He sleeps a lot, which is a blessing.

But my writing life has been upended. Not to mention sleep. Not to mention every other aspect of my every day.

We chatted with a woman this week who works with animals. She said some of her clients swear than raising a puppy is harder than raising a kid. I've done both and I'm not sure I agree, but it's certainly causes a lot of upheaval. Puppies are bundles of energy. They demand attention, care, love, as they should. They create havoc, happily. They are full of joy and curiosity.

I'm exhausted.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Pros and Cons of Using Present or Past Tense--What's the Effect on Your Reader?

A client told me about a recent meeting of her writing group. They discussed using present versus past tense when writing memoir. What were to pros and cons of each, what effect did they have on the reader?

Interestingly, one group member had spoken to her editor about this. The editor strongly encouraged her to switch her present tense chapters to past tense. She was confused about the virtues of each.

We're talking verb tense here. Past tense of your verbs or present tense--and what's the difference. Just to review, here's how a sentence looks with the verbs in past tense: John went to the game and arrived late. If you use present tense for the same sentence, here's how it would read: John goes to the game and arrives late.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Crafting Stronger Mechanical and Emotional Transitions to Keep Your Reader Turning The Page

I learned about the importance of transitions during my MFA study. One of my thesis advisers, a talented novelist, read my novel-in-progress and liked it but felt my background as a newspaper writer hampered my transitions. "You end each chapter like you would a journalistic piece," she told me. "It's complete, nothing left to push the reader forward into the next chapter."

She was right. As a syndicated newspaper columnist for twelve years, I had been trained to keep my thoughts short and wrap them up with a flourish.

The goal was reader satisfaction, a sense of completion. Closure.

"Closure is the last thing you want in the middle of a book," my adviser said. "You want to keep your readers turning the page."

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Joys of Scrivener--My Favorite Software for Organizing Your Book-in-Progress

Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, and poems, columns and articles. Short stuff. Short stuff doesn't require that much organization. I had a friendly relationship with Word and Pages. I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example, in separate files within Word--not so hard to scan and use if needed. I often printed hard copies and kept a file folder until the piece was published. I used an Excel spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.

Totally manageable.

Then I began writing books. Within months, pages accumulated. Way beyond anything my short stuff generated. I was swamped in paper, with no great way to organize it.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Power Positions--How to Increase the Tension in Characters and Locations

"Who's on first?"

We're not talking baseball. We're asking: Who is the power person in a particular scene? Who is the character that holds the control over present and future outcomes? Who will most easily score the home run?

Once I identify that player, I can begin to work the elements of tension in my fiction and memoir more skillfully.

To create tension, two or more elements of power combine, and one wins out. Just like people try to exert control over their lives every day. so must characters on the page. Story is about that give and take, that gain and loss of control over oneself and one's circumstances.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Enter Late, Leave Early--A Great Piece of Writing Advice for Chapters

Not everyone wants to pay for an MFA degree, and I didn't either, for a long time, until I started writing fiction and realized I knew nothing about it. I'd been published for years in memoir and nonfiction, but fiction was truly another animal. I researched schools, found one, got accepted, and began. In those two years, I learned a lot I didn't know, but one particular piece of advice reshaped my understanding of chapters, scenes, and books.

It was this: Enter late, leave early.

I learned, after graduation, that this slogan is widely known among screenwriters. Less so among novelists or short story writers, although it's just as valuable to us. William Goldman and David Morell wrote it as "jump in late, leave early." It applies to scenes, to chapters, to the entire book, in my mind. But I find it most useful in chapters.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Finding the Shape of the Forest-- Learning How to Read Your Own Work

I'll never forget the writer who approached me many years ago, asking me to read her work. "I can't read it myself," she said. "It makes me too upset."

I asked her, out of curiosity, how she went about reading it.

"On the computer, of course," she told me. "I edit every sentence as I go." She shook her head. "I haven't made it past chapter seven."

Over the years since, I've spoken to other writers who literally hate to read their work. They want someone else to do the deed and tell them what to fix. Totally understandable. A client emailed me this week about how she "can't see anything anymore; it all looks like mush." We do get blind to our book's strengths and weaknesses. We've been studying the leaves so long we forget how the forest should look.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Revising for Meaning--Beyond the Basic Revision Checklist

With the long winter wrapping up, it seems many of us are also wrapping up book projects.

I'm hearing from quite a few writers in revision. Behind progress reports and exhaustion lies the usual self-doubt: Are we there yet?

And more importantly, How do I tell?

Friday, March 12, 2021

Making Your Scenes Rock--Seven Tips for Stronger Scenes

One of my favorite writing-craft guides, often recommended to writers who want to hone their scenes in fiction and memoir, is The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.

Not all writers know how to write scenes, truthfully. Neither did I, for many years. My scenes began as "islands," or unorganized snippets of writing that kinda felt like what a scene should be. They were a far cry from what I learned as I studied scene-making. Scenes are the backbone of a book, at least in the fiction and memoir genres. I knew my scenes had to move the story along, had to take place onstage in front of us versus in the character or narrator's head. But other than those two rules, I had no guidelines for how to write them.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Learning New Tricks from Published Writers--What Advice to Make Your Own?

I learned early in my writing career that just because a writer was brilliant--well reviewed, published, and capable on the page--that didn't mean they were the best teacher. Or even a reliable dispenser of advice I could use. The lesson came hard.

I'd signed up for a weeklong class with a short-story writer I admired intensely. His story ideas were amazing, his execution of them even more so. I anticipated the workshop for months, rereading his work and listing questions to ask. I wanted to get the most from the week.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Summary Tells, Scene Shows--How to Use Each in Fiction and Memoir

I've been thinking a lot this week about the ways we tell stories. Some writers come from a background of oral storytelling, as in gathering round the fire and relating tales. A tradition of vocal rhythm, handed down from culture or place or heritage, crafts their stories almost unconsciously.
Stories are something told, not necessarily something shown.

There's much beauty in this. Much to value.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Dealing with Rejection Close to Home: When Family and Friends React to Your Writing

A reader sent me a poignant email a few months ago. She's writing a memoir and happened to show segments to her family--for all the best reasons. She wanted her sister and brother to verify facts from their turbulent childhood. She wanted them to validate what she remembered. And she, naturally, wanted their support as she went forward with the book.

It's a hard story to write, and support would be so very welcome. But instead of confirming her memories, this writer's siblings reacted strongly against them, horrified that she'd open the vault of family secrets.

Another writer wrote me this week about her own family rejection--she'd put together a group of her stories and created Shutterfly books as holiday gifts. They were lovingly made, with photos tucked into the narrative. But she received only silence from most of the recipients, just one acknowledgement. That hurt!

I've heard similar stories in my classes, experienced it myself. I was once married to an editor, like myself. When I showed him my novel-in-progress, he took great care to mark all the punctuation and other errors in his trademark red pen, then handed it back to me. I asked him what he thought of the story itself, since that's what I was really after. "I don't read fiction," he told me. And I knew that. So why did I expect differently?

I've come to believe there are two main reasons we decide to share writing with those closest to us.

One reason is to get their feedback, blessing, or approval if we are including them in our stories in some way (even fictionalized or with identity mostly hidden). That's reasonable and often wise. A recently published memoirist worked with me on this very issue when she was writing about a mentally ill brother. She sought unofficial release from him, his permission, and he gave it. It relieved her immensely to know that at least she'd done her best to include him in the decision. Another writer I worked with carried a completely different view: her writing was nobody's business but her own, her story was hers to tell, she needed no approvals. You have to find your own side of this line.

For me, I decided to get signed releases from those whose stories I included in my memoir/self-help book years ago, and I'm glad I did. A few years after publication, one of the contributors wanted his story removed. I approached the publisher but the book was not able to be reprinted on just this request alone--too costly. And I had the signed release. I went back to the contributor and shared the news. Not entirely what he wanted, of course, but nothing he could do about changing their decision.

On the other hand, I didn't run family stories by my siblings before including them. Neither sib was mentioned in the story--only our grandmother--but it still caused friction for about a year after publication. All's well now, but that was a good lesson. I don't know if I'd have done anything differently, though. I leaned towards the "this is my story" when I made that decision, and I stand by it now.

The other reason we share our writing with those closest to us is as a gift. Like my reader who made the Shutterfly books, we are giving something from our hearts to theirs. And writing, given as a gift, is precious indeed. We expect, even if we haven't said it even to ourselves, some reaction, some thank you, some praise. We want our beloveds to love it as we do.

In my experience, this rarely happens. Sad to say. I am extremely choosy about who I share my writing with now. I learned from my ex (the editor mentioned above) that praise is not automatically granted even if we're married. I've also learned from sharing with close friends that they can be bewildered by my expectations and not really know how to react. Whether they love the writing itself or don't, it's a bit like someone painting a picture for another person and giving it with the expectation that it'll be appreciated. I also remember doing this with a dear friend, many years ago. Gifting her with one of my paintings, then never seeing it hanging in her house. Eventually I asked. She said it wasn't her taste. We remained friends but I learned a hard lesson there.

My choosiness now, around sharing my writing, means I have a group of writerly friends and colleagues. I share with them. If I share writing with a friend, I make sure they know what I want from the gesture--I tell them directly what kind of feedback I'd like, if any. That helps them. I also tell them that if they'd prefer not to give feedback, to just let me know. A big relief for everyone.

My spouse is a working singer-songwriter. We have discussed this topic so often, because it impacts both of us. When to share, with whom, and what to expect. Sometimes, one of us wants to share just because an exciting milestone has been reached--a gnarly lyric completed, a hard scene. We've given each other feedback for works-in-progress in the past, very usefully and with goodwill. Now, we tend to wait until something is show-ready. In fact, I haven't even shared a word of my current novel, wanting my agent to comment first.

There's something good about waiting. I call it creative tension. In my early career, I had very little of it and shared with everyone. I'd find the energy or good tension around a project collapsing fast. I learned to wait, let the tension build, let it generate momentum. More got finished.

There's no single right way, in my opinion. You find your own side of the line. But just one small piece of advice: be sure, before you share, why you're sharing and if the people, those dear to your heart, are the best receivers.

Friday, February 12, 2021

A Different Way to Work with Revision for Your Book--Segments and Reverses

Revision is the final stage of the book journey, after the gathering of material and the forming of a rough draft, after the structuring that happens next. Revision is hard, but essential if you want to publish. And there are so many ways to go about it.

I think I've tried them all.

Some approaches to revision are so daunting, so discouraging. The worst one I've experienced is this: start with chapter 1 and go through the book, line by line. That is great for the final fine-tuning. But if you're trying to revise larger problems, such as structure, it'll bog you down in no time. Lots of writers come to me at this stage, saying how stuck they feel, how they hate their book, and how they want to give up. No wonder. I would too.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Unspoken Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Fiction and Memoir

In real life, people operate under unspoken agreements that try to keep the status quo--whether that status quo is calm or the opposite. I'm enjoying a winter novel by Frederik Backman, author of A Man Called Ove, that brilliantly depicts a group of characters acting in an unspoken agreement to preserve a town that's rent by scandal. Although a young girl is raped, there's also a hockey final coming, and the star player is the perp. Everyone, except a very honorable few, chose to ignore what happened and keep the team forefront. Backman ratchets the tension higher and higher until everything breaks apart and people have to face the falsity and injustice square on.

Unspoken agreements drive story. There's a real difference in how a character, or group of characters, "presents" to the world and how they really feel. The dichotomy is what creates that wonderful tension that keeps us reading.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Sinking into Winter: The Power of Rest and Retreat in the Writer's Life

I've just sent the revision of my third novel to my agent, and I'm at a loss. I sit, watching the snow fall outside my office window, wondering if I should pick up another project, read a book on writing, call someone. My agent is backlogged; she says she hasn't had so many manuscripts to read in a long time--thanks to the pandemic, we're all writing. So she may not have comments for a few weeks, if not longer.

It's been a huge push, I can fairly say, to get this manuscript ready for her. I'm disappointed not to get immediate feedback, but I also know better. I've worked on it for three years, after all, writing, revising, workshopping, and revising again. I can wait. Her feedback is always excellent. I estimate some parts of the novel have gone through thirty iterations and she'll have more to suggest, most likely.

Living with a book in process is not unlike having a three-year-old in your office 24/7, always chattering away, needing your attention. I resent it, I love it, I require it to stay creative.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Making Peace with Your Inner Critic: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Writing Life and Get Moving on That Book

If I had a way to capture the self-talk inside most writers' brains, as they sit down to do their writing practice, here's what I might hear:

“You need a lot more backstory here.”

“This section will take months of research. Stop writing and get started. It’ll be a good distraction.”

“You need to explain what your character is thinking here. Your writing isn’t good enough to just let the action show it.”

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Magic of Showing Up at the Page: How to Design or Refine a Writing Practice That Works for You

What's the difference between a writer who gets a book finished and a writer who never does? A writing practice.

Believe it--there's nothing more important.

Not talent, not a great idea. It's down to basics: putting self in chair, putting hands on keyboard or taking up the pen, and staying there past all the internal whining and doubt and misery to actually put words on the page.

But we all whine. We all get up and sharpen every pencil in the house sometimes, instead of writing. 
Or we toggle to Facebook and check our "likes." Or we watch the news, which is enough to put anyone off their creativity.

When this happens to me, as it has often in the past chaotic, upsetting weeks, I go to my bookshelves for motivation.

My favorite go-to books include Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. So this past week, as temps got wackier and the news more difficult to watch, I sat to read them again.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Strange Alchemy--Creating the Weave of Conflict, Character, and Place in Your Fiction or Memoir

In pre-Covid times, I regularly visited friends in Boston to hear the legendary Boston Cecelia chorus perform each holiday season.

At one performance a few years ago, I remember how a soloist with a particularly liquid voice sang a few pieces, then disappeared into the rows of the alto section. I strained to hear her voice rise above the other altos--but it was impossible to distinguish. She blended so well, the group became one voice. Then she came to the front of the stage for another solo, and we fell back in astonishment once again.

In a way, her ability to stand out as well as blend into a larger voice is exactly what writers are trying to achieve with the three elements of conflict, character, and place.