Friday, March 24, 2023

Three Tools for Getting through the Post-New Year's Resolution Slump

We're a few months past the "whee" of New Year's resolutions when anything seems possible. I love setting them, but I also know how to create ones that I will keep.

Around mid- to late March, the truth comes out--how many did I actually make progress on this time? If I've used three essential tools, the odds are more in my favor.

Because I've written and published thirteen books in three genres, working now on my next two, I've had a lot of practice at success or failure with this. I also know how down I can get when I don't meet my own promises to myself, especially in an important arena such as my writing life.

So back to those three tools I rely on. In order of how much they matter, they are: (1) accountability, (2) inspiration, and (3) determination.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Pros and Cons of Present Tense versus Past

The question of writing in present tense versus past tense didn't even occur to me when I began writing and publishing back in the eighties. Or even when I started writing and publishing fiction in the late nineties. I never thought about writing in any tense but past. It was the norm. Only writers on the very edge, in my unschooled opinion, ventured into present tense.

Present tense almost seemed impolite, if I can use that old-fashioned term. The writer, the writing, was pushing into the reader's face, demanding attention over the story itself. I personally thought using present tense for a novel or memoir, for instance, was like shouting the story rather than letting it speak for itself.

That was then. Now, present tense is ordinary. Half the books I pick up use it. And as a reader, I can appreciate it; it doesn't feel wrong or awkward or too attention-getting to me anymore. Not at all.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Mix It Up--A Sweet, Simple Recipe to Break the Block (Inspired by Alison McGhee)

Alison McGhee, writing instructor and author of many wonderful novels including Shadow Baby (my favorite), once taught a very effective exercise in a writing class I attended. I've shared it before in these posts, but it continues to be an easy writer's-block-breaking recipe, so I wanted to pass it along again, in case any of you are experiencing March doldrums and need a lift.

My memory of the specifics is a little faint, so I'll give you the basics, and encouragement to let it morph to fit your writing needs.

I do remember there were three lists on the whiteboard: people, ages, and objects.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Jealousy and Envy in the Writing Life (Does This Happen to You?)

I finished a really GOOD novel last month--written by someone else, a writer who is just entering the publishing scene but has done a marvelous job with her first book. It was light and fun, but it touched on difficult subjects such as aging in our society and loss of a child. I wanted to finish my day so I could get back to it each evening. I was very bereft when I read the last page. I might read it again right away.

(The novel was Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt, if you want to check it out. It may not hit you the same way as it did me, but I loved it.)

The next morning, when I sat down to write, I couldn't. I was able to journal up a storm, but writing fiction felt impossible. Like the channel was clogged. I pushed myself but the result was not worth the time.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Researching Your Characters--Real or Imagined

The internet is full of great questionnaires for characters. I love taking a break from the grind of writing a book to play with one of these. I can even put on my journalist hat and imagine interviewing the character--real or imagined--to see what new information I can dig up.

This week, pick one of your major or minor cast and spend time getting to know them in a new way. People move stories, illustrate theories and ideas, and rumble in the background of all great literature, no matter the genre. It's up to you, the writer, to get to know them.

Friday, February 17, 2023

It Ain't Over Til It's Over--The Unfolding of a Story (and How to Hang In There)

One of my favorite weekly reads about writing is George Saunders' Story Club. Recently he wrote a post about the time it takes to grow into appreciation of a story, as a reader. He mentioned a Chekov story he'd read in college but didn't really "get" until many years later. Both his own writing and his skill as a reader needed time to mature. A big lesson from this, or at least my interpretation of what he learned was profound: to not discard that which we can't yet understand.

I read this before one of my afternoon walks and thought about it for the entire hour. I loved the idea because it was ever-expanding: our appreciation of writing is a skill to be developed just like knowing how to pace or draft good scenes or revise.

But the real take-away for me was this:

Friday, February 10, 2023

Referrals--The Networking of the Publishing Industry

As in any business world, referrals matter in publishing. I wish I could say that books are bought by publishers on merit alone, that it doesn't matter who you know. But I've learned the hard way that your network, something you may or may not have developed as you wrote your book, is a very useful element when you release that new baby into the world.

People help people, and no more so than in this tight-knit industry. A fellow writer commented decades ago that everyone knows everyone else at the agented-manuscript level. While this may not be totally true, the marketplace does operate on subjectivity--which comes down to who you know, and what their opinion is.

Of course, there's business smarts too. An editor may love a manuscript but her sales team isn't convinced because of the numbers. But that editor's enthusiasm is still the first spark, the necessary one that starts the process. How does that editor get sparked? Usually, someone presents the book to her, the concept catches her attention, and she reads the manuscript. That someone might be an agent or a fellow editor or even a friend. People helping people.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Five Gates You May Encounter as You Plan, Write, and Develop Your Book

An important lesson I learned as I wrote and published my books was this: there are predictable gates, or passages, in the journey. These are places where the writer can typically get stuck. They must be traversed but often new skills are needed. I've seen many books fail at these gates, so it's often helpful to know about them and prepare.

Writing a book, as you know, is not just serendipity. We don't just sit down and "let it flow." Rather, we may in the early stages, but once the book becomes its own being, it requires structure and refining to grow into a publish-worthy effort.

So this week I'd like to review the five gates and the potential problems that arise at each. Knowing about them lets you recognize where you are, if you're ready to move on, and--at the last stage--when you've finally done enough.

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Surprising Benefits of "Download" Writing Every Day

At a gathering this past week, a friend was talking up Morning Pages, the stream-of-consciousness writing activity proposed by Julia Cameron in her Artist's Way books. My friend recently rediscovered the benefit of them to her art.

"It's basically an effective download," she said. "I don't much care what I write; it's the act of cleaning out that makes a difference when I sit down to write, later."

Life is hectic for her. She can get so overwhelmed, "bottled up inside" from news chaos or family trauma or her satisfying but all-consuming job. She gets up early to get in those daily pages. They empty the detritus from mind and emotions, let her process stuff that ultimately distracts from work on her book.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Revision Checklists--Super Handy Tools for the Final Stages of Your Book Project

I'm reprinting this post from 2012 because I get more questions about it than almost any other. Enjoy!

This month, my novel-in-progress reached a new level: final revision.

Only a few steps remain before it's ready to send off. These final steps are key: If they go well, the "whole" becomes much bigger than the sum of its islands, or parts.

Most writers feel a sense of urgency at final revision. As the book comes into its own, you can see the good objectively. You've been asking yourself, Is it publishable? for a while. Now you can answer with a hopeful YES!

And this urgency is the danger zone in final revision. We are understandably impatient: It's been a long haul. Get it done, already!

Shortcuts look tempting. Skip a few steps, get it out the door into other hands. Contact that agent, editor, publisher--now! Capture their attention--before your courage flies away or the publishing window closes.

As a professional editor for over twenty years, my job was to put the brakes on--calm the over-eager writer, and remind them what's at stake. What do you stand to lose, if you rush through these final steps?

Friday, January 13, 2023

What Are You Reading Right Now? (And Why That Question Is Vital to Your Book)

One of my favorite winter traditions in our book-loving family is the box of books we give each other for the holidays. Sometimes they come from a book-loving sibling. Sometimes from the give-away at our local recycling center or the free library down the street. Or sometimes they are bought new (or used) online.

In December, I posted a question on Facebook and got very lucky. I asked: What's your favorite novel, one you'd recommend? I got dozens of responses, and not just novels. I made a list. Some I'd heard about but an equal number were new titles. I spent a few hours online and found most of them.

Last year, my sister was the gifter and she sent five excellent books. This year, our gift box held fifteen titles. Our shelves are well stocked, so after the holiday, I choose an equal number of books we've already enjoyed to rehome. And begin choosing my first new read.

I got derailed by a surprise from another relative: three super-intriguing nonfiction titles. I allowed myself one. Soon, I'll browse our shelves.

The mix is always eclectic. Classics alongside prize winners alongside indie published but well loved. All genres. With a nice stack of movies on my Netflix queue, this will get me through winter.

What's the purpose of reading, if you're a writer?

Friday, January 6, 2023

Writing a Series--If You're Called to Connected Stories, Some Important Tips

Every now and then in my classes, a writer would ask about series. it takes a dedicated soul to even consider a clutch of books and plan for their overarching purpose. Most of us have enough challenge with just one, right?

But the question is a good one. There are indeed certain tips or techniques for those who are tempted to try two or more books using the same topic or characters.

I wasn't going to be one of those, but the characters in my first novel wouldn't leave me in peace after it was published. One of them, the narrator's father, made it into a few short stories (notably the just-published "Breathing Room" which I mentioned last post). He was challenging and interesting to write, and I felt he had a lot more to say than just one novel, or as it turns out several short stories, allowed. The young narrator of Qualities of Light also intrigued me, and I was especially taken by her love interest. So I began to wonder: what might happen three or five years down the road with this family? How might they be same, different, tragic?

That's usually what launches a writer into series land.