Friday, December 31, 2010

Meeting my goal

This morning, about 11:55, I finished the first draft of my second novel. In September, I set a goal of completing the draft by the end of the year. I didn't know then how many chapters were left to write or how many writing days I'd find in my calendar. I did know that I'd have a week of writing retreat in November and again now.

Since I've been here, I've had amazing computer problems. I broke a portion of my laptop screen. Borrowed a friend's Mac, then lost two days of writing because my thumb drive wasn't working right, and had to rewrite 3 chapters.

But it's done and it hasn't been too arduous. I've days of stop and start creativity and days of flow, I've had brilliant ideas that panned out and some that didn't. I've had stupid ideas that I tried to cram into the story and then saw how lame they were.

I've had big decisions to make. I had to identify the killer, bring him together with the detective, and make life and death choices. Who goes? Who stays? Who gets the girl? (Well, the older woman.)

At times, the writing process was as suspenseful as the story itself, my creative flow almost breathless as the ideas tumbled into place like the lock on a vault. At others, I had to pace around and make myself wait for the right decision to come.

I'm reminding myself that this is the first draft and some things may not work, but for now, I have an ending that pleases me. And I'm really happy! Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Writing retreats

This afternoon I'm packing for a writing retreat. Headed up to Whidbey Island to one of my favorite places on earth for 9 days of writing and community with 5 other writers. I do this at least twice a year and sometimes more. I find I write best with others around me on task, and the energy of creativity and risk that builds up over time is really delicious.

I had thought I might get some time this last week to finish the first draft of the novel I'm currently working on. But there turned out to be plenty of paid work and social events and Christmas projects to complete (including a wonderful large collage for my sister) so I didn't get any real time to think about the story. And in a way, that's fine. I'll have several known chapters to embark on right away and lots of thinking and planning to do to complete the draft so I won't feel at loose ends around the project.

The other writers going along are deep in their own projects. They've been to the retreat center before and are eager to go. We have one potter going along this time. She's writing a grant and hopes to complete it in the intensity of our cauldron. I think she will.

And I've been to this retreat center to write once or twice a year for the last 8 years, so much so that my creative self shows up right away and the Muse comes calling before much time has past.

I'll keep you posted as to my progress. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Treadmill: This writer's tool

Friday I spent writing two of the remaining chapters. I've got a couple more to write before the big final showdown and I more or less know what needs to get accomplished, if not exactly what is going to happen. But although I know how the killer gets there, I'm still trying to sort out his motives and connections with the dead bodies strewn across the country.

So there I was yesterday, walking along, listening to Savage Garden and trying to decide whether to do five more minutes of speed or five more minutes of incline, when a whole bunch of information just dropped into my mind, like a branchload of snow that gets too heavy and showers you with cold, wet knowledge.

It was a bit like walking past the card table that holds the jigsaw puzzle and suddenly clear as day, you see the piece you've been searching for, the one you were sure was lost because you'd looked everywhere.

I still have a few more things to resolve and I don't think that will happen until next week as I won't probably get much writing time between now and Christmas but I'm so excited to know the killer finally. Clearly, exercise is good for the imagination as well as the body!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Circling the end

I spent today writing two chapters on the novel. One was started a few weeks ago and I was glad to finish it. The other was more difficult as I knew what had to happen in it for the plot and the characters' development but I didn't know what the content was. I had to uncover the rest of Al's past with his dead wife, and I couldn't get the muse to show up easily.

Often I write quickly, the ideas flowing. Today it was fits and starts. And some of it meant sitting at the keyboard, staring at the screen, and just waiting. A couple of times I told myself to put down something, anything, and I could change it later. And I felt okay with that. But another part of me said to wait, just be patient, and an idea would come. And it did.

In the end, the chapter didn't turn out as I thought it might. It wasn't in real time, there wasn't a detailed sex scene, and I struggled to keep Ellie's point of view. So it wasn't the smooth sailing that I might have hoped for. But the story that came to me was so intriguing and gives me some good leads for earlier bits of the story that I'm really pleased.

I've got about 5 more chapters to write in this first draft. I'm very excited.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Writing on the treadmill

When the November beach writing retreat was over, I knew I was coming to the end of my book. I have maybe 4, 5, or 6 chapters left to write. The killer is on the move, the detective is on the move, the victim is lulled into feeling safe. But I still felt uncertain about what would happen, what the final events would look like and, believe it or not, who is actually the killer. I know something about the killer. I know he's male and younger than the main characters but who he is and how it fits into the picture has remained a mystery even to me, the all-knowing author.

I haven't been concerned about any of this not knowing. My characters in tandem with my imagination have been guiding me all year in the creation of this novel and I have no doubt that they will do so up until the end and even into the revisions. I just have to wait and be open.

Last Wednesday on the treadmill, I was listening to a random mix of music, from Nickelback to the Carpenters, from Marc Cohn to Rick Astley, and suddenly, at about 15 minutes in, I could see the showdown scene in my mind. I hadn't been thinking directly about the book; I hadn't tried to figure anything out or ask myself any questions. It just showed up.

I'm not much closer to knowing who the killer is but I know how he'll get there and what he'll do when he does. That's a major breakthrough. Looking forward to the next writing Friday and getting some of this on paper.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Filling the creative well

Today I was able to fulfill one of the items on my bucket list, that list of things you've always wanted to do. I spent about 4-1/2 hours at the Chicago Institute of Art. The Institute's Impressionist collection is legendary and it was more impressive than I imagined.

I've been an Impressionist/post-Impressionist fan since college days and art history courses and my first time in Paris in 1967. I've since developed a strong liking for all kinds of other painting but to see Renoirs and Monets that I didn't know existed, to see an Odilon Redon still life, to see some beautiful early Vuillards was such a treat. I found myself weeping from the beauty of their work.

It also really inspired to reconsider my relationship to my own painting, which has been on hold for most of a year as I've written more and more. I looked at their wonderful use of color, of combinations, of interpretations of what they saw around them and felt a deep yearning to playing with all that again.

I'm also a firm believer in the cross-pollination of the arts, that writers should spend time with visual art, that fabric artists should spend time with sculpture, etc., that it all feeds and fills the creative well. Our imaginations need priming from time to time, and to be absolutely sated with gorgeous images today was just fabulous.

There's much more to explore here in Chicago and I won't get much of a chance. We are going to the theater tomorrow night but while my sisters explore more of the art and culture here tomorrow, I'll be attending the conference that has brought me here. I've no regrets. I love speaking to recovering women; just wish I could be in two places at one time.

Looking forward to the plane ride home, some time to be alone and digest the experience. I feel so fortunate today.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Taking risks

“If you spend your days avoiding failure by doing nothing much worth criticizing, you’ll never have a shot at success.” –Seth Godin

One way we risk is by putting our work out into the world. Another is to write when we have to say without worrying about its acceptance. Yes, you could write a book in which Goldilocks meets 3 vampires and maybe even sell it. But probably that’s not the story that lives in your heart to tell.

Maybe you want to write about growing up in suburban Dallas in the 1950s but childhood memoirs have gone out of fashion. So what? Write your stories. Maybe as a memoir it’s not sellable but as a novel or collection of short stories it is. Maybe you want to write about the use of runes in everyday decision-making and you know that the audience for that is pretty small. So what? Write that book anyway.

In a personal transformation program I was involved in some years ago, the facilitators regularly asked us if we were playing small, below our capacity. They wanted to know if we were being run by fear. I think Godin’s quote addresses this nicely. We can write so as not to fail or we can risk and write what is ours to write.

The number of well-known writers who were rejected for years is legendary. They kept at it and they wrote what they needed to. Great role models for us all!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Step away from the manuscript!

One of the best things you can do for a completed draft, whether it’s the first or the eighth, is to step away, way away. When we’re involved in a big project, the ideas or story lives in our head and we go on working it subconsciously even while we’re at our day job or taking a shower or doing the laundry. We mull it over and make changes and additions and we get so close to it, that we can’t see it anymore.

That’s when a vacation is due. Maybe that’s a literal vacation where you travel and see new things and make notes for a new piece of writing. Maybe it’s a sabbatical and you turn your attention to cleaning out gutters and organizing the garage or the basement. Maybe you take a class in a related or completely different writing technique or other art medium to fill the creative well. Maybe you read in a different genre, getting a feel for epic poetry or Russian fantasy novels in translation, anything but murder mysteries, since that’s what you’ve been working on.

While a hiatus of a few days is good, a hiatus of several months is even better. You’ll step back into the novel with a more critical eye, with an ability to discern solutions to the bigger issues, and a way to resolve the sticky issues that have been plaguing you. And if you’ve started a new writing project, so much the better. Working on two pieces at once can give you all kinds of great ideas and keep you from getting stale on one.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hanging in there, praying for the muse to show up

Once I have an idea for a chapter, the writing usually flows pretty well. I stop and start, go back and make adjustments, but stuff moves along. Boy, that was not the case yesterday. My character Al had been nagging me for several weeks. He needed to have a conversation with his minister but he wouldn't tell me why or what it was going to be about.

Tuesday night when I went to bed, I asked my muse to visit and give me some guidance so that I could write that chapter yesterday morning. Well, he did not show up. No dream, no insights, no nada. I did wake very early, done with sleep, and hoped that was a good sign. It wasn't.

For the next 4 hours, I eked out two pages of conversation. I started with Al's point of view. Then I reworked it from the pastor's point of view. I couldn't figure out what the relationship was between the two men. It seemed cordial enough but I knew something was missing. Not in my writing but between them. What was the point of the conversation? What was the point of the chapter? I was practically begging Al to help me out.

And then, in one of those amazing aha's, I saw it all. What Al wanted help with. Why the pastor wouldn't help him. Their relationship. It was a thrilling and relief-filled moment. It also put some other character pieces in place for me that I've been needing all week. Hallelujah!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Weighted down by my characters' dilemmas

I'm away this week on a writing retreat. The weather has been drismal: foggy, rainy, grey, closed in. The house is large but there are some big personalities here, including one I don't much care for, so it feels closed in. And the quietest place to be is my small room so I'm feeling even more hemmed in.

I realized this afternoon as I walked on the beach in the drizzle and wind that I'm feeling low, blue, off. I'd been chalking it up to the weather and that's part of it probably. I've been uncomfortable in proximity to the woman who irritates me, and that's probably part of it too.

But it occurred to me this afternoon that I am feeling weighted down by the dilemmas of my characters. On one hand, my plot is galloping to a conclusion. On the other, one character's development is in sad shape. I wrote two lovely and insightful chapters about him maybe 7 months ago (in the first quarter of the book) and he's a major player that I've been treating as a bit-player. So I'm going back and filling in the gaps. He is the character that I understand the least. At the same time, he is a character who intrigues me a great deal. I want to understand what motivates him.

It's the kind of writing that requires a sidelong glance. I cannot search directly for what I need to know. It has to come to me in some other way than willing it onto the page.

I'm grateful for the spaciousness of this week since maybe that could happen.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Expanding what the writing life entails

It’s Writing Friday and I didn’t work on my novel today. Instead I finished reading an early copy of Sage Cohen’s The Productive Writer and getting some great ideas for beefing up my own writing life. Her book, being published as we speak by Writers Digest Books, is full of a lot of good ideas. Many of them aren’t new but they are extremely well stated and pulled together into a very cohesive reference guide. I recommend it if you’re a regular writer and especially if you’re moving into the marketing and publishing stages.

Reading Sage’s chapters made me begin to expand my idea of what constitutes writing time for me. Reading about the business of writing, reading great writers, working with prompts and writing exercises, taking classes, marketing my work, keeping my office clean and organized—all of these are essentials to the actual time spent writing. So are taking care of my soul and body through exercise, rest, reflection, quiet time. I got a good reminder that this is a sacred commitment, our creativity and how we express it, and should be treated as such.

You may remember that a couple of months ago I blogged about a list of ways to honor yourself as a writer. The one I chose was changing my apartment to better support my creative endeavors. To that end, I’ve really cleaned up my office. I gave away 10 shopping bags of stuff to friends and Goodwill and got just about everything off the floor. The cupboards are now neat and tidy and have extra space for stuff. I have a better system for what I don’t know yet what to do with. Most importantly, there’s an energy of spaciousness that has made both writing fiction and doing my paid editing and writing work much easier, gentler, calmer. Amazing!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fiction entry of note

I entered the first chapter of my novel-in-progress into a short story contest. It was a bit brash of me for it isn't a short story although it was first written that way. I didn't win the contest but my piece was a Fiction Entry of Note because it made the judges' Top Ten Lists. Several of you have asked about it so here is the story. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

I walked into the Maverick Bar in Farmington. I’d been driving all day, had just rented myself the cheapest motel room I could find, and was preparing to get drunk.

This wasn’t anything startling in my life. I got drunk as many nights as I could though I was careful to do most of my drinking in private. I never quite knew when I would black out and I’d already had enough strange mornings after—strange men, strange places, strange feelings about all the things I might have done or said that I would never remember.

I also tried not to drink and drive, but I hadn’t found a liquor store before closing time so I’d picked a motel with a tavern two doors down. If I was lucky, they’d sell me a bottle without too much fuss.

I liked to pretend I wasn’t a drunk but I knew better. Besides, women alone in bars in small towns seem to have to play one or the other—drunk or tramp—why else would they be there alone? And I never went into a bar to pick someone up. I sometimes did, or rather I got picked up, but it was never my intention, not any more. I went into bars to drink enough to feel all right again, and maybe to feel loose enough to ask for a bottle that would tide me over.

Sometimes I tried restaurants—the kind with a cocktail lounge that will bring you double rye on the rocks a couple of times without looking askance. And I often enjoyed the food in such places; they had good chicken and dumplings or steak and mashed potatoes. But it was too late to eat, too late to be hungry. I just needed a good buzz, a bit of slow-down so that I could get to sleep.

I showered off the road and walked on down to the tavern. There’d been rain earlier in the day and the neon flashed in the puddles that remained: Coors Light, Coors Light, Coors Light. There were only a half dozen pick-ups parked in front of the Maverick, and I noted that with relief. I never like a tavern to be too crowded. Men get rowdy in crowds and they get mean. Not so great for a woman alone, even one like me.

I pushed the door open and walked right to the bar. It’s always straight ahead in a country tavern and if you make a beeline for it, there’s no need to make eye contact or suffer the reactions of the patrons to the newcomer. I feel more invisible that way.

The bartender, a young brawny redhead in overalls and a red denim shirt with pearl snaps, put a napkin down in front of me right away. “What’ll it be, miss?”

I like a kind bartender who’ll pretend I’m still young, and I smiled at him. “Double Maker’s Mark,” I said. “Go easy on the ice.”

“You got it,” he said and the drink was before me in no time.

The first sip is the best. We all know that. It’s really the only one you taste. The rest is just for effect. So I try to wait a moment before I start, no matter how much I’m craving, so that I can really register that sip. The bartender must have seen me hesitate, for he spoke to me again. “Something wrong, ma’am?” Worry played at the corners of his eyes.

“Ma’am.” There it was. I sighed and looked up at him. Decided to play it light. “Just giving thanks to the bourbon makers of America,” I said. “My way of saying grace.”

He chuckled at that and things were easy between us again.

I took that sip. Enjoyed it. Drank down the rest pretty quickly. The bartender―I decided his name was Billy―looked over at me from the beer tap and I nodded and he fixed the next one.

The Maverick has a big mirror behind the bar. I always love that. It lets me watch the action without having to be part of it. There were four booths over to one side of the front wall and three of them held couples. Two of the booths held kids. Boys barely old enough to shave, let alone drink. Cheerleader girlfriends. When did the world get so young? In the third booth, the couple was necking and laughing. When they disentangled themselves, I saw that they were both grey-haired and thick in the middle. That made me feel better.

The woman, I’ll call her Maudie, got up and disappeared in the back. Pit stop, I’d guess. And Roy, her boyfriend, went to the jukebox. There’d been two honky-tonk tunes in a row, but now George Strait‘s croon came on. “I still feel 25, most of the time…” When Maudie came back out, Roy whirled her around the floor a few times before they sat down and went back to nuzzling each other. Billy took them a fresh pitcher.

By now, my second bourbon was pretty well gone and I had a decision to make. I don’t like to drink more than two in a bar. With two in me, I can navigate my way home. I can make decisions that are usually the right kind to make in a strange town. But once I start in on number 3, there’s no telling what can happen.

I gave myself a good hard look in the mirror. Now you’re thinking that I’m checking myself out, right? To see if I look good enough, pretty enough, thin enough to take on somebody. But that wasn’t it at all. I already knew what I looked like. In the last decade, I’ve put on 50. The prettiness I may have had is long gone, and the best I can get on a good day—I mean a really good day—is “handsome.” Not that I’m bad-looking—my skin is still smooth and my hair still dark, thanks to my friend Henna. And my extra pounds are still shapely and I’ve got great legs. But I’m not turning any heads anymore.

So no, the good hard look in the mirror wasn’t that kind of inventory. It was the fulfillment of a promise I’d made to myself, to make sure I knew what I was choosing, to check in, you could say, before I checked out.

The woman in the mirror nodded at me, and I nodded back. Then I looked down the bar. A couple of truckers sat to my left, wearing the road like a badge of honor. One winked in my direction. I smiled back. I couldn’t help it. I’d loved a long-hauler for three years in my 40s. He was a good man and a surprisingly sophisticated lover. But then his knees had given out on him and he’d moved off the road and back to his wife. I looked to the right. A cowboy with a gray beard was nursing a beer and a shot. He too looked at me and smiled. But nothing sparked and I looked back at my empty glass. Billy was busy unloading a tray of clean glasses. I waited for him to get finished and look at me.

It was then that Al slid onto the stool next to me.

I saw him in the mirror first. He was tall, so tall that his head and shoulders showed well above the row of bottles that lined the shelf behind the bar. I’m tall myself but for some reason, I’ve never been drawn to tall men, preferring someone my own size. But this guy had a mane of thick silver hair that fell down over a weather-lined brow. Similar lines crinkled his eyes and creased the corners of his wide, handsome mouth. He grinned at me as he took off his black hat. Twenty years ago, I’d have called him “foxy.” Twenty years ago he might have said the same about me.

“What’ll it be, Al?” Billy asked, coming down the bar towards us.

“Coffee,” he said. “Big coffee.” And he grinned at me again.

Billy poured a big glass beer mug of coffee from the hot plate next to the maraschino cherries and lime slices. I could smell that it was long past fresh. He set the mug down in front of Al along with a carton of half-and-half.

When Al had finished turning the black stuff white, he turned to me. “Where you from?”

“Not here,” I said and I drained the ice melt from my glass. Billy tried to catch my eye to see if I wanted another but I avoided his look. I waited to see what Al would say next.

But he said nothing. Just put his elbows on the bar and sipped at his coffee. Maybe it was my turn. I looked up at Billy and asked for a glass of water.

At that, Al looked over at me and at the empty glass on the bar. “My name’s Al. I own a ranch about 15 miles out of town. I do pretty well, considering that idiot in the White House. I’m 64, my hair and teeth are my own, haven’t ever had a major illness and don’t plan to have any.”

I didn’t know what to make of these revelations. I took a big drink of the water in front of me and thought about that third drink.

“Well, Al,” I said, finally, when I realized he was waiting for me to speak. “My name’s Ellie. I’m 60, and I too have my own hair and teeth. I have also had two major illnesses that are none of your business.”

Billy had his back turned to us and was wiping between the bottles but I could see his shoulders shaking with laughter.

Al didn’t say anything in response, just nodded solemnly. Then he signaled Billy for a refill and the smell of overcooked Folgers wafted towards me again.

Finally Al turned to me and put his hand ever so gently on my forearm, which lay on the edge of the bar. “Ellie, have you ever wanted to be a rancher’s wife?” His eyes were serious, dead serious.

I managed a smile. “I’ve never thought about it, Al.” I paused. “Say, does Jesus enter into this somehow?”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I need to tell you, Al, that I am not religious. No way, no how. I’m not cut out for Sunday School and prayer meetings and being the good little woman at home. I’m more the hell and damnation type, if you know what I mean.”

He leaned towards me and I caught a whiff of Old Spice. It was just enough, you know? “Do you have to do it alone?” he said.

“Do what?”

“Raise hell. Can someone else come along? Be there to pick up the pieces? Bring you back home to yourself?” Then he smiled at me with that wide, handsome mouth and I went weak in the knees.

“Sure, I guess,” I said to Al. “Why not?” And I pushed the water away, held up the whiskey glass, and nodded at Billy, who brought over the bottle.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Putting our work out in the world

“I realized it was my job to write to the best of my ability, take the risk of sending it out for publication, and let folks who make such decisions decide whether my stuff was any good. –Sage Cohen

One of the best things in Sage Cohen’s new book, The Productive Writer, is her sensitive and encouraging discussion of putting our work out in the world. This really hit home for me when I read it because in late 2009 I finished my first novel, Witnessing the Creation, and I’ve done nothing with it in the year since. Instead, I started writing a second novel.

Now there’s nothing wrong with writing another book. It’s great, in fact. But when a Writing Friday comes up, I don’t bite the bullet and investigate agents and rework my synopsis and get that novel out there where something wonderful might happen to it. It just sits in its folder in the computer and I think about it and it nags at me.

The truth is I’m afraid. Afraid it’s not all that great. Afraid I will be rejected. Afraid I’ll have to revise my opinion of myself as a good writer and storyteller. And as long as I don’t put it out there, I won’t find that out, for better or worse.

This same fear keeps me from entering contests with my poems and reading at open mikes and being part of the Portland writing scene. It’s easier and safer to sit here in my office and draft more fresh material or polish what I’ve got.

Now I don’t think everyone who writes has to write for the public. Writing is a wonderful act of creative self-expression and can have an audience of one: the writer. But I wrote the novel not only to see if I could but to tell a story. And that story isn’t being heard or read. So Sage’s advice is important to me. I need to do something with my manuscript—and soon.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

More about character and observations

I noticed on retreat this past week each of the 20 or so monks I saw three times a day at services had a distinctive walk. Some of it had to do with footwear, some of it with age and ability. They all wore variations on the same clothing but they carried those robes quite differently. Their heads sat on their necks in particular ways, their necks sat on their bodies each quite differently. Their ways of kneeling, of bowing in prayer, in standing at attention were different. The way they held themselves when they sang varied amazingly.

It was a rich visual field and I could have created a dozen characters. So next time you can, watch a crowd of people, say at the mall. Rather than looking for a general impression, notice one thing at a time. How do the next 15 people walk? What verbs describe that? What comparisons can you make? 

You can also do this while watching a movie or a TV show. How would you describe for a reader the way this man moves or gestures. Actors are a great resource for writers for they have studied and honed the gestures and tics and mannerisms that make a character come alive. If we can learn to translate that to the page, we can create lively, memorable characters.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reading manuscripts for friends--Part I

One of the most uncomfortable parts of my job as a college professor was the need to grade the writing of my students. Writing is a creative act, no matter the content, and to put a letter grade on someone's efforts is painful for the giver and the receiver, especially when the student is doing the best she can and is a mediocre thinker and writer. Does she get an A because she's at the top of her game or a C because she's average in the bigger range of the game?

As a student myself, I shied away from traditional art classes as I couldn't bear to have my creative efforts compared and categorized against a standard set by someone else. It was too painful.

So in the writing groups I attend and lead, we focu on helpful suggestions, usually centering the conversation on two questions: What did you want to hear more about? Where did you get lost or stop listening/reading?
These questions are quite benign and fall into the category of support rather than critique. Lots of writers swear by critique groups but my own experience of them has been as negative as art classes: there was little consideration for feelings and a lot of desire to have the product change to fit the critiquer's style, not the writer's.

So what does one do when a friend or writing colleague asks you to read her manuscript? Last week my friend Pam did just that. Pam and I have known each other a couple of years but in the last few months we've grown closer, especially since we went on a writing retreat together. She wrote a mystery for national novel writing month last year and has been revising it and wanted a couple of outside readers. I've heard parts of her book and thought I'd like to read the rest. I didn't really think too much about the comments part of it.

Friday we met to talk about it. First,I hadn't prepared anything and I think that was a bad idea.  My comments were all over the place, not organized at all, and I sorted out the reason behind some of my hesitancies about her plot out loud while she listened. Frankly, I only knew I had the hesitancies. I wasn't sure what they were about until we started talking.

Second, I read her book but I didn't study it. I'd mention things that seemed missing but she swore they were in there. Maybe so. I don't know the book nearly as well as she does. And I hadn't thought about that problem until just now.

Third, my role as reader was unclear. Was I giving her my professional advice as an editor? My feedback as a casual reader? My support as a friend? All that felt awkward and dicey to me. And even if I'd set that out clearly, I'm not sure I could keep that straight.

I don't think Pam and I did any harm to our friendship but I wonder if the conversation was unsatisfying to her. I also wonder how she felt.

As an editor, I know to ask my clients what kind of feedback they are looking for and I don't accept vague answers. I think that's probably a good idea with friend writers as well: find out what is wanted and don't accept vague answers. If the writer isn't sure what he wants, it may be best to pass on the opportunity.

More thoughts on this next post..

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Start your story or novel with a character in a dilemma or crisis

Many writers enamored of the novels of the 19th century, when the novel really took over as a main literary genre, expect to be able to use some of the same literary techniques today. That direction often spells disaster for anyone wanting to publish. Most readers today, totally acculturated on movies and television, won't sit through (read through) a slow descriptive beginning, such as the childhood of the main character or a lengthy description of place. They' re wanting to be hooked right away into or they will move on to something that does that.

Now that's not to say that if you're the most exquisite poet who ever wrote a novel you can't capivate some readers. But most of us want to know right away who the main character is and what the dilemma is. It doesn't have to be the main dilemma but it needs to lead us in that direction. Who is this person we are going to spend a lot of hours with? What does he want? Why is she troubled?

I recently read a first chapter for a potential client in a lengthy novel on racism in America. She writes well and I am interested in the subject so I was ready to like it. But she spent the first chapter setting up a wealth of context for the story rather than plunging me right in and giving the context later. I would not have bought her book.

When you're reading, watch for beginnings that grab you. See if something along that line will fit for your own story.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Avoiding stereotypical characters

Fictional characters tend to fall into predictable patterns and circumstances (also known as stereotypes). Some of these are cultural stereotypes (the star athlete, the cheerleader, the computer geek, the crooked poltician) and some are literary stereotypes (Holden Caulfield, Elmer Gantry, Emma Bovary).

To keep your characters from being flat, empty stereotypes requires the same kind of care and attention that their physical description does. Each human being is unique through his or her inner world: the thoughts, feelings, and responses to circumstances. Genre fiction at its best is a prime example. Most detective novels rely on a standard plot (dead person, clues, suspects, discovery, solution to the mystery). What makes some of these stories great is not only a macabre plot twise. Far more often, it is the inner working of the detective, the inner working of the suspects, and some of the secondary characters as well. Harry Bosch, Dismas Hardy--these are great characters, people we come to know.

We feel intimate with them. We know them. Give your characters an inner life, a truly inner life, and it will add a layer of richness to your work.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Giving an adequate character description

Vague descriptions of characters create vague characters. "She was rich and aristocratic" is not particularly helpful to a reader. "Her shiny brown hair was pulled back in the kind of elaborate knot that only a maid could do, and the comb that held it had two turquoise stones worth more than my rent" tells us a great deal more.

Readers are counting on us writers to paint portraits both physical and moral. The moral characteristics are often best served up through dialog and actions that the character takes. Physical description comes out more directly. And it requires us to be creative. "He was fat and ugly" works, but "his shirt buttons strained to contain his belly" or "His dark eyes were so small and his hook nose so large, you just knew the kids had taunted him in the playground" tell us more.

In Weekend Novelist, Robert J Ray recommends spending some considerable time in a mall or airport or other public venue where lots of people hang out or pass through and taking notes on character descriptions. Although I never followed his whole program, that idea has worked well for me. When you see people as they are, physical descriptions of characters get imprinted into your imagination. How they look, how they move, how they dress. Their gestures, mannerisms, quirks and foibles. All of those things bring the character alive.

Some inexperienced writers believe readers would rather create their own descriptions but that is rarely true. Readers don't want to work that hard; they much prefer to leave the "portraiture" to the author.

Friday, October 1, 2010

breaking my commitment

Over the last several months, I've tried to be really good at keeping my commitment to write every Writing Friday, the day that writer friends come to spend the day writing and talking about writing. I didn' thave Writing Friday last week because I was in San Diego speaking at a conference and selling my memoir.

Unfortunately  for my schedule, I took off all four days of the trip rather than doing some work projects while I was there. I had a great mini-vacation but I came back to a slam load of editing work in my paid profession. I worked as hard as I could this week, but rush projects kept coming in and I kept saying yes and this morning I found myself really conflicted. Did I write at Writing Friday or did I move three other paid projects along so I wouldn't have to work all weekend and have a hellatious next week to boot?

I opted to reduce the stress by working today. But I also had to wonder about a secondary motivation. Sometimes I am reluctant to sit down to Writing Friday if I don't quite know where the story is going although almost always something appears if I get to it. And that wasn't the problem today as I know what comes next in the book.

However, I don't know what comes after that. My two parallel stories are about to merge and I am currently clueless as to the rest of the plot. Maybe I didn't want to sit deep in not knowing all this next week. As it is now, I still have that already thought-up chapter to work on next Friday. Ah, the games we play with ourselves.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My creativity change list

Since last month's writing group meeting when I started thinking about changing my apartment to support more of my creative endeavors, I've been making a list of possible changes to consider. I decided to share them here. I'd love to hear what ideas you come up with for yourself.

1. Get some decent lighting for my dining room table so I have an additional creative work surface in the evenings.
2. Use the lower right two shelvs of my living room bookcase (hidden by the sofa from viw) for creative supplies.
3. Keep my card table cleared off and have a small project always set up to work on.
4. Find cupboard space for the old bath mats I use for my ancient cat.
5. Move the extra copies of my memoir to the basement and out of the office.
6. Make much better use of my office storage space.
7. Follow Tamara's idea about narrowing my interests and the related craft supplies.
8. Consolidate my pastel chalks into the beautiful box I got for Christmas last year.
9. Assemble the drawing horse I got for Christmas last year.
10. Get rid of most all of the miscellaneous craft stuff (that which is not related to my priority interests).
11. Keep only the best quality craft supplies.
12. Measure the dozen old poster frames in the basement and get paper cut to go in them or collage on what's in there already.
13. Go thru the upper closet in the office and rethink what goes in there.
14. Get rid of all my old collage images (they are too familiar and stale OR go through the images and reduce by 75%, keeping only the best and resolve to use them immediately.
15. Ask my friend Mary if I can raid her collage files.
16. Seriously reduce my collection of recycled gift wrap.
17. Make all creative supplies accessible.
18. Create an inventory of creative supplies so I don't buy duplicates on a whim.
19. Do a big give-away of craft stuff I don't need.
20. Clean up the cords in the office.
21. Reduce table top clutter by giving away half my doodads.
22. Get rid of someday clutter in the office drawers.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Artist's Date

 Julia Cameron encourages writers and other creatives to do regular artist's dates, where you fill the well of creativity. My current trip to San Diego has been one huge artist's date.

The landscape is so different from home. The sky is deeply blue, the sun clear, the breeze warm. Out my hotel room window are huge (4  story) palm trees, one just unfurling a new frond right out my window. It's amazing to be at the height of the tops of these magnificent trees.
The air feels different, a bit of the desert, a bit of the ocean. I can see why people want to live here although I would find the climate monotonous, as I am used to and in love with having four seasons.

Friday I had a chance to go to Coronado Island and visit the Del Coronado, a hotel built in 1897. It's apparently the largest wooden structure in America and while it's more ornate than my taste, it was amazing to visit. We also got a chance to go to the beach for an hour. Then we went to Balboa Park, a beautiful hill top of grounds and palm trees and Spanish architecture.

We spent an hour at the San Diego Art Museum. I had wanted to see the Toulouse Lautrec exhibit and there were several new images there that I had never seen before even in reproduction. Even more wonderful was the permanent collection of 19th and 20th century work. American impressionists and post-impressionists as well as Europeans. There was also work by Robert Henri. I have a book of his ideas on art, which I'm fond of, but had never seen his work. I loved it and got some ideas for my own painting.

My well feels wonderfully filled.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Reading your work out loud

At my creativity group this afternoon, I read two long chapters from my novel. Reading to groups is a bit problematic, especially a group that meets once a month because the story goes on and they don't know the intervening chapters or events or character issues, but it does me great good to read it and hear it for myself, whether they get anything out of it or not.

I get a chance to hear the language and especially the dialog, where it works and where it clunks. Where I go on too long, where details of description seem superfluous, where I find myself wanting to skip ahead because that sentence that seemed so important--and so well-crafted--doesn't add anything and I didn't see that before.

I enjoyed getting feedback from my listeners and one had a couple of great ideas, but even more important was my own sense of the writing and the story. I also felt fully re-engaged in the whole process and eager to get back to work on it.

As a professional editor, I've encouraged my clients to do just what I was doing--reading aloud--but I hadn't fully grasped the importance of it for myself until today.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Eliminating possibilities

My good friend Tamara has spent a lot of the last week decluttering in her large home. Tamara is a woman of many talents and many interests and her stuff reflects that diversity. And it was all driving her crazy. For example, when she sorted through all the stuff in her creative space, she could sort it into 18 different interests and related projects. That's in addition to the tons of stuff she could easily let go of--throw away or give away.

She took a picture of all these interests and then started thinking about her time, her need to get proficient or expert at some of these, her desire to bring some projects to completion. And she began to analyze and reduce. She thought through each impulse, each longing, each idea and then she settled on the five that really sang to her heart. She let go of all the rest.

As creatives, I think we are easily seduced by the possible. There are so many tools, materials, classes, ideas out there. There's always room for more knowledge, for more improvement, right? And related things are of great interest. If you're a novelist, you might want to write some essays or a biography or a screen play or poetry. Or maybe doing some collage would make that next chapter of the novel come easier.

I'm all for cross-pollination. But some times, all those possibilities are big distractors from our real efforts, our real loves. So sometimes, it's good to go through the creative files or baskets or closets or rooms, sort it all out and let a lot of it go.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Honoring your writer self Part 2

A couple of posts ago, I listed Judy Reeves' ideas about honoring your self as a writer. At my Second Thursday writing group, I handed the list out and asked each person to write for a few minutes on one of the ideas. I started off writing on one and digressed and came back.

Make a comfortable place for your writing. Since I live alone and work here too, it would seem easy to turn my whole spacious apartment into a writing and art studio and I don't know why I never thought of this before. In 2000, I did a project called Zen Home and renovated the interior (new colors, new furniture arrangements, fixing what didn't work) so that my place could more easily support the kind of life I wanted. Now I think it may be time to do that again as what I'm up to has changed.

In 2000, I didn't see myself as a writer and artist. I hadn't started my memoir, I was not doing collage at all. I was just taking an occasional drawing class. Now my whole concept of my self has changed and perhaps my apartment needs to too.

I'm not sure what changes to make but that doesn't mean it can't be done. Here are some of my ideas:
  • Get some kind of a light over the dining table for better illumination.
  • Really reduce the clutter in the office, like no kidding.
  • Get some kind of cart for creative supplies or use the lower shelves of the living rooms bookcase (hidden from public view by the sofa) for such supplies so they are handier
  • Make better use of the office storage.
How might you set things up to support your creative endeavors?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Feeling stymied

My novel is in a transitional place. I've come to a big break in one of the main stories and am in the bridge to the second. This wasn't quite how I imagined the novel occurring but it has taken its own direction and I'm going along. I need to sort out some of what happens next but my current struggle with a viral condition called shingles is making that hard.

Usually, when I'm stymied, I'll spend an hour with my notebook creating possible scenarios and twists and turns for the characters. Since they're at X, what's one of 20 logical Ys? Then I'll contemplate those for a while and the right one will make itself known.

But shingles involves a lot of pain, both the nagging, aching kind that sits in the background but is never very far away and the sudden truly miserable kind that shouts PAY ATTENTION TO ME! Last night when I was awake every hour or so, I tried to shift to Ellie's dilemma and what might happen next and I just didn't have the presence of mind to focus. That's frustrating to me for it's been more than a week since I wrote anything and that makes me nearly as restless as the pain.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Honor yourself as a writer

1. Name yourself writer.

2. Make a comfortable place for your writing.

3. Get the best equipment and accoutrements you can afford.

4. Make time for study and practice.

5. Schedule time with other writers.

6. Read your writing to others.

7. Print out computer documents.

8. Submit material for publication.

9. Celebrate when you’ve completed a section or work inprogress.

10. Accept compliments gracefully.

Adapted from A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves

Monday, September 6, 2010

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

I submitted a book review for the Oregon Writers Colony newsletter today and thought I'd share it with you.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print

By Renni Browne and Dave King (Second edition/soft cover, 280 pp., 2004, HarperCollins)
ISBN: 978-0-06-054569-7
Review by Jill Kelly, PhD

As a 15-year veteran of freelance editing and writing coaching, I’m always on the lookout for books that will help my clients both write better and self-edit better. Most of the people I work with aren’t wealthy and the services of a good editor aren’t cheap, so the more they can do themselves, the happier they are.

Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is a book I consistently recommend. Here’s why:

• The writing is clear and helpful. It’s more like a conversation with knowledgeable friends on a subject you both love: good writing. There’s nothing didactic about it, none of that pompous “I know and you don’t” style that often appears in writing manuals, especially those by academics.

• The topics and examples are helpful for writers at all levels. Whether you’re working on the fourth book in a published series or figuring out how to self-edit for the first time, the ideas here can help you improve your writing. I learn something every time I read it.

• The book is thorough. It covers all the main skills of fiction writing and how to improve them. I especially like their chapters on interior monologue and using physical beats to distinguish speakers. When you combine that thoroughness with the thoughtful and provocative nature of the exercises and the extensive answers in the back, the book becomes a mini-course in good writing.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers does assume a solid knowledge of basic grammar, parts of speech, and standard punctuation, so it will not cure your comma errors or dangling participles. But again the tone is kind and clear, and writing terms like dialog, analogy, point of view, etc. get explained in context. And while this book is aimed at fiction writers, much of the information and the exercises will prove useful to those writing prose poems, memoir, and non-fiction. So while it isn’t a substitute for hands-on work with a good developmental or text editor, it can take you a long way.

Friday, September 3, 2010

the point of a scene

I spent the day writing a transition chapter. I need to move my heroine from Pittsburgh to New Mexico but I decided she needs to stop and see her ex on the way. She hasn't quite hit bottom yet and I think he can be instrumental in getting her there. But I don't yet know how. That's the next chapter to write.

But this chapter of travel, of road trip, needs to have its purpose too. While there's the possibility of using an occasional brief scene or chapter for glue, just to paste some things together, I'd rather not do that. So when I sat down to write the road trip, I felt a little stymied. It wouldn't take many sentences to have her drive to from southern Pennsylvania to Houston. In fact, I accomplished most of that in about 6 sentences and still said something about her state of mind.  But that wasn't enough.

So I thought about other things I could convey that would contribute to the plot or character development. Her distrust of men. Her fear of the killer. Her desire to stop being in fear. Her sorrow at leaving her best friend behind when that friend might also be a prey. Somehow I needed to convey all of this too. I wrote a draft of a chapter in which she thinks about some of these things but my challenge next time I write will be to see how I can create that through "show," not "tell." But at least I've identified what I want to communicate.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pushing beyond what you know how to do

I'm getting ready to forward a difficult email to a friend who's a writer. I've many comments for his novel and I suspect he's not going to like what I have to say. In preparation, I was reading Leonard Bishop again: his brief commentary on "Completing Impossible Scenes." This little gem of advice is mislabeled for it's really about pushing ourselves as writers.

By the time most of us start writing, especially those of us who come to the craft at midlife or later, we have already absorbed many writing techniques through all the reading we've done. But that doesn't mean there isn't an infinite amount to learn ahead of us. Bishop enourages us to write the scenes we don't know how to write, to keep pushing the idea or the character or the plot deeper, further. Of course, we risk writing something that doesn't work, but all artists have to do that, create junk that teaches us something.

Too many writers, he says, get pretty good and then rearrange what they already know how to do. That's the place I think that my friend has fallen into. He knows how to write clever sentences, and introspective first-person narration, but he hasn't pushed the plot into an original place. I'm hoping I'll find the right words to encourage him to do so.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Writing from limbo

On Friday, I wrote the final Pittsburgh chapter of the novel, which has two consecutive plots. I hadn't known it would be the last chapter. I was writing again from the imaginary seat of my pants and while I knew I was close to getting the protagonist out of town, it happened. It was good writing and a satisfying departure for her but now I'm a bit stymied.

Will Ellie go directly to New Mexico and encounter Al or will there be some adventures in-between? Will she hook up with Danny, an old boyfriend, in Houston? Will the killer be on her trail and will she have close calls? I don't know.

It's an opportunity for me to practice 16 solutions. What 16 things can happen to Ellie now that she's on the road?

I have a love-hate relationship with this kind of not knowing. I like ending a writing session with a clear idea of what to write next. It doesn't have to be the whole story splayed out in front of me but to know the next piece is comforting. But there's also some excitement in not knowing, in waiting for the muse to instruct me, the characters to speak to me.

I know that not everything is possible, that it isn't that wide open. I'm at 55,000 words and I've lots of loose ends in Story 2 to deal with so this part can't be more than 2-3 chapters. And those 55, 000 words and their events will circumscribe to some extent what's possible. But surely there's time for another big wrinkle in the adventure. I can't wait to find out.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More on dialog

Today I was editing a chapter in a non-fiction book on aging. The chapter, on family communication, included a lot of reported (also called indirect) speech. "The wife reported that she...., but the husband disagreed and said..." For an occasioanl sentence, this works okay but this paragraph reported a whole conversation between this couple and their adult children. I suggested to the author that she create a small scene and use actual dialog, even though she might have to recreate it.

In nonfiction, dialog can help the examples feel more like a story, feel more alive and realistic. And an author can use them to the same good effect that fiction writers do.

But be wary of dialog that is used for its own sake or just to break up the page. Dialog should be used for two things: to convey information through an individual's voice (case study, fictional character) and to acquire information (fictional character as tool of author or nonfiction author asking questions of her reader).

Readers love scenes. We are all so habituated by tv and the movies that we get most of our information that way. Use them to your advantage.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Three things to watch for in fiction

In his excellent book Dare to Be a Great Writer, Leonard Bishop lists three things that plague the writing of amateurs and which they are reluctant to let go of when they begin rewriting:
1. Dialog that tells content that should be delivered in a scene.
2. Scenes that are overlong and that belabor the point they deliver.
3. Overlong introspections that include polemics.

I'd add a fourth: long passages of indirect speech that should be dialog.

While some exceptionally skilled writers (Wendell Berry comes to mind) can handle long passages that don't include a specific scene of action, most less experienced writers cannot do that without bogging the reader down.

Case in point: I've been reading a manuscript written in first person. The narrator has much to say. Too much. He explains everything overmuch, he philosophizes over much. I'm on page 80 and I don't yet know what the story is about. The author is a good writer in that sentences are well put together, his images are often clever, and his vocabulary impressive. But none of that works without more scenes, more action, more interaction. The overlong introspections and arguments are weighing this reader down.

Whenever possible, create more scenes where more happens. Where the characters' dilemmas are evidenced, where characterizations are revealed (motives, in particular), where people show their feelings, their values, their vices.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Practicing what I preach

Today was a Writing Friday gathering and I didn't feel much like writing. I've been in deep reflection since my last session with my therapist on Wednesday and didn't really feel like pulling out of that to plunge into my novel. In addition, I hadn't solved the issue for the novel that I'd been mulling over all week--how to reveal a key piece of information to my heroine and to the reader. I'd come up with two solutions but one was prosaic and the other one I couldn't quite make happen logistically. So I felt stuck and the muse wasn't giving me ideas and I didn't want to "waste my time" without the solution.

At the same time, I didn't want to wimp out. As a writing coach, I feel it important to set a good example and to practice what I preach. And I often preach the need to keep writing even when you don't know what you are doing. A huge part of the creative process is keeping on keeping on even when you don't know what comes next. Because in art-making, there are no mistakes, just experiments that do or don't work out.

So I went out to the terrace (it was a gorgeous day here in Portland--cool, sunny, 70s, and my terrace was just a heavenly place to be. I set up my laptop, and took the last three sentences from last Friday's writing as my prompt and just let my hands be guided. I kept coming back to trust, trusting the muse would show up, trusting my imagination would work and it did.

I discovered I needed to write another small section before I could reveal this part of the mystery and a great idea came up at the perfect moment. And I wrote that next chapter.

Then after lunch, I was about to move away from the computer, read a couple of articles I'd been meaning to get to, but then I thought, hey, it worked this morning. Go back to the story and see what come's next and I wrote another good chapter. Not as great, not as clear, but a good first draft. Very pleased tonight.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Planners vs. Pantsers

At the Willamette Writers Conference workshop I attended with Larry Brooks, he talked about the spectrum of advance work that novelists do. Some people are what he called "planners" (and he was one). They map out the whole strategy, the chapters, the major and minor characters, the major incidents and plot twists. They spend a lot of time on this and then write from this outline. Brooks says this saves a lot of time because you sort out the difficulties and the weaknesses beforehand and don't have to do so much rewriting.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who write by the seat of their pants (pantsers), who, he said with some disdain, claim their characters talk to them. I'm one of these. I'm probably not completely on the liberal, loose end of the spectrum. I do some serious consideration between writing sessions to sort out what comes next, rather than sitting down with no plan at all in mind. Right now I know what's going to happen in the next two and maybe three of my chapters and definitely that we are coming to the dramatic end of Act I. But I don't know "who done it" in my mystery, I don't know if my heroine will end up with any of the leading men, I don't even know if she'll be alive at the end of the book.

It's more interesting to me to let it unfold. If I'd worked the original idea to its logical conclusion in a plan, I might never have come up with the story that I've got going now.

I don't think one way is more valuable than the other, or leads to better writing. And I don't think Brooks was intimating that that was true. But I do think my way's less work and more fun.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Home Readings

This morning my good friend Kathie hosted a home reading for my memoir. This is a the second time she has done it. She invites women she knows to attend a brunch, reading, and discussion at her home.

Kathie has a lovely home and is a great entertainer and eight of us enjoyed her hospitality and food. Then she introduced me and I read two selections from the memoir and talked about the process of writing the book and my belief in the value of writing our personal stories, whether we publish them or not.

I don't remember where I read about home readings but I really enjoyed reading in that intimate setting, getting direct feedback from readers--not only about my writing and what had intrigued them but about what ideas had resonated for them.

Today we got into a big conversation about creativity, about how you make time for it, create the support you need. I talked about writing Fridays and writing retreats and the ways I've built in support for my own work. Afterwards, some of the women bought my book and I was thrilled to send it home with them. Hope they will let me know what they think.

So if you're publishing your book, you might consider asking a friend or two to set up home reading events for you. They don't need to be as fancy as a gourmet brunch, just tea and snacks will do, but it is a great experience for writer and reader alike.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why readers read

I got a nice phone call this afternoon from a woman who attended my workshop on Sunday who's interested in working with me. What most impressed her she said was my conversation about reader-focused writing.

For years in my professional and health professional writing classes (non-fiction), I've talked to students about writing for the reader. This goes beyond knowing who your target audience is. It means writing so that the reading experience is both communicative and seamless. First, communication. This means writing in a clear, clean way that presents the material in an easily digestible form. It means letting go of fancy styles and trying to impress the reader with your sophistication so that you can get the information across. Second, it means taking great pains with the conventions of grammar, punctuation, and formatting so that the reader is not caught up in noticing how poorly you've edited.

For fiction and memoir writers, the second rule applies in the same way. You want your grammar, punctuation, and formatting to be invisible, so clean and transparent (I'm tempted to say "normal" that the reader pays it no mind. In terms of content, you want your reader to be completely caught up in your story so that they forget they are reading and they are just experiencing. For that is why we read fiction and memoir: to experience what the author is writing. We want the act of reading to fall away and be transported. That's one definition of successful writing, I think: it's a form of transportation.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Some thoughts on writing conferences

As writing conferences go, I'm a relative neophyte. I met people over the weekend who've been to 6 or 8 different ones in the region, people who flew from Florida and Maine to attend ours, people who've been to this one 8 years in a row. Dedication or insanity?

Some people like conferences. They like meeting new people, get a lot out of listening to others' ideas, feel stimulated by the crowds and hubbub. I, however, am not one of them. I'm a visual kinesthetic learner so listening to speaker after speaker isn't my best way to get ideas. I know that about myself so I only went to two workshops the whole weekend. Friday morning I listed to Hallie Ephron talk about what makes a good mystery novel. While I'm not writing a genre mystery at the moment, although my novel has a big mystery at its center so far, I love reading good mysteries and now I know a lot more about their structure and why I like the ones I like. Plus she recommended some of her favorites and they were writers I'd never heard of.

Yesterday, I listened to Larry Brooks talk about characterization and breaking successful characters done into their parts was really helpful for me and a good exercise in the left brain/right brain combination that goes on in fiction writing.

Two speakers 48 hours apart was perfect. Time to think about what they said, apply it to my own book, and not be overloaded.

The manuscript consults went well. It surprised me to learn that most of my consults were paying to have two or three of us read the manuscript and compare notes. The best conversation I had was the one on Friday. I felt like the author and I partnered to discuss her book. The others listened to what I had to say, agreed or disagreed, but in three cases, they had already completely reworked the pages they'd sent me so it all seemed superfluous.

I was flattered though to hear one fellow say that he had tried to get a critique with me last year and my slots were all full. He had a copy of my memoir. Nice. Another fellow approached me Friday as I was sitting at the book signing table and asked if I had a workshop. Yes, on Sunday, I said. He wasn't coming that day but he had loved my workshop from the year before. Nice.

My workshop went great. It was in the last session of the day slot and I thought there'd be no one, but 35 people showed up, laughed when I was funny, asked great questions, and the time zoomed by. I came home quite contented.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A conference of introverts

I showed up early yesterday at the Willamette Writers Conference. I needed to drop off my books to sell at the Barnes & Noble table and pick up my registration materials. And I knew parking would be difficult. It was but after driving around a bit, I found a spot and got everything else taken care of in about 5 minutes. I wasn't hungry so standing in line for bagels and unripe fruit wasn't very appealing so I wandered around reminding myself of the layout of the hotel (pretty simple really) and then sat in various places and tried to strike up conversations with other attendees.

That was almost as frustrating as looking for a place to park. While people weren't rude (they were willing to give me monosyllabic answers to my questions for "Nice cool morning, isn't it?" and "Is this your first conference?"), nobody would engage and I realized it was a conference for extroverts. There's a reason we're writers and not performers, novelists instead of dancers, poets instead of pianists. We live mostly in our heards and we like it that way.

Eventually I gave up and took my tea over to a round table in the lobby and sat down and spent the next half hour thinking about my novel and some of the "what if" possibilities for further plot complications. It was a satisfying half-hour of thinking and note-taking in the spirit of Writing Friday and I felt reconnected to my book and connected to fellow writers in a way that I couldn't seem to do conversationally. I also felt proud of myself for making an effort, even if it came to very little.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Writing when you aren't a writer

This weekend is the Willamette Writers Conference and I'm going for the second time. Last year I was very nervous because I was pitching my first novel (totally unsuccessfully) and this year I'm not. I'm doing some other things, giving a workshop on Sunday afternoon, doing a booksigning on Friday morning, and I'm meeting with six would-be authors about their manuscripts.

For a fee, writers can send in 20 pages of their book and a synopsis and get an editor like me to read for them. Each year it has sounded like a good idea until I actually sit down to read them. This year, only one of them is quite terrific. It needs work but the reader is clever, articulate, thoughtful, and prepared. The other five are not. In several cases, I suspect the author had heard enough times "what a great story--you ought to write a book" that he and she decided to do so.

I hear this quite often. I'm-literate (can read and write) therefore I can write a book that surely somone will want to publish. On the one hand, this is an unfortunate syndrome as the products are typically marginal at best. On the other hand, the time put in has kept the person out of some other kind of trouble, including plain boredom. What they have not considered is the training that it takes to be a writer: the years of reading and writing and often classes that are required to learn the craft and distinguish oneself in it.

Do these manuscripts have potential? Yes, probably. Will their writers be willing to do what it takes to develop it? Maybe in two cases. The others I suspect will be disheartened, though that won't be my intention, or unbelieving, as surely their non-writer friends will have loved it. What else of course can you say to your spouse or friend or lover who has put in months and years on a project? How can you tell the truth?

Well, that falls to me this Sunday. Wish me patience and kindness in my voice.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Don't jump ship

The last few Sundays in his newsletter, my teacher Eric Maisel has been talking about writing a novel and the various speed bumps people hit. We hit snags when it isn't going well, or we think it isn't going well, or we don't know what to write next. 

Some of us, I think, are tempted at that point to go back to the beginning and start editing. I don't mean solving structural problems that might lead to a next episode but rather refinements in wording and punctuating, the kind of work that isn't about drafting new material. 

Today, Maisel admonished us to "get in the habit of completing work. If you always stop at some point short of finishing because you feel that your current novel isn’t working, that may constitute your way of not completing things. Try to finish drafts, even if you have your doubts, rather than always abandoning a draft part of the way in."

I have found myself several times in the last weeks at one of those junctures--unsure where to go next in the plot, unsure how much to reveal. So his advice is timely for me, to keep drafting right or wrong. It isn't carved in stone, what I write; these aren't irrevocable decisions, even murdering one of the characters. I can always change my mind.

So this week I'm plunging forward no matter what.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Confessing to murder

 I did two things today that were out of character for me.

First, I worked on my novel all day when I should have been working for pay (I have a fair number of editing projects stacked up with short timeframes). I'm usually a very good girl but today I just needed to play hookey. I wrote for four hours, wrote three chapters, and it just flowed like water. What a treat!

The second thing I did was kill off a major character. There's been death already in this book but it came unexpectedly, almost as if I had nothing to do with it--I just wrote it down. But this murder was carefully planned and executed. And it was grizzly and shocking to the listeners in the closing circle at Writing Friday. But it had to be done.

Of course, the nice thing about fiction is I can undo it if the story needs it to be otherwise. A very satisfying writing day, all told.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Other ways of working on a book

At Writing Friday last week, I made a commitment to do two sessions of writing on my novel before the next Friday. Today is Wednesday, it's nearly noon, and I haven't done anything. Well, maybe that's not true. I haven't done any physical writing. I'm deep in several editing projects that are requiring a lot of computer time. So maybe more computer time just isn't it this week.

So instead, I've been working on the novel while I do the treadmill at the gym. I'm playing out scenarios, asking myself some good questions, imagining scenes.

Then I come home and take notes, write down the questions and some possible answers, explore possibilities.

I'm declaring myself fulfilled on my commitment!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Write what you (don't) know

This afternoon I watched a most interesting TED talk by a Turkish writer, Elif Shafat, who argued that assuming that writers from other cultures should write fiction that depicts their culture (some of her critics have chided her for not writing stories about unhappy Turkish women); in other words, they should be fictional cultural ambassadors). She observed that this is an unfortunate way of clipping a writer's creative wings.

She also mentioned the old adage that we should write what we know. But if that is the case, how then does a man write from a woman's point of view? Or a gay person lovingly craft straight characters? Or a creator of detective fiction write from inside the mind of a serial killer? Research will only take us so far.

Even more importantly, how do we create fictional worlds (science fiction or fantasy)? How many of us are on speaking terms with werewolves, zombies, or vampires?

When I started writing my first novel, Witnessing the Creation, it quickly became clear that the protagonist was going to be a male painter in his 30s. I've never been male, am no longer in my 30s, and while I do paint, I'm not sure I can describe the internal life of a painter. But Jake, the painter, had clearly chosen me and readers have found him a highly sympathetic and successful character. Similarly, they loved hating my villain, an older male alcoholic.

Fiction, Shafat argued, is fiction. It's made-up, it's created. Maybe there are some biographical pieces. Jake and I certainly shared some emotional characteristics. But it was my imagination at work, my ability to weave story out of the truth and out of some capacity that we humans have to make stuff up.

Whether we're from Turkey or from Kansas, we should be encouraged to write what bubbles up for us, not boxed into genres or subject matter that suits either the marketplace or preconceptions.

If you want to listen to Shafat, here is the link:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Stone deaf and other cliches

As a long-time teacher of non-native speakers of English, I know how baffling a cliche can be. If you're learning a language, those well-worn expressions are new and interesting and often quite different from the metaphors and similes of your first language. This is also true for a young writer. In junior high, you haven't heard the expressions often enough to know that they're worn out.

Some adult writers pose a similar problem. Many people are writing today who aren't technically writers. By that, I mean they aren't well read and they haven't written a lot. To become a good writer, you have to do a tremendous amount of the first and a fair amount of the second. To recognize cliches, you alos have to do that.

You have to read good writers to notice that the only place a cliche will show up in good writing is in a character's speech and that it marks a particular kind of character, one who is not too original in his person.
Good writers don't use cliches in description or narration or interion monologue or documentation or exposition. They take the time and energy to create new similes and metaphors, to inject fresh poetry into their writing.

I've just finished reading another of the Willamette Writer amateur efforts. This fellow has an intriguing plot, but after the four cliche, I found myself finishing his pages only because I was paid to do so. Because of some other oddities of language, I suspect the fellow is a bilingual and therefore may be unable to recognize the cliches as such. This is where a good text editor comes in, one who knows her eats-like-a-bird and busy-as-a-bee.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What serves your story?

Each year, I serve as one of several manuscript editors for the Willamette Writers Conference. Writers pay a small fee and forward 20 pages of their work for editing and comments. These book beginnings typically run the gamut from great to horrendous and this year is no exception.

I'm finding that beyond certain difficulties with the language (some writers are excellent self-editors and some are not--it's an additional skill and not one that everybody has), the difference between the good ones and the less good has to do with how much the writing considers the story. You would think that would be self-evident, that writers would always consider the story but that's not the case. Just as many writers don't consider the reader as they're writing, many don't consider the story and what will best serve it.

If they did, they might well eliminate extraneous adjectives, meaningless dialog, excessive poetics, and abundant detail. I'm not advocating that every writer be a sparse writer--that's a matter of style and there's plenty of room for lots of different styles. But a good writer reads her own work and asks, does this detail, comment, fact, wrinkle in the plot, serve the story? Does the story need it to be all it can be?

Becoming familiar with what serves a story is best learned by reading great writing and noting how everything fits. In those pages, the story is well served.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Kill off the little darlings" -- Stephen King

On the advice of Stephen King, I'm contemplating committing a murder. To be honest, I've already done it once but it was a complete stranger, a woman unknown to me or my characters. But now, it's time to take someone out.

I've got several good candidates. There's a character no one likes--a "piece of work, he is," one of my listeners said in circle recently. There's a wimpy wife who's not too good for much. But those seem such obvious choices.

I've got several heros in this novel. Several good guys. Maybe it should be one of them. Maybe the best-loved, the most sympathetic. But is that the way I want the story to go?

For it's the story that needs to dictate this. What will best serve the story?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Guest Blogger: Cheri Lasota, on working with an editor

My colleague Cheri Lasota wrote a great blog post about how to deal with edits from an editor and I liked it so much, I asked her if I could share it with you. For info on Cheri, see the end of the post.  

Working with an Editor: Got my edits back. Now what?

by StirlingEditor on July 15, 2010

I was about to email this information to one of my editing clients (yes, I edit fiction as well), but realized many writers out there could benefit from these tips. I’ve worked with dozens upon dozens of writers through the years, and I walk each of them through the best way to go about incorporating my comments and edits into their manuscripts (MS). It can be overwhelming and sometimes even devastating for a writer to receive a manuscript back that looks like the editor dumped a can of red paint on it. I know. I’ve been on the receiving end for my own novel, Artemis Rising.

Here are the steps, in order, of how to go about receiving and revising your manuscript edit from an agent, editor, critique group, or kind friend with time on his or her hands.

Give yourself some peace and quiet.

Carve out a quiet block of time—several hours’ worth—to read through your MS. Try to clear your mind of distractions, upcoming appointments, the fight you had with your significant other. If you don’t have time to browse through slowly, then hold off until you do. The reason? If you’re rushed, you won’t be able to take anything in or think critically about it. The more you can retain in this first pass-through the better. In fact, it’s imperative. I’ve initially zoomed through edits from critique groups and failed to catch important points and suggestions. And worse, I’ve misread comments as snarky or unkind, when in truth, they were just specific and honest. When I cooled off and read back through, I would have to adjust my incorrect assumptions, which wasted my time and energy. In general, a critiquer or editor’s goal is to aid you in achieving your dream of publication. They wish to make your manuscript better, albeit through their own subjective viewpoint. But we’re all human, and sometimes editors/critiquers aren’t as tactful as we could be. This is something, the writer must anticipate and eventually overlook. Why? Because you might miss the valuable advice buried under the snarkiness.

Don’t scan or skip.

Don’t skip ahead and scan through a document looking for how much the editor’s pen has bled onto the page. This is a self-defeating exercise from the beginning. Why? Because many of those comments might be praise. I often litter manuscripts with praise and encouragement. I do this because I know how important it is for writers to know when they are hitting the mark on their language, characterization, or plot.

Sit on the manuscript.

Yes, you heard me. Sit on your MS, like a chicken incubating an egg. That’s quite literally—okay, metaphorically—what you are doing. Incubating, concocting, inventing, spawning . . . That last one sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Anyhoo, let that sucker fester for a LONG time. I mean it. Don’t touch it after you’ve read all the edits and comments. I recommend two weeks at least. Perhaps a month. Here’s why: a writer’s natural response to criticism—either positive or negative—is to be defensive. That doesn’t make the writer childish or foolish. It is just a natural response, and waiting to dive into revisions cools off that natural tendency. If you wait for a long time before jumping in, you’ll be shocked at how different your response is to the edits than the first time around. I’m always surprised at the difference, and I’ve been at this for years.

Mull over your options.

During your “vacation” from the MS, start thinking about some of the major issues the editor mentioned. Allow yourself to come up with ideas for how to fix that character’s inconsistent personality or that plot hole in chapter nine. Maybe write some notes down to remember for later or freewrite possible avenues to explore. But again, don’t touch the MS. You’ll thank yourself later, when you’ve had time to let your anger or confusion cool and you begin to see the edits for the first time with clear, objective eyes.

Make a copy.

Whether you’re working with hard copy or electronic edits, you’ll want to start revising in a COPY of the manuscript the editor worked on. You want to preserve those original comments/edits for future reference as well as keep your original draft intact in case you need to go back to it for any reason. So copy and rename that master file with the current day’s date. And every day you work on your edits, save the previous day’s draft, and start a new file with the current days’ date. This way, you’ll have a log of all edits you’ve ever done and when. Works brilliantly. I learned that trick from the president of a publishing house actually. And don’t worry about drafts filling up your hard drive. Your manuscript file is probably not even a megabyte, which is nothing compared to one music or photo file. Oh, yes . . . one more thing: BACK UP YOUR NOVEL FILES frequently. All of them. Most of us have lost drafts to laziness, stupidity, or busyness. Learn from those previous mistakes. Back up, even if you are just emailing the file to yourself. ‘Nuff said.

Turn your Track Changes ON!

After your “vacation,” give yourself a long block of time to begin looking at your MS. Have a notepad by your computer or an open blank document up to write notes. Critical at this stage: turn your Track Changes on (in Microsoft Word). Yes, you heard me right. Any changes you make need to be tracked from here on out. Why? Because you are more likely to introduce errors into your manuscript at this stage than at any other. Yup. This is because despite your best efforts, you’ll start rushing through accepting edits, and you won’t pay attention to the fact that an extra space just slipped into that sentence or the first letter wasn’t capitalized, etc. This happens ALL the time. Trust me. I know.

Choose your direction.

This depends on the type of edit/critique you’ve received, but usually you can separate your edit into the “easy stuff”and the “hard stuff.” The easy stuff is straight copyediting issues: grammar, punctuation, etc. These are relatively quick fixes. I have to say that I heartily recommend this route. It will:

  • ease you into the revision process.
  • eliminate a lot of the editing marks that are riddling your document.
  • ensure that most of your grammatical problems are fixed before you press on to more difficult edits.

 Conversely, you could go straight to the more time-consuming developmental or substantive edits. Bear in mind that this will save you some time if you end up cutting a lot of scenes from your manuscript. But again, I don’t recommend this route for the reasons I listed above.

Don’t just make changes. Learn!

If you’ve hired a professional editor to work on your manuscript, you’ve invested in that editor’s expertise and knowledge. To get the most from your investment, don’t just go through and blindly make changes. Understand why the editor has made these edits and suggestions. If you notice an editor has repeatedly added in paragraph breaks around blocks of dialogue, find out why. What is the general rule/guideline? What is the goal? If you notice the editor has re-done your comma usage in a particular type of sentence construction, find out what you are doing wrong. Memorize that grammar rule. Look it up in the Chicago Manual of Style (the fiction writer’s style manual). Learn the rule and vow never to make that error again. This will aid you not only as you rewrite your current MS but in subsequent manuscripts as well.

Incorporate only what you feel will serve your story.

Remember that you don’t have to incorporate all suggestions. I personally break my edits into two categories:


 Comment is optional/recommended.

Ignore at your own risk.

My optional comments usually involve issues of language, style, voice, clarity, or sentence structure. I’ll suggest a change in these instances sometimes, but there are always other ways to smooth out structure, rhythm, or language in your own author’s voice. Often, I’ll set off these types of comments with a “consider this” or question mark to make its optional nature clear. For example, I might say: Delete this phrase to tighten the sentence structure here? Or: Consider expanding on your description of the MC to better illustrate her tendency toward self-deprecation. Other editors/critiquers might use different methods, so ask them if you are unsure.


The key is to use both your head and your gut when making these decisions. If you feel a suggestion may compromise the overall plot or the characterization or the theme, etc., then put that comment on the back burner. You can always come back to it later or ignore it completely if you feel it doesn’t serve your story well.


WARNING: There is a big difference between deciding that a change isn’t right for your story and being too lazy to make the change. Confession: This is a problem for me personally as a writer. I’ll often see the merit in a critiquer’s suggestion, but due to lack of time or energy, I’ll put it aside and “conveniently” forget to go back to it. *blushes with shame* This is a bad practice for writers, considering that our ultimate goal is to better our books. And don’t forget that the critiquer took his or her valuable time to make the suggestion in the first place. So, don’t be lazy or use busyness as an excuse. Do the hard work—you won’t regret it.

Overhauling? Then get out of your MS.

If your editor has recommended doing major revisions to whole scenes or chapters, I highly recommend copying and pasting those scenes into a new document. Playing with ideas or major fixes outside of your master MS file accomplishes two things:


You eliminate the possibility of losing any valuable original material.

You allow yourself the freedom of exploring ideas and possibilities in a “throwaway” document.

Once you’ve rewritten a scene to your satisfaction, you’ll want to re-paste it into your master file and save the file again.


Take another vacation.

Once you’ve made (and tracked) all the edits you can bear to make without keeling over from exhaustion, then take another “vacation.” Yes, you’ve earned it! But only a couple of days’ worth, because you’ve still got work to do on this draft. Once you’re back at it, go through the MS again and accept your tracked changes one by one. Make sure that you double check those edits before you accept them, to ensure that you aren’t introducing more errors. You’ve spent countless hours on spit-polishing your masterpiece; you don’t want to screw anything up at this point, eh?


Get to work!

All right, now that you know all my secrets for a proper revision, you’ve no more excuses. Get to work and get that manuscript out there already!


Over the course of her thirteen-year career, Cheri Lasota has edited fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and short stories for publication. Clients include McGraw-Hill Publishing Company as well as individual fiction writers and screenwriters, some of which have been published. She has five years of experience editing various types of fiction, including genre fiction, children’s books, and screenplays.

She has recently published her first e-book, Outlining: The Published Novelist’s Secret for Success. This e-book was created to help fiction writers craft better stories by using planning techniques, such as freewriting, visualization, and timelines. Cheri also has over seventeen years of experience writing poetry and fiction. She has recently finished revisions on her first novel, a historical novel set in the Azores Islands, Portugal, where she lived for two years. Also in the works is a sequel to the first novel.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Wise words from Octavia Butler

“Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.

Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t.

Habit is persistence in practice.”

~ Octavia Butler

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Clever writing for free

I don't spend much time at all surfing the web but I love it when friends forward clever writing to me. Thanks to my brother-in-law David Cobb for the following links to very funny customer product reviews on Amazon.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Couldn't resist

Those who jump off a bridge in Paris are in Seine .

A man's home is his castle, in a manor of speaking.

Dijon vu - the same mustard as before.

Practice safe eating - always use condiments.

Shotgun wedding - A case of wife or death.

A man needs a mistress just to break the monogamy.

A hangover is the wrath of grapes.

Dancing cheek-to-cheek is really a form of floor play.

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

Condoms should be used on every conceivable occasion.

Reading while sunbathing makes you well red.

When two egotists meet, it's an I for an I.

A bicycle can't stand on its own because it is two tired.

What's the definition of a will? (It's a dead give away.)

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

In democracy your vote counts. In feudalism your count votes.

She was engaged to a boyfriend with a wooden leg but broke it off.

A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.

If you don't pay your exorcist, you get repossessed

With her marriage, she got a new name and a dress.

The man who fell into an upholstery machine is fully recovered.

You feel stuck with your debt if you can't budge it.

Local Area Network in Australia - the LAN down under.

Every calendar's days are numbered.

A lot of money is tainted - Taint yours and taint mine.

A boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat.

He had a photographic memory that was never developed.

A midget fortune-teller who escapes from prison is a small medium at large.

Once you've seen one shopping center, you've seen a mall.

Bakers trade bread recipes on a knead-to-know basis.

Santa's helpers are subordinate clauses.

Acupuncture is a jab well done

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Exposure to genius

One of the women in my Second Thursday writer's group confessed that she had done little writing over a month of travelling and speaking for work. And then she mentioned that she had been on the East Coast and had spent time in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery in DC. I told her that was a terrific substitute for writing. In fact, immersion in other forms of creativity can be crucial for our right brains and our souls, two key components of creativity. There's something about the richness of exposure to genius that can revitalize our work, regardless of genre, medium, or subject.

Julia Cameron calls this going on an "artist's date." She recommends weekly solo trips to any place that fills the senses, any and all kinds of stimulation to fill the well of creativity. If you don't, she warns, you can run out of creative gas. This isn't about more subject matter, though you might discover some. It's more about a sense of bounty, of abundance, of generosity to bring to our work.

Being on retreat like I was last week is a kind of artist's date for me. First, the retreat center is gorgeous. The buildings are simple and harmonious, the natural beauty of the property is exceptional, the cultivated gardens had hundreds of lilies and poppies, hummingbirds, and thick foliage from the cool, rainy spring. It's a visual feast for the senses. Second, for a week, I get to talk with other writers at meals about their ideas, their challenges, their triumphs. We talk "shop" but it's really helpful and stimulating.

I've gone to yarn stores (touch and visual), lotion/soap stores for the scents and touch, concerts for the music, but by far the most satisfying for me are museum visits and a chance to look at big art, art in the flesh, as it were. Galleries of innovative work, fine photographs of natural wonders or portraits, pottery at a local market. All of it helps expose us to genius--that of others and our own.