Writing is not a word I associate with fear. Writing means freedom, ideas, passion. Writing is communication, frustration, craving, exploration. I love the craft, improving on it, the learning, the doing. There are many things going on in writing. Not fear. Fear is being present yet powerless when action is needed, when doing nothing, even, is a conscious choice with impact.
Fear in this business comes to me at the thought of sending my work into the wider world. The work is complete, yet it is not everything I have to say. There is so much more. Will it be heard the right way, heard at all, be something to which others respond? Where is my control?
What are the choices?
Choice One, of course, is never send it out. What’s done is done; use it as a learning experience. Get going on that next story lurking, pushing, waiting its turn. This choice can be tempting.
Choice Two, to set out all options, is to shop around draft one. Don't know about your first drafts, but in my case, that would be ugly. I am a rewriter, so while this may be a choice, it is not an option.
Choice Three: Rewrite until it perfect, until it contains everything I know and everything I have learned. This endless cycle could amuse me for years. Of course, it could get me kicked out of Group, faster than Choice One. Not an option.
Choice Four: Rewrite until it is the best it can be at the moment. Perhaps it does not have to be perfect to meet a level of perfection I can live with. Linda Sue Park rewrites. She won a Newbery for the beautiful A Single Shard, rewritten only six times after the first draft. How does she know when it is ready, when she is ready? I will ask her; I will let you know. In turn, you have to share how you know your stories are ready for the wider world.
I am down to Choices One and Four. Interesting, in that while the fourth option creates the most fear, it is the one I have to -- will -- make happen. I am rewriting already, and everything Group loved about my first draft is there, plus more. The stakes are higher, or for those who prefer a different turn of phrase, it is more compelling. I am excited to show it to Group. They will be caring, yes, but tough. They will be supportive, but honest. The most curious thing is that getting it to them again is not daunting, but exciting. That means something. My story might be ready, or very close to. I might be ready, too.
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
There are many aspects of this writing life you should fear. High among them should be an awareness of you don’t know what you don’t know. Huh, you ask. Let me explain.
When I started writing my first manuscript – the one I recently deleted from my hard drive – I followed Hemingway’s old chestnut, “Write what you know.” Unfortunately for that novel, I am the Queen of Mediocrity: I live in the suburbs, my well-traveled road leads to the supermarket, and, thank the merciful gods, there is no real conflict in my life. You can imagine how boring that book truly was. So as arrogant as it may be for me to dispute Hemingway’s advice, here goes: Write what you want to know. If you are interested in the topic, if you find yourself wanting to learn more about the setting, plot, conflict, characters, chances are readers will too.
As a writer you should know to avoid clichés (e.g. soft as a baby’s bottom), but do you know to avoid structural clichés? Lowenstein-Yost agent Rachel Vater has blogged extensively about this. Read the archives. Know not to introduce your character's physical description by having her look in the mirror; know not to open your book by having your protagonist drive/fly/boat and reflect on her life; know not to have your antagonist kick a dog to show he’s the bad guy (thank you Hallie Ephron!). Instead, your book should begin on the day when everything changes for your protagonist and every character, whether she’s a spree killer or devout priest should be nuanced, complicated, with both ugly and endearing traits. You should love all of your characters so your readers can empathize with even the most detestable among them. Strive for complexity.
Do you know your genre? Be honest and ask yourself if you’ve done a thorough read within it. Be brutally honest and ask if your WIP is just another rehash of what’s out there. Are you writing about a woman whose perfect life is suddenly upended when she discovers her husband has been having an affair? The man whose perfect life comes crashing down when he loses his job? Does your middle-grade novel explore the loss of innocence when your protag’s parents get divorced? Sure there’s no such thing as an original storyline, but you had better know how to write it from a fresh perspective. I read the fiction slush pile for a literary journal and the same themes are explored over and over again. The ones that overtake me are the stories that somehow make fresh the tried and true. A perfect example is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier which found its inspiration from Homer’s The Odyssey.
The one aspect of this writing life you shouldn’t fear, the one that chills the depths of most writers’ hearts, is failure. Your writing will be rejected. You, too, may someday delete an entire novel from your hard drive. You will feel the sting of a harsh critique from your writers’ group or a reviewer. But make no mistake, you haven’t failed. Failure comes only when you no longer strive to learn more about your craft or reflect on your mistakes. The worst failure of all is to give up. That is my greatest fear.
Monday, January 29, 2007
Posted by Lisa
I got scared Saturday morning.
It was a lost in the snowy woods at night time scared. (Which actually happened to me last year, but that's another story for another blog entry - or maybe it isn't).
What really happened was that I was on my way to give a presentation for work and I got turned around. I found myself lost in the middle of nowhere (which is technically called Framingham). If you haven't lived in Massachusetts, you wouldn't know there are black holes in the infrastructure here. Of course, you may have heard of the tragic ceiling collapse in the Route 93 tunnel last summer. But you may not know that planning of highways, naming of roads, it's all been done in a rather haphazard, higgedly-piggedly, random manner; I used to work at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston where Stuart Street turns into Kneeland Street, just because. Go figure!
As the clock on my dashboard ticked it's way toward 9:00, I struggled to find my way to the company, Therapro, where I was to speak. I made it - somehow. But I haven't been that nervous in a long, long while.
Getting lost, getting scared got me thinking. In regards to writing, I ask myself, how can I stay on track? Does my writers' group help me? I think it does. The novel I'm working on now... it's, well, a little different. I have only shared five chapters with my writers' group, and the different part is going to come in the next installment. I wonder what they will say. Taking on this challenge introduces an element of fear; I hope I'm not completely off the mark.
Michael Lowenthal, an instructor at Boston College and Lesley University, as well as Grub Street, has recently published his third novel, Charity Girl. I bought it over the weekend. It is based on a little known period in US history, during World War I, when the government incarcerated thousands of young women found to have venereal disease. Did Michael Lowenthal experience a level of fear in writing about this, well, very different subject? Perhaps, if he did, he faced that fear and in doing so, produced prose that are unique: compelling yet challenging, all of it beautifully written - I'm halfway through and busy turning pages. Maybe fear produces greatness. Maybe fear motivates. Maybe fear of getting lost is good. Heck, maybe actually getting lost is good sometimes.
Friday, January 26, 2007
Whether you spent time putting words on the page, or turning a page, or talking to someone who's published their pages, everything counts when you're taking steps toward living a literary life. Here's this week's round up on what the members of The Writers' Group tackled.
Congratulations to Kirby Larson, author of Hattie Big Sky which was named a Newbery Honor Book. Hattie Big Sky is the beautifully written story of sixteen-year-old Hattie Brooks who must prove up her late uncle's homestead claim in Montana. It's an inspiration that Kirby's engaging story received this formal recognition. You HAVE to read this!
So...on to continue to work on my own craft...Thirteen. That's how many days until the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators) conference in NYC. Yes, you could say I'm looking forward to it. Plus, I've arranged to meet my literary agent on the Thursday afternoon before the conference. Can't wait! And...the list of speakers at the conference. Wow! Surely I will get smarter - fingers crossed anyways.
This week I spoke with Lissa Warren, author of The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Publicity about, you guessed it, book publicity. If you don't own this book already, run to your local independent bookstore and buy it. It's a must have. I also received my galley of Kristy Kiernan's Catching Genius and, oh my goodness, you must buy this book! I won't ruin it for you, but Sara Gruen (yes, that Sara Gruen) was spot on when she blurbed it: "Kiernan proves she's a writer to be reckoned with -- find a comfortable spot, turn off the phone, and lose yourself in this gorgeous debut."
In addition to the fact that I'm signed up for a Grub Street lunchtime revision course with the wonderful Hallie Ephron, I made it to the middle of my New Favorite Book, Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. What took me so long to discover Boyd? Couldn't say. Hurrah that the local library network has about a dozen more! An Ice-Cream War, anyone?
I finished my edits on Negotiation Generation; this was round two, and I'm feeling good about my editor's suggestions. I drafted a query plan for connecting with the major parenting publications for features; Penguin will be taking care of obtaining first serial rights. As far as fiction goes, I am reading a beautiful novel by Margot Livesay, Banishing Verona. Livesay's writing is lovely, truly inspirational. Her novel, Eva Moves the Furniture is on my top ten list.
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 7:00 AM
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Posted by Lynne
When the playing and replaying of a story in my mind can force me to miss my exit on the expressway, or disengage me from social small talk at a party, or wake me in the middle of the night, the story has power. As the story is revealed to me through the process of researching it and writing it, I start to get a sense of the parts of the plot, and which characterizations are the truth of the story.
Even those of us fortunate enough to have a writers' group, or other trusted readers, need to have critical listening skills to trust the authenticity of the feedback. My aim when it comes to feedback is to listen for consistency in it, along with what rings true for me as the writer. When feedback resonates with me, then by all means I take it. When my readers point out inconsistencies in my character's behavior given her motivations, I take this feedback, too. When my readers feel adrift because my descriptions of setting fail to ground them, I add more setting detail.
Some find it hard to receive the gifts given by trusted readers; the gifts can be small, focused on nuance and subtlety, or they can be big, like a plot line that doesn't mesh. But these gifts have the potential to clarify, center, and add depth to the work. And these gifts can force you to really think, and make a commitment to your story. I force myself to listen.
I find it hard at times to listen to the critical, constructive feedback. I want my work, to work. Like most, I tend to focus a bit too heavily on what doesn't work, even when the good feedback outweighs the constructive. After I've sat with the feedback for a time, the question becomes what will I do with it, especially the feedback that doesn't ring true to me and my story. And what should I do with conflicting feedback from different readers?
I'm new to writing fiction, so I'm no expert here. My style is to wait a day after my work is reviewed in writers' group, then I begin by categorizing the feedback and themes. I separate the feedback; what worked, what didn't, and what feedback will require deeper reflection. When I've taken all the feedback that feels right and true, I then try to remind myself that it's impossible to make every reader happy. There will be those who don't like my protagonist's choices, or the outcome of major plot lines. In these moments, though it's certainly easier said than done, I need to trust my story. You know, the one that distracted me when my friend was talking to me at that party. The one that repeatedly woke me in the night. In those moments, I imagine the muse was there to remind me. Trust yourself. Trust the story.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Sitting at Group, sometimes one of us will start with careful praise before coming around to something big that didn’t work. The reader was led astray, for what? The place where the story seems to lead is impossible. This is not about small edits, but major elements. The writer waits, hoping another voice will chime in to say even a bit of it worked, that a goal was met, an effect achieved. Sometimes the voice appears, sometimes it doesn't. Heavy sigh.
Having work read gives me the sensation of watching trapeze artists moving from one set of rings to another. There is the smooth arc across, the leap. Will they or won’t they make it? The apprehension is real. Even if I don't agree with the criticisms, I have let readers dangle, or worse, drop.
Most often, criticism points out ways to improve the set-up. The overall performance is fine; it's the rings that are in the wrong place. Maybe earlier details are needed, a shift in the reader's attention, a change in pace.
There are, of course, a few occasions where there are real differences in opinion. We have discovered it's okay. Really. We understand every reader has a unique history and distinct preferences. The trick is to never discount or dismiss those differences, but to hear them and consider them with care.
In doing so, we have found value not just in the feedback, but in screening work against a tiny sample of the reading population. We respect each other's opinions, take them seriously. As a result, we are more firmly grounded in what we are willing to concede, and where we must hold fast when our stories venture into the wider world. We have become better listeners and better editors, but we have also become better advocates for ourselves and the stories we have to tell.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
We writers are compelled by certain themes that are visited again and again in our work. For Philip Roth, it’s identity; for Mitch Albom, redemption; Curtis Sittenfeld writes about alienation. My theme is, and always will be, faith.
My faith is a tenuous thing. I had it once, and have longed for it ever since. It’s difficult to navigate the dark passages of life without believing there is some higher power at work, that there exists order where we see only randomness and chaos. My novel began with a question: How could an undertaker perform her work if she didn’t believe in God? I layered into that premise another question I struggle with daily: Why do children need to suffer, to die?
All week I’ve been revising my manuscript, refining particular details for clarity’s sake, while blurring finer points to create a sense of uncertainty. One revision I’d been considering has to do with faith. It was suggested to me by a trusted reader and I’ve struggled with his advice ever since. It went against what the members of my writers' group advised, but his was also a thoughtful critique and made me wonder if following his advice would create more depth to my story.
Yesterday when I sat down to tackle that revision, the phone rang with news that a friend’s daughter had died. She was diagnosed two years ago with a brain tumor and, until yesterday, was the epitome of a tenacious fighter. She was adorable, she was beloved, and she was only four. Why? Why did she die? The same tragedy happened to another friend four years ago when her 16-year-old son, a diabetic, went to bed one night and never woke again.
There’s no consolation to be given, none taken. How to explain the inexplicable? I suppose that’s why we write novels, so we can design worlds where we are omnipotent, where we can create our own semblance of order and write away our demons.
So, in spite of the thoughtful suggestion to make that revision, I expect to stay with what I have. I feel strongly that it works better for the story and is more satisfying for the reader. Mostly I need to create a sense of faith within myself where, for now, none exists.
Monday, January 22, 2007
Posted by Lisa
It’s mainly the taste, though the texture doesn’t help (half-slime, half-water chesnuts). And, please, please don’t post a comment saying watermelon doesn’t smell…because it does. The checkout woman who tsk-tsked me as I bought watermelon for my son already told me that. Her hair was wild for an early Monday morning. But it matched the bright blue eye shadow and glops of mascara ringing her eyes. “Everyone likes watermelon,” she told my son. She made an impression. My son asked me later if she was a mermaid. He often reminds me that “Everyone likes watermelon.”
Sometimes things are a matter of taste. I was a relatively normal child. And I’ve tried watermelon – at least once a summer. It always tastes really, really, really, really, very, very awful.
If writing were food, Amy, Hannah, Lynne, and I would generally like similar things. Just as when a pretzel is too salty, we may agree a character needs fewer blatant negative characteristics. Or when the pacing is too slow, it’s like eating a cream puff without enough flavor or zip. Ninety-five percent of the time, when three group members critique a piece of writing, we see eye-to-eye. Five percent of the time a person stands alone with her own unique criticism.
There are times we disagree, and we move forward, leaving that week’s writer to reflect. But what, I ask, does a great writer do. Lois Lowry is a many-time Newbery Medal winner for children’s fiction. In a recent (spectacular) title of hers, The Giver, twelve-year-old Jonah is singled out to receive special training to become The Giver. This challenge gives him both pleasure and pain. What if Lois Lowry had listened to someone’s suggestion that maybe the pain part should go. Then the stakes would have dropped. The reader wouldn’t have worried so much about brave Jonah who is so alone in a world of togetherness.
I suppose a great author must weigh a reader’s feedback and make her own decisions. Perhaps that’s what makes a great writer. Standing alone in a world where most people love watermelon.
Friday, January 19, 2007
It's been a wonderful week for the Group! Read below for the good news. In addition, we're thrilled that the blog is beginning to create dialogue on varying topics, thanks to your comments. For those who may visit and have yet to post a comment, please do. We'd love to know how our experiences connect with your own literary lives!
Perusing Grub Street's website, I came upon a new posting for a weekend course. It's offered by Grace Talusan, a writer I had the pleasure of meeting in another Grub Street weekend course taught by Kathleen Spivack, where she too was a student. Grace's writing is stellar; she shared work with our group. She uses a direct and simple prose with remarkable music in her language. It's sick! Lately, I have been studying favorite authors, trying to understand what draws me to their writing. I'm looking forward to studying (even if it's only for a weekend) with a writer with this talent.
This week I was offered representation by my dream agent. We all have one, a naive sentiment to be sure, still...she is just as lovely as I imagined her to be. And smart. I adore every book on her list and am in awe of the writers she represents. The best part? Now I can focus entirely on my WIP knowing my finished manuscript is in her famously competent hands.
And thanks for the kind thoughts, Debs!
The non-literary sides of my life all shared the driver's seat this week, and yet knowing that Group is waiting for edits, and knowing I had to report in to all of you today, I shoved them aside here and there to edit. Those moments were the best part of my week, so here's to finding the things that make sure I stay on track, no matter what else is afoot. Thank you!
Like Lisa, I reviewed the courses available through Grub Street, and I signed up for an editing workshop with Hallie Ephron, author of Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead with Style. Her book, though marketed toward writers of mystery fiction, is one of my favorite books on craft. I also signed up for a weekend workshop on story construction with Stace Budzko. You may remember a previous Making a Literary Life Friday where we discussed Stace's great writing and his ability to run a wonderful workshop. This week, I wrote a chapter of my WIP and researched the hobby of one of my lead characters and the job of another.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Posted by Lynne
If I had all the time and money in the world, I would be a perpetual student. I've always loved big thick textbooks, mechanical pencils, and there's nothing like writing the date on that first page of a new notebook. The problem is, like many writers, I don't have lots of extra time and money to pursue an additional degree; I need my day job. I envy anyone enrolled in a program of advanced study, especially an MFA program, it just isn't practical given my life right now.
Yet over the last two years, since I started writing fiction, I've learned an important secret. I can be a perpetual student of both craft and subject detail, when I submerge myself in research for my writing. The best part is there are no set amount of credits or courses to take for a particular degree. I get to design my own curriculum.
In writing my first novel, I learned what it takes to be the lead detective connected with an unsolved crime, and I didn't need a degree in criminal justice. I learned how to be a contributing member of a loss support group, yet I didn't need to pursue a degree in social work, or even sit in one of those uncomfortable metal folding chairs.
I love doing research not just because I can choose what I will study, but because if I'm a very good student, later I get to be the teacher. If I've really done my homework--reading, interviewing, studying and finally writing--I get to teach my readers something they didn't know or, at the very least, remind them of something they may have forgotten.
Just one month ago, I started fleshing out the details of my new novel, and I am having a ball. I'm learning to sew, though not once have I pricked my finger with a sharp needle. I'm listening to the big band music of the fifties, while perusing old fashion and movie star magazines. I'm studying the lives of foreign correspondents during the sixties and seventies.
When I'm done with my research, and put the most salient and sensory of details down on the page, if I've studied well, maybe you'll be able to tell the difference between peau de soir and taffeta. You might be able to hear the reedy sound of Benny Goodman's clarinet or three part harmony sung by sixties lounge singers, The Jack D'Johns. To me, writing research provides the best of all possible worlds; I get to be the student and the teacher.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Remember Being There, the book, or the film with Peter Sellers? It's the one in which at first Chance the Gardener lives shut away, learning about the outside world only through television. What a funny hook, it seemed, to experience the world through technology. How could anyone understand life without sitting across from real people, without trying things first-hand? Where's the fun if you don't get out there?
Thus, the detail-oriented writer in me has a love-hate relationship with the Internet. It is only as someone with limited time and money for research trips, and few names of top experts in my Rolodex (yes, Rolodex), that I will grudgingly admit the World Wide Web can be the next best thing to… you know.
Does a character live on the Upper East Side? A few clicks and I am on Google Earth beaming down over ZIP Code 10021, strolling along New York City sidewalks. Then again, if he were a California mogul, what kind of house would he own? I scan real estate listings, take virtual tours, justify my time by printing a photo of the character's perfect mansion, complete with details on square footage, in-ground pools, and whether the kitchen has marble or granite. I love an excuse to revisit memories. For research purposes, of course. What was the name of that street that ran down to the Bay when we took a left off Lombard Street in San Francisco? How far from Rockefeller Center is the Stanhope? The penthouse is gorgeous, as I recall from a client fashion event years ago. Didn't it have a balcony overlooking Central Park? Hmmm.
Okay, I'll say it. It's fun. Research is my excuse to spend hours poking into details of how someone else might live, what kind of car he drives and brand of watch he wears, what restaurants she might frequent and whom she might know. What does the interior of Mario Batali’s restaurant look like, and what is he serving this winter? Am I planning a scene outside the blue storefront that is Babbo? Not yet, though I have been there on the Web. Someday I may place two characters at a window table, talking over delicious figs. Of course, that is when I'll have to take my family on vacation. It’s one thing to do background research and blend that with my imagination. It’s another to know whether that appetizer is on the sweet side, with an extra touch of balsamic, or whether it’s got some other flavor going for it. That detail needs to be checked in person.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
The outline for my next novel is complete. I know the beginning and ending, the main plot and some of the subplots. I have my protagonist’s name, I know her features, and her voice is entirely too clear to me, more like a memory than conjecture. What I don’t have are the details. There can be no writing without the details.
To me, the truth of any story is in the casual minutiae: the trees that stretch above her, dietary staples, the influence of her surrounding geographical features, and, most important, the customs that define her culture. All of this will reveal what motivates her true self, then I simply need to introduce a conflict and her nature will decide how she reacts.
So I need to study her life. For the past two years, I’ve done some peripheral research, but now I’m devoting every spare moment to it. I’ve been to the museum, ordered books and videos, and emailed experts in the field. Without a doubt, interviewing the experts is the best part of research. Always they offer some nugget not found in a textbook. They share personal accounts that are inevitably woven into the narrative, giving it authenticity and depth. They can tell me what the setting looks, sounds, feels, tastes, smells like, and often they offer to take me along to show me themselves.
This interlude can be a strange time in a writers’ group because research takes weeks and often months to complete. Afterward, I’ll need to sift through what it is I have (e.g. hands are bound with banana leaves, not tree bark), settle into my protagonist’s life for a few weeks more, get comfortable with the details. It means that I won’t have 20 pages to offer the next time it’s my turn to be critiqued. Probably not the time after that either. They understand.
For me, the difference between a book that lives on in my heart and those forgotten among the detritus of everyday life are those stories told with the steady confidence of one who understands the most elemental composition of a character’s life. Think Memoirs of a Geisha, Cold Mountain, A Sudden Country, all of which have a home on my bookcase and in my heart.
Monday, January 15, 2007
Posted by Lisa
When I think of a writer, I'm a romantic. A writer lives in her old Vermont farmhouse where floor boards lie crooked and the windows are always drafty. An urban writer lives in a studio apartment above a popular restaurant where the business deals more than food. A writer is a loner. Quirky. The story builds in her imagination until the lives of her characters are more real to her than her own life. Plot lines are cob webs that weave through her brain. A story comes together in the writer's mind until it pours onto the page. My romantic writer doesn't stop to do, gulp, research.
I had to do research for my first novel, and it was a chore. I had to learn about tides and beach topography. I studied the life cycle and mating habits of plovers. I interviewed a Coast Guard to understand search and rescue. I did it because I had to. It wasn't was as fun as writing.
For the novel I'm currently working on, I did research as well. I wanted to understand the people who built a railroad along the mountain range where my protagonist lives. Suddenly research turned, well, as fun as writing. I discovered something. Blogs aren't new. They started with letters. A series of letters is a blog. I found a website with pictures and letters from a year a reverend spent at a camp of men building the railroad. The details he documents helped me. I got carried away with reading his story. I think I forgot about writing for a day or two.
Now, for me, the danger is either spending not enough time on research, or getting carried away with research to the point that it takes time away from writing. Overall, the internet is invaluable. Interviews? Very important, no doubt. A necessary evil. Not my idea of what a writer does, but something that has to be done.
But when it comes down to it, I still want to live in that Vermont farmhouse, pound away on a keyboard, and then go snowboarding.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Another wonderful week here at the Writers' Group. Thanks to all of you who've voted for us over at Ann Crispin's site, Preditors and Editors. Polls are open until the 14th, so please spread the word. Thanks also to all of you who post comments. It's interesting to hear about your creative process too.
I worked with my son on his space travel story this week. He's seven and his imagination is as flexible as his joints. My agent tells me no news yet on Little Boy Hiding. The novel is with editors, and frankly, it's nice to have the selling in my agent's hands and out of my own. Though I'm writing still, I've had time to clean my house, really clean it. And pick up another hour of pick-up hockey - Friday mornings so I gotta get going. Lacing up skates (or running shoes for that matter) is one way to get the blood flowing to a writer's brain.
The Group met on Monday for the first time since the holiday and it was such a relief. Being surrounded by others who understand the nuances of this writing life, from researching to writing to editing to publishing, provides immeasurable support. This week I'm headed to Harvard University's museum because they're having an exhibit on an obscure topic that happens to be the subject of my WIP. Serendipity? I prefer to think of it as another sign that I'm on the path. I've also sent three charming notes to people who've offered their assistance to me. I'm constantly surprised by how willing others are to pull up as they go up in this business.
It's okay to say no. A writer friend told me this several years ago when we were commiserating about how to make it all happen. When invitations come to join a committee, volunteer, take on an extra project, we feel obligated to add them into our schedules, yet one hour here and two there add up. We need to weigh the requests against our passions, consider what we gain and what we lose. So, this week, I took on one very short-term, child's activity-related commitment, but did say no to two other requests for involvement. Solid time to edit this week, within what has otherwise been a crazy ride, can be attributed to following that friendly, wise advice!
My major tasks this week involved two things; one abstract, one concrete. I spent daytime hours thinking about my marketing plan for Negotiation Generation, and my nightime hours the characters in my work-in-progress. Then I got down to getting organized. Each of the members of The Writers' Group has written about this topic almost every week; don't underestimate the time you spend planning, researching, and reaching out to other writers. This week I didn't put words down on the page, though I've set aside time to work on my next novel this weekend. Instead, I talked to veteran PR professionals, joined a newswire, created a plan for must dos and should dos, layed out a preliminary schedule for a book tour, and I read. I came home from the library with more books than I could carry. My excitement was palpable. My husband and children looked at me and said, "What are you working on now?" Coming into this holiday weekend, set aside time to think and get organized. The best literary lives don't just happen, they're the result of planning and dreaming. I have a dream, don't you?
Thursday, January 11, 2007
It's Lynne again. Just wanted to let our wonderful readers know that we've been nominated by the Predators and Editors website poll on best writing resources. Below you'll find the link. Please go vote for us--if you like. And don't forget to read my post below on more than one way to revise your writing. Thanks, Lynne
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 9:24 AM
A line or two from Lynne
Our posts this week have been about the revision process. Each of us revises in our own unique way. As I read the posts from each member of my writers' group, I compared my process to theirs and realized I don't revise in just one way.
Whether writing non-fiction or fiction, I think in outlines. Though not a plotter, per se, I do think with structure in mind. Perhaps that's the parenting expert in me. I love all kinds of structure. When I write, I ask myself as I go, how does this scene move the plot forward? When revising, I use Carolyn See's method, What do I have? What do I need?
As I've examined my process for revising, I realize I have two distinct methods. My first method involves my work-in-progress. I always write, then read, then revise. One day I may write five pages, the next day I begin my writing time by rereading those five pages adding clarifying details. Since a good deal of my character development and fleshing out of plot lines happens away from my computer, it's necessary for me to add in all the nuance and subtlety that have come to me in between actual writing sessions. After the details have been added, I begin my writing for that day from where I left off.
So, I have my work-in-progress type of revising method, but now that I've completed my first novel, I can tell you I also have another kind of revision process when I have a finished draft. After I finished a draft of my novel, I would revise by literally starting at the beginning. I read the beginning scenes, adding in more setting and richer character details. I worked to make sure the characters who'd evolved by the end of the novel were consistent at the beginning of the novel. If I happened upon a scene that needed a good deal of rewriting, I rewrote it before moving to the next scene.
Each day I would begin again at the beginning and would do so day after day until I felt that there were no longer subtleties to add or plot threads to pull. When no more scents, colors, sounds and sights were necessary, I moved on. This may sound as if it took forever, but it didn't. For me about one third into my novel my characters become flesh and bone to me. I knew them as friends and their motives were instinctual to me. My process of editing became easier as my novel progressed.
I compare first draft writing to the art of sculpture. I write creating something from nothing. The words on the page revealing my vision, my creation. The process of revision to me is like painting. My job becomes adding color, texture, depth, and perspective. I love both processes, but they are quite different. I've started my second novel and the sculpting is quite different having written a novel before. I have a better grasp of my tools and the way to work the medium. As every artist knows, each sculpture, each painting--each novel is unique. There is no one way to create your masterpiece.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
My writing process for fiction is not a straight line. I create outlines: beginning, middle, end. Yet they don’t seem to reign me in. Subplot variations, new character behaviors, different ways to tie threads appear, perhaps stronger than the original. A first draft is supposed to be just that, but I often wish it was more, especially as I send sections to the Group.
Thus, a question. Should a writer who is perhaps more of a re-writer offer up linear sections for feedback during the process of building a first draft? How accurate can Group feedback be in that situation? How is a Messy Muse going to relay 70,000 coherent, compelling words if she is being reviewed every 25 pages? Curiously, feedback still is useful, and revisions need not stifle creativity.
Our meetings, as described, allow three readers to talk through edited individual copies of the text. While everyone pretends the writer is not in the room, she has a perfect opportunity to capture that conversation. What points generated agreement, positive or negative? Who prompted which discussion, by agreeing or disagreeing, and why? When give-and-take is that honest and immediate, getting it on paper is critical.
Back at home the next day, I pull out the three readers’ copies and my notes. I sit on my sofa, and pull the coffee table to my knees. On it is centered one copy, preferably one with edits in red. I layer in the other two sets, using green pen for one and purple for the other. Last, I add my own notes to create a single reference.
Grammar and punctuation, questions on word choice, notes about a sentence or paragraph that had to be read more than once to be clear, all these changes are automatic. Comments on the need for more – or less – setting, backstory, interaction come next. If a scene or character is not immediate, or too verbose, for any reader, and I am not being vague on purpose, it has to be changed.
The greatest hurdle, of course, comes in challenges to characters, to subplots. Not requests for clarification, subtle shifts, but head-on questions on the very existence of a person or an event. As with those who have a more linear process, here is where the Muse must be consulted and debated. Can I justify what is on paper, with reasons that the readers will understand at a later time? Is it a difference in viewpoint, where a reader hopes or expects one thing, but the story must be served by another? What exactly do I want as the writer, what am I trying to say? If the Muse is strident, the text will stay, the thread continue. If a new idea seems worth entertaining, I rethink. And while this can lead me down a dangerous path, of course, I am learning how to make it work more efficiently and effectively.
The Muse and I have reached a truce, thanks to Group. Critique strengthens my conviction when I am doing well and pushes me on when I can do better. From the revisions, even along the way, I learn more about how I write and why.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Tuesdays with Amy
I don’t revise the way every other writer does. I don’t write that $#*@ first draft Annie Lamott recommends in Bird by Bird. I don’t let the ideas flow, the characters develop, allow the language to spin freely onto the page. I am not so carefree.
Instead, I revise each sentence as I write it. After a paragraph, I go back and revise that. A page, and I revise again. Chaos and uncertainty leave me anxious, and that’s what a very rough draft represents to me. I need to build a sturdy foundation before I can begin to layer a story.
It scares me to work this way. I once heard an interview on NPR with John Irving’s assistant who said Irving often wrote 13 or 14 drafts. Of course he does, how else to explain A Prayer for Owen Meany?
Debating each word choice (how many times have I used “curve” throughout the manuscript?), each comma (or should it be a semicolon? new sentence?), each paragraph (is this the natural break?) is laborious. Going back over yesterday’s work and revising for several hours before moving forward on today’s is discouraged by nearly every how-to book on writing. Progress and then revise.
But I couldn’t when writing my manuscript. It didn’t work for me. In early November when I was preparing to give my writers’ group my completed manuscript to critique, I worried that I was asking too much. It wasn’t fair that I was giving them this copy that hadn’t been duly revised. I should do several more drafts, I thought, but I don’t know how. That’s what every real writer does, right?
And then William Styron died. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, his obituary graced the pages of every major newspaper. I read them all, but it was this gem in the Boston Globe’s version that reached out to me:
“Mr. Styron wrote in longhand on yellow legal pads, striving for 500 words a day. He preferred to write just one draft of a book, getting each page just right before proceeding to the next, rather than revising a completed draft. His own harshest critic, Mr. Styron had a self-described "neurotic need to be perfect each paragraph -- each sentence, even -- as I go along."
No, I was not deluded into thinking I was a William Styron. What I did take away from learning about his process, however, is that each writer has her/his own way of writing, revising, creating. There are guidelines with craft to be certain, but there are no rules.
My writers’ group did give me their critique of my book in late November, and yes, there were revisions to be done. But they weren’t overwhelming and in the end, I was assured my process worked for me.
Monday, January 08, 2007
Posted by Lisa
Gio. Now he was a favorite character of mine.
He was/is the main character's grandfather in my first middle grade novel. While writing that book, I loved to think about Gio. Before I went to sleep at night. While I drove to my Thursday night women's hockey. When I stirred spaghetti in a pot, poking at it to keep clumps from forming. Gio's childhood, growing up in a small Italian village was clear to me. His dialogue, mostly one-word utterances, were kind, encouraging. He made other characters feel more like he was giving them a hug than talking. No, Gio was integral to my main character, to make her choices more difficult, to increase the stakes she faced.
One evening during writers' group, many months back, someone raised a question about my novel-in-progress:
"Is Gio integral to the plot?" she said. "His scene in this chapter seems long. There's a lot of Gio here."
Clang. The sound of my pen toppling onto my chair as I dropped it.
Thump. The sound of it hitting the floor.
There could never be too much Gio.
The benefit of having a group critique our work, is that they may find "problems" where a writer doesn't think any lurk. The next day caring e-mails waited for me in my inbox. Suggestions, support were offered, but the message was clear: "this scene ain't workin, and somethin's gotta change." I had a problem and I had to fix it: too much Gio.
The fix wasn't difficult. Gio stayed - but less of him. More mystery about Tristan. More flair and hair and description for Elise. A month later I shared revisions with my writers' group. And they had been SO right. It read SO much better. And the scene moved the narrative forward. The way it was supposed to.
The value of any writers' group lay, in part, in the fresh set of eyes that look at your work. When those other three sets of eyes took a look at my work, they all found that the scene wasn't working. I needed to revise and that revision improved my novel.
Friday, January 05, 2007
Excellent news: Thanks to all of you, The Writers' Group has been on the Top Ten Most Visited Blogs at Publishers Marketplace. If you have an idea for a topic you'd like to see covered here, email us and let us know.
In other news, though we expected this week to be slow in publishing circles, it's been anything but. Read below to see what we've been doing to enrich our literary lives.
I had wonderful encouragement and congratulations on finding an agent from Christopher Castellani, one of my favorite novelists (A Kiss from Maddelena, The Saint of Lost Things). He also happens to be Boston's Grub Street Writers Creative Director. We've agreed to meet for lunch once my novel has found a publishing home. I'm looking forward to spending some time with such an inspiring and kind person.
I spoke with debut author Patry Francis about the February 1 release of her novel, The Liar's Diary. To promote her book, she'll be on conference panels (Backspace with Tish Cohen), hosting workshops (if you're in the Boston area, check out Grub Street South at Buttonwood Books), and having Liar's Parties (think a Tupperware party but with books!). Best news is I get to host one. Want to come?
I discovered that "happily editing" is not at all an oxymoron, as I worried it might be, as I revise my draft, and I doodled around with a query letter. Also finished Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down. Tom Perrotta describes it in Publishers Weekly as Camus' grown-up version of "The Breakfast Club," which is on target. My favorite character was Maureen...
Before my speaking schedule ramps up again, I took some time during this quiet work week to begin my next novel. I've written two chapters. Over the last month, I've become absorbed in researching two of my characters careers and preoccupations. As for Negotiation Generation, I'm still working to obtain testimonials and I'm beginning to flesh out a marketing plan.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
A line or two from Lynne
Going to a literary event is like going on a date. Perhaps you like dating or maybe you don't. Whether you care for the process or not, it must be done to meet your objective. If you want a literary life, there are key issues to consider when you prepare and participate in this ritual.
First, you'll need to consider what to wear. Think job interview meets artistic flair. I like professional, yet comfortable clothing. Amy suggests always wearing one accessory that allows you to stand out, such as a whimsical scarf or colorful brooch. Be yourself and do take your look seriously. You are trying to impress other people in a good way. And for goodness sake don't wear athletic clothing.
Your next matter to consider is whether you'll go it alone or go on a "group date." As you've gathered from reading Amy and Lisa's posts this week, there is great comfort in going with others. Hannah offers great tips should you need to go it alone.
If your literary event is a "blind date" do as much research ahead of time as you can. Read the organizations website, check out the blogs of those who've attended or give a former participant or presenter a phone call. Surely second dates, or events you've previously attended, are easier, but there's no reason your blind date with a literary event needs to be painful. Like everything related to writing and publishing, you simply need to do your research.
Which brings us to your "date expectations." Have you ever been on a date and before you finish your first drink you've decided he or she is the one or he or she is a lost cause? My best advice is don't rush to judgment. Literary events always offer something to move your literary life forward. They will only be as good as your attitude and what you bring to the table. You might chat with one special writer who validates your perspective on the process of writing or maybe you'll meet a writer who's own research about agents or editors rounds out your own.
Like a good date or not-so-good date, you're the one who gets to decide if the event was right for you. If so, attend another event by the sponsoring organization; maybe even become a member. If the event didn't create that lovin feeling, choose a different event to attend in the future.
Some of the best dating advice, given by mothers everywhere, applies to going to literary events, too. Get yourself out there. If you don't take a chance, you don't have a chance. You, too, can have a literary life, if you choose to get out there and meet the people who already live one.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
You're reading a writers' group blog and the subject is going to events. You say, "I love the fellowship and support, but what if I don’t have a group and I have an event next week?” Well, okay, the chances of tossing together a group of like minds in seven days is slim, but you could always pretend you’re with us.
Amy, to start, has the most impressive knowledge of the business behind writing. I do homework before an event, but if Amy won't be there, I now do even more. Not just who's speaking, but details down to who's really running the event. What are their names; do they write, too? Do presenting authors, their agents, and/or their editors have blogs, and what materials are produced by the organization hosting the event? Minor details are conversation points, as when you ask the organizing assistant how to pronounce an author's name, and oh by the way, love that piece you wrote last week. Then you turn as the keynote speaker brushes by in the hallway, offer your hand and congratulate her on that "nice" deal you saw in Publishers Marketplace.
Lynne is the voice of calm and reason when walking into a sea of unfamiliar faces. Being with Lynne means that before you plunge through the door, you are prepared and have a plan. You've brought paper and pens, business cards, maybe a book, some mints or candies. You walk first, of course, to check-in, then take your materials and find a comfortable seat - not off to the side - where you can scope out the event and plan the next stage. Will the conference require you to move from room to room? Spend some time on reconnaissance and find where they are located. Is someone selling books or reviews? Page through them, buy one or two, ask questions. Get some tea. Find the restrooms. There's enough to do so that you will look comfortable, if not outright confident.
Lisa is the one who will take you out of yourself and your nervousness. Lisa will tell you that if you write, you have reason to be there, so enjoy yourself. With luck there may be one or two fellow writers whose antics demand attention, but if not, you have options. Strike up a conversation with someone wearing a beautiful scarf, or someone you decide looks particularly literary. Casually admire the view out the windows or read hotel plaques that tell you things like the Parker House hosted famous guests like Ruth and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and former kitchen employees included Emeril Lagasse, Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh. If you tell yourself to learn one new thing outside the seminar itself at each event, sweaty palms may become a thing of the past.There's more to each of us, of course, and we all share these qualities, to different degrees in different situations. Which has lead to a revelation of sorts. You can attend events, or you can attend events well. The latter is an expertise, building on manageable skills that can be developed and strengthened. Is it more fun to go to events with a group? We think so. We enjoy each other’s company, and our four perspectives have unique value. But Group has taught us that even when we need to fly solo, we never really go it alone.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Tuesdays with Amy
Last spring, the four of us agreed to attend the two-day Grub Street Muse & the Marketplace as a group. We strategized over the workshops, if we would sit with an agent/editor/author at the luncheon, go both days or just the one, and most of all, if we should have the first 20 pages of our manuscripts critiqued by an agent or editor. I wasn’t ready, only a third of my novel had been written, but Lisa, Lynne, and Hannah somehow emboldened me. Weeks before the conference, I sent off my pages to one of the attending editors, a woman whose list I love. As I left the post office, the niggling whispers of doubt crept into my thoughts and settled themselves there, damn fool, you’re no writer.
That first day, we drove in together, each of us excited about what might be, our anticipation heightened by the others'. When we arrived, my everything began to tingle; these were my people, writers. Doing the meet-n-greet was made even easier with my group. I wouldn’t have to think about my own shortcomings, I could drown out that horrible whisper if I spoke about their accomplishments: a book deal for Lynne, gorgeous writing from Lisa, Hannah's fantastic hook.
Together we attended a workshop with author Mako Yoshikawa (lyric writing and that hair!); an editing class with Houghton Mifflin editor and Norton author Heidi Pitlor (she revealed some invaluable truths about the editing process with unexpected humor); and in-between we chatted with bestseller Elizabeth Benedict (I loved how refreshingly frank she was). When the editor I would be meeting with the following morning walked by, I did my best to ignore the whispers.
I almost didn’t go back to the conference the next day. If Hannah, Lynne, and Lisa hadn’t been expecting me, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gone. My meeting with the editor was first thing. As much as I wanted to share my group’s confidence, listen to their reassurance, I couldn’t. I told them as we drove into Boston not to ask me about it afterward, that I’d need time to process all that the editor told me. They knew what I was really saying was I preferred to cry in private.
When I sat down with the editor, she pulled out my pages and for the next 15-20 minutes, she talked about my work, pointing to passages she liked, asking what came next, reciting my characters’ names. I waited for the “but” until I realized it wasn’t coming. She liked my writing, she liked my story. At the end, I asked if she wanted to see it when it was complete. Yes, she said, send it to me.
Even then I knew her interest wasn’t granting me a guarantee. I don’t know if when the time comes she’ll have either the time or desire to actually read my entire manuscript. What it did give me was hope and that’s what every writer needs to see her manuscript through to completion.
That and a writers’ group whose reassurance and presence is strong enough to drown out the whispers.
Monday, January 01, 2007
Posted by Lisa
I've never been lazy. Not the kind of lazy where you lie on the couch for hours watching "Man vs Wild" or some such TV show. Okay, I confess, I did have the Discovery channel on yesterday. And, yes, Bear Grylls, the British star of the show, fought his way through the Costa Rican Jungle, the Utah desert, and the French Alps in marathon back to back episodes. (How amazing is he?) But I was tidying the whole time, more or less, most of the time anyways, except during the really exciting parts of the show. I was organizing my two-year-old daughter's room while she spent the afternoon at her grandmother's.
I work hard, in general, at writing, at my work as an occupational therapist. And the hard work of writing, I'm willing to do. But there's more to writing than writing. There's meeting writers and agents and editors. That can be hard work too; sometimes easy conversation isn't so easy.
A few weeks back, my writers' group made plans, big fun plans to go to Grub Street Writer's Halloween event, "Grub Gone Scary." Guest readers included Hank Phillippi Ryan who has a mystery novel coming out this spring. When babysitting arrangements changed at the last minute, I debated whether or not to try to seek alternate child care. Believe me, my gut instinct was to shrug my shoulders, put on my slippers (my wool socks actually), and curl up with a good book; I was reading "Al Capone Does My Shirts" by Gennifer Choldenko at the time (if you haven't read this, you have to!) But I thought an evening out with Amy, Hannah, and Lynne might be fun. And I'd be meeting, greeting other writers too. Maybe I should try to go.
It all worked out in the end. I showed up in the nick of time, enjoyed the readings, and even had the opportunity to speak with a lovely literary agent who represents middle grade work. Without my writers' group by my side, I may not have taken part in the Halloween party. And I wouldn't have had the opportunity to network. Oh, and by the way, it WAS a lot of fun. Fun and spooky time well spent.
In 2007, I know our group will enjoy many literary events in the Boston area. I hereby resolve to do my best to join them. Having them by my side will be wonderful. Now in February, I head to the SCBWI Annual Winter Conference in NYC. I'll be alone; so far I am the only member of our group with an interest in writing for children. Sigh. Perhaps I should kidnap one of them and bring them along - the hotel room is already paid for.