Category Archives: inspiration for writers

Posts from fellow writers about what it takes to be a writer and what rewards writing offers

So-True Post: Some Hard Facts about Publishing

Soooo many books! Why write one more?
Soooo many books out there

Over at Writers in the Storm, guest blogger Tasha Seegmiller writes not to offer a “downer,” but instead, to help people align their expectations of writing a little better.”

This column reminded me how I’m constantly surprised by some of the questions aspiring writers ask on self-help Facebook sites. Yesterday, is grammar important? Today, should an author get a web site? This column offers some advice I think everyone hoping to publish needs.

Me included. Realizing that writing is a business—never a comfortable home territory for me—but also that it really has to be something you just can’t help doing: These are the reminders I need.

A while back, in answer to a post on the pros and cons of self- versus traditional publishing, I wrote “What It Was Like for Me,” an account of my own experiences being traditionally published. Even though my encounter with the realities of publishing happened quite a long time ago, I still found that Seegmiller’s take resonated. It was ever so, and I didn’t know enough then to negotiate this strange and daunting space.

Follow good blogs and wonderful people like @JaneFriedman. As Seegmiller says, educate yourself. So you’ll be more ready than I was.

Leave a comment

Filed under business of writing, inspiration for writers, looking for literary editors and publishers, Money issues for writers, Myths and Truths for writers, Publishing, writing novels

4 Newbie Writer Mistakes that can Derail a Great Book Idea – by Anne R. Allen…

Every time I read one of Anne R. Allen’s columns, I learn and relearn so many valuable principles—and I just have to share. I’ve sort of learned a lot that she talks about in this piece (for example, not getting stuck on your first chapter, looking for advice too early, looking for advice from the wrong people), but these reminders are incredibly helpful as well as inspiring. What I need to hear most: In first drafts, the answer is “Just write.”

Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing Anne’s posts.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

You’ve got a fantastic idea for a novel. It’s been hanging around for quite a while, knocking inside your noggin. The idea keeps saying, “Let me out! Release me! Put me in a book!”

Maybe there’s a scene in your head that plays like a video, with every detail of the setting right there, as if it’s on a screen. You know those characters. They’re like real people to you.

But you’ve never had the time to write it all down.

Now you do.

So here you are, finally banging out that scene. And another. And pretty soon you’ve written 10,000, maybe 15,000 words of brilliant, deathless prose. It almost wrote itself. Wow. That was almost too easy.

It IS brilliant, isn’t it?

Well, maybe not. Maybe what’s on the page isn’t quite as good it seemed when you were in the zone.

In fact, it could be terrible. What…

View original post 58 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Editing your novel, inspiration for writers, Learning to write, Myths and Truths for writers, Plot Development for writers, self editing for fiction writers, Writers' groups, writing novels

5 Things I Relearned Starting a New Book

Poor little car loaded with baggage on a tangled highway, like a writer starting a new book!

The right turn has to be here somewhere!

It’s been a while since I started a book from scratch.

One of my two latest ventures is the third volume in a mystery series I’ve been working on for some time. But the other is new—premise to hand-written scribbles to first keyboarding. I’m about 15,000 words in. And it’s taking off.

By taking off, I mean every time I finish a scene, the next one’s shaping up in my mind. I’m excited about sitting down to the draft every day. Zoooom.

Both of these plunges into new writing confirmed a few things I thought I remembered about starting a book. Other writers might find these experiences resonating with theirs.

Here’s what I know.

1) You must WRITE.

A lot of people advocate detailed outlines, but if the outline isn’t coming or not a natural move for you (I’m a pantser), I argue that you need only one element of your new book before you start putting words on a page: an idea. Something that’s been kicking at the edges of your mind to get out. You can carry this idea around, stroke it, dunk it in your morning coffee . . . but to give it body and breath, you must start to write. Writing teachers share an adage most credibly attributed to Flannery O’Connor: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I wrote.” For reasons beyond my pay grade, the physical and mental process of actually writing triggers something that no other process can.

A writer with light bulbs overhead--and one going off!

2) Accept your “shitty first drafts.”

Listen to Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird. I have to remind myself of this every day. This tolerance for failure applies both to the whole novel and to those early “thinking” notes and stabs at dialogue or description. Not a word you write at this stage has to be good enough to go on the finished page. A lot of it is for you to know but never tell your readers (e.g., that your MC loved runny eggs when he was eight). You’re world-building, poking into corners you didn’t know were there. You’ll leave a lot of what you find behind, but it’s the finding that makes your world come alive.

A weird, writer-built world!

3) Set doable goals.

As much as I love writing, I personally do NOT need disincentives to do it. Nothing disincentivizes as much as feeling that I MUST complete a whole chapter at a sitting. People have different tricks to fend off procrastination. Sometimes I commit to filling a single notebook page. Or I set a timer for thirty minutes. During that thirty minutes, I must focus on the book. I’m allowed to reread the last session’s work or play with plot points, but before that timer goes off I must write something. Usually, when I stop, my mind’s at work, words still packed inside my pen for next time.

 

4) Allow incubation time.

This point goes with #3 above. Short sessions over the course of a day or a few days leave blank spaces in between for amazing things to happen. That perfect word you couldn’t find, that twist in a planned scene where your characters surprise you, that metaphor you just couldn’t sort out—when you come back from doing other things, they just fall onto the page. Don’t try to force this. Incubation is a mysterious process. Actually writing (see #1) gives it a place to do its thing.

A mysterious scene of ruined stone piers stretching into a foggy sea.

5) If a scene tells you it’s not working, listen.

Inevitable! Here are some strategies that have worked for me when a scene freezes up:

  • Make sure you’re writing a real scene. If you’re just lecturing your readers on a bunch of stuff you think they ought to know, you can get just as sick of the droning as they will. To get your blood rushing, toss your characters in a pile and let them thrash around.
  • Write sticky scenes or passages from multiple viewpoints or in multiple voices, just to see what happens—you’re not stuck with the fails. In my new book, I’d struggled to fire it up, but then, without warning (see #4), up popped a different voice, and the character who’d been stumble-tongued suddenly started talking. The whole book began to spread itself before me, just from that discovered voice.
  • Start at a different place in your story. Maybe you’re trying to pile up too much backstory rather than getting on with the chase. Or use the common device of starting at a crucial moment, then returning to the past to tell readers how your folks got themselves into this mess.
  • Start with conflict, not crisis. (This is the single best piece of fiction-writing advice I ever received.) Okay, your characters are about to go over a 100-foot waterfall in a leaky barrel. But once they hit the rocks below, you still have to figure out who the survivors are and what their story they’re living, and that’s where the work is. Jump-start with their argument the day before about why they’re doing it, whether they’re doing it right, and whether they should do it at all. Their answers to those questions are the story, and the waterfall is just a device to slam them into their reasons for answering those questions the way they did.

A beautiful Florida river

I used to compare starting a book to finding my way into the center of one of those Florida cypress stands I liked to explore: you try what looks like a path, only to find your way blocked; you try another, ditto. Then, abruptly, the trees part before you, and you’re at the secret heart. The innards of a new book can just as hard to push into. It was nice to find these strategies working to clear the path once again.

What works for you when you’re starting a new book?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under inspiration for writers, Plot Development for writers, writing novels

A Small Riff on Handwritten Drafts

Pen and notebook: The tools for writing by hand.

This morning I was reading an article for my other blog, College Composition Weekly, where I summarize selected articles from the scholarly journals on teaching writing (if you teach writing, check  out my archives). This sentence caught my eye:

In fact, [Maryanne] Wolf advocates that students write by hand, which “encourages them to explore their own thoughts at closer to a snail’s pace than a hare’s” . . . which can only help them think more deeply about the texts they both write and read.*

This claim resonates because I always compose my fiction and my own research articles in longhand and have advocated, including as a writing teacher, for this practice.

Why?

The simplest reason is that writing in longhand gives you an extra edit. Keyboarding makes you scrutinize all that text you have to transfer and, in my experience, encourages sharpening as well as re-evaluating structure. You’d be amazed at what you suddenly don’t need when you have to go to the trouble to type it all in.

But there are other reasons. I owe the next two points to an essay from the late 1970s, Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” I used to walk my students through an outline of this piece in an effort to persuade them of the value of writing not just to recall but to engage with their reading in all their classes. Two of Emig’s points are especially salient here:

  • Writing is a bodily activity. It doesn’t just happen in the mind.

Emig argues that humans learn better and make better connections when the body echoes what the mind is doing. That’s one reason you remember points better if you rehearse them aloud to yourself.

True, typing is also bodily, but handwriting magnifies the bodily engagement. I remember writing in high school with cartridge pens and just loving the process of shaping the black-ink letters on the white page. A written sentence was almost like a painting, merging visual, palpable, and mental into one.

  • Writing slows down thought; slower thought allows new connections and ideas to bubble up.

I’ve become deeply appreciative of my subconscious. Of how, even in the few instances when I’m white-hot and pouring out text, it’s in the middle of one sentence that the next few start to bloom, as do memories of how this sentence ties to sentences I wrote pages before. Typing can work this way, too, but the extra time to lay out the hand-shaped words allows more of that latent understanding to find its way into the light.

Other advantages of writing by hand

  • Margins! They’re repositories for all those adjunct thoughts that pop up, as well as for brainstorming word choices or for trailing revisions up the side and across the top with arrows showing the way. The Word comment function just doesn’t provide this same looseness, this same ability to explore all the relationships among ideas and sentences. I star things, circle things, even draw pictures. A handwritten page is a landscape, not a Lego tower.
  • A handwritten draft is a real draft! Its impermanence invites the scribbling that calls out inspiration. It never says, “There, finished,” which word-processed pages want to say even when we know they’re wrong.

Of course, my sense that handwriting is better is more a matter of my personal preference than a provable claim. I’m writing this on the screen, will edit it on the screen, as I do most of my blog posts. And these days, I risk not being able to decipher my handwriting if I wait too long to come back.

All the same, if I get stuck when I’m writing, I pick up the pen and the notebook and head for a comfortable chair to recover the slow, free sense of living words that writing in longhand offers. The words just loosen up there.

*Smith, Cheryl Hogue. “”Fractured Reading: Experiencing Students’ Thinking Habits.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 47/1 (2019): 22-35.

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Editing your novel, indie publishing, inspiration for writers, self editing for fiction writers, Self-publishing, writing novels

Beyond Good Writing: Two Literary Agents Discuss What Matters Most – by Sangeeta Mehta…

Thanks to Chris for this piece from Jane Friedman’s blog. It says some things that are always good to hear. For example, that you didn’t get that agent doesn’t mean your writing is no good. . . . Take heart!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Jane Friedman site:

Almost anyone who has spent time in the query trenches knows how challenging it is to capture the attention of a literary agent.

Most agents, even new agents eager to build their client list, pass on over 90 percent of the queries they receive. In some cases, the reason is obvious: The agent doesn’t represent the writer’s genre; the writer has written a synopsis rather than a query letter; the agent isn’t accepting queries, at all.

In other cases, the writer might be doing everything right—researching agents, following submission guidelines, querying only once they have a polished manuscript—but still experience radio silence. Or, maybe they are receiving requests for pages, or feedback from the agent along with the opportunity to resubmit, but an offer of representation just isn’t coming through. If the writing is good or at least shows potential—how else would they have come this…

View original post 49 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under business of writing, Finding literary agents for writers, inspiration for writers, Myths and Truths for writers, writing novels

Not Everyone Will Like Your Story — That Doesn’t Mean It’s a Bad Story

I kinda needed this. Maybe you will, too.

Novelty Revisions

One summer between college semesters, I wrote a book. I had only written several full-length novels before this, so it was not a publish-worthy book by any means. But I was proud of it. And after passing it around to a few friends who were genuinely interested in reading it (and did so — bless them!), I handed the book off to my mom.

She read it (bless her!) and gave it back to me. Of course I asked her what she thought of it, and because I was old enough at that point to handle the truth, she gave me her honest opinion.

“It’s not that I didn’t like it,” she said. “It was just too dark for me. Not my kind of book. But I’m proud of you.”

Aw. Thanks Mom.

This was the first — and certainly not the last — time I learned the difference between…

View original post 658 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under inspiration for writers, Marketing books, Myths and Truths for writers, Plot Development for writers, Reviews, writing novels

Story Questions and “Plights”: Which Did You Leave Out?

Who cares if you get who/whom wrong?In my own writing and in my various writing groups, I’ve often focused on the need for a “story question.” Basically, if you don’t have a story question, you don’t have a story. You may have a diary, or a set of episodes, or a journal, but you don’t have a story.

I discovered, though, that I was conflating “story question” with a related term, “plight.” I’ve twice posted—my own thoughts and those pilfered from other bloggers—about this mystery word, “plight.”

Magic book“Plight” is what Donald Maass calls “the story beneath the surface.” An important difference between the two: You must have a story question to have a story. A plight is that extra something that elevates your story out of the realm of the mundane.

Basics first, then: what is a story question?

The story question is generally the immediate and concrete problem or goal or issue demanding resolution. Will they escape the marauding hordes? Will they escape the flood? Will the detective find the murderer? Will the evil bully get his or her comeuppance?

A story question does not have to be this simple or easily solvable, but it must be there. Will she stay in the unsatisfying job or leave it? Will he reach his goal of becoming a great rap star? This is where the classic “rising action>crisis>climax>denouement” structure comes into play. The plot rises through all the character’s efforts with obstacles at every turn, to finally reach an answer: “yes or no.”

Mysterious park alley

In a multistory serial, like, for example, Lord of the Rings (a great source of examples), each of the books is built around a story question: will the troop survive the obstacles posed by the various segments of their journey? Each book ends with a “yes” (for most), and each of the first two sets up the question to drive the next.

Even the most supposedly literary of novels/stories (I suppose with a few really outlying exceptions, but I can’t name any offhand), poses this type of “will they or won’t they” question. The “what will happen to them next?” is the page-turning element.

A story can function quite well on this simple principle. If readers are interested enough in the will-they-or-won’t-they, they’ll keep reading. And it doesn’t take a lot of “literary skill,” whatever that is, to build a story like this. All you need is someone about to fall off a cliff or a ravenous lion leaping out of the brush. A story hook is like strange headlights coming at you out of the dark on a lonely road. What lies ahead?

Of course, even with a strong story question, pace and the empathy of characters can affect whether readers keep reading; for my part, I’ve now abandoned two John Grisham novels and won’t try a third because they were sooooo darn slow and didn’t offer me particularly interesting or engaging characters to fill in the slow spots. But most of us have favorite stories based simply on a “what will happen next?” or “what is the answer to the puzzle?” question. (See. e.g., Agatha Christie’s enduring popularity.)

So what is this other thing, “plight”?

Question mark in the clouds: What is "'No' Dialogue"?

Plight comes into play when the entire “what-will-happen” plot asks a second-level question. In my view, such plots almost always ask of the character(s), “Who am I?” Or more precisely, what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of person can I become—or fail to become?

My ideal novel has both these elements: a “will-they-overcome-the obstacles?” story question, and a plight question: “If they do (or don’t), so what?” A story that engages on both levels uses the plot question, the simpler one, to confront the main character with the larger one. Here you are in this demanding concrete situation. How you respond will tell you (and us) something about who you are.

Let’s look again at Lord of the Rings, in which the story question repeatedly puts the characters in a position where they must answer a larger question: whether or not they can resist the temptations offered by the various detours they can choose—detours involving character and heart. For Frodo in particular, the story events ask, “Are you Gollum? Will you give in like Gollum did?” This is the characters’ plight, their struggles to see where they stand in relation to these larger questions of identity and choice, which loom over the whole trilogy and bind it together. It’s not just a story of kids in the woods who have to escape the latest tiger. It’s about a tiger who asks, “Are you ready to show me who you are?”

Open book with butterflies from paperI’d argue that most stories, maybe especially those written for younger audiences, work to create such a story-behind-the-story: the
response to the tiger defines character and teaches how to confront fear. That all sounds so simple and self-evident, but of course it can be monstrously hard to achieve.

But I’ve begun to think more and more in terms of these issues when thinking about future books. As a pantser (really don’t like that word, but it does capture the mindset), I often find that the plight takes shape slowly. I’m thinking about a new book in which thinking through the plight before beginning to write seems to be helping. As I work out the immediate problem my developing character must solve, I also find myself thinking, “Okay, he solves that problem, but so what? How will his success change him? What does it matter to his confrontations with the world he has to negotiate every day?”

An important difference between story question and plight is that plight questions can remain open-ended whereas story questions cannot. People can reach turning points in their understanding of who they are, but still have more work to do. Not all tests are as definitive as Frodo’s. Not everybody just retires to a nice hobbit life.

cresock deserted peer sea

But that’s one thing that makes a character memorable: the sense that they have a life after the book, they’re part of an unfinished journey where we might meet them again—maybe, in fact, not in a book.

So my do-as-I-say-and-I-hope-as-I-do rule: Look first to see if you have a story question that plots the sequence of events in the rising-action-crisis-denouement structure. If not, no story. But then step back and ask, “Once that question is answered, so what?”

That’s where you might discover the element that makes all the difference, your character(s)’s plight.

Image of earth planet on hand

Do you have favorite books in which the “yes/no” story question asks characters to confront a larger plight?

Leave a comment

Filed under genres for writers, inspiration for writers, Plot Development for writers, Writing, writing novels

Review: Every Writer Should Read Dorothy Sayers’s *Gaudy Night*

First Edition of Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy NightMaybe I should say, every female writer. The book I’m recommending is about women, yes. But was it written for women only? I’ll hold to the faith that my literary male friends might find some familiar sentiments in this story—timeless to my mind—of a woman struggling to balance romance and intellectual rigor with a successful writing career.

As a young woman scribbling away on various unworthy projects, I loved Dorothy Sayers’s whimsical accounts of the escapades of her patrician hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. At a time when the puzzle mysteries of Agatha Christie seemed to be the fashion, I much preferred the slower, character-driven, comedies of manners in Sayers’s accounts of aristocratic England between the wars.

Of course this world was completely exotic to me. A quintessential baby-boomer, I knew no English lords and thus tended to take her depiction as truth. I also knew little about Europe at that time, and skimmed over the occasional reference to world events, most of which were used more or less to demonstrate that Wimsey was not just a chatty dilettante but a behind-the-scenes actor on the veiled world stage. Social commentary in Sayers’s books gently speared the kinds of people who, forty years earlier, would have been the inhabitants of Downton Abbey.

Recently, though, looking for some relatively mindless pleasure while I recovered from surgery, I retrieved some old favorites for bedtime reading. I had always remembered Sayers’s earlier novel, The Nine Tailors, as haunting and original; I was surprised at how slowly it read on new acquaintance, how it relied on stereotypes (I’m now guessing) of inhabitants of the fen country. But I’d also remembered Gaudy Night as more lively—comic, actually—and decided to revisit it as well.

It is indeed lively, comic, sometimes even brutal in its depictions of British social types of the era. But it is more than social comedy. It is about an intelligent independent woman trying to decide whether such a woman can achieve love and marriage on her own terms, especially to a personality as overwhelming as Wimsey’s. It is about a woman exploring what it means to be an intellectual when combining “intellectual” and “woman” in the same breath was both oxymoronic and somehow unclean.

But above all—and hence this invitation to my colleagues—it is about writing. Harriet Vane, the protagonist, grapples not just with how to bring characters to life in the latest of her best-selling mystery novels, but also with writing as a vocation. As a way of touching the heavens, mentally and emotionally. In Gaudy Night, she writes both as a novelist and as a scholar, parsing the definitions of excellence in writing, of finding one’s voice in a fine, close piece of work that requires, and reflects, one’s best self. Watching these three themes—romance, intellectual rigor, and writing—converge is one of the pleasures of this book.

Harriet appears as foil to Wimsey in four of the Lord Peter novels; Gaudy Night is the third. The novel takes place in a fantasy world: Shrewsbury College, a woman’s college in Oxford at a time when there was no such thing! Female administrators, scholars, and students pursue deep, arcane questions just as their male counterparts did and do. But this devotion to academic excellence sets them up for attack from a world that is not ready for them.

Harriet returns to Shrewsbury for a “Gaudy,” which is sort of a homecoming/class reunion, and, seeking surcease from the emotional conflicts created by Lord Peter’s determination to marry her, finds herself drawn into the narrow-focused but fine-tuned academic life—and into a terrifying mystery as well. A “Poison Pen” berates, threatens, and ultimately injures the scholars as punishment for not recognizing a woman’s proper place in the world.

Yes, Harriet must partner with Lord Peter to solve the puzzle. But I suggest looking for a subtle comparison with the relationship we may, all of us, be so lucky as to experience with a superb editor whose fierce intelligence we combine with our own skills to produce something whole and deserving. And again, there’s that lovely convergence of themes: solving a difficult puzzle with high stakes, finding a way to love without surrendering oneself, and turning it all into a work of art.

These are themes that resonate for me. I don’t know a Lord Peter, so I don’t share that precise challenge. But here’s a Harriet I do know, returned to Shrewsbury to escape the publishing circus, and perhaps you know this person, too. This is from Chapter XI:

. . . In that melodious silence, something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool waters of Mercury. One day she climbed up Shotover and sat looking over the spires of the city, deep-down, fathom-drowned, striking from the round bowl of the river-basin, improbably remote and lovely as the towers of Tirnan-Og beneath the green sea-rollers. She held on her knee the looseleaf notebook that contained her notes upon the Shrewsbury scandal; but her heart was not in that sordid inquiry. A detached pentameter, echoing out of nowhere, was beating in her ears—seven marching feet—a pentameter and half:—

To that still center where the spinning world

Sleeps on its axis—

Had she made it or remembered it? It sounded familiar, but in her heart she knew certainly that it was her own, and seemed familiar only because it was inevitable and right.

To all our moments like this.

Leave a comment

Filed under inspiration for writers, Reviews, Writing, writing novels

Great New Post from Chuck Wendig (a writer you want to meet if you haven’t)

KnowledgeI’m back from knee surgery and scanning my blogs. Not surprisingly, here’s a keeper. Chuck is a lively writer, so there may be some bad words. Well worth it. Here he tells us what I had to learn the hard way; that character, not plot, creates story. My favorite line from this piece–“Plot is the thing that characters poop.”

 

I learned this in My Failed Novel (here’s one of several posts on How Not to Write a Failed Novel, all of which I’m sure will help you become the Next Big Thing). I forced my characters to do something they most certainly did not want to do. The single good thing about that moment was that I had clearly created characters with lives of their own. I shoved them into action, and they rebelled, and a whole lot of important reviewers saw them rebelling. And said so in the highest venues. The End.

Sad Editing!

Chuck says “give your characters something to do.” I’d add that, if they have come to life, often what they do will not be what just anyone would do. It will often be a choice specific to them, to who they have become as you watched them and listened to them. Not all your readers will admire their choices. But those choices—motivated, yes, by who they are and the context, but at the same time personal, heartfelt, unique—will trigger the next cascade of actions that we think of as plot. So don’t settle for what the latest TV hero would have done. Set loose a character with the voice to tell you what SHE is going to do. Then get out of her way. Plot will be what ensues.

Book open to the stars

Leave a comment

Filed under Editing your novel, indie publishing, inspiration for writers, Learning to write, Myths and Truths for writers, Plot Development for writers, self editing for fiction writers, Self-publishing, What Not To Do in Writing Novels, Writing, writing novels

Stupid Advice about Writing? Check This Out!

Figuring out if you're a writer: A drive into the dark!

Dodging the glare of negative advice!

Louie Cronin writes for Writer Unboxed: an inspirational tale for all of us who’ve wondered if we’re kidding ourselves about being writers. I especially love her list of things she recommends we deliberately ignore! Enjoy!

Leave a comment

Filed under inspiration for writers, Myths and Truths for writers, Writing, Writing and Learning, writing novels