Category Archives: Writing

On Writing Rules We’d Rather Forget

Can it really be the first Wednesday of the month already? With each passing year, the time seems to fly by more swiftly. That may be good news, considering what the next four years may hold.

In any case, it’s IWSG time again! The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of resources for writers. Visit them here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

January 2017 Question: What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

I’m bolder than I was when younger, but I’m still quite conflict-averse. This is not a good trait in a writer. When creating a story, I resent the pressure to inject every scene with conflict. But all the craft books, all the writing teachers, all my critique partners remind me that I must. We’ve all heard the adage: “Put your protagonist up a tree, then throw rocks at her, then get her back down.”

Whether on the page or on the screen, a narrative with too much constant conflict tires me out. All that strife can feel phony, contrived. Must I really throw that many rocks? And then drop my protag over a cliff and leave her clutching at slippery tree roots by her fingernails?

Why can’t I intersperse high-conflict scenes with cozy, funny scenes in which nothing goes wrong for my poor protag? I know I’ve enjoyed books in which there were plenty of low-conflict scenes. Alas, I wasn’t yet writing “for reals” and didn’t take notes on those writers’ technique and structure.

OK, here’s one: J.A. Jance is one of my favorite mystery writers. Her stories include many low-key scenes in which the protag interacts with friends and family. These scenes provide backstory, comic relief, or just a breather. Of course, Jance’s stories never lack for adequate conflict—we’re trying to solve a murder, for goodness’ sake.

I get it—my job as a writer I to show a big change in my character. But I enjoy just spending with my protag, getting to know the colorful characters she meets. I’ve created a fictional town for her which incorporates aspects of my favorite places. Most of us don’t live in coastal artists’ colonies like my protag does—most of us live in overcrowded cities or boring suburbs or out in the country where nothing much happens. Do I really have to chase poor Lola down the streets of this lovely town, threatening her with the loss of all she holds dear?

I know, for a story to sell, the stakes must be high. But I wish that weren’t so; I wish readers, editors, publishers had a little more patience, were more inclined to stop and smell the coastal breeze as it wafts over my protag and her wise, funny friends.

IWSG Question o’ the Month: What’s Your Five-Year Plan?

It’s time once again for our monthly question from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. IWSG is a great resource for all us scribblers, and I’ve really enjoyed meeting other writers via this blog exchange. Give them a look here and join the conversation:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

December 7 Question: In terms of your writing career, where do you see yourself five years from now, and what’s your plan to get there?

Ah, the five-year plan. I’ve heard of these. Having worked so long in an institution that doesn’t offer much “career advancement” (I was a high school teacher), this sort of planning is new to me. Here goes:

Five years from now, I will have published a book, probably more than one. I’ve spent the two plus years since I’ve left teaching learning my craft and learning about the publishing world. I have two complete manuscripts to show for all that effort, a cozy mystery and a women’s fiction novel. The former would be a good candidate for self-publishing, as it takes place in the community where I used to work. I’m betting that at least some of my fellow teachers and former teachers would enjoy reading about a fictional murder in their midst.

My hope is still to be published in the traditional sense, but I’m also working on a story that will be my first foray into self-publishing. It’s a steamy romance, which is great fun to write. And FUN is my guiding star. I prefer to read, and write, light-hearted stories with plenty of humor. When I open a book, I’m not looking for a cathartic sob-fest, nor a fog of ennui, nor a shiver of impending doom. Life hands me plenty of sorrow, weariness and fear—I want to offer my readers some fun. And I want the time I spend in my fictional worlds to be fun as well.

So—my plan is to have fun learning the process of self-publishing, to have fun finishing my next two novel projects, and to have fun connecting with other writers via workshops and forums (fora?) like IWSG. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that fun and hard work are mutually exclusive. I just want to enjoy the process and the journey to published authorship.

Five years from now, this blog will contain links to my published books, one way or the other. And you? Do you have a five-year goal for your writing or for another endeavor? Do you find such goals helpful?

IWSG Question of the Month

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

It’s the first Wednesday of the month, when all the IWSGers post on their blogs about their writing insecurities or offer some encouragement to others.

November’s Question: What is your favorite aspect of being a writer?

I’ve always had a hard time answering questions about favorites. How could someone possibly narrow down all the best songs, books, movies, foods to one shining pinnacle? I’m just not that decisive, I guess. That said, here’s a list of what I love about being a writer.

  • Working in my PJs. After years of jetting out of bed before dawn, I now roll out when I’m good and ready, pull on something comfy, pour the coffee and head straight for my office, located right between the bathroom and the kitchen. The only better location I can imagine is a magical wi-fi equipped treehouse.
  • treehouse
    • Working undisturbed. Few other jobs give one the opportunity to sit for hours at a time in focused concentration. Teaching high school sure didn’t.
    • Putting my imagination to use. All that daydreaming finally has a productive outlet. Though I’m not a fantasy writer, I’ve created a fictional town on the Northern California coast, full of the kinds of people I’d like to surround myself with. And I get to visit every day. Cool.
    • Revenge! Evildoers beware—I shall slay you (symbolically, anyway) in my stories.
    • Discovering the good side of bad people. This is often too difficult in real life, but on the page I must round out my villains.
    • Finally having the last word. In real life, when someone says something insulting or snotty to me, the perfect retort arrives a few hours later. But on the page, my protagonist can rip off the perfect zinger. Zap! (Picture a verbal lightning bolt obliterating the snotty person.)
    • The company of other writers. Even though our stories and preferred genres vary widely, we’re all creatives walking/hiking/slogging/clambering on the same path. We understand each other deep in our bones.
    • Feedback: I trust (most) other writers to point out issues with my writing that merit my attention.
    • More than any work community I’ve belonged to, writers cheer each other on, prop each other up, comfort each other when bad reviews arrive like flaming bags of dog poop on the front stoop, when editors/critique partners call for yet another revision, when a promising plot thread fizzles. And they point me toward craft books, websites and workshops that give me tools to climb out of the whole I’ve dug. Thank you.

    And you, fellow writers? What are your favorite bits?

 

NOMONANOWRIMO

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When an accomplishment addict like me retires, she has to find a way to impose deadlines, milestones, items to check off the to-do list. I sort of feel like I don’t exist if I’m not getting stuff done. Two years into retirement, I still crave those external markers of accomplishment. One such is National Novel Writing Month. Each November, thousands of writers pledge to churn out a 50,000-word novel by month’s end. That’s 1,667 words per day.

After two years of “winning” NANOWRIMO, I’m taking a break. This November will find me at my writing desk every day, of course, but I won’t be churning out a first draft of anything. As a matter of fact, I’m still refining and polishing the story I started back in NANO 2014. The also-promising mystery novel I started in NANO 2015 is marinating in a folder, patiently waiting until I get back to it. This year I’m focusing on Chuck Wendig’s valuable advice: “Finish your shit.”

Just in case you haven’t read this sharp, funny, poke-in-your-writerly-ass essay, here it is: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/11/26/why-its-important-to-finish-your-shit/

NANO has given me good habits, a sense of determination, and some fun writing contacts in my local area. But despite the sparkly appeal of new beginnings, it’s time to plod, chug, crunch, grunt and push my way through this latest revision and then launch another round of queries.

New beginnings are such fun, but it’s the steady plodding forward that gets stuff done.

Writer Heaven with Margaritas: The Women’s Fiction Writers Association Retreat 2016

Two days after returning from the WFWA retreat, my inner music track is still playing the Partridge Family’s “Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque.” Go ahead, children of the ’70s, give a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swjLglCwflE

Wasn’t David Cassidy dreamy?

Albuquerque is where the WFWA held its second annual Writers’ Retreat last week. What a lovely town! We stayed in the Hotel Albuquerque, two short blocks from the historic city center.

Here I am in front the San Felipe de Neri church, built in 1793, on the Old Town Plaza

Here I am in front the San Felipe de Neri church, built in 1793, on the Old Town Plaza. 1793!

Adobe shops in Albuquerque's Old Town

Adobe shops in Albuquerque’s Old Town

Albuquerque’s Old Town is charming, as is the Hotel Albuquerque. There was ample room on the patio where writers hung out, spun tales, and sipped margaritas. I didn’t spend much time on the patio, though; I came for the workshops and discussions. Orly Konig Lopez, author of The Memory of Hoofbeats, and the rest of the WFWA board and helpers created a brain-busting, notebook filling learn-a-palooza for writers of women’s fiction, and then scheduled three group dinners where we blew off steam—did I mention the margaritas?

This was the largest writers’ workshop I’ve attended, and easily the most welcoming. I didn’t know a soul before my arrival, and am at heart a quivering introvert who requires a lot of psychic energy to approach strangers. The eighty women and one guy could not have been more welcoming. Many of the writers in attendance had already published novels, some independently, some traditionally, but an atmosphere of “we’re all in this together” pervaded the 3 ½ day event.

Margie-fied pages

Margie-fied pages

A highlight was Margie Lawson’s workshop on her Deep Editing techniques. I’ve read dozens of books on the craft of writing, but nothing has provided as much immediate practical benefit as this workshop, where we turned our printed chapters into rainbows of highlights, circles, underlines and margin notes. I’ll definitely continue exploring her courses as I polish up this and future manuscripts. And Margie’s long list of rhetorical devices, from alliteration to zeugma, put a grin on the face of this former English teacher. Here’s where you can learn more about Margie’s courses:

http://www.margielawson.com/

Another highlight was connecting with so many writers who “get it,” IT being the joys and frustrations of the writer’s journey to publication. There were sessions on diversity in fiction, queries, log lines, reaching out to readers, modalities of publishing, social media, agents and how/whether to find them, along with editors and publicists, how to stage a coming-out party for your debut book, and navigating the social media jungle.

I got to spend time with some fascinating women from across the US and Canada, along with one adorable guy, Scott Wilbanks, winner of the WFWA Star Award for The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster. I met businesswomen, professors, attorneys, stay-at-home mothers, yoginis, teachers, journalists–all of them passionate about spinning stories. And you’ve never heard such raving about each other’s books! I have a long reading list of women’s fiction to warm the cold winter months.

And while you’re stocking your bookshelves, check out The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes, WFWA Star Award Winner for Outstanding Debut.

 

 

ISWG Question o’ the Month: How do you find time to write?

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

It’s ISWG time again. The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of writerly resources. Visit them here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

This month’s question: How do you find the time to write in your busy day?

Well, that hardly seems fair. I’m retired, y’all. I had the great good fortune to retire from teaching high school at age fifty-two, and I’ve been writing with the energy of a demon-possessed squirrel ever since—and the focus. Oh look, there’s a peanut!

I have my own little office in our new home, and here I sit, BICFOKTAM. (On the very small chance you haven’t seen that acronym, it means butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, typing away madly.) Right now I’m revising a manuscript, carving out great swaths of extraneous sub-plot, filing away unneeded secondary characters for future stories. It hurts a little, but mostly it’s an interesting challenge.

I’ve always functioned best with deadlines, and now I have to create or find them, such as the upcoming Women’s Fiction Writers Association conference, critique group meetings, and contests.

Still, there are temptations to stray. Like sexy sirens perched on the treacherous rocks, email, Facebook and Twitter constantly tempt me to put aside my writing “just for a moment.”

“Take a break,” they sing in their velvety, soothing voices. “Look at this interesting article, that blog post. They’re about writing, so it’s OK.” It seems the song of the sirens actually sounds like “Ping, buzz, ping, ping, buzz” as my laptop and phone tempt me to stray from the path of righteousness.

It’s hard to focus, especially when the words aren’t flowing easily. Coffee helps. So does keeping track of my daily word count, a good habit cultivated during NANOWRIMO.

After a lifetime of deadlines and schedules imposed from without, it’s challenging to handle all this writing time in a productive way. And it’s a very frustrating feeling to realize I’ve frittered away a day on social media, errands, chores and TV without writing much. I find I actually write with more focus on days when a chunk of my time is scheduled for other things—appointments, tutoring and the like. Then I know I must buckle down and produce something in, say, the next two hours.

But as for finding time to write, no prob’. For me, it’s a question of focus. See coffee, above.

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

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This much-used quote has been attributed to E.M. Forster, but actually he was making fun of what most writerly folk today call “pantsers,” writers who don’t do much outlining, but rather start with an idea and let it grow organically. Forster did not approve of this approach. Don’t believe me? Read this excellent blog post:

https://rjheeks.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/discovery-writing-and-the-so-called-forster-quote/

But never mind. I’m a pantser, as in writing by the seat of my pants. Though some of my blog posts might look that way, I assure you that I never actually sit on the keyboard.

“What’s your blog about?” That’s become an embarrassing question. Just for fun, I looked over all my blog entries so far: there are twenty-four different topics.

I started out in 2013 with the intention of blogging about being in my fifties. I was looking for inspiration on how to fully enjoy this new era in my life. And that is one of the topics I’ve written the most about, though not my most frequent topic. I continue to enjoy looking for role models my age and older, and am very interested in the anti-ageism movement. Most of the midlife female bloggers I’ve found so far   are writing about topics that interest me not at all: cosmetics, what not to wear, dating, empty nests, moaning over lost youth. Meh.

Then I lucked into early retirement in 2014, and resolved to write about that journey. I didn’t—at least, not much. I’ve actually written more book reviews than entries about retirement. Having lots of time to read is one of retirement’s greatest blessings.

I love reading about real food, cooking, and food’s effect on our health. I’m also interested in frugality, voluntary simplicity, avoiding the excesses of consumerism. Food blogs are so much fun to read, and I thought I might eventually become a food blogger or cookbook author with a focus on reducing food waste.  My blog entries under “The Leftover Project” have been a good way for me to keep track of my culinary experiments but, given lots of free time, I find I don’t think about that topic all that often. Oh well.

My greatest focus has been twofold: entries on writing, and entries on happiness. The former makes sense, since I spend so much time writing fiction. I enjoy being part of the conversation among writers, but there are so many of us, so many good blogs on that topic. I get more juice from the direct conversations I have with other writers, whether face-to-face or online, in genre-specific discussion forums.

The rest of my musings turn out to be about my efforts to achieve happiness, and what I’ve read/learned from others about that topic. Who ‘da thunk it? I’m a practical philosopher. It turns out I’m most inspired by questions about the meaning of life and how to enjoy this gift of time and good fortune. And things that I thought would matter, such as wardrobe, diet, and travel, don’t really take up all that much space on my mental bookshelf.

So there you go: this seems to be a blog about a middle-aged writer’s search for the good life. We all have our personal recipes for the good life, and this is my test kitchen. Bon appétit!

 

Blood-Red Ink

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

It’s ISWG Wednesday again. The first Wednesday of each month, members of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group answer a question about writing and then hop about the blogosphere, checking out each other’s answers.

From the ISWG website: “The Insecure Writer’s Support Group is a home for writers in all stages; from unpublished to bestsellers. Our goal is to offer assistance and guidance. We want to help writers overcome their insecurities, and by offering encouragement we are creating a community of support.”

ISWG offers an impressive number of resources for writers. And this month’s question is: What was your very first piece of writing as an aspiring writer? Where is it now? Collecting dust or has it been published?

In Writing Fiction from Point Zero, June 6, 2016, I wrote about my first act of murder on paper, a story inspired by a crazy student during my early teaching years. I never finished that piece. Further literary murders followed as my then-marriage descended into nastiness. Just last week I found two short stories from that era than involve the demise of a scornful, demeaning husband. So therapeutic! I had no intention of publishing back then; I was just flexing my muscles, enjoying the creative process.

The first piece I wrote for publication was a cozy mystery entitled Murder on Principal. It’s the tale of a high school teacher who finds her principal dead in his office. Of course, she falls under suspicion, and when a second staff member is found dead, she tries to find the killer’s identity before s/he can strike again. You can read a sample in this year’s Guide to Literary Agents, in the section where a panel of agents critique first pages. Their comments were mixed; it’s a first novel, after all.

While my goal is traditional publication, I had a pretty realistic idea of my chances for getting this first novel published—that is, slim. Whisper-thin. Like, one cell thick. I used the revision and submission process as my training ground for future, more salable novels. I’m still entertaining notions about self-publishing it, though. There must be teachers like me who would enjoy reading about the demise of a sadistic principal. For now, my first novel is waiting patiently on the shelf for further attention.

Meanwhile, the blood-red ink continues to drip from my computer, as well as from my revision notes. I’m happily remarried and retired from teaching, and yet I can’t control my murderous impulses. I guess once you’ve tasted blood, there’s no turning back.

High Praise from the Other Side

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

“I don’t usually like stories like this, but I really enjoyed reading yours.”

What’s the best thing someone has ever said about your writing? That’s this month’s question from the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a collection of bloggers whose topic is, at least sometimes, the writing life. Support and commiseration from other writers has been so helpful during these first years of my writing “career”—nothing published yet, but I am working on it.

My face-to-face critique group meets twice a month, an ever-revolving batch of local writers with a few core members, of which I’m one. We’ve had submissions of historical fiction, memoir, vampire romance, literary short stories, mortal romance, blog entries, folk tales, military fiction, speculative fiction, fiction for children, and poetry, but the greatest number of writers in the group are working on science fiction and/or fantasy. And then there’s me, with my contemporary women’s fiction and cozy mysteries. No explosions, no aliens, no vampires, and only a little sex.

It’s a valuable exercise for us all to look carefully at evolving stories in genres we’d never pick up off the book shelf. In general, romance novels send me into a diabetic coma. Anything that smacks of post-apocalyptic leaves me cold—I mean, we all face enough tragedy and hardship in real life; why wallow in it? I don’t find vampires at all sexy. Descriptions of military weaponry make me snooze. Fantasy can be so predictable: flying dragons, magic crystals, some chica finds out she’s the hereditary princess and must lead her people in an epic battle against Snog the Despicable… And don’t get me started on YA. After more than a quarter century of teaching teenagers, I don’t want to read about some kid coming of age in predictable ways, whether it’s on Planet Zoltron or in fourteenth-century France. And, other than the occasional female writer around my age, no group member would reach for a lighthearted tale of a middle-aged woman reinventing herself after her kids finally leave the nest.

And yet, good storytelling is good storytelling. My writing is definitely richer from having plunged into all these other genres. I’ve really enjoyed watching these tales of talking animals, mysterious space ships, time travel, epic battles, psychotic breaks, and teenage family drama coalesce into entertaining, moving stories. And when one of the group members tells me that he enjoys my writing despite a lack of interest in the subject matter, I know that I’ve hit the mark. So here’s to stretching ourselves as writers by sharing and critiquing across genres. We have so much to teach each other.

A Few of My Favorite Things: Books on Writing

Book Quote

As part of the promotion process for her newly released book DIY MFA, Gabrielle Pereira has given her “Street Team” of advance reviewers several interesting writing prompts. (Scroll down to see my review of her book and a link to her website.) This week’s question: What are your essentials? What are your go-to “read like a writer” resources?

In her book, Pereira reminds us of the importance of reading widely in the genre we write as well as outside our own genre(s). She calls it “reading like a revolutionary,” but most literature teachers just call it critical reading, which means noticing the effect an author achieves and examining how she achieves that effect. For example: “Wow, this scene really builds suspense! How did she do that? Aha—she used dramatic irony by showing us the vampire lurking in the shadows. Giving the protagonist too much coffee and a tendency to jump at harmless sounds also helps. And look at those short, choppy sentences. Cool.”

The novel I’m currently shopping around to literary agents falls into the women’s fiction genre, because the story revolves around the female protagonist’s personal growth and a family conflict, rather than solving a mystery, thwarting terrorists, falling in love (though she does that), rebelling against an evil space emperor, battling demons, traveling through time, daydreaming about what could have been while gazing at the endless Kansas prairies, conquering the music industry, etc. In an effort to understand the expectations of this genre’s readers, I’ve joined the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and am reading many women’s fiction titles. It helps—quite a lot.

My collection of reference books for writers

My collection of reference books for writers

Then there’s the question of reference books for writers. Well, here you go: In addition to a pile of magazines, mostly Writer’s Digest, I have quite a collection of reference books and how-to books for writers. I’ve learned something valuable from every one of them, and I pull them out for inspiration when I get stuck or when I’m starting a new project.

In addition to Pereira’s fine book, I also find these particularly valuable:

  • Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell
  • Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, by Lawrence Block
  • A Handbook for Fiction Writers, also by Lawrence Block
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • The Kick-Ass Writer, by Chuck Wendig

And, because I also like to write mystery stories:

  • The Elements of Mystery Fiction, by William G. Tapply
  • Don’t Murder Your Mystery, by Chris Roerden
  • Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton, with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman
  • How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author, by Janet Evanovich, with Ina Yalof

Of course, I have the current Writers Market and Guide to Literary Agents. And I haven’t even begun to list my favorite blogs for writers; there are so many!

So there you go. I hope that was helpful to any writers who are building their own reference shelves. What are your favorite references for writers?