Are We Blocked or Afraid?

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I’ve been wondering about this lately.  While writing this novel, I occasionally find myself unsure of how to proceed. There are kinks in the plot that need to be worked out.  Sometimes what I planned for my characters doesn’t work and I need to make a change.  Plot holes appear out of nowhere.  For example, at one point, my main character thinks someone may have broken into the house.  I had her going up to her bedroom and locking the door.

Dumb and unrealistic.

I had to add a scene in which she realizes she left her cell phone upstairs and flees to a neighbor’s house to call the police.

For several days, though, I left the problem unresolved.  It isn’t really that I wasn’t sure what to do but that I was afraid to do it.  Like the rest of you, I suffer occasionally from nagging doubts about my ability to pull this off.  It was silly, of course, and the scene I crafted turned out well.  The reader will know that the presence of an intruder can’t explain what’s been happening in the house because the police have ruled that out.  That helps to move the plot along.  I even got to know the neighbor a little better.  Maybe I can use that later in the story.

I’m guilty of going for days without adding to the story because I’m afraid to face it.  It’s too big and unwieldy.  I feel intimidated by it.  There are things I’ve left out that need to be added.  Character descriptions, for example.  Right now, the reader would have no idea what any of the characters looks like.  It’s had me slightly panicked, but I had an epiphany today.

I haven’t written the descriptions because I haven’t been able to see the characters.  And you know what?  It’s okay!  As I continue to write and spend time in the world I’m creating, the people and their surroundings are coming into focus.  I can get all of that nailed down in the next draft.  It doesn’t have to stop me from doing the first draft, which is about the plot.  I don’t have to become “blocked” over it.  Bake the cake, then add the icing.

I think this may be why there are so many characters in self-published novels that feel like they’re 2-dimensional people.  It’s as if the author felt they couldn’t proceed with the story until we knew what color nail polish the main character wore.  It feels forced.  If you’re stuck or bogged down because your characters and setting don’t feel detailed enough, let it slide for now.  The more you think about them and the more words you put into their mouths, the clearer their faces will be; and the rooms they sit in will become furnished.

My characters are finally starting to emerge from the mist and introduce themselves.  And I just realized that the living room couch in the main character’s house is a hideous shade of green.

For now.

 

 

 

 

Making Progress & Finding the Groove

The novel is coming along.  Slowly.  I find myself being pulled back to the beginning by the need to edit what’s been written so far.  The things that need to be fixed are becoming obnoxious in their insistence.

When I write picture books or young reader chapter books, I never truly write a first draft all the way through before starting to revise.  My drafts are done in layers.  I write the draft until my inner editor starts to pace inside my head, and then I go back to the beginning and revise what I’ve done before continuing with the rest of the story.  It’s my process, I guess.

I wasn’t sure that process would work when writing my first novel.  I’ve been pretty focused on getting the basic story down before I allow myself to edit, but I don’t think that’s going to work.  I need to do the second wave of the so-far first draft before I go much further.

On a positive note, I was writing a scene involving a ghost and actually creeped myself out to the point that I had to look over my shoulder.  I’m not trying for slasher movie scary or Stephen King scary–I’m aiming for creepy.  My main character, however, is in need of some softening.  She’s a tough broad but not very likeable.  She’s too much like me.  That will never do.  Most readers won’t connect with her in her current state.  My supporting cast, however, is shaping up nicely.  I like them.  They’re very human.  Their dialogue feels natural.  They’re trying to do the right thing, but they’re scared.

When writing for children, I’m definitely a planner because the plots are simple.  Since starting my first novel, I find myself to be neither a pantser nor a planner but that in-between creature called a plantser.  I wrote a very basic plot outline that functions as a map, but every bit of the story that fills in that rough outline has been created at the cold keyboard, save the occasional idea jotted down when I was doing something else.  I’ve had some great writing sessions when I’ve slipped into that state of self hypnosis where I’m inside the world of my characters.  The scenes that were fuzzy at the beginning are becoming more focused and three-dimensional as I write.  I suppose that’s why I feel like I need to clean up what I’ve written so far.  Some of it is too vague or clumsy.

The opening scene, which lays the groundwork for the problem my main character faces later, certainly needs to be beefed up a bit.  In that scene, two characters are sent out to find a dead man and make sure he’s buried.  I can see them better now.  I can see the house in the clearing.  My characters are afraid, and now I know they have reason to be.

Developing a story in this way takes time and thought.  The story as I first envisioned it has already changed quite a bit, and for the better.  This is the wonderful part of writing, taking the time to savor each scene and put flesh on my characters’ bones.  There’s no need to rush to publication.  There is joy and satisfaction in the work to be done.  I can’t imagine anyone wanting to forego that just to beat some imaginary publishing clock.

I hope the New Year finds all of you freshly in love not only with writing but with writing well.

How’d NaNoWriMo Go?

I’ve just completed my first NaNoWriMo, which was also my first attempt at writing a novel.  Regulars here know I write picture books and chapter books for early readers.  I never thought I would attempt a novel; but sometime over the last year, an idea for a novel popped into my head and refused to go away.  Having jotted down a few notes and a very rough outline, I decided to take the chilly November plunge this year.  My goal was never the 50K word count.  I’m accustomed to writing in a much shorter form and knew my first draft would come along slowly.  My goal was to carve out a couple of hours from my busy day to devote to writing the novel.  I’m more of a morning person, so that meant getting up at 5 am instead of 5:30 am and cutting out morning TV and/or social media.  I managed to keep my morning devotions in place and not skip my workout, arriving at my desk at 8:30 am.  That gave me about an hour-and-a-half to write before beginning the day job.  As it so happens, several of the doctors I transcribe for have just decided to switch to Dragon rather than having a human being transcribe their gibberish, so my work hours have recently been scaled back.

Unfortunately, NaNoWriMo coincided with a long-planned partly DIY kitchen renovation that couldn’t be put off.  This put a serious dent in my schedule.  All told, I managed to write about 10K words.  I’m pleased, however, with what I have so far.  It’s a solid beginning.

What I found with NaNoWriMo was the motivation I needed to finally start the novel.  It was fun knowing there were other writers out there who were doing the same thing.  I don’t regret giving it a try this year.

However… 

Before the month even had a chance to begin, I received an email from NaNoWriMo offering “NaNoWriMo 2019 Winner” t-shirts for sale, before any of us had posted our first word count.

Participation trophies for everyone!

I realize NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit trying to raise money, but I wish they had just sold “NaNoWriMo 2019 Participant” t-shirts instead.  Allowing anyone and everyone to declare themselves a winner right out of the gate was embarrassing.

I left the official NaNoWriMo Facebook page shortly after the month began because I couldn’t believe the garbage I was seeing.  One writer boasted about how she was going to finish her novel in November and publish it on December 1st.  I cautioned against that and encouraged her to take time to revise and edit.  Then came the flying monkeys, one of which gave me the “Better three hours early than one minute late,” line.  Really?  So, you think that what you’re writing is so earth-shattering that society will crumble if people can’t get their hands on your half-baked novel right away?

I read somewhere that agents and publishers hate December because that’s when all the NaNoWriMo gems hit their inboxes–unpublishable tripe that desperately needed several trips through the editorial sieve.

A pet peeve of mine, and one I’ve discussed here in the past, is the amount of self-published garbage clogging the internet.  The books with thin plots and 2-D characters, full of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors.  One of the dangers of self-publishing is that we don’t have the benefit of an agent or editor to help us recognize and smooth out the rough spots.  We’re on our own.  Unfortunately, an awful lot of people don’t take that responsibility seriously.  It’s a terrible stain on the self-publishing community and will continue to prevent us from being taken seriously.  If you hit the magical 50K mark and hit “send” today, you aren’t a serious writer and you have no respect for the craft.  What you are is an egotistical wannabe who likes to call himself/herself an author but who doesn’t want to do the required grunt work to produce a good story.

Then there was post after post asking for help with everything from plot lines to character names.  Someone suggested rolling dice.  Another suggested tarot cards.  How about sitting quietly and giving you novel more thought?  Several people were in a panic because NaNoWriMo was about to begin and they didn’t yet have a story idea. I’ll let you in on a little secret.  If you don’t have an idea for a novel, it’s okay to skip NaNoWriMo.  For far too many people, NaNoWriMo appears to be just another competition.  A social media gimmick.  All you have to do is write 50K words to win.  Whether or not those words are any good seems to be of no consequence at all.

Writing as an art form, a craft, and a profession is suffering.  Even the traditional publishing world isn’t immune to the mediocrity infecting the literary world (did you see the picture book about the dinosaur who pooped Christmas? Yeah.).  As writers, real writers, we need to do better.  We need to stop patting the posers on the head and telling them their collective s**t doesn’t stink.  It stinks to high heaven.

I think the whole 50K word thing needs to be tossed in the circular file.  It’s a terrible idea.  What should matter most during NaNoWriMo is that writers show up regularly and put words to paper that move the plot along.  Anyone can type words.  I can hold down a single key to up my word cooooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuunnnnnnttttt.  That’s not writing.  It’s word vomit.  Now, if you hit 50K usable words and intend to spend the next few months revising and rewriting, bravo!  You have enough self respect and respect for the craft to call yourself a writer.

What could be a community of writers spurring one another on to achieve real writing goals is, for far too many people, a sprint toward a meaningless finish line.  Anyone can write badly.  A real writer, a true artist, will take that first draft and work on it until it shines.  That takes time and patience.  It means postponing the gratification of calling yourself a published author.  It means you have to work hard to earn the title.  What you wrote during NaNoWriMo isn’t good enough for publication, not yet.  Put the manuscript away for a few days.  Then, with a red pen in your hand, take the manuscript out and read it aloud.  Does it still sound wonderful?  I doubt it.  If you think it’s good to go, send it to a few beta readers–not your best friend or your mother.  Send it to someone who reads a lot and ask them what they think.  Another pair of eyes is going to find glaring problems you missed because you’re too close to the project.

You will have to revise and rewrite, perhaps many times.  You owe that to the craft and to your readers.  There are no shortcuts to good writing.  There are no 30-day sprints to publication.  Used as a writing tool, NaNoWriMo has great potential.  Used as a means to induce premature manuscript labor, it’s a travesty.

 

The Paralysis of Waiting

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I’m still some weeks away from learning whether or not the publisher will make an offer on my picture book manuscript.

Friday I had to vacuum the dust off the backpack containing my laptop and WIP.

Yeah.

I have the most miserable sense of being in author’s limbo.  It’s nothing like the limbo I was told about as a child, where babies go if they die before they’re christened.  It’s more like the lowest circle of hell.  A terrible place where images of success and failure alternately flash before my eyes–the dream realized vs. the dream dashed.

My sense of identity as a writer has grown stronger over the last couple of years.  It’s no longer simply what I want to be, it’s what I am.  Lately, I find myself slipping back into that insecure place where I’m waiting for a third party to nod in my direction and bestow upon me the coveted title of published author.  Something inside my brain is telling me I have no business sitting down to write before permission is granted.

I hate myself for allowing that to happen.

I have no excuses today.  The inbox for my day job is empty.  I already did the dishes.  I have forced myself into writer mode by dropping this little note of confession to you.  I’m going, at this very moment, to grab the backpack and see where I left off.

Join me.

You’re a what?

A self-published author.  Hold on and hear me out.

Not too long ago, what I do was called vanity publishing (insert sneer).  The meaning of the expression was pretty clear.  It was for authors who couldn’t get a publisher but were vain enough to think they were great writers and that the traditional houses didn’t know what they were missing.  You paid for x number of books and had to sell them yourself.  It was a practice that was ridiculed and looked down upon by “real” writers and publishers.  I recall comments in Writer’s Digest back in the eighties warning against vanity publishing.

I imagine the lack of marketing left many cartons of unsold books in attics, basements, and garages the world over.

Times and technology have changed, but attitudes remain pretty hind bound.  We are still considered by many to be nothing more than wannabes.

Like I care.

A group of us dirty wannabes had a discussion at the Grey Wolfe Scriptorium (Clawson, Michigan) last week about these attitudes.  For newcomers, the Grey Wolfe Scriptorium is a bookstore/publisher here in southeast Michigan.  In addition to used books, they feature and support local self-published Michigan authors.  Walk in the front door and our books are the first ones you’ll see.  They carry some 250+ titles, including mine.  The Scriptorium has become my new favorite place.  They offer seminars, host book signings, link writers with illustrators, and are just all around passionate about local writers.  Led by the fearless and intrepid Diana, there’s nothing they won’t do to help an author succeed, including opening up space in the store for us to just sit down and work on our manuscripts.  You can even bring your dog.

Recently, a man entered the bookstore and inquired about the focus on local/self-published authors.  He felt if we were any good, we’d be published by one of the big publishing houses.  He was getting pretty loud about it and as the store was filled with kids attending a book launch for a local author, he was invited to shop elsewhere.

One of our “Idea Lab” members wondered if our critic expected every NFL player to have won the Super Bowl.

He makes a valid point.

Writing seems to be the only art form in which you aren’t considered a legitimate artist unless you have a contract with some faceless entity.

Remember that musician playing the local club last week?  Did they have a contract with a record label?  How many Grammys have they won?  Did you ask for these credentials or just sit and enjoy the music?  Would you have walked out of the venue if these credentials weren’t produced?

Or how about the local art fairs you enjoy every summer?  Did those artists have showings at the Guggenheim?  Do their paintings and sculptures sit in the homes of prominent people?  Did you turn up your nose and walk away when you found out they had no wealthy patrons?

If you can enjoy the work of artists in other fields without asking who “allows” them to create and sell their art, why don’t you give writers the same courtesy?

Granted, there are bad writers out there.  There are also bad singers, songwriters, painters, and sculptors.  Sour apples, I grant you, but none of that would stop you from listening to or purchasing what better artists offer.  Nor would you malign all artists as wannabes who can’t make it, simply because they work out of their garage and personally hawk their wares to the public.

In fact, we even have a name for these unknowns.  We don’t call them wannabes or losers.  We call them local artists and they are given at least a modicum of respect.

Writing is an art form, no less so than painting or playing music.  It’s difficult; and maybe bad writing is glaringly obvious in the sense that we expect stories to be told in a certain way, following certain rules, while the appreciation of other art forms is more subjective.  I get that.  But how will you know unless you give us a chance?

I made the decision a few years ago to stop banging on doors that were never likely to open to an unknown.  I realized that I could spend the rest of my life trying to get some faceless (and sometimes soulless) publisher to consider my work, reaching zero readers in the process, or I could take that leap into self-publishing and sell a few books.

I haven’t sold many yet, but I’ve sold a lot more than those writers who are still waiting for the publishing gods to cast them a crumb.

Your stories are your art.  Do your best and put them out there.  You don’t need permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It Had to Happen Sooner or Later

I finally broke down and bought a laptop.  Years of working as a transcriptionist has damaged my hands, making my usual writing in longhand slow and uncomfortable; and trying to write in the same space I use for the day job was getting me down.

I know, it’s an extravagant thing to buy when I have a perfectly good desktop in the house, but I’m in a screw-it-I-work-my-ass-off-and-deserve-a-break kind of mood.

I’m not one to plot or brainstorm on the computer.  I still like to sit with a pen and paper on the front porch and scribble down notes about characters and plots.  I use the computer once I’ve roughed out the story and want to give it some shape.  Yesterday, new laptop charged and ready to go, I sat on the couch and typed the opening scenes of the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster, with a DVD of Salem’s Lot (the David Soul version) playing in the background.  It was glorious.  By saving the draft to One Cloud, I’m able to easily access it from the desktop when I want to print it out for revisions.

I bought a nifty backpack to carry the laptop in, with plenty of space for my notepad and the reference material I need.  My own portable office.  I suddenly feel wonderfully free.

Now to find a suitable coffee shop to haunt.

 

When It’s Been Too Long

I haven’t done a great deal of writing over the past year.  I’ve worked a lot of hours at the hated day job, just trying to keep the roof over our heads.  I’ve battled some health issues and I’ve been neck-deep in ongoing family crises.

I’m tired.

Now that my husband is back to work after a very long layoff, I’m hoping to get my Sunday writing schedule back on track.  I have the bare bones of the next installment of Winthrop Risk, Detective, but I haven’t figured out the opening line.  Once I get that down, the actual writing of the story will be easier.  I’ve written some of Winthrop’s snappy dialogue and I know what his new case involves.  I have three solid suspects and have worked in a bit of a surprise about the identity of one of them.  My Winthrop character will be more “fleshed out” in this installment.  He’s turning into quite the guy.

I’m excited about it.  I’m also paralyzed.  How is that possible?

I think my enthusiasm for the characters and the story have set my own expectations far too high.  In short, I’m afraid of screwing it up.

Of all the forms of writer’s block, this is the one I dread the most.  If I don’t have a story idea, I know how to trick my brain into coming up with one.  It usually involves doing anything BUT trying to write.  I observe the world without trying to figure it out.  Look and listen without comment.  Jot down interesting names or phrases that I hear or that just pop into my head.  I use the same technique when I don’t know where the plot should go.  No big deal.

Someone once said (Anne Lamott?) that Fear was an especially vicious monster that smiles and wears lace gloves and says things like, “I just don’t want you to look foolish, dear.”

It will do no good to tell her she’s not invited.  Fear is also a narcissistic bitch if ever there was one.  She’ll show up, convinced of her own importance; but today I’ll resist the impulse to let her take a seat.

Today, I’ll gently court the Muse.  I’ll invite her over for a long-overdue visit.  We’ll sit on the porch and read a little bit.  We’ll read about writers and writing.  Then we’ll go over the story notes and I’ll tell her, “See, this isn’t bad.  We have something here.”  If she agrees, she’ll whisper that opening line and the floodgates will open.

I’ll make some tea.  She likes that.

 

Winthrop Risk, Detective

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Hey! That’s writing, too!

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With the exception of Sherlock Holmes, I’ve never been a big fan of mysteries. I prefer to watch them, rather than read them. I love the late Jeremy Brett’s version of Sherlock and was instantly hooked by Benedict  Cumberbatch’s modern version.

I have to stop here for a second and say that “Benedict Cumberbatch” is the most wonderful name I’ve ever heard. It just screams to be the name of a character in a children’s book.

How I managed to write a mystery for children is, well, a mystery.  It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write, and I had no training for it.  Somehow, I pulled it off.  Now that I’m working on a sequel, I realize how little I know about the genre.

I went on the internet and Googled a couple of articles about writing mysteries.  Adult mysteries almost always seem to involve a corpse, so I have to adapt the advice to my target audience.  All in all, I didn’t do a bad job with the first story.  I managed to hit on most of the plot points necessary for a mystery.  Still, I recognize that I have mystery storytelling shortcomings to deal with.

So what’s a writer with no money and very little time to do? I picked up a couple of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe mysteries.  Chandler had a way with words and unique phrases that forever defined the hard-boiled detective character.  I’m not terribly impressed by his plots, though.  Not much to see there.  With Sherlock Holmes, the mysteries are also pretty simple.  In fact, to my eye, none of the mysteries I’ve been watching and reading have been very mysterious at all.  The most entertaining part about them is the lead detective character.

A big favorite among mystery writers is the “fish out of water” or “accidental” detective.  These characters seem to be primarily older females with no police training at all.  A few do seem to be mystery writers, however.  Lately, I’ve been watching “Murder, She Wrote” on TV.  It ran on American TV for years and starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a mystery writer who can’t walk three feet without stumbling upon a dead body.  Honestly, if I were her friend or relative, I’d steer clear of her.  People around her tend to end up dead or accused of murder.  But Jessica is always there to help the clueless local police find the real culprit.  I am learning a few things, though.  Red herrings, subtle clues, multiple suspects and motives, etc.

Everything I’m learning right now is helping my story.  I’ve accumulated quite a few pages of notes about possible plot twists, characters, and settings. I’m not ready to sit down and get to the “once upon a time” part of getting the actual story on paper, but everything I’m doing now is a part of the writing.  The trick is not to let the research become a substitute for the storytelling.