My novel-writing process and strategies for reaching my writing goals.
I'm currently out at one of my favourite places for the start of our week-long winter writing retreat. I'm continuing work on the first draft of my latest novel, trying to stop myself thinking about whether the story is any good. I'm just about halfway through at this point and my aim is simply to push ahead, adding new scenes to edit later.
In writing each one, my attitude is to 'throw everything I can at the page and sort it out later'. I simply write down, as basically and ineptly as it comes out, everything I can think of that might need to be in that scene. Then I let it sit for a bit, usually until the next day, come back and tinker with it, moving things around, cutting bits, adding bits, and editing to the point it reads logically if not brilliantly.
It's like throwing handfuls of paint at a canvas and coming back to refine the picture later. Maybe the act of throwing everything out there first lets me get a handle on all I have or need to work with and during the break my subconscious sorts it all out for me.
In any case, it seems to be working. With a first draft, progress is the only requirement.
I stated in my author greeting (see Home page) that I don’t write crime, I don’t write mystery, I write suspense. So what do I mean exactly?
While there are always some overlapping elements, to me, in their purest form, crime, mystery, suspense, and even thrillers are distinct genres.
The classic mystery is about solving the puzzle. It’s largely an exercise in deduction and the pay-off for the reader is intellectual.
The mystery protagonist is usually trained in some way – a police detective, private eye, forensic expert, medical examiner, profiler, etc. Even the amateur sleuth has qualities that elevate him above the other story characters.
Whatever his training, the protagonist in a mystery is the one in charge and is usually one step ahead of the reader, showing the way and uncovering clues with his superior knowledge, training and insight.
Crime fiction is similar to mystery in that it focuses on the investigation. I once heard a publisher say at a conference, ‘With crime there’s a body on the first page and the rest of the story is about finding the killer.’
As with mystery, the crime protagonist generally possesses some kind of training. While he or she may come into danger and suffer setbacks, it’s the mental challenges of solving the case that take center stage.
So again, the pay-off for the reader of crime is mostly intellectual.
Suspense on the other hand is all about emotion. The protagonist has little special training and is unprepared for the dangers they face. Their journey through the story involves personal growth. To survive their ordeal and defeat the bad guys, the suspense protagonist must reach deep inside him/herself to find courage and strength they never knew they had.
In suspense the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t which helps generate tension. What gets the reader to the edge of their seat is knowing the killer is hiding in the closet when the hapless protagonist goes to open it.
The pay-off for the reader of suspense is emotional.
Thriller is a term loosely used these days but to me a true thriller is suspense on steroids, meaning some element of the plot is beefed up or taken to the next level.
Fast pacing is sometimes enough to earn a novel the label ‘thriller’ but more often it involves elevated stakes. In suspense the protagonist and his loved ones are usually the only ones in danger, whereas in a thriller the threat is to a wider community – cities, countries, even the whole world.
International Thriller Writers based in New York, groups all these genres under the heading ‘thriller’. American bookstores have them shelved together in their ‘mystery’ section, and Australian bookstores group them under the umbrella of ‘crime’. But that is simply for ease of marketing. To fans (and writers) of each of these genres they are distinct.
So why do I love suspense above the others? It’s the under-dog element that gets me.
In most mystery and crime novels the villain and hero are equally matched. In suspense, the protagonist is the clear under-dog, their skills and training no match for the bad guys.
In fact I like taking things one step further and giving my protagonists some deep flaw or past trauma that makes them even less likely to succeed.
My protagonists don’t even know themselves what they’re capable of until they’re tested by events in the story. And it’s usually because of their love for someone else that they find the courage to meet the challenge.
For me there’s no struggle more compelling than that.
When I first joined my local writing group (over twenty years ago now!) I thought writing to a prompt was a lazy, hit-or-miss approach to getting a story. I thought, if you're a 'real' writer, you should have so much to say about life, you'll have stories bursting out of you.
I've since come to change that view. It seems to me now that writing this way is like going fishing - with the prompt as your bait. You throw out your line and hope for a nibble. If you get a bite and it's something interesting, you 'reel it in' by writing more about it, going deeper, exploring what's there.
This method works not because writers lack ideas but because they have far too many. Our choices for subjects are truly infinite. It's like asking someone, 'What do you feel about every event, every situation and every person you've ever encountered, real or imagined?' That is literally what every author has to work with. Hard to not be overwhelmed - where do I begin?
A writing prompt gives me something to focus on. How do I feel about the colour green, or a specific scent from my childhood? It's taking a single drop of water from an endless ocean and examining under a microscope. There might be something there or there might not. And sometimes we writers don't even know what we think about a subject until we write about it.
Don't get me wrong, ideas still come to me out of the blue. Stories and characters waking me at night, wanting to be written. But every now and then it's good to go off and do a little fishing on the side.
It's the first day of our winter writing retreat here in Port Lincoln, South Australia. I arrived at our campsite at 8 am and spent the morning all alone setting things up for the others who'll arrived later this afternoon.
The wind was, and still is, ferocious, driving sheets of rain across the water. We rarely get waves in this sheltered bay but the ocean is boiling, the sky like pewter.
To me this is heaven. Sitting in my chair by the window, a candle burning, the fire roaring, sheltered and warm as I write in my journal with the storm raging outside.
Pretty soon I'll have to start dinner, to have everything ready when my friends arrive. A week of writing and laughter is ahead of us. Life is good.
A moment's insight: The thing about writing is you can't do it for what it will give you. You can't write for money. You can't write for fame. The only true way you can write is for the love of it. Anything less is a waste of your heart.
Publishers like a sure thing and who can blame them. They’re in business to make money, not give chances to struggling authors.
When a fiction genre starts to do well, publishers are quick to jump on the band wagon, bringing out more and more books of that kind, riding the wave till the trend is exhausted.
The problem for authors NOT writing in the chosen genre is that this creates a bit of a cycle. When publishers narrow the playing field, readers don’t have the option of ‘reading around’. And if readers aren’t exposed to a genre, how will they know if they like it or not?
There are 2 ways this cycle can be broken. The most notable is when a new book suddenly breaks out big time, igniting interest in a formerly less-popular genre. Harry Potter is the classic example. Before Sorcerer’s Stone, children’s fiction was in a slump. After that? The rest is history.
But there’s a second way to raise awareness of any genre that isn’t currently the flavor of the month. Long-term steady exposure.
If you write in a genre that’s currently on the less-popular list, your chances of being picked up by a major publisher are greatly reduced. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get your books out there.
If you write great books and consistently make them available to readers by self-publishing, they WILL eventually get noticed. It might take longer than the breakout scenario but if you give your readers a fantastic ride they’ll return for more.
If you love writing in a particular genre, have faith that there are others out there who enjoy reading it. You just have to gear yourself for the long haul.
Each reader you please with your current book will come back for the next one and hopefully bring a friend or two with them. If those friends like what they read, they’ll check out what else you’ve written and buy your first book. Repeat this over several books and your fan base grows.
So as far as writing to the market goes, I prefer to follow Jim Carey’s advice: ‘Give them you until you is what they want.’
I’m a domestic thriller author. I love writing about ordinary people thrust into danger who discover within themselves the courage to be heroes.
The type of characters I most like to write about aren’t the FBI agents, or criminal profilers, or forensic experts. Not the protagonist with all the training, but the Sarah Connors, the Paul Sheldons, the Mark Sways, the Newts and the Suzys (the blind heroine in Wait Until Dark.) Young people. Vulnerable people. People with no professional training that still somehow manage to outsmart the villain.
I like writing about damaged characters but not the kind so twisted with bitterness they lash out at anyone who looks at them sideways. I find far more to admire in the person who, despite all they themselves have been through, can still step up and help someone else in need.
While there’s always the element of danger in my stories, when it comes to graphic violence I’m a firm believer that less is more. I believe that, like a good striptease, far more tension can be rung from a scene by purposely leaving some things to the imagination.
By far the best example of this I’ve ever seen is in the Hitchcock movie, Lifeboat. After their ship is sunk by a torpedo, ten people take refuge in a lifeboat, one of whom is badly injured. As the story progresses so does the infection in his leg, to the point where it must be amputated – no doctors, no instruments, no anaesthetics.
In the hands of a less skillful writer a scene like that would be unbearable – at least to me. But Hitchcock handles it perfectly in my mind. First there’s an agonizing built up to the moment. Everyone knows what’s about to happen and all gather round to watch the poor victim drink a flask of brandy, each in their own way offering comfort.
When the moment comes, we see only the backs of the other characters as they close in tighter around the patient. Until one of them turns and drops the man’s boot aside.
The sound of that boot hitting the deck punctuates the horror of the scene in a way no amount of violence or gore could ever match. Hitchcock truly is my idol in this regard and I always strive to emulate him when handling violence in my stories.
Yesterday I finished the first draft of my current novel, No Good Deed - a contemporary thriller set in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia.
Today I began the revision process. I worked for a total of four-and-a-half hours and loved every minute!
It’s funny how some writers love revision and others hate it.
Some authors live for the exhilaration of putting their first draft down on the page. For them it's an act of total freedom. But once that initial draft is finished, they look upon the polishing yet to be done with a sense reluctance and despair.
I’m the opposite. I love editing. To me it feels like the hard work is done and now I get to play with what I created. But it isn't just the tinkering I love, it's the magic that takes place during the phase.
When I write a first draft, I try to write as fast as I can and not edit as I go. I think of each sentence as simply a place holder for what will eventually be there in the end. Even if it’s a total cliché, it doesn’t matter – I just have to get the basic meaning and sentiment down.
As I go through my draft a second time, I begin refining these basic sentences to contain more of my own author voice. Now that I know my characters better I also start giving them more individual ways of speaking.
It amazes me to see how a page of generic dialogue can come alive when I change each line to reflect that character’s unique personality.
For example, in my first draft I had a character say, 'Hurry, we open in fifteen minutes.' A pretty generic line of dialogue, basically anyone could've said that. But today as I went back over that scene, I changed the line to, 'Better get cracking. Only fifteen minutes to show time.' Not a huge difference perhaps but more in keeping with my character's personality. And if you make lots of little changes like that it does add up.
What also amazes me is this: Occasionally I'll write a conversation designed to get across certain information to the reader. That dialogue might not be terribly interesting on its own.
But…and here’s the part I love…When you add what the characters are thinking and feeling, everything changes. Suddenly that scene of boring conversation is infused with fascinating subtext.
A character might say one thing and think something completely different, revealing themselves to be dishonest, conflicted, afraid or unwilling to hurt another's feelings.
Or a character might voice a certain sentiment while their actions declare they're feeling something quite different. I love when that happens!
So, yes, I really enjoy the revision stage. To me it’s as though I can finally say, 'the Christmas tree is up. Now I get to decorate it!'
I took a break from writing over Christmas. During my week off, on a whim, I picked up the proof copy of my soon-to-be-released thriller, Hit and Run, (coming in April.)
While reading it through I recalled the headaches I had in writing it – plotting problems that had me wondering if the story would work: How to reveal information in an interesting way that didn’t slow the pace. Logistics of the timeline, the order of scenes, who’s point of view to be in, etc.
I remembered that at the time I was writing it, the story became such a mess in my mind I couldn’t see how I would ever smooth out the knots. Even when I read through my finished first draft, I couldn’t tell if the story worked because I still had all those discarded options in my head.
But reading the finished product through after a long break (with all those headaches just a distant a memory) I got to experience the story as a reader. And was reminded of something I’d already learned but keep forgetting: In the midst of revising - chopping and pasting, moving things around, discarding scenes, adding others - NO author can experience their story as the reader ultimately will.
This was a timely reminded for me because I’m currently at that exact some place with my current work-in-progress, No Good Deed. I’ve entered the treacherous third quarter where all kinds of plot and timeline issues start to arise. And once again I find myself wondering: Will this ever work? Will this be a story readers can enjoy?
The thing I need to keep telling myself is, it’s happened before. In fact it’s happened with every book I’ve written and I’ve always managed to work my way through it. So my first note-to-self of the new year is: just suck it up and get back to work!
Setting measurable daily goals is an effective practice for attaining success in any endeavour. Many writers set themselves a specific word or page count to write each day and this helps them maintain momentum.
But that approach doesn't work for everyone.
While I've long been a fan of setting goals, in writing my novels I've never done well with a target daily word or page count. I only find that helpful when I'm actually laying down a first draft. But that's only a few months out of the total creation time for a book.
The rest of the time I'm either plotting, outlining, revising or editing. And as necessary as these stages are, I don't produce a lot of new pages or words each day, so targets in these areas are totally pointless.
Setting a goal and consistently failing to meet it is, for me, more discouraging than not setting a goal at all. I much prefer to set myself a certain number of hours of writing each day.
This is another of the many things I've carried over from music. In the years I attended music college I practiced a minimum of 4 hours a day, usually longer. But that daily minimum was written in blood. If for some reason I couldn't do it I felt extremely anxious and unsettled.
Not every practice day felt productive. Some days I'd see a small improvement in my playing, on others I'd struggle to match what I'd done the day before.
It didn't matter. So long as I put in my hours I knew I'd eventually reach my goal. And I was right. For despite those days my practice seemed totally ineffective, a time always came when my playing made a sudden significant leap to a higher level.
So this is the method I use in my writing - I simply put in my hours each day, in whatever form it happens to be. A goal I can consistently attain no matter what phase my project is at.
I’ve recently returned from another writing retreat (our last for the year) where I discovered a new exercise that’s helped me enormously in writing the first draft of my current thriller, No Good Deed.
I’m still at the stage of outlining my plot and, as always, am looking for ways to get more drama into my scenes.
Usually when I begin a new story I start by getting to know my characters. I freewrite on their backgrounds, explore their early formative experiences, determine their goals, their strengths and weakness, internal conflict, etc.
This time I added an extra step. I already had a pretty good idea who my characters are as individuals so I started putting them together in pairs.
I remembered that when writing Run To Me, the thing that kept pulling me back to the story was the emotional dynamic between my heroine and the boy protagonist. Before either of them did a thing or said a word in the story, a potential dynamic existed between them – they weren’t just any woman and boy, but a mother who had lost her son and a boy with no family.
The characters on their own were interesting and had traits and backstory that were compelling. But it wasn’t until I put them together that the real chemistry started to happen. A perfect example of a result being greater than the sum of its parts.
So that’s what I tried with my current work in progress. Instead of just focussing on my individual characters, I asked myself, what is the dynamic between each pair?
I started with my heroine and explored her relationship with the villain – how she reacts when she first meets him and how those feelings change over the course of the story.
Then I did the same thing with the heroine and the hero, the heroine and her father, her missing sister, her best friend, etc.
Exploring the dynamic between my characters has given me heaps of ideas for scenes and dialogue. Ways to get naturally-existing emotion onto the page. And pairing two secondary characters together has given me a few surprises as well.
For me the relationship between characters is far more interesting than any one character on his/her own.
In Jaws, one of my favorite movies, the three main characters – Brodi, Hooper, and Quint – are all interesting on their own. But it wasn’t until they were forced together on a small boat, in close quarters, that they became my favorite trio of characters.
When I decided to go the Indie route, my first step was to do months of research. Using the information I gathered (and being an avid list-maker!) I wrote out a publishing timeline for myself – all the steps I would need to take, in order, to reach my goal of producing my first self-published book.
Now - only halfway through my journey - I’ve already revised my list a dozen times. And that’s okay - I’m working to get it right for next time. I’m sure there are more revisions to come, but just so you know I haven’t been goofing off this last month, I’ve decided to post my current timeline.
For anyone thinking of self-publishing a novel, feel free to copy it. Yours will almost certainly be different but it’s a starting point you can refine how you like.
For anyone who’s already been down the self-publishing path, I invite your comments on anything you think I could’ve done differently or that I left out. And for any interested readers, this will give you some idea of what authors go through to produce a novel without the support of a traditional publisher.
Once I reach the end of this process and have finished revising, I'll post a free download of my complete timeline with explanations of what each step is and why I made the choices I did. Until then, here’s how things stand at the moment:
Phase 1: Editing/Feedback (2-3 months)
_____ finish final draft of manuscript
_____ submit manuscript to editor
_____ give manuscript to beta readers
Phase 2: Product Preparation (to do while ms is with editor and beta readers)
_____ decide book title and subtitle
_____ select/design front cover image
_____ write shout line (or use editorial review quote)
_____ write back cover copy
_____ select back cover background (design back cover using InDesign)
_____ write book description for Amazon website (approx 500 words)
_____ set 5 book key words
_____ decide book category
_____ decide print and ebook prices
_____ choose my publisher name
_____ purchase ISBNs from Bowkers/MyIndentifiers
_____ create CreateSpace and KDP accounts
_____ create Createspace project file and enter all preliminaries (above items)
_____ write author bio for book interior and Author Central
_____ write acknowledgements
_____ create end-of-book sample of my next book (and its release date)
_____ create a page with cover and blurb for each previous book
_____ add new book to Goodreads website (cover and blurb but no ISBN)
_____ do a cover reveal via General Updates and/or GR blog
_____ schedule a Giveaway of my previous book
_____ announce giveaway on Status Updates and GR blog
_____ add giveaway widget to Welcome page of my website
_____ shelve books, join groups, engage with readers
_____ upload free ‘sneak preview’ excerpt from new book
_____ announce ‘sneak preview’ on GR blog/general updates
_____ announce upcoming release on Facebook (cover reveal)
_____ get new author photo taken
_____ prepare list of blog reviewers to send ARCs to
_____ create and start using new email signature (new book cover and release date)
_____ announce on Facebook ‘sneak preview’ available on GR
_____ editor returns edits
Phase 3: ARC Preparation (3 wks)
_____ revise manuscript as per editor and beta reader feedback (2 wks)
_____ format book interior (CreateSpace, Wordpress, Bookdesign, Vellum)
_____ upload completed interior template to CreateSpace by: _____________
_____ once you have book dimensions, design backcover and spine
_____ upload complete book file to CreateSpace (allow 24-48 hrs for approval)
_____ once approved, order proof copy
_____ in the meantime, proof read book via CS on-line proofing; make corrections
_____ once interior has been proof read, submit e-ARCs to reviewers (see list below)
_____ once proof copy arrives, check cover and make final changes on CS
_____ once approved, order copies for launch and Goodreads pre-release giveaway
_____ create e-book through Kindle Direct
_____ create pre-order link on Amazon
_____ ARCs complete and ready to submit for review by: ________
add 3 months to above date to get release date: ___________
Phase 4: Reviews/Pre-release Promotion (10-12 wks)
send e-ARCs for author endorsements
_____ submit ARC to Publishers Weekly
_____ submit ARC to Best Thrillers
_____ run a giveaway on Library Thing
_____ submit to Goddess Fish blog tour
send e-ARC to pre-selected blogger/reviewers:
_____ commence Goodreads Giveaway of ___ ARCs
_____ initiate Goodreads paid advertizing campaign for giveaway
_____ update author profile on Goodreads (new author photo and bio)
_____ update Welcome page with new release cover and blurb
_____ install new Goodreads Giveaway Widget
_____ create free-sample link to Amazon
_____ create pre-order link
_____ blog about new release (the story behind the story, interesting notes about the setting, things I learned researching the book, food recipes from the area, etc)
_____ announce Goodreads Giveaway of new release
_____ add Goodreads review widget
_____ post good editorial reviews
_____ announce launch date
_____ update Amazon Author Central page
_____ winners of Goodreads Giveaway selected on ____ – send out prizes
_____ commence 2nd Goodreads Giveaway
_____ organize author talks, signings, book tour (libraries, book clubs)
_____ order book marks
_____ organize launch
_____ contact local paper to announce book launch
_____ post good reviews on website as they come in
_____ add editorial reviews to Amazon book listing via Author Central dashboard
_____ add editorial reviews to Goodreads book listing
_____ winners of Goodreads 2nd Giveaway announced – send out ARCs
_____ write launch speech
_____ write author talk speechPhase 5: Release Promotion
_____ (change shout line on book cover to a quote from editorial review)
_____ release book for sale on Amazon
_____ announce Goodreads Launch Giveaway of ___ signed copies (week of launch)
_____ local book launch ______________________
_____ winners of Goodreads Launch Giveaways chosen – send out prizes
_____ answer ‘ask the author’ questions on Goodreads
_____ submit new-release title to writers groups I belong to
_____ announce/post schedule of book tour on website and Facebook
_____ continue to add good reviews to website pagePhase 6: Post-release
_____ enter book in any awards
_____ announce any nominations/wins on Facebook, website, Goodreads, Amazon
Other Branding/Platform Building Options
plan a workshop to present
write an article for a writers group newsletter
write guest blog for friends, contacts, writers groups I belong to
post a Utube video interview on my website, FB and Goodreads
‘Drama is life with the boring bits left out.’
I love this quote by Alfred Hitchcock. It applies not only to movie making but novel writing as well, especially suspense. And I try to adhere to it as much as possible in writing my own.
What I choose to write in a story is never a blow-by-blow account of what happens. I skip the dull bits and if there’s any information the reader needs from it, I have my characters talk about or reflect on it later.
In the story I’m currently working on I’ve just written the opening scene where my heroine saves a man whose car brakes fail on a steep mountain road. The scene ends with her pulling him from his submerged vehicle and reviving him with CPR thus saving his life.
The next thing that would actually happen in the story is that the paramedics would arrive and take him to the hospital while the heroine is questioned and then driven home by the police.
But there isn’t really much interesting in that. The injured man is once again unconscious so there can be no exchange between him and the heroine. And the heroine will only tell the cops information the reader already knows.
Instead what I’ll do is cut from the moment the heroine revives the stranger to when the police drop her back at her house. There, upon seeing a police car pull up at the door, her father greets her anxiously and a conversation between them deepens both characters and reveals info that furthers the plot.
The only information I need to get across to the reader from the time period I omitted is that the injured man briefly regained consciousness, long enough to look into the heroine’s eyes and say something to her. That’s all I need. And it’s easy enough to have her reflect on this as she’s talking to her father or getting ready to head off to work.
To me the easiest way to know what to cut from a story is by how I feel about writing it. If I’m not looking forward to writing a scene, if it doesn’t excite or move me in some way, I know the chances are pretty good that it won’t do a lot for the reader either.
As a reader, what sorts of things would you prefer to do without in a story? Physical descriptions of the characters? Scene setting? What do you too often find in a story that you'd rather the author had left out?
Almost from the time I began writing novels I had a plan for reaching my goal of making a living as a full-time author.
When I had a novel ready to submit I’d research publishers accepting that genre, make a list and work my way through it in order of preference.
In the meantime of course the theory was that I would keep working. But it didn’t always pan out that way. Writing is hard. Basking in the knowledge I’d written something and sent it to a publisher was easier and a lot more fun to think about.
As the weeks went by with no reply on my submission, I found it harder and harder to focus on my work in progress. My mind kept flitting back to the editor who had my manuscript. Had they read it yet? Why hadn’t they gotten back to me? What on earth was taking so long?
This sense of time wasting got me feeling enormously frustrated. It took me several years to see (and perhaps another to fully accept) that certain things are out of my hands as a writer. And the bottom line is – what’s out of my hands is not my job.
I have no control over when an editor reads my submission; when, or even if they reply to me. I have no control over what themes they like, their personal hates, or what their other authors are writing.
The only thing I have control over as a writer is the quality and quantity of the work I produce. That’s it. That’s my number one job – keep writing to the best of my ability. And as long as I’m doing that, time isn’t wasting.
Yes, the submission process takes ages, often years. But that need not be a source of frustration. You can still be moving your career forward even before your first book is published. How? By writing.
In a nutshell here is my submission strategy:
#1 Finish the book
#2 Revise it until it’s the best I can make it with the writing skills I currently possess. Don’t get hung up on endlessly tinkering with a single manuscript. Move on. Write the next one. With each book you refine and acquire new skills.
#3 Submit my polished manuscript to the editors on my list. And in the meantime…
#4 Start a new project.
This is the best way I’ve found to conquer the pressure that builds inside me after I’ve submitted a manuscript. Sitting around waiting makes me feel powerless, my life controlled by the whim of others.
As long as I keep writing new stories, whenever I begin to fret that time is wasting I can say to myself, ‘No, it’s not. I’m doing my job. When the call comes, I will be ready.’
Even if it takes ten or more years to get your first novel accepted (it took me 11 years BTW) if you stick to this plan, you could quite well have ten other manuscripts to show your new editor when the time finally comes.
Your editor might not want to publish all of them but even if they take just one or two you’re ahead of the game. For most authors revising an older manuscript is faster than starting a new one from scratch. And as sales experts know: the best time to sell your second book is straight after you’ve sold your first.
Your earlier manuscripts weren’t necessarily rejected because they’re no good. Often manuscripts get rejected simply because their genre isn’t selling at the time, or the publisher just released a book on a similar subject. The market fluctuates. What’s not selling today could be the hottest thing in five years time.
So don’t slow down on your production. The minute you submit a manuscript, start the next. That is your power as a writer.
Those manuscripts in your bottom drawer aren’t rejects, they’re planes on the runway waiting to take off!
Filed under Notes to Self...
Question: That book you’re reading by your favorite author that you absolutely love… Do you think the author wrote it on a high, believing every word was golden?
Do you think your favorite author never agonized over a sentence, deleted pages, tore out whole scenes (along with her hair)? That there never was a day she didn’t despair that every word she set down was rubbish?
Just like you, there would’ve been times when your favorite author struggled and bled for every word and others when the writing seemed to flow as though dictated by some higher being.
But here’s the question I’m really asking: Can you as a reader tell the difference in the finished product?
As you read any story, can you pick the passages the author was (and possibly still is) unhappy with? Can you distinguish them from the ones they considered their best writing ever? Is the author’s despair, elation, frustration over the actual writing itself apparent anywhere on the page?
No. And neither is it so for you. Give it a month and you’ll forget how hard or easy those passages were to write. All you’ll have is pages to work with, to revise and polish until they shine. And that’s all any author needs, something to work with. So just get some words on the page.
Bottom line: Don’t let a bad mood stop you from writing. Write anyway. It’s amazing how differently the same passage will look to you tomorrow when you’re feeling more confident compared to today when you’re feeling down.
I’m probably not the only writer out there disturbed by the number of people I encounter these days wanting or attempting to write a book when they don’t read them.
To me this is like someone trying to learn to play an instrument who never listens to music.
In the years I taught violin, whenever I started a new crop of beginners I could always tell which ones listened to music at home and which ones didn’t.
The ones that did had a concept of the sound of the instrument already in their inner ear. And somehow, from the first time they touched their bow to the strings, that internalized concept guided their efforts. You could hear the difference.
It has to be the same with writers and reading. All the how-to-write books and courses in the world can’t help someone get the music of language into their heads. The rhythm and articulation of the words, the flow of well-constructed sentences, syntax, dialogue, etc. are things that can only be assimilated through repeated exposure.
If you don’t read fine work, how can you expect fine work to come out of you?
I guess in a way it’s the old ‘wax on, wax off’ principle: Good writing in, good writing out.
I’m currently in that wonderful, awful, exhilarating, anxiety-ridden phase of choosing a plot for my next novel.
I experience this incredible mix of feelings before every new book I start – can’t decide what I want to write about, nothing excites me, etc, etc.
In the past I’ve tried starting with an interesting character. I have whole lists of characters I love and hate. But for some reason that doesn’t work for me. I do better when I start with an idea or an intriguing question.
But why does it take me so long to find one? Assuming for a moment I’m not just lazy and haven’t lost my passion for writing, what else could cause this perennial problem?
What first excited me about writing Run To Me was the idea for the story: a woman everyone dismissed as crazy saves the life of a child in danger. That was my original premise, my intriguing 'what-if'. That’s what set me on fire creatively and made me want to write the book.
That’s the kind of fire I’m looking for now!
What I want isn’t just a plot that ‘works’ but an idea that keeps me awake at night. Something that makes me jump out of bed in the morning and run to the computer to see what comes next.
Am I demanding too much? Putting too much pressure on my feeble brain? I don’t think so. I believe what I’m after - that fire, that excitement - is worth searching for.
So for now, let’s not call it writers block. Let's just call Writer’s Limbo.
As a Christmas present to myself this year I bought a fascinating book called Unbeatable Mind, by retired Navy SEAL and motivational trainer, Mark Divine.
The quotes below, taken or paraphrased from this book, now grace the pin-up boards around my work room and make up the bulk of my new year’s author’s notes-to-self:
Negativity derails performance. It’s imperative to control your focus.
Other motivational speakers stress the importance of maintaining focus on the things we want. Tony Robbins (Personal Power): ‘Whatever you focus on you get more of.’ Jack Canfield (Chicken Soup For the Soul): ‘See what you want, get what you see.’ Daniel Goleman (Focus, the Hidden Driver of Excellence): ‘Your focus is your reality.’
Success is achieved through the choices we make every day and it’s the small, not the large, that make the difference.
Oh boy, does this line ever speak to me! How many times have I dismissed a small choice as unimportant? What can skipping a single day of writing hurt? What damage can one piece of cake do? But ‘little’ choices like these and others definitely add up. Without making them wisely, we never get to make the big choices!
To actualize your full potential, train in a balanced, whole-person manner – mentally, physically, emotionally, intuitively and through merging your heart and mind into action.
With all my self-improvement efforts I tend to focus on a single point to the exclusion of others. Because writing is my passion I normally focus all my energies on honing my craft. But what good is having better writing skills if my mind is too sludgy from lack of fresh air and exercise to use them?
The warrior fulfills his purpose every day.
Knowing my purpose and aligning my thoughts and actions accordingly on a daily basis keeps me on track and moving steadily toward my goals.
Currently I’m only halfway through Unbeatable Mind so I’m sure I’ll be adding more quotes from this book to me pin-up boards.
It seems a lot of what works for the warrior applies to us writers as well!
Following on from my last post, I’m reflecting more on the similarities I’ve found between music and writing.
Whether it’s a symphony, a novel, or even a painting, when you get down to it, it’s the relationships at work in a piece that make it interesting. It’s only when you put two notes or colors or characters together that they begin to play off one another and different aspects of their nature are revealed.
A single note in music is like a single character in a story – on their own, they don’t mean very much. But put that note in a chord with others and it instantly acquires a function.
The root of the chord (like a protagonist) is literally ‘key’, around which all others revolve. The other notes serve to establish tonality and either work in harmony or create various degrees of dissonance (conflict).
Harmonic relationships within a chord are like characters interacting within a scene. But, taking the analogy one step further, it isn’t till you put your chord in a series that you actually begin to make music.
In the same way scenes create a narrative, chords arranged in a meaningful progression create musical phrases. And these phrases arranged to the requirements of form, give you the various types of music: gigues, waltzes, minuets, etc.
Like a well-written story, classical music is all about tension and release – building to high points, followed by periods of relative calm. With music, contrast is vital in both tempo and dynamics – the literary equivalents of pacing and tension.
In both writing and music you have themes and motifs. Constructing a melody is much like constructing a sentence. There’s rhythm and articulation, the music of the words themselves, whether sharp and percussive or lyrical and soft.
With all these comparisons running through my head, is it any wonder writing a novel sometimes feels like composing a symphony?
When I first started writing I kept calling the chapters of my novels ‘movements’ and the pacing ‘tempo’. I didn’t do this intentionally, those words just slipped out. But I guess it’s easy to see the connection.
What’s perhaps not as easy to see are some of the other parallels I’ve found between writing and playing an instrument:
#1 Practice something and you’ll get better at it.
This was possibly the greatest gift music ever taught me. That if I work on something every day my skill will improve. It’s something I’ve carried over to every other aspect of my life.
The results of practicing are easy to see when you’re learning an instrument. There’s a passage in the piece you’re working on that’s currently beyond you but after days of focused practice it starts to improve. You know you’ve progressed because today you can play that passage and yesterday you couldn’t.
It’s not as easy to see how your writing is getting better. Sometimes the only way is to pull out something you wrote months or years ago and compare it to your current work, but even then it’s all subjective. Still, the one thing that can be guaranteed is you won’t improve if you don’t keep at it.
#2 Patience and determination
When I first got to college (Eastman School of Music) I wasn’t a very good violinist. In fact I was one of the worst ones there. The first week of classes the head of the string department, Millard Taylor, came up to me in the hall and told me (in front of all my new friends) that the only reason I’d been accepted was because the school hadn’t filled its quota of violinists for that year.
My friends were appalled on my behalf. But I eventually came to understand that Taylor did me a tremendous favor. He made me angry. I thought I was pretty hot just getting into a place like Eastman and possibly I would’ve cruised along without really applying myself. Maybe he saw that and said what he did deliberately to help me. In any case he snapped me out it. I started to work like I never had before.
The payoffs didn’t come in the first year. Or the second. And there were many times I was reduced to tears at the sheer frustration of being overlooked and discounted as someone who would never excel. (Another similarity to writing!) But ultimately my efforts paid off.
#3 Talent is over-rated
I didn’t just learn this one at Eastman but from my more than twenty years of teaching violin. So many times I’ve seen kids with little ‘natural’ ability progress well beyond ‘gifted’ ones simply because they practiced harder.
When someone has to struggle and work for every advancement, they end up taking obstacles in their stride. Students to whom things have always come easily, often give up when the going gets tough.
#4 Bouncing back
I remember once getting really depressed about my playing. I thought to myself, ‘No matter how much I practice, no matter how good I get, there will always be someone better than me.’
In the end I found an answer to that one: ‘Just because we can all speak, doesn’t mean we all have the same thing to say.’
I learned it’s not about being ‘the best’, it’s about acquiring the skills to communicate what’s inside you. What you learn when you practice your scales and exercises is the technique of your instrument. You’re learning how to speak the language of music. But once you’ve learned it, you alone decide what you will say.
So it doesn’t matter if someone has a better technique than you. (Or more style than you as a writer.) As long as you are proficient enough to communicate, you can and will say things no-one else can.
Sometimes in my journal I talk to myself. I give myself pep-talks when I’m down, friendly reminders of lessons learned, guidance as though from an outside party when I’m facing a difficult decision or problem.
The following is an entry I wrote back in September 2014 when I was searching for my next novel to write.
You have to know what moves you. What frightens, horrifies, delights and angers you? Put that in your story. What is the worst thing you can imagine living through? Make it happen to one of your characters.
Don’t just assemble plots that ‘work’ with high points here and conflict there. With everything arranged as it should be according to some bestseller formula. Dig deep. Find out what affects you as a person. Those are the things that will affect your readers.
When I wrote Run To Me I explored some of my deepest fears. What would it be like to lose a child? To lose my sanity? To not be believed by anyone? To not even know myself if what I thought was true actually was?
I realize the hold I have on my sanity only exists because life has been kind. What if it hadn’t been? If I’d lived what I put my characters through would I still be here? Would I have found the strength they did? The courage to sacrifice? Would I have had their resilience?
That’s what authors write to find out. And why readers read the stories they’ve written.
When I was a college student studying the violin I fell in love with Bach. To this day his set of Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas is my favorite music ever written for the instrument. My one regret – he only wrote six of them.
Back in the days I was learning these pieces I so wished there were more of them, I even tried composing some myself. What would Bach sound like if he were writing today, I asked myself and proceeded to have a go. With limited success I might add.
Fast forward thirty-odd years and here I am doing the same thing with novel writing. Only this time it’s Alfred Hitchcock I’m emulating.
I have every movie Hitch ever made and have lost count of the number of times I’ve watched his classics: Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, etc.
I so wish Hitch was alive today creating more masterpieces I realize I’ve been unconsciously attempting to satisfy my longing for his work by writing those stories myself.
Whether I succeed by others’ standards I can’t say. But imagining my latest work-in-progress as a Hitchcock movie has become the standard by which I judge its potential, its artistic litmus test.
I try to visualize how Hitch would present my story on screen, right down to the lighting and quirky camera angles. If I get to a scene I think Hitch would have cut, I know I need to change or delete it. But if I know I’d be happy watching the movie, I’m confident people will enjoy reading the story. (Hopefully I have more success at this than I did with Bach.)
Is it wrong to emulate the artists we love? I don’t believe so. Copy, yes; emulate, no. In fact I don’t believe any artist can help but be influenced by those they admire. Everything we take in all becomes part of the unconscious ‘compost heap’ from which our own work grows and flowers.
And for emerging artists testing their creative wings, the shoulders of former masters is a great place to leap from.
I keep a notebook of my favorite sentences, phrases from the books I read that I can look back over again and again and hopefully learn from.
What impresses me about some of these sentences is the author’s skill in creating a mood appropriate to the story’s genre.
Like these lines from Dean Koontz’s horror novel, The Darkest Evening of The Year:
Her daughter glided at her side, as firmly attached as a remora to a large fish.
Amy had the feeling that something more than the man himself lived in Brockman’s body, as though he had opened a door to a night visitor that made of his heart a lair.
The hooded eyes looked sleepy, but the reptilian mind behind them might be acrawl with calculation.
Every time a read those words, ‘acrawl with calculation’ I literally get goose bumps. What power words can have!
As you may have guessed, Koontz is one of my favorite authors. Check out the imagery in these lines from his novel The Taking:
The room had the deep-fathom ambience of an oceanic trench forever beyond the reach of the sun but dimly revealed by radiant anemones and luminous jellyfish.
The nape of her neck prickled as though a ghost lover had pressed his ectoplasmic lips to her skin.
As effectively as a leech taking blood, fear suckled on Molly’s hope.
As much as I love a brilliant metaphor, often it’s just the sheer magic of the words that captivates me. Like these lines from The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
On the street that was as much a part of him as the face he saw reflected in the store windows, he felt his sense of isolation burrowing deeper.
It was a broken, hallucinatory night of sleep. In the wind, the shack that stood on stilts shook like a houseboat tossed on mercurial seas.
What impresses me most however is that these authors conjure their special magic using only the simplest words. Words every writer worth his ink has at their disposal.
Something exciting happens for me at the point where I become fully engaged with a story I’m writing.
Up to that moment it’s as though I’m standing outside myself watching what I’m doing. I analyze my process, contemplate whether it’s working or if a different approach might be better. I ask myself questions about the plot, its direction, its characters and how it might end.
But the minute the story comes together in my mind and I become fully engaged in writing it, my focus shifts and everything else drops away. It’s no longer me making stuff up, but a group of real people caught in a drama and I’m right there beside them.
I realize this is one of the greatest pleasures I take from writing, this losing myself in what I’m doing. All the cares of my everyday life just disappear. Total immersion exhilarates yet at the same time gives me peace.
I experienced a similar joy playing the violin. There was no ‘me’ when I performed a Bach Partita from memory, there was only the music.
Maybe that’s what Nat Goldberg meant in Writing Down The Bones when she said, ‘I don’t do writing. Writing does writing.’
Once I reach this point where I’m living more in my story then out of it, I notice that journaling begins to lose its appeal for me.
Much of my everyday personal journaling is about what’s happening in my life and sorting out any issues that arise. But when my aim is to forget myself and my problems, journaling – like analyzing my writing process – feels, and probably is, counter-productive.
A fun alternative I find is to journal as one of my characters. I ‘become’ that person and write out my reactions toward other characters and what’s been going on in the story.
As well as yielding deeper insights into the people I’m writing about, this practice keeps me firmly anchored in my story, with my own real-life problems shut out.
For years I felt I had a clear handle on the differences between mystery, suspense and thriller. While there is certainly some overlapping of elements, in their purest forms these genres are distinct.
The classic mystery is about solving the puzzle. The protagonist is usually trained in some way – a police detective, private eye, forensic expert, medical examiner, profiler, etc – and is the one who ultimately solves the crime.
Even the amateur sleuth possesses qualities that elevate his crime-solving abilities above other characters as well as the reader.
Whatever his training, the protagonist in the mystery is the one in charge, and is usually one step ahead of the reader, showing the way and uncovering clues with his superior knowledge and intuition.
In contrast, the suspense novel is an emotional ride. The protagonist generally has no special training and is not prepared for the dangers they must face. In fact part of their journey in the story is that they must reach deep inside themselves to find strengths they never knew they possessed in order to survive and defeat the bad guys.
In suspense the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t which helps to generate the suspense. (What gets the reader to the edge of their seat is knowing the killer is hiding in the closet when the hapless protagonist goes to open it.)
Thriller is a term loosely used these days but to my mind a true thriller is suspense on steroids, meaning some element of the plot is beefed up in some way.
Rapid pacing is sometimes enough to earn a novel the label ‘thriller’ but more often it’s the story’s stakes that are heightened.
In a suspense the protagonist and his loved ones are usually the only ones at risk whereas in a thriller the threat is to a wider community – cities, whole countries, possibly the entire world. (Which is why Hunt For Red October, with it’s threat of nuclear war, is a techno thriller and Cape Fear is a suspense.)
International Thriller Writers based in NY, groups mystery, suspense and thriller novels together under the heading ‘thriller’. American bookstores have the same three genres shelved together in their ‘mystery’ section. Australian bookstores group them under the umbrella of ‘crime’. Whereever I go these three genres have always been lumped together.
Yet when I attended the Adelaide Crime Writers Festival a few weeks ago, all the panelists and attendees seemed to be talking about was fiction involving an investigation.
This pretty much leaves ‘suspense’ out in the cold as suspense novels don’t always have an investigation, and if they do it’s not the main focus of the story. So does that mean suspense isn’t classed as crime?
Australian groups like Sisters In Crime seem to hold to this investigation criteria as well. In fact I once heard an Australian agent say, when asked to define the crime genre, ‘There’s a body on the first page and the rest of the story is about finding the killer.’
All of which leads me to wonder whether ‘crime’ has emerged, at least in Australia, as a completely separate genre, containing elements of mystery and suspense but distinct from both.
Because we engage with the world via our senses, writers are often urged to use all the senses when writing description. But for getting a first draft down on paper it could be better to focus on just one.
Each of us has a dominant sense in processing information about our experience. For the majority of people that sense is vision; for the second largest group it’s hearing.
Having been part of the same critiquing group for last 15 years, I’ve had a fabulous opportunity to observe the different ways our members go about writing a first draft. I’ve become convinced each person’s dominant sense plays a big role in their creative process.
For example, when one of our members writes a scene she has to be able to ‘see’ it first. Before she can begin to write, she has to visualize clearly not just the place, but the season, the time of day, the angle and quality of the light, as well as her characters’ actions and appearance.
In total contrast, my first drafts are almost entirely dialogue. Being strongly hearing-dominant, I don’t need to know what my characters are doing, what they look like or even where they are. I just put them together and listen to what they say to each other.
For me this approach is hugely enlightening. The way a person speaks gives me all sorts of clues about who they are – their age, education, nationality, region of upbringing, attitudes, morals, socio-economic background, emotional outlook and much much more.
If you doubt this, think of all the different ways there are to say ‘yes’. From a military person’s crisp ‘affirmative’ to Ned Flanders’ ‘Okally Dokally’. Each version gives a clear insight into character.
I believe that knowing your dominant sense can help you as a writer creating your first drafts. If you’re not having any luck ‘seeing’ your scene, try 'hearing' it instead.
Some of us like to spy on her characters, others like to eaves-drop.
Ever wondered what your natural novel writing process is? I firmly believe the Plotter vs. Pantser issue comes down to one question – how comfortable are you with not having a plan?
A few years ago my husband traveled to Ireland with a friend. He booked his flight to Dublin and organized a rental car for his arrival. And that was it. He made no hotel reservations and had only a rough route planned for seeing the country.
My husband works a 9 to 5 job where every hour of his day is structured. When he goes on vacation the last thing he wants is more of the same. A fixed itinerary just makes him feels like he’s back at work.
He prefers the freedom to hop in a car, drive until he comes to a place that looks interesting and book his accommodation then. And when he’s decided he’s been in that place long enough, he checks out and drives to the next one that takes his fancy.
I admit this approach has its appeal. However if I’d been embarking on that same trip to Ireland – a place I’d never been – it would’ve made me a little nervous not checking out the accommodation first and making firm reservations ahead of time. What if I got somewhere and there was no place to stay, I would’ve worried. (Mind you, with the amount of Guinness my husband consumed, sleeping in a peat bog probably wouldn’t have bothered him.)
With the accommodation ‘framework’ of my journey in place, I can relax in the knowledge the basics are done and just enjoy myself.
The same applies to writing a novel. For me, facing a day of writing without a plan is too stressful. And when I’m stressed I don’t write my best and can’t enjoy the process as much.
With an outline, even just a loosely-planned route to follow, I’m much more relaxed. It doesn’t mean that route is set in stone and there won’t be surprises along the way.
As with traveling, unexpected things always happen on a novel-writing journey. When they do, I simply alter my outline and proceed on my new course.
A few years ago I was preparing to embark on a new writing project – another suspense novel. I had done some preliminary freewriting and knew who my characters were, the main conflict of the story, the opening scene, and how it would end.
I was about to begin my usual involved process of creating a scene-by-scene outline of the plot (a stage that generally takes me about 2 months) when I got talking to another author friend about how she writes her novels.
This author, a confirmed ‘pantser’ (preferring to fly by the seat of her pants), described how wonderful it was to write a story without having any idea where it was going, what an adventure of discovery it was.
This author listened to what I already knew about my characters and said, ‘If it was me, I’d just jump in and start writing.’
Her suggestion sounded so wonderfully liberating, her process so creative, I decided to try it. Again. Even though I had tried the ‘pantser’ approach before and hadn’t had any success with it.
Perhaps I’d moved on as a writer, I thought. Perhaps it made a difference what kind of story you were writing. If the method was as great as pantsers all say, wasn’t it worth another try at least?
With no disrespect to that author (or any other pantser for that matter), my decision to follow her advice was a mistake. In the end that story took me months longer to write than if I’d taken the time to plot it first, and I floundered and second-guessed myself the entire way through.
In my novel writing journal I recorded my frustrations at the time: ‘I can see now what the problem has been. I have no road map to follow. The biggest upside to doing a detailed outline first? It’s a hell of a lot easier to fix if things go wrong.’
What I learned from this experience is that outlining doesn’t stifle creativity, in my case it frees it. As an outliner I’m not deprived of the thrill of discovery, I simply have it in a different place then pantsers do.
And really, when you think about it, is there all that much difference between my detailed outline and a pantser’s first draft?
Please understand – I am NOT saying that my way is right and pantsing is wrong. I’m simply saying: be true to your process, whatever it is, and never let anyone else talk you out of it.
Following on from my last blog post…
I recently returned from one of my crit group’s writing retreats where I realized I have another writing ritual which I perform only while on retreat. I recorded it in my journal the second morning we were there:
I open my bedroom door slowly, quietly so as not to wake my sleeping friends in the other rooms. It’s only 4:30am and some were up late writing last night.
Stepping out on the dorm’s paved apron, I’m greeted by a swathe of stars overhead and moonlight shimmering on the ocean before me.
Like a lover, the sea breathed softly in my ear through the night but now seems restless. I can hear it tossing and churning, see flickers of white where it kisses the rocks.
Flashlight in hand I tip-toe past the other bedrooms, across a stretch of short-cropped lawn damp with dew, and on to the kitchen door.
I turn on no lights as I move inside. There’s something sacred in the pre-dawn stillness and I seek to disturb it as little as possible.
In the hall I creep to my desk, light the candles and the small reading lamp. My writing chair sits before the huge dark window, draped in a thick polar fleece quilt. I settle into it, pull the quilt around me, take up my journal and begin to write.
Outside the wind picks up, hissing through surrounding scrub. I hear the rain coming from far away and soon it’s pattering over the roof.
A moth flutters against the window, drawn by my light. He and I, the only two awake.
These hours until the sun comes up are my favorite time of any day. But here on retreat they are part of a ritual I’ve slowly evolved to honor writing, the craft I love.
Some writers like to have music playing as they write. James Scott Bell speaks of listening to sound tracks from movies of the same genre as the story he’s working on – Hitchcock for suspense, Star Wars for sci fi, etc.
As a musician I find this extremely difficult. For me there’s no such thing as ‘background’ music – if music is playing anywhere near me it demands my undivided attention. I start analyzing the work, the artist’s skill, their stylistic interpretation, etc.
(If you’re a writer and think this strange, ask yourself: Didn’t the way you read books alter radically after you started writing them?)
So as much as I might like to have music playing while I write, I’ve had to forgo that option and look to another: My creative stimulus of choice is scent.
Every day when I sit down to write I either light a scented candle (currently burning: Yankee Candles’ Pumpkin Gingerbark) or fire up the essential oil burner (my favorite blend: orange, bergamot and rosewood.)
I believe that over time this simple ritual has created a functional association for me – a mental link between the act of setting match to wick and that of writing. An action that ‘primes the pump’ so to speak, the creative version of Pavlov’s dog.
(One reason it was a mistake to drink coffee when I write as that has now become fused to my process as well. Chocoholics beware!)
So this ritual of burning a scented candle helps me prepare to write. But could it actually help the writing itself?
As I’m currently reading in Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, our perceptions of both music and fragrance are functions of the temporal lobe, the same part of the brain that deals largely with the act of writing. By stimulating this area with scents am I firing up the writer part as well?
Like music, fragrance has an affect on mood. Some scents stimulate, others relax. Some particular scents I associate with different seasons and holidays (the very reason Yankee Candles has seasonal blends) and burning them conjures the feelings I have around those occasions.
So like Bell playing his Star Wars sound track, burning one of these seasonal candles might certainly help if I were writing a scene set at that time of year.
As to whether my ritual has any effect on the quality of my work I can’t really say. I only know that pausing to light a candle gets me in the mood to write and seems to enhance the overall experience.
And some days you need all the help you can get.
I'd love to hear from other authors what writing rituals you find helpful.
When my progress stalls in writing a novel, I often find a bit of directed freewriting helps me get back on track.
This sort of freewriting differs slightly from the usual ‘anything goes’ variety. I still write whatever pops into my head but I try to gently focus those thoughts on identifying and solving my problem.
For me the process has three basic steps:
Step 1: START WHERE YOU ARE
When I hit a snag, I often experience fears about whether the story itself is any good. At the very least, I feel frustrated that the project isn’t moving ahead as quickly and smoothly as I’d envisioned.
These fears and frustrations can pull the knot tighter and get in the way of solving the problem. So when I sit down to do directed freewriting, I start by trying to clear away as many negative feelings as I can.
If that means complaining that I don’t know what’s wrong or venting fears that my story’s no good, my characters boring, then that’s what I do. I just write whatever’s ‘on top’ and then let it all go.
Step 2: DEFINE THE QUESTION
Once I’ve unloaded my negative feelings I’m in a better frame of mind to address the problem. As my freewrite continues I try to direct my thoughts toward pinpointing exactly what has gone wrong.
I do this by asking and answering a series of questions until I find the one at the heart of the issue. For me this is half the battle – I can’t solve the problem till I’ve asked the right question.
I start off with very general ones and gradually refine them down to more and more specific ones.
A typical question and answer progression might look like this:
Q: Why has my progress on this story slowed? A: I’m not excited about my main character.
Q: Why doesn’t this character excite me? A: He hasn’t shown any likeable traits in the last twenty pages.
Q: Where in the last twenty pages could my character exhibit some positive trait and what could it be?
Basically I carry on a conversation with myself. (Or perhaps it’s one part of my brain talking to another.) In any case I usually end up with a specific question that defines the essence of my problem.
Step 3: WRITE UNTIL THE ANSWERS COME
Once I have this specific question I can get to work on solutions. It usually takes me 20-30 minutes of freewriting about a problem before answers and ideas start to come to me. I just have to have faith and keep writing.
One thing I know from long experience is that the answers always come as I’m writing. For some reason thinking alone isn’t enough; I have to physically write out my thoughts before the ideas start to emerge.
The last thing that helps me get back on track when I’ve hit a snag is simply accepting that unraveling knots is all part of my writing process.
I'm playing around with my latest writing tool – the chapter sequence – and have found another way it helps me expand and revise my novels.
Currently I’m looking for ways to ‘flesh out’ a first draft – to increase my wordcount and deepen my characters at the same time.
In my last post I described how I created snippets of things to add to the story and the chapter sequence helped me find places to insert them.
Now I’m doing it the other way around – reading through the chapter sequence (the short hand version of all my scenes) and asking myself what sorts of things my characters might be wondering or thinking about in each one.
I’ve written these topics down on a list for further development, after which I may add them to the story. My list includes things like:
Scanlon reflects on his actions towards Raina – is he out for justice or revenge?
Raina wonders what kind of mother she’d be
Erin reflects on her life before she landed on the streets
These are all things readers might wonder about as they’re reading the story. And knowing the answers will give them (and me) a deeper understanding of my characters.
The strange thing is, with my process of writing in layers, I can’t always know what some of these topics are going to be until after the first draft is finished.
What’s that great quote? ‘Only when I see what I’ve written do I know what I think.’? In my case it’s, Only when I see what I’ve written do I know the best way to flesh it out.)
But once the first draft is done and laid out in my chapter sequence, suddenly all sorts of possibilities leap out at me. Like stringing lights on a Christmas tree – the structure’s there, I’m just filling in the gaps.
So so far I have two uses for my chapter sequence: reading it through helps me generate ideas for things to add, and when I get an idea out of the blue, the sequence shows me where best to put it.
Nifty gadget, this CS.
I’m a confirmed outliner. Before I start every new novel I outline as much of the plot as possible; the more the better. Because once I actually start writing the story my aim is to plow ahead and not lose momentum.
For that reason I write in layers, (see Writing In Layers, Feb 2014) starting with the elements of story I find easiest to write – dialogue and action – and adding later in subsequent layers the things that take me a little more time – description and internal monologue.
I’ve just returned from a writing retreat at which I discovered a new tool that helps me in the final stage of this process.
Normally once my first draft is written, I discard my outline. With my current novel however I kept it – just on a whim – inserting chapter numbers to give me a comprehensive index of the plot.
I wasn’t sure how, or even if, I would use this ‘chapter sequence’ but thought it might come in handy for writing my synopsis at least. Or I could refer to it when doing revision.
At the retreat, where I’d set myself the goal of adding more depth to my characters, I spent most of my time freewriting about their pasts and jotting down issues or questions I thought they might reflect about in the story.
I ended up with a number of passages worth including. The problem was, once I’d created these various snippets, I didn’t know exactly where to insert them.
That’s where my chapter sequence came in. By reading it through, I could easily spot appropriate places to sprinkle these bits of reflection and narrative. Far faster and easier than searching through the entire manuscript.
This is the first time I’ve done it this way but it seems a useful technique to remember. One I’ll certainly try with my next book.
For me nothing feels better than knowing I've put in a good day's work doing what I love. Just at the moment my writing is going well and I'm at peace with the world. (Not always the case!)
Naturally I have to ask why this is happening. So I'll know for the next time I'm not feeling as good about writing. Is it the weather? The changing season? What's giving me this sense of satisfaction? What makes me jump out of bed in the morning and rush to the computer?
Basically it comes down to two things.
First, I'm making a bit of visible progress every day - a new scene, a bit of new dialogue, a new idea to explore further, etc.
And secondly I like what I'm coming up with. I like my story, I like the characters, I like the moral questions I've raised. I'm excited because I can see that the finished product might just be worth all the effort it's taking me to create.
That's it really. That's all I need to gain a sense of satisfaction, to keep me coming back to the page. Not the knowledge the writing is perfect but that I have the skills to fix what's wrong.
So believing is what yields the largest measure of that satisfaction. Believing I can meet the challenges of creating a work. Believing in my imagination to furnish ideas and my abilities as a writer to express them.
So a note-to-self for those times when the writing isn't going so well: There's no downside to believing in yourself. If you can't, pretend you're a writer who does.
I keep notebooks and journals for everything. One of the ones I've found most valuable is a companion to the novels I write.
My novel writing journal is different to the notebooks in which I develop my plot and characters for the story. My novel writing journal is a separate notebook where I record things not about the novels themselves, but about my personal experience in writing them.
These notes are a subjective analysis of my creative process, including how I feel about the story in its various stages. Things like:
How easy or difficult some sections of the book were to write.
What techniques worked to solve problems and which didn't.
Observations of my own fears and state of mind regarding the work.
My feelings about my writing in general and how they influenced my approach to this project.
To date I've kept notes on the creation of four different novels and in doing so have made some interesting discoveries.
I've learned for example that I'm very thorough in outlining the first half of my story, the climax scene and the ending. Once I've got this much sorted, however, the urge to begin writing the story usually overwhelms me.
I've learned that giving in to this urge is a mistake. Every time I do I've come to regret it! Because once I reach the point where my detailed scene-by-scene outline ends I always come to a grinding halt.
Another thing I've learned is that once I start a story, it's vital that I keep up my momentum, to write fast and never miss a day. To do this I have to stop myself editing as I write. I simply think of each word, each sentence as a place-holder for what will ultimately be there after I've revised them.
I've learned I always fly through the beginning of my story and then hit a wall when I reach the middle, but that I always manage to push through it.
I've learned I'm rarely excited by my characters during the first draft. It's only once I start fleshing them out and adding details in the subsequent 'layers' that the characters start to come alive for me. Only then do I start to get really excited about the story.
These are valuable things for me to know. If I didn't know them, each time they happened I'd probably panic, decide the story itself was no good and chuck it all in.
But because I have a record of my former experiences, when the going gets tough with my current one I can look back and see that the same thing happened last time. And - more importantly - that I successfully worked through the problem each time.
Writing a novel is a long winding road and it's difficult to remember all the steps I took along the way. It's a bit like childbirth - you tend to forget all the pain you went through bringing your baby into the world.
Recording those experiences helps me discover and refine my process.
With the new year I have a fresh crop of quotes and reminders pinned to the board above my computer.
As I’m currently reworking the first draft of my latest novel, most of these relate to revising and self-editing.
Many come from the how-to books of James Scott Bell, one of my favorite writing gurus.
Write fearlessly, write with joy. Leave your heart on every page.
Just because we can all write doesn’t mean we all have the same thing to say.
Three big scenes and no weak ones. John Huston’s secret to a successful film[book]
True character is only revealed in crisis. J.S. Bell
Dramatic characters, inventive plotline, exciting and intense situations… Leonard Bishop
Give them SUES. Something Unexpected in Every Scene. J.S. Bell
Write at your peak. Take breaks when it’s drudgery. J.S. Bell
Success is the sum of small efforts repeated daily. Robert Collier
Be excited about your story. The secret to excitement is to go deeper into your characters. J.S. Bell
When you write books readers love, platform takes care of itself. J.S. Bell
Have an inspired year of writing!
When I first started writing novels I’d get a few months into a new project and find myself wondering, why can’t this job be like other jobs? Why can’t a writer go to work each day, sit in an office surrounded by other writers, all typing merrily away? Why can’t we hold board meetings to discuss various ‘department projects’ or gather around the water cooler and nut out individual problems?
This daydream came to me so often, after a while I began to wonder if at least some of those things weren’t possible. I began to experiment with different ways of writing with others and over time arrived at a pleasant and surprising conclusion: for nearly every stage of the writing process there is a group activity I can take part in that makes the process far less lonely, a lot more fun, yet every bit as, if not more, productive.
So if you’re looking for ways to help keep yourself and friends writing in 2015, here are some fun ways I’ve found:
Pack Writing. Two or more friends get together for a day, or even just an afternoon, sit around someone’s kitchen table and work on their individual projects. Provided you don’t lapse into talking, writing with others creates a wonderful group energy, the experience much like riding a wave. For more variety, every time your ‘pack’ gets together it can be at a different member’s home.
Café Writing. Meet your writing friends at a café and freewrite together over coffee. Describe the setting, the people going by, record snippets of overheard conversation or come armed with topics to write about.
Have Pen/Will Travel. Same as the above but you meet in a different place every time: a park, a garden, a gallery, at the beach, an old ruin, an interesting building, etc. Form a group and let a different member select the venue each time you meet.
Freewriting/Flash Fiction Marathons. These work best with 3 to 6 people (any more and the readings take too long). Everyone brings a topic or two (and their lunch) and you spend the day writing and reading to each other: someone gives a topic, you set a timer for ten minutes and people either freewrite (ala Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones) or try to create a short short story (ala Roberta Allen’s approach in Fast Fiction)
Brainstorming Sessions. Hit a snag in your current story? Got an idea but don’t know how to develop into a plot? Get together with three of four writing buddies (who bring any problems they might be having) and kick around solutions over coffee or lunch.
Writing Retreats. If you’ve got the time and a suitable venue, nothing beats a writing retreat for getting masses of work done in a short time. No exercises provided, participants simply bring their current work in progress and work independently in an environment free of the distractions they’d have at home. (For more on retreats see my post dated March 2014)
None of the above activities needs a co-coordinator. They can be organized by any group of friends and accommodate writers of all different levels. Most require little planning and work best with fewer numbers so they cater well to individual needs and schedules.
For a creative shot in the arm, write with others in all sorts of ways and for all different purposes – groups large and small, narrow-interest or broad-focus, meeting regularly or on the spur of the moment.
Getting together with other writers reinforces the sense that what we do is important and meaningful. It’s a way to keep each other writing and remind us to have fun in the process.
Happy New Year and may the muses be with you in 2015!
There comes a point in every suspense novel I write where I wonder if I truly have dementia. I’d be convinced of it actually, if not for the fact it occurs in the same place every time.
I start out fine. With a detailed outline and a clear vision of my opening scenes, I power through the first hundred pages. Then things slow down. Understandable. Lots going on, lots of character threads to keep track of.
But then comes that moment, deep in the third quarter, in the lead up to the climax scene, where those threads just get in such a tangle my progress falters or stops completely. As it is right now with my current story.
As it has been for the last five days!
I know what happens in the climax scene and I know the ending. With 280 pages written and the rest in detailed outline form I know where I’ve been and I know where I’m going. On this journey that has taken close to nine months I can see the finish line. So why can’t I get there?
The only thing that gives me hope is that I’ve been here before. This exact thing happened with the last book I wrote, and the one before that, and I always managed to work my way out of it. It takes time and it’s frustrating but I eventually get there.
So today, instead of trying to ram my way through, I’m going to do something that’s helped in the past. My goal for the day is to simply write out each character’s version of the story. I’m going to take each of my three main characters and each of my three secondary ones and summarize the story according to them. Six separate individual journeys.
The reason this works (and the reason my problem exists in the first place) is because I write from multiple points of view. If I wrote in only one character’s pov this wouldn’t happen. But because I’m in the head of several different characters I need to know what each one is thinking – what they know, what they don’t know and what their experience has been so far.
By the time you get near the end of a story that’s a lot of information to keep track of. (So I’ll cut myself some slack in the dementia department.) Because no single character knows everything that’s happened. Each one has had a different experience. Only by knowing and clearly identifying my threads can I hope to weave them all together.
I’ll let you know how things turn out. In the meantime I’d love to hear if others have this same problem and if you’ve found any other tricks that work for you.
Aside from giving me feedback on my work, my crit group helps me in other ways and we enjoy sharing other writing-related activities.
One way my partners sometimes help me is when I’m feeling discouraged about my writing. At a meeting I might say to the group, ‘I’m feeling my writing is really terrible and I’m not getting any better. Can you tell me something you think I do well or some way you feel my writing has improved?’ They are always happy to oblige and I leave the meeting feeling much better.
Another thing I like to do once a year or so is to ask my partners for an objective assessment of my writing in general. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I like getting regular updates on my progress and no-one knows how my writing has evolved better than my crit partners.
If you were going to do this as a group, you could set aside an entire meeting (the first or last of the year seems most appropriate) in which every member would present a thoughtful supportive assessment of the others’ writing – that person’s current strengths and weaknesses, and how their writing has improved.
If all partners take part in this it can be a help with critiquing throughout the year. Defining and discussing each members’ writing weaknesses helps others in the group focus on those areas when doing their critiques.
Another way my crit partners help me is when I run into a problem with my plot. The trick to getting the best help here is to clearly explain your problem and present your partners with a specific question. (If my character does X in the second chapter how can he do Y in the 10th?)
These brainstorming sessions are often my group’s most animated discussions as everyone feeds off the ideas of others. Plus I'm capitalizing on the combined knowledge all of them have outside of writing.
By far the most fun things I do with my crit partners is writing retreats. Three times a year the four of us go away to a remote setting, often with other writer friends, and spend an entire week doing nothing but writing. Talk about a creative shot in the arm!
Who said writing was a lonely activity?
Following on from last time, this post deals with the inner dynamics of a successful crit group.
Once you’ve found partners you feel you can work with, your goal will be to keep everyone happy. Respect is the key and it’s a two-way street. Below are some things to consider when exchanging your work.
On presenting your work to others:
#1 Use correct formatting
If someone takes the time to critique your work you owe it to them to make it as easy to read as possible. Always use standard submission formatting: double-spaced, Times New Roman, 1.5-inch margins, pages numbered, title and author name in the header. Handwritten scrawl, single-spaced print, and work with no indents or punctuation is not only hard to read, it leaves little room for your partners to write their comments. If you aim to be published, it's good to get in the habit of formatting your work to industry standards.
#2 Present work as error-free as possible
No-one expects your work to be perfect but to get the most from your partners always give them your best efforts. At the very least spell-check and read through your work to catch whatever typos you can. Never hand over something you know has mistakes in it as you’ll just be wasting everyone’s time.
The one exception is if you’re having trouble with some element of the writing and want your partners’ thoughts on how to fix it. In this case it’s best to mention the problem when you give them the piece so they know what to focus on when reading it.
Similarly, don’t hand over work you know you’re about to make major revisions to. Nothing is more frustrating than to spend hours thoughtfully considering someone’s work only to have them say, ‘Oh, I changed all that,’ when you give them your comments.
#3 Specify what feedback you want
Wherever possible help your partners by giving them specific questions or points to focus on when reading your work. Examples might include:
Are my characters behaving believably in this scene?
Is my story’s main conflict enough to sustain it through 400 pages?
Does my dialogue sound realistic?
How is the pacing in this chapter? Did I slow things down with too much backstory?
Inexperienced critics and those less confident will find this helpful and you'll have a much better chance of getting what you need from them.
#4 Consider all feedback
If someone takes the time to review your work, show respect for their efforts by at least listening to their comments. If you instantly dismiss every point your partners make they could end up wondering why they bothered.
Even if you don’t agree with a point your partner is making, listen, nod and acknowledge you’ll think about. Ask questions certainly but don’t argue or feel you need to justify your way of doing it. And even if you disagree with everything a partner says, always thank them for their time.
Believing your partners are on your side and want only to help you improve your writing makes hearing negative feedback easier. However, sensing that someone is making a comment just to show they know more than you definitely puts a different slant on things.
If you find yourself growing defensive or consistently dismissing everything your partners say about your work, you need to consider one of two things: (a) they aren’t the right partners for you, or (b) you aren’t ready to be critiqued.
#5 Don’t feel you have to make changes suggested
On the flip side of the above, never feel you have to make all, or even any, of the changes your partners suggest. With early drafts of a work your partners might not have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say. Allow yourself the freedom to explore a certain path before abandoning it and never feel pressured by others to do so. In any case it’s your story and if a suggestion doesn’t feel right, just don’t do it.
On the other hand, if all your partners have the same criticism of the same point, you need to give some serious thought to why it isn’t working for them.
#6 Feedback on feedback
Every now and then, tell your partners which of their comments and areas of focus proved most helpful to you in revising your work. Knowing the kind of feedback you find most valuable will help them become more efficient at their job.
#7 Going elsewhere
When your story is reaching its final revisions it sometimes helps to give it to someone outside your critiquing group. Seek feedback from non-writers especially. Writers can get hung up on craft and miss the big picture. A reader, especially one who reads in your genre, can tell you simply if the story is working.
Notes on giving feedback to others:
#1: Know when to leave someone else’s work alone
This has to be one of the hardest things about critiquing! As Oscar Wilde put it: ‘There is no energy so great as the urge to rewrite someone else’s work.’
If you value your partners as creative individuals avoid the temptation to tinker with their work simply to rephrase it in your own words. Most new and developing writers are still struggling to find their voice. Part of your role as their crit partner should be to encourage them to discover it. (i.e. - their voice, not yours.)
#2: Find something good on every page.
This isn’t always easy and not because the writing’s awful, in fact it’s usually the opposite. Mistakes leap out at you and are easier to see, but when the writing’s good you simply become immersed in the story.
If you find the latter happening it’s important to try and determine exactly how the author accomplished it. Writers learn as much, if not more, from knowing what they’re doing right as from hearing their mistakes. Plus it helps you as a writer to clearly identify the elements of effective writing in use.
#3: Don’t overwhelm the author with comments.
When I first started writing I once gave a short story to a writer friend whose work I respected. A week later she returned my pages absolutely covered in red ink. All her comments were sincere and valid yet I ended up shoving the piece in a drawer and never went back to it. As a beginner I just couldn’t get past all that red!
No matter how encouraging you are and how positively you phrase your remarks, making too many corrections at once is discouraging for any writer. If you’re faced with a piece of writing that has so many things wrong with it you don’t know where to begin, the safest thing to do is a broad-strokes critique. At most choose one or two finer points to comment on and leave the rest for another time.
#4: Vary your feedback according to what stage the work is at.
This is mainly to save yourself time and effort. If someone hands you a rough first draft, stick to mainly broad-stroke comments: Is the conflict apparent? Are the characters well motivated? Is the point of view clear? There’s no point doing a detailed line edit on work that will likely be changed in revision.
#5 Trust your judgment
If you’re new to critiquing and haven't a clue what to say to someone about their work, try getting hold of a judge’s score sheet from one of the many writing organizations that hold annual competitions. These sheets contain basic questions on plot, craft and style (much like the questions contained in this post) that help judges evaluate entries.
But even if you don’t have a score sheet and know little about the craft of writing, if you read books you'll be able to give your partners valuable feedback purely from a reader's point of view: Does the story engage you? Do you like the characters? Were any parts confusing to you?
Next time - part 3: Other fun things to do with your crit group.
I’ve been part of an active critiquing group for the last 14 years. I can’t tell you how much my partners have helped me. Here are just some of the many benefits my group provides me:
Fresh pairs of eyes to catch the mistakes I will always miss no matter how many times I check my work!
Feedback on whether what I’m trying to say is actually coming across on the page
Ideas and inspiration regarding my plots
Brainstorming and problem solving when I hit a snag
Encouragement when I’m feeling down
A kick in the butt when I’m being lazy
A passion shared to make writing less lonely
Crit groups can definitely have a downside and I consider myself lucky to have found a good one. The longer I do it, the more I realize that critiquing is an art and even with the best intentions feedback can do more harm than good.
The following are points to consider if you’re thinking of joining or forming a crit group:
#1 Be Ready
If you’re just starting out with writing don’t be in a hurry to join a crit group. Give yourself time to gain confidence and solidify your author voice. Experiment with all types of writing – journaling, short story, essay, blogging, poetry, etc. The good news is if you’re an avid reader you’ll have already picked up a lot about the craft of writing that will naturally find its way into your own work.
When you do feel ready to take the plunge…
#2 Choose your critiquing partners carefully.
Like any important relationship you need to be able to trust your partners. Creativity is a fragile thing and your confidence as a writer can be damaged by thoughtless or harsh criticism.
Wherever possible ‘test drive’ a group before committing to it. Even better, form your own by hand picking writers you trust and respect and who seem on the same wavelength as you.
Start by approaching some fellow writers and asking if they’ll look at a few pages of your work. Once you’ve gotten a bit of feedback identify the people who make you feel good about your writing and the ones who make you want to give up.
This doesn’t mean to seek out only people who tell you your work is great. Just find the ones who give you feedback in a way that will keep you fired up about writing. Like great teachers, good crit partners are hard to find but well worth searching for.
#3: Choose partners who write in the same genre you do. (Or not.)
Some fiction genres – mystery, fantasy, and romance in particular – have specific reader expectations. People who write and/or read these genres will be most familiar with their unique requirements and best able to tell you if you’re fulfilling them. On the other hand having partners who write in different genres means you’ll be getting a variety of perspectives on your work.
#4: Keep It Small
Because my crit group only has 4 members, I’m not overwhelmed by masses of conflicting feedback on my work. It also means I can devote more time and thought to my partners’ work without cutting into my own writing time. Another big plus of a small group is it reduces the risk of meetings turning into talk-fests.
#5 Choose partners with the same level of commitment you have.
If you’re serious about writing and improving your skills, seek out people who feel the same. People committed to showing up to meetings, thoughtfully reading the work of others, encouraging them, helping them stay focused on their goals and who are equally keen to improve their own skills, both as a writer and a critic. Passion is contagious but so is apathy. Surround yourself with passionate people and ride the wave of your group’s collective enthusiasm.
# 6 Choose partners with similar writing goals
If you’re just after feedback on your writing this issue isn’t a must. But if your aim is to be published, you’ll be doing other things in addition writing. Having partners who share your dream of publication means you can help each other keep an eye out for publishers, write query letters, practice pitches, compose synopsis, and even attend conferences together.
# 7 Protect Your Muse
Once you’ve joined a critiquing group continually monitor if you’re getting what you need from its members. A good crit group should be the wind beneath your creative wings, encouraging you to believe in yourself, take creative risks and move past rejections. If you constantly come away from meetings feeling discouraged and depressed it’s time to look elsewhere for support. Avoid like the plague:
people who give only negative feedback and never say what’s good about your work
people who try to rewrite your work in their own words
people who criticize just to show how much they know or make themselves look superior
anyone with low standards who thinks ‘close enough is good enough’
Next post: Critiquing Groups, part 2: Giving and Receiving Feedback
Since 2005 I’ve kept notes on every novel I read. As a writer struggling to learn the craft I thought it would help to study the techniques of other authors. I made notes on the things I liked and wanted to emulate in my own work, and also what I didn’t like and wanted to avoid.
I’ve never posted these on Amazon or Goodreads as they’re not so much reviews as analysis purely for my own education. However since I’ve devoted this blog to the writing process it seems a good place to finally share them.
For starters, here are my notes on the book I just finished: Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay.
Barclay’s opening paragraph is subtly tantalizing, ending with the phrase, ‘…it turned out this was going to be the day.’
I much prefer this to the desperate attempts many suspense authors make to hook their reader with some shocking over-the-top opening scene. (The unnamed victim being stalked and/or murdered by the unnamed killer would have to be the most over used hook in the genre. I don’t know this person – why should I care?)
The rest of Barclay’s first chapter is simply a man walking down a street in NY taking in the sights. His slightly odd slant on what he’s seeing is enough to keep me interested. (That’s all it takes. No blood, no screaming, just an interesting character in an intriguing situation.)
It isn’t till near the end of the chapter, when the character looks up and sees someone being murdered in a window that the hook is set.
At it’s core Trust Your Eyes is basically the Witness plot (see blog post on Recycling Plots). Barclay gives the plot an original twist by having the protagonist’s mentally disabled brother as the witness – he sees something on the internet, the killers find out and come to silence them.
There are two main plot threads, one following protagonist Ray who’s trying to decide what to do with his brother Thomas after the death of their father who looked after him. The other following the criminals steps to eliminate all witnesses to their crime.
For most of the story the two brothers carry on oblivious to the danger they’re in and this works well to build tension. Through their interactions, both with each other and an old high school friend, Julie, we get to know and care about them. So when we see what the killers are doing to other witnesses and know the same fate awaits the brothers, it has much greater impact.
The story was good in itself but the twist at the end really made it something special. Just when I’d come to believe certain things about the characters, Barclay turned those beliefs on their head.
The ending also gave me an interesting insight into the book’s targeted readership. It seemed to me that if the story had ended without the final chapter it would target more readers of women’s fiction, perhaps even romantic suspense. But Barclay’s last chapter changes everything giving the story a much more disturbing resonant finish more suited to readers of hard core thrillers.
Interesting how that single chapter could change the whole market focus of the book.
A question writers are often asked is 'where do you get your ideas from?' For me ideas come from anything I see or experience that intrigues me enough to ask 'what-if':
What if a woman saved a man's life and then learned he was a serial killer?
What if a woman who'd lost her son had to save a homeless boy from killers?
What-if's are seeds that stories grow from. I get what-if's from many sources - dreams, news stories, interesting facts, people I meet, overheard snippets of conversations, personal experience, even films or books that didn't go the way I wanted them to. All I need is some kind of spark that catches my attention and makes me wonder.
Whenever an idea comes to me, no matter how small or fragmentary, I write it in one of the notebooks I keep. Even partially-formed ideas can sometimes coalesce with others to form useable plots.
(I never trust myself to remember ideas. I know from bitter experience I won't; at least not with the vision and energy I got when they first came to me. Every time I read through my notebooks I find things I completely forgot putting there!)
Sometimes what-if's come with a ready-made story attached to them. More often I have to explore an idea to see what's there. Here's how the process generally works for me:
When I'm ready to start a new novel, I pull out my Ideas notebooks and read through them. As I do this a number of what-if's usually leap out at me. If one of them grabs me and won't let go, my decision is easy - I take that idea and move to the next step of developing it. Often however I can't choose between several ideas and have to go through the process with all of them.
I start by getting a few cheap notebooks - one for each idea I want to develop - and for the next few weeks my writing day consists of the following:
1. Seated in my comfy plotting chair, I open one notebook and freewrite on the idea by hand until I run out of steam.
This is literally stream-of-consciousness writing, I'm just wandering with no direction. I write down anything and everything that comes to me. Why did this idea catch my attention? Who might the story be about? What do they want? Who or what stands in their way?
Before long I start getting flashes of images, conversations or dramatic scenes that the story might contain. Paying no attention to where they'll appear in the story, I record these ideas, which generally give rise to more.
When I've exhausted my thoughts on one plot I take a break, then switch to the next notebook and do the same with that idea.
I work this way because of something I long ago learned about myself - ideas always come to me AS I'm writing. (I think because I'm hyperactive my thoughts are always racing and I have trouble focusing. Forcing myself to write out my thoughts slows them down and gives me a better chance to consider them.)
2. The next day (or next writing session) I read through my freewrites of the session before and underline the parts I like. Starting with these pieces of the plot I freewrite again, adding more bits as they come to me. If I don't like anything from my last day's freewrite I go back to the beginning and freewrite on my original what-if.
After several weeks, these freewriting sessions usually yield the synopsis of a story. For me the synopsis is 'telling' the story - it's a general overview of what will happen and the people involved. Once I have this, I then move on to 'showing' the story by creating my scene-by-scene outline. (See entries: Why I Outline and How I Outline)
The hardest thing about this initial exploration process is convincing myself I'm actually working. Freewriting feels too easy to me. If I'm having fun it can't be work!
I have to keep reminding myself that play is a vital part of the creative process. My instinct is always to try and take control of the story's direction, but in this early development stage that's not what I want.
I have to trust my subconscious (or higher self or wherever creative thought comes from) and let go of the reins. In this formative stage my goal is to simply remain silent and listen to the story seeking to emerge.
Halfway through the year (already!) and I need to remind myself of some things, so a fresh crop of pin-ups has appeared on the board above my writing desk:
Stop worrying about things you have no control over and focus on the ones you do: writing every day, pushing yourself to find better, more original ideas, conducting yourself in a professional manner, believing all that you want is possible.
Take complete control of your thoughts. Know exactly what you want and allow yourself to imagine nothing else. The instant doubt starts to whisper in your ear – silence it! It’s your head, you don’t have to listen.
Don’t expect to be excited by your plot until you’ve filled it with characters you love.
And just for fun…
Some of the world’s greatest feats were accomplished by people too dumb to know that what they were trying to do was impossible. Doug Carson
Only a mediocre writer is always at his best. Somerset Maugham
The chances of a project reaching fruition is inversely proportionate to the amount of time you spend talking about it.
And lastly...on a yellowed scrap of paper, covered over by more recent pin-ups, I found this one dated December 1990:
Feeling discouraged or depressed about failures is a luxury you can’t afford. If you aren’t succeeding in what you set out to do, you just aren’t working hard enough. It’s not a question of intelligence or talent. If you think you’re working hard now, then do more. If you really want something, it’s worth the effort. And if you have to work twice as hard as someone else to accomplish the same thing then so be it. Fairness has nothing to do with it!!
I’m reading an interesting book at the moment called BOUNCE by Matthew Syed about master athletes. I’m not a sports person by any stretch but I like reading books about people achieving their goals.
The chapter in BOUNCE I found most interesting from a writer’s point of view was the one on choking. Choking starts with an athlete’s intense desire to succeed. (Choking never happens when you’re playing a casual game in your back yard; it’s always at the most important event of the season, possibly of your entire career.)
The athlete is usually stunned when they choke. After all those hours of analysis and practice, how could things go so horribly wrong? Syed explains:
In striving to master an advanced motor skill (a tennis serve or golf swing, for example), athletes break the movement down into parts (what their wrist is doing, what their shoulders are doing, how they’re standing, etc), focus on each part individually, then slowly put them all together into one fluid movement.
During this process the skill is gradually transformed in the brain from ‘explicit’ to ‘implicit’ memory. In other words it goes from being something you have to think about to an action that is automatic.
The difference between these two types of memory becomes apparent when one person tries teach another how to drive a manual car. For anyone who’s learned the skill the movements are automatic. But in order to explain them to someone else you have to break things down again. Essentially you have to set aside your learned (implicit) memory of the skill and experience being a beginner again.
So what happens when an athlete chokes? It all comes down to that intense desire to succeed, the pressure the person puts on themselves. The more important a match or game is to the player, the greater their tendency to want to be in complete control. But in seeking to control their every movement, the athlete disengages from his implicit memory and returns to the clumsy realm of the beginner.
In reading this, it seemed to me that the equivalent for a writer is writer’s block. And it’s brought about by the exact same thing. When a project becomes too important, when the goal of publication grows too big in our minds, we tend to focus on the craft, the rules of writing, rather than the story we want to tell.
In our intense desire to write ‘well’ we set aside whatever mastery we may have already acquired and once again become self-conscious beginners. Our voices ‘choked’.
At least this has been my own experience. And the reason I try to write my first draft fast, and save the editing until it’s done. A difficult challenge for any control freak!
When I first started writing fifteen years ago someone offered me the usual advice: write what you enjoy reading. I thought that was pretty obvious – who would write a book they wouldn’t want to read? So I didn’t give it very much thought.
Fast forward ten years (and 8 unpublished novels) later, and I again heard that phrase put a bit differently – write the book you would love to be reading. Maybe it was the pile of rejections I had by then collected, but the statement pulled me up this time and I sat down and gave it some serious thought.
I imagined myself walking into a book store and seeing my most recent creation there on the shelf beside the books of my favorite authors, and I asked myself, which one would I buy? I’m not talking voice or style here, just the story itself. Which would I enjoy reading most – the one I had written, or the one some total stranger had written?
The answer stunned me. I wasn’t sure.
The fact I even hesitated blew me away. I’m a writer. When I put a story together I’m in control of every aspect of it – the setting, the characters, what happens to them, how it all ends. With that much power, how could I fail to create a story I loved more than any other?
The answer that came to me seemed a bit crazy: maybe I didn’t know what I loved. I could obviously recognize it when I saw it in someone else’s work, but maybe I needed to clarify those elements before I could incorporate them into my own.
With this as my goal, I sat down and wrote out lists of ‘my favorites’ – novels, films, protagonists, villains, settings, dramatic situations, most moving scenes, etc. Anything and everything related to storytelling.
When I finished, I went through my lists and defined what I loved about each item. Then I looked for recurring elements, clues that might lead me to even deeper levels of personal meaning. In some cases I had to look closely. (Aliens and The Client might not seem to have much in common but I assure you, for me, they do.)
What I ended up with in doing this exercise was a trove of treasures. These at last were my loves defined. These were the elements of theme, character, plot and setting that had deep personal meaning for me.
Looking back at my earlier novels, I could see I’d incorporated some of these elements into every one. But never had I combined them all into one story.
So that’s what I did. I took all my favorite elements – my favorite character types, my favorite theme, my favorite setting, etc – put them together and said, ‘Right, this is what I have to work with. Create a story using these elements.’
The result was Run To Me. And from the moment it began to take shape in my mind it was my favorite of any story I’d ever written.
The moral for me? Only by clearly defining what moves me can I communicate it to others.
Writing has to be the most up and down ride of any profession. In the morning I'm tearing my hair out because I've hit a major snag with my novel, and in the afternoon the answer hits me and I'm flying high.
I present what I feel is some of my best writing ever, only to have those feelings dashed when my crit partners point out some major flaws.
I submit to an editor the very thing she says she's looking for, only to receive my twentieth rejection - on the same day I learn some writer half my age has just sold her first manuscript in a six-figure deal!
As a writer it seems my feelings can change not just hourly but by the minute. To help me survive this roller coaster ride I create affirmations - short snappy phrases, some almost like poems, easy to remember and repeat to myself or post on my desk.
At various times I've used these phrases to lift my spirits, give my courage, keep me going, sooth my hurt pride, envision a future where my dreams can come true, or simply help me keep things in perspective. Here are a few of my favorites
I release all negative limiting beliefs, I can do anything I set my mind to.
I am calm and confident around other people, I communicate easily and affectively.
I have all the talent I need to succeed; I am enough.
I am a brilliant and prolific writer; my voice is unique, my stories original
The success of others doesn’t diminish me, I am on a separate path.
My writing and purpose remain unchanged, all experience is part of my journey.
Others I've used along the way
I will hold my published book in my hands before the end of ________
Opportunity exists in every situation, I open myself to all possibilities.
I surrender to the story trying to emerge
I can do it, this matters to me; nothing is going to stand in my way.
My goal is sacred, my purpose set; with every action I honor my dream.
I'm happy just to be on this journey.
When I first joined a writing group, one of their favorite exercises was freewriting to a given topic. (Or timed writing, as Natalie Goldberg calls it in Writing Down The Bones.) Someone would say, ‘write about a childhood fear’ or ‘a recurring dream’ or whatever, then hit the timer for 10 minutes and off we’d all go. Everyone, that is, except me.
While everyone else was writing madly, I’d sit there with a dumb look on my face, struggling to think of a single thing to write about. By the time I finally did think of something, the ten minutes was nearly up. Yet the minute I walked out the door, dozens of ideas popped into my head!
To remedy this, I began slipping in a preliminary step of brainstorming a list of suitable topics before I began. Somehow this took the pressure off, as well as giving me a choice of memories to write about. But I’d always remember more and usually better topics after the writing session was over.
In the end I started saving my lists. Whenever I thought or heard of a freewriting topic I’d write it on a page in a notebook and add my thoughts and memories as they came to me. (For a list devotee this is sheer heaven. Imagine an entire A4 notebook filled with nothing but pages of lists!)
I found this exercise extremely interesting. It struck me that one person’s list of their loves, hates, fears, regrets, dreams, etc is totally different from anyone else’s. These traits and memories are what define us and make us who we are – the sum of all our experience. And because they provide such tremendous insight, I found inventing lists for my fictional characters a great way to get to know them.
Since I first started keeping lists, my original A4 notebook has grown to two, soon to be three. Keeping lists of my memories, traits and experiences means I always have something to write about. If ever I want to do timed writing practice, I just open my notebook to one of the pages and choose a topic.
Here are just some of the headings for the lists in my books:
Loves, Hates, Fears, Regrets, Successes, Failures, Strengths, Weaknesses, Quirks, Superstitions, Interests, Hobbies, Goals,
Treasured Possessions Risks I’ve Taken
Recurring Dreams Nightmares
Obsessions Unforgettable Places
Unforgettable Sights Coincidences
Childhood Toys Dumb Things I Did As A Kid
Childhood Fears Childhood Dreams
Childhood Illnesses Labels I’ve Had
People Who Visited Our House When I Was Young
Expressions My Family Used
Things I Value In Myself and Others
Things I Believe Prejudices I Have
Things I Collect Psychic Experiences
Times I Acted Heroically ‘Me’ Things
Haunting Experiences Firsts
Before my first novel, Run To Me, was accepted by Random House, I acquired nearly 100 rejections for eight prior novels. Here are some thoughts that helped me keep going through those difficult times:
The best way to survive rejection is to enjoy writing for its own sake. Love the process, not the payoff.
To get anywhere at anything in life you have to take risks. Submit your work. Rejections are the writer’s badges of honor. Wear them with pride.
The ones who never fail are the ones who never try. View each rejection as proof you are actively pursuing your goal.
One way to ease the sting of rejection is to always have something ‘out there’. When one piece gets knocked back your hopes for the others will help keep you going.
Believe it or not there is an upside to not being published. The minute you sign a contract you have deadlines, revisions, promotion obligations, and reader expectations to live up to. When you haven’t been published you can write what you want, when you want and take as long as you like to do it.
Write through everything. No matter what mood you’re in or whatever else is happening in your life. If you continue to do what you love, you give rejection less power over you.
These days many publishers like their authors to produce a book a year. If you write slowly this can be a problem. But if you have a few older manuscripts stockpiled, you may be able to reach your quota by revising instead of starting from scratch. So think of those rejected manuscripts not as failures, but as planes on the runway ready to take off once you do get a publishing deal.
Don’t give up. Believe those agents and editors who tell you this is a subjective business. They aren’t just saying that to soften the blow of rejection. The book one agent vowed was unpublishable has more than once been snapped up by another and become a best seller.
Anyone aiming at a career in writing must learn the craft. Joining writers organizations, attending conferences and workshops, and reading books are all ways to acquire this knowledge. But as important as this information is, it can end up working against you if you let it.
When I first got serious about writing, I devoured every book I could find about craft. (A testament to those days is the 186 books on this subject I now have lining my workroom shelves!)
Of course I learned a lot from those books; essential knowledge I needed as a writer. The problem was, I got to the point I had so many rules in my head, I couldn’t put a single sentence on the page without some inner voice pointing out the mistakes I was making.
In the end I had to find ways to silence that inner critic or I wouldn’t get any writing done. Here are some of the best ways I found.
Freewriting goes by other names – stream-of-consciousness writing, timed writing, flash writing. But whatever you call it, the idea is the same: pick a topic and let yourself go.
With freewriting you don’t give a thought to grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc; you just write whatever pops in your head. If you make a mistake, don’t cross it out, don’t even stop, just keep your hand moving.
In Writing Down The Bones, Natalie Goldberg suggests setting a timer and writing as fast as you can until it goes off. That way your internal critic doesn’t get a chance to edit your words.
If you think of your creative mind as a dog, freewriting is letting it off the leash for a run. By giving yourself the freedom to write anything with no expectations, you escape the tyranny of rules and the judgments of your inner critic.
If done according to the principles of freewriting, journaling is another way to silence your critic. The difference with journaling is you don’t use a timer and there’s no set topic. Personally I find both techniques useful – journaling relaxes me and freewriting is like shot of espresso.
The great thing about both freewriting and journaling is that they solidify your author voice. Because you’re not trying to write like someone else, or even well, you’re more likely to express yourself naturally, in your own true voice.
Write your first draft fast.
When I practice journaling or freewriting regularly it becomes easier to allow myself the same freedom when writing the first draft of a story. By telling myself ‘this doesn’t count’ I naturally slip into freewriting mode. As an added bonus, writing fast lets me take full advantage of the initial enthusiasm I feel for my topic.
Practice until it becomes automatic.
There’s a fourth way I’ve found that helps silence my inner critic and it’s possibly the best way of all. When, in my study of the craft, I find a rule I want to apply to my own writing, I practice it first. I practice it until the ‘right’ way becomes automatic. And – here’s the trick – I practice it away from my work in progress.
A jazz musician striving to improve his improvisation skills learns all the modes in every key. He practices these scales until they simply flow from his fingers and he doesn’t have to think about them anymore.
If a musician has to consciously recall the formula for a Dorian mode, there’s no way his improvisation with flow. Those scales have to be there, in his fingers, ready to incorporate into the music with no conscious effort.
I believe it works the same for writers. When I read about something I think will improve my writing, I can’t just say, ‘that’s a good idea, I’ll start doing that’ and then go off to work on my novel. Rather than help, that rule will just become a stumbling block, something I’ll trip over every time the issue comes up.
The better way is to practice it first, away from my writing, by setting myself targeted exercises. Here’s an example.
For a while I got into the habit of starting a lot of my sentences with words ending in ‘ing’:
‘Tearing her gaze from the aberration, she looked out the window.’
‘Holding her breath, she slid her handbag off the shelf.’
Now this sentence structure is perfectly fine, there’s nothing wrong with it – unless you overdo it, which I was. But as soon as a writer friend pointed this out to me, it became just one more thing my inner critic could nag me about. I decided, rather than let that happen, I would address the issue before I returned to my work in progress.
To start, I went through some of my chapters and wrote down all the sentences starting with an ‘ing’ word. When I had about a dozen, I set myself the task of finding five alternate ways to write each sentence.
This exercise not only opened my eyes to the many ways I could rephrase a sentence, it helped me break the habit I’d gotten into of limiting myself to just a few. Further, by opening up this range of options, when I returned to my work in progress I came up with alternate sentence structures without having to consciously think about it.
These are the ways that help me best in silencing my inner critic. Of course I don’t want to silence her forever as I’ll need her knowledge in the editing stage. But for now, as I’m writing my current first draft, I’m happy for her to sit in the closet!
We’re coming up to my favorite time of year. Retreat season!
Normally I write at home, alone in my work room. But three times a year I organize retreats on behalf of my critiquing partners and a group of other novelist friends. Eight of us rent a secluded seaside camp and meet there for a week of uninterrupted writing.
Some writing retreats I’ve heard about have a mentor who presents talks and gives feedback on participants’ work, but ours aren’t run that way. At our retreats everyone simply works independently on their current project, taking full advantage of the lack of distractions they might otherwise have at home (housework, phone calls, family demands, TV, etc).
Each of us gets a table in the hall overlooking the ocean and from dawn till dusk (and on into the night for some) all we do is sit and write – with breaks for coffee and walks on the beach as each of us chooses.
At night after dinner, we have an hour of group discussion. Anyone who wants to can read something they’ve written that day or present a problem they’ve encountered with their story for the group to brainstorm.
Why I love retreats
Sitting in that hall with seven other dedicated writers working around me, I feel lifted on a wave of creative energy. There really is something to group synergy. All of us agree we write far more while on retreat than we would in the same amount of time at home. (One of our regular attendees wrote the first draft of her entire novel in just three week-long retreats!)
It isn’t just the lack of distractions I love. It’s being surrounded by people with a common goal and the same passion for writing I feel. As I sit there beside them I have a clear sense that what I’m doing is important, that others value it. Sometimes I lose sight of that fact when slogging away alone at home.
At the moment I’m preparing for our first retreat of the year coming up at the end of March. (Only three weeks to go!)
This one will be a bit special for me as my debut novel, RUN TO ME, is due to be released in the U.S. and U.K. on April 1st – halfway through the retreat. Since I can’t be overseas to launch my book, I’m planning a celebration dinner at the retreat complete with champagne. We might not get much writing done that night!