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Fast forward ten years (and 8 unpublished novels) later, and I again heard that phrase put a bit differently – write the book you would love to be reading.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!
I’ve been juggling for about five years now. I’m not that great at it but I enjoy it. I do get some curious looks however. I guess a woman my age isn’t the sort most people expect to see juggling.
Leonardo da Vinci was an avid juggler. He believed it balanced both the body and the mind. Being ambidextrous, he may have had a slight advantage over me. Still, I have my reasons for sticking with it. And some of them actually have to do with writing:
Juggling is one of the few things I do (along with practicing the violin) that doesn’t involve words. Juggling is a classic example of the type of ‘wordless recreation’ Dorothea Brand talks about in her book, Becoming A Writer: ‘If you want to stimulate yourself in writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways.’
The soothing repetitive rhythm of juggling is like movement meditation. It frees my subconscious to explore plot ideas and ponder creative solutions to story problems.
Other wordless activities include knitting, gardening, cooking, painting, solitaire, even housework. The trick is not to let your wordless activity become a way to avoid writing.
Juggling, especially learning a new pattern, gets me in touch with my ‘beginners mind’ – something Natalie Goldberg discusses in her book, Writing Down the Bones. ‘Beginners mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write.’
Juggling reminds me that success isn’t all (or even mostly!) about talent. No matter how bad I am at something to start with, I will always improve if I work at it.
After sitting at a desk for much of the day, juggling is a welcome bit of exercise and especially helps loosen my shoulders.
Juggling in front of others gives me practice dealing with performance anxiety and, in an indirect way, improves my presentation skills as an author.
Other reasons I juggle:
It’s fun. It makes me feel like a kid.
It’s something I can share with my son.
I’ve always enjoyed learning new skills.
I feel great satisfaction mastering a difficult pattern.
Juggling warms me up when I’m cold.
Juggling relaxes me.
Bottom line: it just plain feels good.
If you want to see why I love juggling so much, check out this video of my all time juggling hero, Chris Bliss. www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNssOKZr9dc
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!
I gradually discovered my writing process over the course of writing eleven novels. In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how and why I outline before I begin. But the step after that – transforming my outline into a first draft – I actually do in several stages. A process I think of as ‘writing in layers’.
Some aspects of writing come easier for me than others. Dialogue, for example, is what I find easiest. Description on the other hand takes me longer, as does internal monologue and scene transitions. And brilliant metaphors – don’t hold your breath!
So in creating my first draft, rather than focus on all these elements all at once, I do each one individually. I write the story through several times, each time focusing on a different element, starting with the one I find easiest and adding the harder ones in subsequent layers.
Sometimes I do this a chapter at a time, but usually in larger blocks. So I might write a hundred pages of mostly dialogue and then go back and flesh them out before moving on to the next hundred pages.
Why dialogue first.
We all mentally process and recall information via our senses. When you think about a lover, you might see their face as well as hear their laugh; you might even recall the scent of their perfume and the feel of their skin.
But everyone has a dominant sense in this regard. For the majority of people, that sense is vision, but for the second largest group, it’s hearing. (When you remember a phone number do you see it or hear it in your head?)
I fall into the second category. I don’t know if I was born that way or my training in music pushed me in that direction but this has affected the way I write.
Because I can hear what my characters are saying easier than I can see what they’re doing, my first layer is mainly dialogue (with a bit of action narrative thrown in.) Whenever I get stuck, I just sit back, close my eyes, silence my thoughts, and after a moment, almost without fail, I start hearing my characters speaking.
I think of this initial dialogue layer as my ‘getting-to-know-you’ draft. My outline only tells me so much – the basics about my characters’ backgrounds, conflicts and goals. Hearing what they say to each other – the words they choose, the attitudes they adopt when conveying them – tells me a lot about who they are. I also get a clearer sense of how they interact and challenge each other.
In my second layer of writing a first draft I focus on what my characters are thinking. I guess because thinking is only one step removed from speaking, I find this the next easiest element to add.
This is a fascinating layer to write. It’s amazing how the impact of dialogue can change when you add what the characters are thinking as they speak. If a character says one thing while thinking the opposite, it completely changes the effect for the reader. And if a character thinks something but holds themselves back from actually voicing it, it adds depth and conflict to the scene.
In the final layer of writing my draft, I add the parts I find hardest to write – description of the setting, the action, the people; transitions from one scene to the next; the odd snappy comeback, a compelling metaphor here and there. Because I’m not trying to do everything at once, I can relax and enjoy adding these details.
With this layer done, my draft is complete. But it’s still only my first draft. At this point I find it helpful to set the manuscript aside for a while, or give it to my critiquing partners for their thoughts and comments.
In the meantime, I read a few books on craft to remind myself what I’ll soon be editing for. Then I come back, read my manuscript all the way through, marking the things I want to change or add in the revision stage.
You would think this approach would take much longer. Hard enough writing a novel once, let alone four times! But actually the opposite is true for me. Because I’m not constantly stopping to fuss with the things I’m not as good at, I can get my dialogue layer down really quickly. Then, with the bones of the story on the page, I can have fun playing around with them and fleshing them out.
Every novelist needs to discover their own process. And this probably won’t happen from writing one book. Most of us experiment with different approaches, especially in the beginning. Chances are you’ll have to get a few books under your belt before you know what works best for you.
Following on from last week’s post I’ve been thinking about how genre writers reuse basic plots over and over and still make them seem fresh and original.
Just out of interest, I went to my bookcase and read the blurbs of all my suspense novels and movies. The following are plots I found repeated:
The Serial Killer plot – This would have to be the most often used plot in the suspense genre: a crazed psychopath is on the loose and the protagonists are trying to stop him. Films and books with this plot include: Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector, The Boston Strangler, Copy Cat, From Hell, Seven, Wolf Creek, Citizen X and many more.
The Stalker plot – In this plot the protagonist and often his loved ones are stalked/menaced, usually by an obsessed psychopath seeking revenge. Examples include the classic films Cape Fear and Fatal Attraction; Jaye Ford’s novel, Scared Yet and Nicci French’s, Secret Smile.
The Witness plot – the protagonist has seen something he shouldn’t have, usually a murder, and spends the story running from the villain who wants to silence him. Films with this plot include Witness, Narrow Margin, The Client and Loose Cannons
The Conspiracy plot – the protagonist uncovers evidence of a criminal cover-up or conspiracy (usually by accident), tries to convince others of what’s happening but no-one believes him. Examples: The Manchurian Candidate, Coma, Rear Window, Extreme Measures, Conspiracy Theory, Erin Brockovich.
The Fugitive Plot – the protagonist is wrongly accused of a crime and goes on the run, trying to prove his/her innocence while evading recapture. Examples: The Fugitive, Three Days of the Condor, US Marshall and the novel Nathan’s Run, by John Gilstrap.
The Framed Innocent – the protagonist is framed for a crime by villain. This one is similar to the fugitive plot but without the element of flight. The story focuses on the victim (or sometimes their friends) trying to prove them innocent. Classics are the films: Double Jeopardy and Dial M for Murder.
Mistaken Identity Plot – the protagonist is drawn into danger because he’s mistaken for someone else. The person is usually an average citizen, leading readers to feel it could happen to them. Classic films: North by Northwest and Marathon Man
The Ransom Plot – someone dear to the protagonist is kidnapped and the story consists of how they deal with the kidnappers and rescue the loved one. Films: Don’t Say A Word, Ransom, Along Came A Spider, Taken.
The Kidnapped Plot – Slightly different to the ransom plot. In this one the protagonist him/herself is kidnapped and held captive. The story consists of their dealings with their kidnapper(s) and how they ultimately escape. (Misery, The Fan Club, Kiss the Girls.)
The Possessor – the protagonist has something the criminals want, sometimes without even knowing they have it. (Films: Wait Until Dark, Don’t Say A Word; books: Firestarter and Night Season by David Baldacci)
The Runaway Plot – protagonist, usually a woman, flees from an abusive lover or husband, often changing their identity to evade discovery (Sleeping With the Enemy and The Perfect Husband, by Lisa Gardner.)
The Hostage Plot – a character is taken hostage either by criminals, or by a ‘good’ character in desperate need of help (Films: Toy Soldiers, Speed, Three Days of the Condor)
Missing Person Plot – the protagonist’s loved-one disappears and they try to find them. (The film Breakdown and Jaye Ford’s novel, Blood Secret.)
The Dismissed Suicide – the protagonist is the only one who believes their loved one’s ‘suicide’ was actually murder and they set about to uncover the truth. (Dressed To Kill)
The Amnesia Plot – someone in the story, usually the protagonist, either has total amnesia or can’t remember some event from their past. Evidence suggests they may have been involved in a crime and the story consists of them trying to uncover the truth. Films: Spellbound, Marnie, Shattered; books: See Jane Run, by Joy Fielding
Disaster Thriller – In this case the source of danger is not another person but some impending catastrophe. (Films: Volcano, Meteor, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Towering Inferno, Titanic, Twister)
Supernatural Thriller – the protagonists are battling supernatural elements. (Films: The Birds, The Shining, The Exorcist, Sixth Sense, Signs, The Mist, Amityville Horror, and The Price, by Alexandra Sokoloff.)
Man vs Nature plot – stories of survival. (Films: The Edge, Grey, The Day After Tomorrow, Jaws, Castaway)
The Outbreak Plot – a devastating virus or disease is unleashed. (Outbreak, Earth Abides, The Stand, The Plague.)
The above is just a short list of basic plots found again and again in the suspense genre. Yet how different the stories are in each group. Would you even recognize The Manchurian Candidate and Erin Brockovich as the same basic plot? No, because each writer varied the elements of character, conflict, setting and backstory to create a completely different slant and therefore a totally ‘original’ story.
I recently attended a writer event in which the topic of ‘formula’ writing came up. Though the mystery genre got a brief mention, it was mainly romance that came under criticism.
Among those present there was the usual shaking of heads at how limiting this approach is. Formula writing, it seems, is the comfort zone of the insecure and the fallback of limited creative minds.
Tell that to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart.
I have never had a problem with formulas. As both a musician and a writer, I see many parallels between these two arts and this is just another example.
There are literally dozens of musical forms (just another word for formula): You’ve got waltzes, sarabandes, hornpipes, chaconnes, sonatas, fugues, to name but a few. All have very specific elements to their structures. (If it’s not in three-four it’s not a waltz. If it’s not in six-eight with two, repeated 8-bar phrases, it’s not a gigue. And don’t even get me started on rondos!)
Within any one of these forms there is still enormous scope for originality. Nearly every classical composer wrote minuets. Yet you would never confuse a Bach minuet with one by Brahms because the composers’ styles are so unique, their voices so different. Why should it be less so for authors?
‘Formula’ exits in music for the same reason it exists in writing: to meet audience expectations. Patrons of an eighteenth century ball wanted music they could dance to. If a composer handed them a funeral march, however creative and artistically written, it wouldn’t have gone over as well.
‘Formula’ in writing is all about reader expectation and it’s not just the romance genre that has them. Mystery readers expect there to be a crime early on in the story, a protagonist who unravels the puzzle, a logical presentation of clues, a few red herrings and the crime to be solved at the end. How is that any less formulaic than a romance novel?
Within the confines of even the most restrictive formula I believe there’s always room for creative scope. And actually – unless they’re writing push-the-boundaries, stretch-the-envelope kind of prose – all novelists write to a formula.