Friday, April 30, 2010


Things are a little hectic this week, and the blogging life has taken a bit of a back seat because of it. But here’s a rundown of what you can expect in the posts to come:

Resource roundup – a new series of posts I’ll be preparing that examine the different writing resources that I have encountered while writing.

My first writing conference – my impressions, my disappointments, and how networking got me my first full request.

My new writing group – first impressions and how I’m going to get the most I can out of it.

In the meantime, be well.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Another Blogging Award

Thanks once more to Laura Marcella at Wavy Lines for awarding me the Beautiful Blogger Award.

But this time it comes with a price. I must tell you seven (!) things about myself. So here we go:
  1. I was called the human dictionary in seventh grade.
  2. I get antsy if I don't have something chocolate everyday.
  3. I have an Australian Shepherd/Australian Cattle dog mix who likes it best when I'm not typing away on my laptop.
  4. Growing up, I used to sit in front of my bedroom mirror and try to go through it like Lewis Carroll's Alice in Through the Looking Glass.
  5. I refuse to have a Facebook account because they have not satisfactorily addressed their privacy issues. My friends hate it, but it just places more importance on email, phone calls, and face-to-face visits. And I'm ok with that.
  6. I love to cook, but I hate baking. It's too precise for me. Cooking allows you to fudge here and there, usually with good results. Must be why I don't outline everything I write too...
  7. I run at least three times a week, and try to ride my bike as many places as possible, weather permitting.
So there you have it. Thanks again, Laura!

Friday, April 23, 2010

On the Road and Off My Game

I’ve been traveling for the last two weeks. On the road across the US of A. I’ve made pit stops at my cousin’s house, where she and her husband have just welcomed a new baby boy, and my father’s house, so I could finalize details for my sister’s bridal shower this September. In between changing diapers and making food for my sleep-deprived cousin, I thought there’d be time to write. While I was visiting with family and friends in my hometown, and conscripting vendors into service for the shower, I thought I’d be able to write and get caught up on my reading.

I knew the trip would be disruptive to my writing schedule. I thought if I brought my notebooks and reading materials, I’d fit it in whenever I had a spare moment. I would start researching my next WIP and brush up on short stories by working my way through a contemporary story anthology. I thought as long as I packed everything up with the expectations that I’d still be able to get things done, I’d be ok.

Boy, was I wrong.

This isn’t to say I haven’t accomplished anything since I hit the road… But like that second trip to the salad bar, my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I’ve been able to keep up with the blog posting – more or less – mostly thanks to the post scheduler feature, but just barely. I’ve been able to do some light revising at the coffee shop near my dad’s house, but getting away is difficult.

You see, I feel guilty for wanting to get away to work when the object of my trip is to visit with my family. I can’t always write in the house because I risk interruptions by family members and then there’s always the distraction of House Hunters marathons – at my house, we got rid of cable for that very reason. Plus, I don’t want to deal with questions like ‘What are you working on?’ and watch my dad trying to be supportive even as I can see the wheels turning in his head, the doubts he can’t always hide. He’s human, and he’s right to be skeptical. I just don’t want to have to deal with it.

So my progress has slowed. I’ve generated no new content besides the occasional blog post, and it’s getting to me. I’ve missed two writing group sessions – and I can tell. I miss my routine. I miss writing. And even though I don’t have the flexibility to work the way I want to while I’m traveling – I’m scribbling this Tuesday morning (4/20/10) in a coffee shop before I have to meet my dad for lunch – just knowing how out of sorts I feel after an extended period of not writing is hugely comforting.

Because I know what I want to be doing every day. And it’s a relief to know that my writing has become such an integral part of my life.

Friday night, I will finally be pulling into my driveway, and it can’t be soon enough. Even though my intentions to stay productive on my trip were ultimately unrealistic, I have a lot to look forward to besides the resumption of my writing routine. First, I’ll be joining another writing group. Instead of focusing on weekly writing prompts like my current group (which I’ll still be participating in), the new group is focused on monthly critique sessions with the goal of publication. Second, I’m attending my first writing conference. It’s local, so it’s not of the scale as some of those you hear about, but I’m optimistic I’ll get something out of it.


Hopefully both these things will jumpstart my writing energies as I recover from my two weeks on the road. Details will be forthcoming.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Patience is a Virtue for a Reason

If you’re anything like me, it took guts to acknowledge your dream to write, and then a whole truckful more to keep writing despite everything. By the time you think you are nearing the end of a project, you begin to doubt, your nerves start crowding back in, and you just want the whole business over with. So maybe that climax feels a little rushed or perhaps the last paragraph of the query could use some sprucing. You turn a blind eye to it all because you think you can’t wait any longer. You can almost taste the closure.

But you can’t rush the process. There are no shortcuts, just missed opportunities. Competition is fierce and the odds are against you in a shrinking marketplace. If you are like me, you want to see your name in print before print goes the way of the dinosaurs. With each day that passes, it seems like there are more and more reasons to hurry up and get your writing out there. But there are a number of reasons to slow down… to act instead of always reacting. Why settle for half-baked plots or underdeveloped characters that are mere shadows of what you envisioned? Or risk of introducing errors into your work that belie your abilities? A modicum of patience can go a long way.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Like any virtue, patience is hard to practice on a regular basis, especially in our instant gratification society. I am constantly having to slam on the metaphorical breaks because even though I want desperately to be ready, my work probably isn’t there yet. I wage a war with complacency in my writing every day. The laziness that can creep in because I think the writing’s good enough – maybe not great, maybe not perfect – but good enough to get published. To counteract this pitfall, I force myself to think of the most insanely talented, artistic, learned person imaginable and tell myself that’s my competition every time I think I’m ready to submit something. That should be enough to give anyone pause.

What can be so frustrating about the writing process is I can apply all the things I’ve learned – have a compelling plot, interesting characters, perfect and varied sentences – and my work can still seem unfinished in some way. What then? As heartbreaking as it can be to admit this, it may signal a mismatch between my creative intentions and my current abilities as a writer. The good news is I have a piece with potential. The bad news is only time and practice will help me translate what’s in my head into what the piece should be.

In other words, I need to be patient. Let my craft develop naturally without worrying about the mad rush to the finish line. That can be a tough pill to swallow for an unpublished writer like me with stars in their eyes. But I think I’d rather give myself the time to make my own discoveries rather than shortchange my work chasing shortcuts. Good things come to those who wait, right? I’m counting on it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Anatomy of a Story

On a semi-related note to my post “No Character? No Problem” I wanted to point out that no step detailed there exists in isolation. I write iteratively, where my WIPs are a result of countless passes. Sometimes I’m only adding a comma, fixing a typo, changing or eliminating a modifier. Others, I am rewriting every other sentence, crossing out swaths of text, and adding new ones penned in slanted chicken scratch along the margins of my copy.

There’s a woman in my writing group who calls herself a “sprinter,” in that her first attempt at the writing prompts we work on at our weekly sessions are stunning. I don’t mean just clever turns of phrase or immersive details. She has all that as well as a definitive voice, symbolism, and recurring themes. And more often then not, she is able to fully realize her piece in one 20-minute session with an appropriate ending. I am always in awe by her ability right out of the starting gate.

I, on the other hand, usually only have time to focus on one, maybe two, aspects of my piece before I’m scrambling to find a way to tie everything up in the time allotted. There’s a kernel of something in the piece, sure, but it’s not until I go back through and revise ad nauseum until I find something that shines, until it feels finished.

This carries over to when I’m working on first drafts. Then I find myself focusing on two things: action and dialogue. For me, these elements serve as the skeleton, if you will, of my story. When I’m drafting I am only concerned with fortifying my story with strong bones and building good posture, and I feel action and dialogue serve as the essence of most stories. Plus when I come back to the piece on a revision, the action and dialogue tell me exactly what’s going on in a particular scene even if it hasn’t been rendered in full detail.

Which is the goal of the next pass: to bring action and dialogue to life. Adding context and description – the meat on the bones, the muscles that power the skeleton of my story along. And it can take countless iterations until I have bulked up my story’s muscles to the best of my ability. I don’t want my story on steroids, but I want it to be lean and mean.

Now for the hard part: the skin, the protective casing, the unique container that holds everything together. All stories have skeletons we can identify (plot and structure), and the muscles that do the heavy lifting. But the skin is what sets your story apart, makes it unique, makes it – dare I say it – marketable. This is where originality, heart, and dumb luck come in.

When I’m convinced my story has strong bones and sleek muscles, it’s time for another pass. Here, I’m focused on craft. Tightening up everything, cutting the fat, ratcheting tension, shaping the story the best way I know how. But that will only get me or any writer so far. I must determine what makes my work unique, what will set it apart. When I have my answer, I need to ensure that is obvious on each page, that every aspect of my story is working in harmony towards that end. Then, and only then, can I say I’m done.

This doesn’t mean my story will be symmetrical, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and model-thin. It could be a snub-nosed hunchback with an acne problem. But conceptualizing your work into layers is useful:

Bones – Essential elements of your story. Think plot and character.

Muscles – Elements that connect the bones together. Think description, detail, transitions.

Skin – Unique qualities that make your work yours and make the bones and muscles hang together. Think voice, style, and any number of inexpressible characteristics.


For another discussion of layering during the development of your story, read Janice Hardy’s post Books are Like Ogres at The Other Side of the Story. See Chuck Wendig’s post “Story vs. Plot; Ghost vs. Bones” at terribleminds for a different (but related) take on how your story’s bones should operate.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

No Character? No Problem

Creating fully realized characters is perhaps one of the biggest difficulties I have while writing. Most of my ideas start from some imagistic scene that appears in my mind’s eye. Sometimes it’s even snatches of dialogue that stick in my ear like a catchy pop song until I give in and write about it. But what is absent is character. All I usually have are hazy impressions, maybe a suggestion of relationships or context fueling the scenario, but nothing more.

I’m no writing god – my works don’t spring fully formed out of my forehead.

My first novel started out with a scene in a hayloft between my romantic leads. I didn’t know any particulars – the who, what, where, when, and why. But I knew I wanted to render what was so vividly in my head into words. Constructing a story around that scene was more difficult than I expected. First I had to figure out just who my characters were. By that I mean their circumstances – the individual personality traits had yet to reveal themselves. And that required research since it became clear that my story could only be set in the medieval past.

Then once I had a stronger sense of who my characters were – a landless Norman knight and an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman – I had to figure out how to craft a story around the moment in the hayloft – it wasn’t a scene strong enough for a beginning or ending, so I would need to create those as well. In plotting my story, I created character backstories that explained their respective situations at the start of Chapter One. Those backstories were hugely useful for identifying character motivations and determining their choices over the course of the rest of the novel.

When I finished my first draft – a feat in and of itself – I wondered if I knew my characters well enough. I knew what they looked like, I knew how they would behave in dramatic situations, their mannerisms, the cadence to their voices… but did I make that clear to the reader? Did I provide enough telling details so the reader would get the same visceral impressions I get whenever I visualize scenes from my novel? And did they not just see my characters but identify with them, feel what they feel over the course of the story, highs and lows, and all that?

Perhaps it is because I know character was one of the last aspects that fell into place for me in the writing and revising of the story that I am so sensitive to its success. Now that I have revised my story for the umpteenth time, and written a few more along the way, I am at a place where I can look back at this first novel and more objectively evaluate it. Of course there were a couple of novice writer issues that I have since fixed, but it is one of the most fully conceptualized works I have written, and although I may tweak it time and again in between deciding the next steps I need to take for getting it published, I am pleased with how it turned out, characters and all.

Character is still one of the last pieces that falls into place for me. But I try not to let that deter me from working through that oh-so-important first draft. And here are the steps I rely on to keep writing:

Write that first inspirational scene – I force myself to write whatever it is that serves as the kernel of my story, and in the course of capturing the scene or conversation, I pull in other details, usually those I wasn’t even consciously aware of. I don’t worry too much about my lack of character awareness at this stage. But any personality traits or hints of backstory that I do bring in at this stage are instinctual and often hugely influential at later stages. This scene may not be a keystone for the story structurally, but it is the keystone for the story’s development.

Figure out how that key scene fits into the larger story – This takes a long time, lots of thought, and for me, lots of research. I would not call myself a bona fide plotter, but I do like having an idea of where I am going when I am writing. And one of the things I like to identify early on is the beginning of my story.

Link the beginning of the story to the key scene – This way I can write the beginning and keep writing until I link it to the scene I’ve already roughed out. At this point I start thinking about my character backstories and what brings them to the start of the story, but there are still a number of blanks that I just have to accept and move on – otherwise I risk bringing my momentum to a halt. Usually by the time I have connected the beginning to the keystone scene, I have lived in my characters’ heads for long enough that I have a stronger sense of who they are and where they are going.

Finish the rest of the story – Completing the first draft of any story as quickly as possible is common advice, and I try to follow it to the best of my ability. Character traits may still be emergent, more details more clearly articulated, at this stage, but my goal is to finish the story first and foremost.

Determine character arc over the course of the story – This is where I pause, read over everything, and try to see what the combination of characters’ description, dialogue, and choices tells me about them. Are there inconsistencies from where I started and where I ended? Does this signal character growth or traits I need to revise for consistency? Are there places where I need to include more/less backstory to justify behaviors? Are there places, particularly in the beginning, that I need to make my characters’ actions and behaviors more clearly defined?

Refine, refine, refine – Here I address other manuscript issues in addition to character development: smoothing out scenes, ratcheting up transitions, sharpening dialogue, polishing description, etc. Changes at this point are to strengthen character or action while eliminating sluggish phrasing and grammatical errors.

I am a firm believer that even if you don’t know your characters very well at the start of a story, it is ok because by the end of the first draft, you will have a clearer, more intimate understanding. As long as you keep writing, the characters will emerge out of an accumulation of choices, reactions, mannerisms, and dialogue. You may need to scour your manuscript for consistency in the end, but not knowing your character initially is no reason to not write your story.

You will find you know more about them than you thought you did.

A Note of Thanks

I'd like to take a moment to thank

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Giving In and Learning to Love It

It took me a long time to get to the point where I could admit to myself I wanted to be a writer. There’s nothing prudent or practical about laboring for years to produce something that may never see the light of day. And if it does – see the light of day, that is – chances are it won’t bring in the boku bucks you’ve been hoping for. So to keep writing is, well, crazy.

I have trouble justifying my desire to write as a career. As a hobby? Sure, no problem. But a career is something different. A writing career requires persistence and sacrifice and all the self-doubt you’d expect and then some. In order to write in the face of all the odds – and the odd looks your friends and neighbors give you – you are going to have to give something up – probably a number of things. Going from writing as a hobby to writing as a career, even the early stages of one, requires a dramatic shift in how you view yourself and your work.

For me, I had to give myself permission to write. And until I did that, the words didn’t come. I would self-censor, telling myself it was wrong to dream, impractical to spend so much time on something where successes are invisible and so personal they cannot be shared. Even when I convinced myself it was ok to write, I had to fight for each word I’d scribble down in my notebook. I kept slogging. Like anything, acceptance takes time. But now that I have come to a place where I can sit down, pen in hand, and not feel guilty, the words often come faster than I can write down, and I can’t help but love every minute of it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Write What You Know...

Just scratching the surface of all the writing instruction and advice that’s available, you are bound to not just stumble over this axiom but get hit over the head with it – repeatedly. And it makes sense. As a writer, you should strive for authenticity in your work. You don’t want anything you commit to paper to jar your reader and risk pulling them out of the world you’ve worked so hard to create. So the best way to avoid false notes is to write about things you’ve directly experienced. The things you know.

As sound as this advice seems, I also find it to be incredibly limiting. What if I didn’t grow up in South Boston but I want to set my next story there? What if the main character in my WIP is an insurance salesman but I don’t know the first thing about deductibles? This is where “write what you know” breaks down for me – at the intersection of what is prudent and what is necessary for your story to be your story. What I mean by this is in some ways, sticking to what you know is ‘safe’-- as in no nitpicky person can point to some element of your work and say “I don’t believe that” or “That could never happen” because you have the life experiences (or you acquire them a la Nathan Fillion in Castle) to back it up. But some stories, if we are to do them justice, push the writer beyond what they know so they can explore new things or seek out information on topics they never considered before.

As someone who writes historical romances and speculative fiction, I write about time periods hundreds of years in the past and future. If I were to take “write what you know” at face value, I should never have devoted hours and hours to developing plots and characters that belong to these far-off time periods. I should have stuck to writing academic articles and technical reports, or better yet, become a journalist.

Just because I choose to write about time periods I could never hope to have firsthand knowledge of doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m writing about. I do research. A lot of research. Think hours spent at the library among the dusty books, and then many more reading and interpreting what I’ve discovered. The Internet has made some aspects of research easier, but I still spend loads of time conducting google searches or scanning wikipedia articles in addition to exploring other online sources. Even the speculative works require research so that I can understand where we are currently and make educated guesses as to where we are headed.

I am constantly learning, constantly exploring, so that when I sit down to write, I am making an informed choice in how I bring my stories to life with the appropriate details. I can do all the research in the world, but at some point my imagination must make the leap from fact to page. And that’s the part that thrills me every time I embark upon a new story.

Do I get it right? Probably not always. For my historical pieces, there are maybe a couple dozen owlish academics scattered around the globe who could tell me what I get wrong. As to the speculative works, well, I’m not going to live long enough to know whether I guess right or not. That’s for posterity to suss out. But that’s ok, because I write what I want to write, not what someone else thinks I should based on my life experiences so far.

So I would like to take this opportunity to say that “Write what you know” should be modified to “Write what you know or what you are willing to explore” so that the axiom does not dissuade others from writing what they want, regardless of whether they have firsthand knowledge or not.

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