Not Set In Stone

This morning on an online writing group someone asked for advice. He was halfway through writing his first chapter and wanted to make a change to his protagonist without having to go back and rewrite anything.

Oh, sweetie. I have some terrible news for you.

Most writing—good writing, anyway—is rewriting. Just because you wrote it or typed it doesn’t make it sacrosanct. If anything, having written it down is exactly what makes it malleable. Which is as it should be.

We’re a world of instant gratification. Rapid technology makes us increasingly impatient. We want to write the thing and be done. You can do that. You can write it and publish it and never look at it again. That’s the dubious wonder of self-publishing. But if you want to write the best possible book, you’re going to need to 1. take your time, and 2. rewrite, get feedback, revise, hire an editor . . . Basically, you need to work the book like you would work dough, pulling and pushing and folding and rolling until it’s right for baking. (There’s a reason some rushed books are called “half-baked” yeah?)

If I were writing something and realized halfway through the first chapter that I needed to tweak, well, I’d be ecstatic. I’d be so glad that I hadn’t gotten too far in before needing to rewrite that bit to pull it through the rest of the story. Better now, at the start, than to get halfway through writing your book before realizing you want to make a major change. Not that you can’t do that. I’ve dismantled and rewritten big chunks of books. I rewrote the entire first half of The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller and the entire back ends of Manifesting Destiny and Brynnde. They are all better books now than they were.

In short, you have to be willing to do the work. You have to be willing to expend the effort and the energy.

You have to be willing to rewrite.

Your words are not written in stone. Not yet. If you want them to be lasting and have impact, you must make your story the best it can be. And your first draft should never be your final draft.

Conferences & Conventions

CC0 Public Domain courtesy of Dreamstime

I’ve been to a number of writing events of various kinds, and every year I find myself having to decide which one(s), if any, I want to attend—either return to, or try new. I’m on a number of email lists, and I’m constantly realizing: “Oh, yeah, that one. I want to go to there.” For my own sake, I’ve decided to create a list. Conferences I’ve attended in previous years are in blue.

San Francisco Writers Conference
Writer’s Digest Conference
Digital Book World
Grub Street (The Muse and the Marketplace)
BookExpo/BookCon
DFW Conference
InD’Scribe
Santa Barbara Writers Conference
20Books
Willamette Writers Conference
London Book Fair
San Miguel Writers’ Conference
Historical Romance Retreat
Independent Authors Conference
Austin Film Festival

I also attended the Bay Area Book Fair one year but didn’t find it to my liking. Maybe I’ll try it again some time; at least it’s local and relatively inexpensive. Also local, the biennial Tri-Valley Writers Conference, which I may attend again when it comes back next year.

I’ve been to SFWC three times, but next year they’re changing venue, so I have to admit being pretty curious about that. Still, it’s one of the most expensive conferences, so I may try something new instead. Then again, I’d love to go back to DFW Con, too. Santa Barbara looks amazing, but it’s a week, and I don’t know if I can get away for that long. Maybe if they put me on a panel . . . 😉

I’m sure there are many more wonderful options than just these, but these are the ones that keep appearing in my email inbox. If you know of a great conference or convention, I’d love to hear about it!

IWSG: Spring Fever

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Still hammering away at Faebourne! Looking down the barrel at that August 7th pub date . . . Also nervous but excited to have started doing Facebook videos. So if you have any questions you’d like answered, ask away and I’ll answer in my next video!

Question of the Month: It’s spring! Does this season inspire you to write more than others, or not?

Spring lights a fire under me in terms of writing because I realize that the kids will be out of school soon and my chances to write will become smaller. At the same time, I find myself wanting to be out in the warm weather (when we have it). Why not write outside? For whatever reason I find that nearly impossible. The glare on my screen or off the paper in particular makes it difficult for me. And I have to sit in the sun; for me, that’s the point of being outside to begin with. So writing in spring usually ends up being a kind of internal tug-of-war. A real need to sit down and get some work done versus a restlessness and desire to be out and about.

Book Covers?

I wanted to start a new Pinterest board of great book covers, but . . . For whatever reason, I wasn’t finding any I liked enough to pin. Maybe I’m in the wrong frame of mind, or maybe I’m just jaded. Or maybe my tastes run contrary to trends. I tried looking up “best book covers” but those that were pictured just didn’t do it for me.

Looking at my bookshelves now, it occurs to me I do really like the Peter Grant series covers . . . And the Shades of Magic covers are nice, too . . . But nothing is igniting my soul at the moment.

So now I’m asking you to show me your favorite book covers. Tell me what you like about them, too! I know I’ve seen gorgeous covers, so where have they gone and why am I not finding them now?

Favorite Books on Film

I saw this post on another blog (sorry but I don’t remember which one), and it got me thinking: Which book-to-film translations have I enjoyed? Sure, we all [usually] think the book is better, most likely because there’s a lot you can do with words that is difficult, if not impossible, to film. Inner dialogue, for example. But some books have translated pretty well to the screen anyway.

One I see on many lists—and yes, it’s on mine too—is Pride and Prejudice, in particular the BBC miniseries. Yeah, I love that one, too. Though it took me a while to warm to it because I had a college roommate that watched it over and over again. At that point I was avoiding her and the series, so when I finally did sit down to watching some years later, I found it was quite charming. And I do love Jane Austen.

Another book whose movie I enjoyed is Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I saw the movie first, though, and then felt compelled to read the book, which was wonderful as well. There is a prequel I’d like to read as well, though I always hesitate when an author revisits a scene after a long break. (See: Anne Rice’s most recent vampire novels, which I just could not get into.)

I’ll admit I liked Interview with the Vampire, too. I have no excuse for why except that maybe it came out at a time when I was receptive to Tom Cruise as an overacting blonde and boy does Brad Pitt look pretty in that movie.

1939 — British actress Vivien Leigh on the set of Gone with the Wind, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell and directed by Victor Fleming. — Image by © Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Gone with the Wind is a favorite movie of mine as well. I used to lay on the couch and watch it whenever I was home sick from school. My freshman year of high school, we had to read the book. So, again, this is a situation in which I’d seen the movie first. And I know the romanticization of the Antebellum South is problematic, but Scarlett is such a vivid character that I can’t help enjoying both the book and film.

Another book/movie combo that makes my list: The Ghost Writer. Robert Harris both wrote the novel and the screenplay, so that probably goes a long way toward the two hanging together well. And you know I can’t say no to Ewan McGregor.

Finally, an oldie but goldie: The Haunting. I mean the 1963 version. I love, love, love Shirley Jackson’s novella “The Haunting of Hill House,” and this movie did it justice. Of course, maybe that’s because my friends and I stayed up late one night to watch it and scared ourselves silly. Fond memories can color one’s perception of how good a book or movie really is, I suppose.

What book adaptations have you enjoyed? Maybe later I’ll post about some terrible ones. I think it can be tricky to capture a book well on film, which is why good screenwriting is so important. Some day I still hope to see St. Peter in Chains make it to the screen . . . If and when it does, let’s hope it turns out well!

SFWC 2018: Why Am I Not Writing?

Writers love when the dam breaks and the words flow. If only that could be all the time. However, sometimes the words dry up. Sometimes life simply gets in the way.

One of the final sessions I attended at SFWC this year was a presentation by David Rasch. While on the surface it can be easy to say, “I’m too busy,” Rasch delves deeper into reasons we might stop writing. He pointed out:

“Writer’s block” is a universal issue for writers, but it’s not the same for everyone. The consequences are profound. It causes internal distress. Once you can write again, however, your mood improves.

I’ve generally found this to be true.

Why is writing so hard?

Writing is a neurologically complex task. It may seem simple—you put some words on paper or type them on a screen—but there’s a lot more going on than that. Effort and concentration are required—it’s work! Hard work! And it’s often solitary work, so a writer has to be okay with being alone. He or she has to find the time and space to focus on the task. Sometimes the practical demands of daily life pull you away, or sometimes mental chaos and distractions do it (the Internet, anyone?).

Also, the public nature of the final product, the fear of exposure, imposter syndrome can all play a part in writer’s block. Past bad experiences with writing can cause trauma that prevents you from making progress as well.

What are the barriers to productivity?

Well, first you need motivation—a desire to write. Then you’ll make writing a priority. There’s an old saying that if you can walk away from writing, you should. If you can’t, then you’re a writer. Time management, too, can be an issue for some people. If you don’t plan well or are disorganized, you may not be as productive.

Also, health issues (physical, mental, emotional) may impact your ability to write. Natural talent or ability, too. Writing is easier for some people than others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write if it doesn’t come easily, but you should be aware that the challenge of writing may stop your progress.

Making sure you have a writing space that works for you, a place where you can concentrate and relax without interruption, is key. And developing writing habits and a regular routine is also important. Pinpoint your behaviors for when you’re avoiding writing. Do you clean the house? Bum around on YouTube? Once you’ve figured them out, put a stop to them.

In school we were given deadlines for our work. Now that we’re grown, if we don’t have an agent or publisher, we may have no deadline either. Setting one for yourself is too easy to ignore, so have someone you trust set a deadline for you—someone who will hold you accountable and not let you off the hook too easily. This person might be a fellow writer, or even members of your critique group. They should check in regularly so you can account for your progress (or lack thereof).

What are some of the problems writers run into?

  • Time (scheduling/prioritizing) – Write every day, even if only for 15 minutes, and protect that time. Eventually it will become a habit.
  • Difficulty starting – Better to jump into a cold swimming pool than dip a toe in. Else you might never swim.
  • Freezing up – Sometimes you stare at the blank screen and can’t think of anything, which causes anxiety.
  • Feeling overwhelmed – The project or idea might feel too big, and you feel like you can’t start writing until you’ve figured it all out. But the best way to figure it out is to start writing. The writing itself will help you clarify the story.
  • Procrastination/binge cycle – You put off writing for days or weeks and suddenly sit and write for hours at a time.
  • Excessive early editing – You feel the need to fix that chapter, that page, that paragraph before you can go on. This causes you to write at a micro pace. Remember it doesn’t have to be perfect the first (or second, or even third) time. Just get it written.
  • Perfectionism – Similar to the previous. Save your perfectionism for the final polish.
  • Excessive research – Falling down the Wiki rabbit hole.
  • Revision loop – It’ll never be perfect, and at some point you’ve got to stop revising and say it’s good enough.
  • Unable to finish/not wanting to share your work – A fear of criticism may keep you from submitting or publishing. But not everyone will like what you write. That’s just part of the package. If you want to write just for you, that’s fine. But make that decision early on.
  • Fear of success – Rasch told the story of a man who couldn’t finish his book because he was afraid Oprah would pick it for her book club and he’d have to go on TV. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Take things one step at a time.
  • Fear that you’re a fluke – A one-hit wonder? Beginner’s luck? Maybe you’re afraid you only have the one book in you.

Hard work often pays off after time, but procrastination always pays off now.

Every time you procrastinate, you strengthen the habit of not writing. You feel relieved at first. At the end of the day, you may say to yourself, “Well, I just didn’t have the time. Oh well.” But eventually you feel terrible.

How do I change my habits?

  • Make success unavoidable – Be consistent by writing every day, even if you’re not working on the “big project.” Write anything.
  • Know your avoiding behaviors and create a strategy for dealing with them
  • Set realistic goals and break things into bite-sized chunks
  • Be okay with imperfect drafts
  • Set contingency plans – As in, “I can only go online after I’ve written for at least 15 minutes.”
  • Have a relapse strategy – If and when you fall off the wagon, have a plan in place for getting back on.

I’ll tell you some of my writing obstacles: I’ve had some bad experiences with criticism and a lack of overall success with my work. These things really undercut my motivation to keep writing. I begin to ask myself why I bother and whether I’m just wasting my time.

Also, I’ve recently gone through a serious bout of depression. That definitely impacted my desire and ability to write.

This session helped me see my way clear to getting back into writing. The energy of the conference overall was good for that as well. And it’s so important as a writer for me to have support from friends and family. So be sure that you go support your fellow writers because you’ll need theirs in return.

Do you have avoidant behaviors that cause you to procrastinate? What are your coping strategies when you’re finding it difficult to write? Tell me about it in the comments!

SFWC 2018: Synopses

One of the most onerous parts of being a writer is having to boil down the entirety of your book into 1-2 pages. I’ve often said, “If I could tell it in a page, I wouldn’t have written a book!” Still, many agents still require a synopsis. So here is some info on how to write them.

Some agents ask for a 1-page synopsis. If so, you should write it single spaced with a break between each paragraph. If you’re asked for a 2-page synopsis, you should double space with no extra break between paragraphs.

A synopsis is always written in third person present tense, regardless of the POV of the book itself. Also, a synopsis is the one place where you’ll be asked to tell instead of show. For example, if your character is old and miserly, you might literally write in your synopsis: “SCROOGE is a crotchety old miser who hates Christmas.”

Notice that I also capitalized Scrooge’s name. The woman running this session said to do that the first time you introduce a character in a synopsis. I’ll admit I’d never heard that one before. It’s something we do in screenwriting, but I have never heard of anyone doing it when writing prose. I suppose it can’t hurt.

Although a synopsis tells the story of the novel—and yes, you should give away the ending—do not simply list the events that occur by saying, “And then . . .” Vary your transitions and keep it interesting. Give character motivations, too: “Seeing the vial of poison beside Romeo’s body, Juliet kisses him in the hopes that she might also be poisoned. When that doesn’t work, she takes Romeo’s dagger . . .” You get the picture.

In fact, reading a sample synopsis for a book you’re familiar with can help you figure out how to write your own.

Final rule: omit backstory and secondary plot lines unless these things tie in with the main plot. The example that was used in this session was that of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Could he be included in the synopsis? Sure. Is he entirely necessary? Probably not.

The goal of a synopsis is to give the skull of the book. I say that because, you know how forensic pathologists can recreate a face from a skull? The agent will construct a sense of your book from the synopsis. That’s probably a really weird analogy, but there you go.