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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Happy almost Halloween!  I have all kinds of treats here, and very few tricks, I promise.

all-the-ugly-and-wonderful-197x300First, I’m over today at Writer Unboxed, interviewing the talented Bryn Greenwood about her novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.  Bryn is the kind of writer who takes my mind, turns it inside out, stretches it, gives it a good beating, then puts it back together so it’s never quite the same.  Her books aren’t what I would call easy reading, but they shake me up and make me think.  I’d love it if you would stop by and check her out.  (And there may or may not be a picture of her own Slobbering Beasts there too.  Just sayin’.)

51h9kbdnbjlNext,  I am sooooo happy to announce that Author in Progress, a book to which I contributed a chapter, is available for sale.  It was spearheaded by the lovely and amazing author Therese Walsh, who is a cofounder of the Writer Unboxed site.  Over the years she’s managed to pull together a tribe of writers who are supportive, kind, and just plain fun to be around.  If you are a writer in any way shape or form, published or not, the group is one of the nicest and most drama-free I’ve ever known and well worth checking out.  As is the book.  (See my subtle plug there?)  And if you aren’t a writer, but know someone who is, I promise the book makes a lovely gift.

Finally, Monday is Halloween.  So I couldn’t let this post pass by without at least one trick.  Which I played on the poor Slobbering Beast, who will be confined to his crate that evening so as not to lose his doggy mind during the constant ringing of the doorbell.  (And also to avoid any surreptitious snacking on stray candy bars.  Hey, a dog can dream.)

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Totally Johnny Depp.  Okay, maybe Johnny after a few beers.

 

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With a gratuitous Slobbering Beast shot (doesn’t he look embarrassed?) and a redirect to the Writer Unboxed site for my essay on how to find a great beta reader.  Please stop by if you get the chance!

 

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I love the holidays.  I love the tree, I love baking cookies and gingerbread with my kids, I love the presents, I love the peace, and I especially love the TWO WHOLE WEEKS off from school.  If we could only have snow and have it be 80 degrees at the same time, I’d be in heaven.

One thing I especially love, and have since my daughter was a baby, is making the holiday cards.  It’s one of my favorite activities, and since my oldest was little and I strapped her in angel wings, I’ve spent days each winter planning what I would do.  This sounds obnoxious, as if I’m striving to be Martha Stewart, but believe me when I say that despite my best efforts, the cards remain pretty simple and success is hit or miss.  But I finally realized this year why I love creating them so much.

Christmas cards are ALL character and NO plot.  (Ahem.  Does this sound like any author you may know?)  Each year is an opportunity to create a perfect little vignette, with no worries about rising action, microtension, or conclusions.  (Sorry, Donald Maass. I feel like I’m letting the team down.)

This year, however, my characters revolted.  After over a decade of taking direction, they’ve decided that next year, the Christmas card is theirs.  And while I’m sad I won’t be able to get to the rest of the fabulous ideas I’ve planned, I understand. (Plus, there’s always the chance they’ll forget and I’ll get to do it my way anyhow.)

So, to celebrate the end of a run, I thought I’d put together my thoughts on what makes a holiday card successful.  And if there’s some writing advice in there too, forgive me.  Just don’t listen to me on plot.

  • Pick a theme.  Even if you only use one photo, find a way to tie it to something larger.  I love using a line or two of a poem or holiday song in the greeting, and having the photo reflect what’s written. For example, in one of my earlier cards, I dressed my baby daughter in her pink tutu and snapped pictures while she twirled.  The line under the photo read “While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Just like in novels, a strong theme can carry you through.
  • Be unexpected.  One of my favorite cards from last year showed a family on the beach in bathing suits, enjoying the warm weather.  Their card read “Dreaming (NOT!) of a White Christmas.”  (And taking your reader somewhere unexpected keeps them turning pages, too.)
  • Keep it fun.  My son is notorious for looking like a Grinch in pictures.  In the past years, in desperate attempts to make it look as if we’re not torturing him, I’ve had him sit in an old-fashioned horse carriage, pull a sleigh as fast as he could on the beach, jump on a trampoline, and pelt his sister with snowballs. (Guess which activity got the biggest smile out of him?) Just like in writing — if it’s  not fun for you, it shows through to your reader.
  • Keep the photos as big as you can.  And my rule is that in general, people on my holiday list really only want to see my kids. I’d rather have one great photo of the two of them than five smaller ones of the family. And lastly…
  • Make friends with a great photographer!  I’ve always done the photos for our cards myself, but this year my friend Kevin Harkins of Harkins Photography offered to take them for me.  The results were fabulous, and such a memorable way to (possibly) end my favorite tradition. To see our card this year as well as some of the outtake photos, hop over to his blog. And tell me — do you love doing holiday cards too?  If so, tell me about your favorite in the comments!

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

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It may come as a surprise, but I’m not the most organized person in the world. (My husband and mother don’t need to chime in on this.)  My organizational strategies are few, but hard-won: The keys go on the hook right when I walk in the door, or I lose them. The phone goes on the charging station, or it disappears. Twice a day I walk through the main rooms of the house, starting in the left corner and working to the right, restoring whatever has escaped to its rightful spot.

Which is why sights like this:

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Creative doll house space that needs maid service

 

and this:

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Sewing corner that would make Martha Stewart cry

make me crazy.  Sometimes after a long week, I admit it — I lose my cool and yell about the mess of plastic and paper we’re drowning in.  And for half an hour, everyone under the age of fourteen scurries around, putting their laundry away and moving the toys from the floor to under the bed.

But I always wind up feeling horribly guilty about these rants. Not just because I hate to yell but because I’m torn.  Childhood should be a time when kids learn organization skills, it’s true (although I had the most organized parents in the world and not much rubbed off, so I’m leaning toward nature over nurture on this one) but it should also be a time of insane creativity.  It’s a time when kids don’t know the rules, so they have no compunction about breaking them.  They can dream big, because no one has yet told them how small their space is in the world.  They can make a mess, and create something beautiful.

It’s not just things that are over-organized, either.  Almost every minute of my children’s day is scheduled.  My youngest goes to a school where even recess now has ‘stations’ to choose from. Gone are days when kids could play tag (too rough) practice cartwheels on the grass (too dangerous) or wander aimlessly through the playground. And after school, the days of just hanging out in the neighborhood with friends or on the couch reading are over, too — the neighborhood is empty, because everyone’s at soccer practice, and if anyone’s just hanging on the couch, they’d better be studying for that math quiz.

But if everything is scheduled, everything is put away, when does serendipity strike? When do the unwashed petri dishes lead to penicillin? When does the time on the couch lead to a book that leads to a hobby that leads to a brilliant idea? When do our kids have the time, and the opportunity, to connect two unrelated things and make them sing? For that matter, when do we?

Or as Steve Jobs said:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

If you schedule every moment, if you put everything away neatly in its place, you’ll have a well-organized life, it’s true.  You may become brilliant at taking tests. But then that sewing corner may never lead to this:photo 2

 

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And this:

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Random paper clips arranged in a pattern on the floor

 

won’t ever have time to grow into this:

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And who knows what else the world will miss?

(Tell  me — how do you balance organization and creativity?)

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NOT the Slobbering Beast, although we are working on exactly this.

NOT the Slobbering Beast, although we are working on exactly this.

When I used to show my dog in the obedience ring, I had a joke with a friend.  If a dog sat when he was supposed to down, wandered off when heeling, or  jumped out of the ring to snag a jelly donut (before jumping back in!) it was ‘handler’s error.’ Translation: my fault.

My riding instructor said something similar this week.  There are three of us taking classes together, all of us middle-aged, at different levels of experience and with very different horses. We are all having different problems, and the ray of sunshine that is my current instructor blamed it all on us.  If the horse isn’t doing what you want it to do, she said, it’s your fault. 

Either you aren’t communicating clearly enough what it is you want, you haven’t schooled on that particular issue enough, or you haven’t made it evident just how important this action is to you and committed to following through with appropriate consequences when your request isn’t met.

There are exceptions, of course — there always are — but in general, to be a good trainer or rider, you need to look in the mirror when things aren’t going your way.

It’s the same with publishing.

At Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace two weekends ago, I heard the same message over and over and OVER again from the published writers who were teaching classes: There’s always a way to get better. There’s always a way to improve. There’s always room to make your dialogue sharper, your plot more intense, your characters more believable.

Agents want to say yes.They need to say yes — their income depends on finding that next sellable book.

Editors want to say yes. They want a book that keeps them up at night, that makes them go past their stop on the subway, that has their whole department buzzing.

If they aren’t saying yes, there’s a reason.

There are exceptions, of course — there always are — but in general, to be a good writer, you need to look in the mirror when things aren’t going your way.  You need to own what you can control, need to work it as hard as you can, so that if a ‘no’ comes your way, you know it’s not because of you, because YOUR writing is tight, YOUR dialogue sparkles, YOUR plot is heart-poundingly intense.

To paraphrase writer Matt Bell (who does so many revisions on his novels he made my head hurt) you have to be in it for the work, not the glory, because the glory may never come.

Do the work.

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I’ve been riding horses, off and on, since I got my first paycheck out of college. One of the reasons I can still get on and (kind of) giddyup after years away from the barn is because I had great instructors. No matter how high my rent was, or what odd expenses came my way, I almost always managed to scrape together the money for a weekly lesson. One woman I rode with for over 10 years — she helped me find the first horse I ever owned free and clear, she taught me how to fall, she even came to my wedding, one of the few times I saw her dressed in something other than boots and breeches.

Another instructor helped me regain my confidence after some bad falls. She taught me how to observe what the horse was saying, not just what I wanted him to do. A third found me my dream horse and went out of her way to bring us together. Although there were other teachers, these three are the ones who mattered the most.

I’ve moved on from that part of my life, but I still remember them all every time I climb into a saddle, and at other moments as well. I learned so much from them, some of it about riding, most of it not.

My new instructor is funny and sharp, with her own ways of teaching, her own equine hangups.  She’s threatening to get a video camera system, so she can show those of us in her class how we really look, not just how we appear in our own heads. And it’s true — the way we think we ride, straight and tall, loose and limber, isn’t the reality at all. This week, something she said reminded me of an exchange I had a long time ago with my first instructor, who had seated me on a horse that was ready to leave the ground at any moment.  She kept telling me to turn him in circles and not to throw away my outside rein.  After the fifth or sixth time, I remember snapping that I was using the outside rein just #$#$ fine, thankyouverymuch.

“Well the horse disagrees,” she snapped back. “And so do I.”

In my last lesson, the current instructor was trying to help me get the horse on the bit going forward, and suddenly, I could hear the old instructor yelling at me not to give away that rein.  From the distance of 10 years or so, it suddenly made perfect sense.  So I shortened up the rein when I was turning, kept the tension in it as we circled, and voila! I had a horse on the bit, moving forward nicely.  (At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe in lieu of videotaped evidence.)

Revisions in writing can be a bit like riding. How you think it looks, how it appears in your own head, can be radically different from what is actually on the page. If you have beta readers, resist the urge to tell them “That’s exactly what I’ve done,” if they suggest you need to tighten up the plot, increase the love interest, or ground it in a more realistic setting. Remind yourself that you’ve asked for their advice because you have respect for their abilities and judgement. Say “thank you” to them and as little as possible of anything else. Then put their comments away, along with your manuscript, for as long as you possibly can.

When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you just may see that they were right.

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!

 

 

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Last week I was sitting on Rory, listening to my instructor correct some point or other in my riding, and another person in the class commented on what a lovely head set Rory had as he stood there.  His head and spine were perfectly rounded, he was mouthing the bit, and he looked like a real dressage horse, instead of a get up and go hunter. (Like this, if you are looking for a visual.)

“I know,” I said. “I can get him to relax into it when we’re stopped, but not when we’re trotting.”

You know how the second the words come out of your mouth, you regret them? I should know better to ever, EVER  tell a riding instructor I can’t do something, because they will take it personally. They will devote the rest of their lives to making sure that I can. Or at least the rest of the lesson. And this instructor is no different.

“Of course you can,” she said immediately. And I silently cursed the person who had commented as I dutifully went off at the trot to get Rory on the bit.

But here’s the thing. People call riding a conversation, and it really is. No matter how big and powerful you are, no matter how harsh your aids, you cannot make a horse do something he doesn’t want to do.  You may prevail for a while, you may get your way that day, or the next, maybe even the third, but at some point in time there is going to come a reckoning, and it is not going to be an attractive one.

Instead it’s like getting a three-year-old to eat their peas.  You ask nicely.  You mix them with a bit of honey, maybe, and you’re not surprised when they come back at you.  You give it some room and you ask again. You mix them with carrots, you use them frozen to soothe sore gums, and eventually, if you’re persistent and you really, really want it, you have a three-year-old who will eat peas.

Let us say that Rory does not like peas in any way, shape, or form.  We’d had this conversation on our own, with me kind of suggesting, in a timid way, that he might want to try them, and him spitting them back out at me hard.  No peas for him, I’d decided.

Because the other part of the conversation of riding is that once you ask a horse for something, you have to follow through. You have to mean it, to really commit, because if you don’t, then the horse has just learned that he doesn’t have to respect you.  That you aren’t serious about this, and he can ignore whatever other suggestions you might have, which can get dicey when you’re outside and you ask him to pay attention to you, not to whatever is blowing in the breeze, or when you ask him to go over a jump.

But here was my instructor, telling me to give Rory some peas, telling me I was capable of doing this, that I NEEDED to do this. So I swallowed hard, and started the conversation.

It went about like you’d expect.  Rory huffed and puffed and behaved a little bit like a punk, tossing his head hard at me and stomping sideways. It wasn’t a full-scale temper tantrum, just a little bitty one, the equivalent of a toddler dumping his dish on the floor. No real malice, just curiosity about what would happen. Nothing personal.

“You can do this,” my instructor said. “And if it helps, I’ve never known him to buck.”  It didn’t help one bit, since I have a mortal fear of bucking based on past painful experience, and whenever anyone says that it’s the equivalent of saying the Titanic had plenty of life boats.

But I stayed with it, despite the huffing and puffing. I breathed and unfroze myself from the self-protective frame I’d immediately folded into.  I kept asking, nicely, and eventually Rory got tired of putting on a show. He recognized that I meant it, and he dropped his head, rounded his frame, and looked a little bit like a dressage rock star.

After, my instructor took me aside and reminded me that I had the skill to do this.  I had the talent, even if I hadn’t used it in a decade. That I should be able to get on a horse even after 10 years and politely and firmly explain what we were going to do, and then do it. That it’s not just skill, but self-confidence too.

Publishing is a very similar conversation.  You can’t make an agent take you, you can’t make a publishing house buy your book. You can’t make readers fall in love with your story.  But you can be prepared. You can be as skilled as you possibly can be before you start that conversation. You can commit all the way to making it happen, to getting better and better, to not taking the rejection personally, but to getting back to a place of strength for the next time you ask. And the time after that. And every single time going forward. Until at last, you get that yes.

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My little girl on my big sweet non-punk horse.

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Lately when riding, I am a hot mess. (That’s the technical term.  The actual term used by my instructor is unprintable here.) There are so many things going on — my seat isn’t balanced, my legs slide forward, my knees are jammed up against the knee roll, my reins get floppy — hence, the hot mess. (In fairness to my past riding self, it’s not all bad all the time — but compared to how I used to be, it certainly feels that way.)

This week, my instructor brought me back to basics.  She took a long whip, threaded it between my elbows and behind my back, and told me to keep it there while cantering.  Lean forward and hunch your shoulders toward your ears (my favorite riding position, apparently) and the whip pops out. Humiliation galore. (And an exciting ride if it happens to hit your horse on the way down.)

It’s an old trick, but it worked.  To keep the whip in place, I had to roll my shoulders down and lean back. Which centered my seat. Which fixed my leg. Which got my hands out of my lap and improved the way I held the reins.

One small change, and everything fell into place.

Writing is like that too.  Looking at an entire manuscript is overwhelming and can make you feel like a failure.  But if you pick just one thing to work on — your dialogue, for example, or the way you transition between scenes — one of two things will happen:

Either you’ll fix the main problem, and everything else will snap into place, or…

You’ll find out you have more work to do.  Which isn’t the end of the world, I promise.  It just means picking the next one thing. Fixing that. And moving on.

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(And if you’ve read this far, here’s a reward — one of my favorite riding videos is at the end of this page.)

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It’s Wednesday, isn’t it, which means this post is a day late. But I really wasn’t slacking off — I was working on a post for Writer Unboxed.  What’s that, you say?  You don’t know about this terrific resource for writers?  Then hie thee over there now and check it out. (Feel free to  leave me a comment, too.)

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Hey there!

Do you read Writer Unboxed? No? You should. If only because I had a very depressing post planned for today, and then I remembered that nooooo, I couldn’t write that because I had a much more optimistic post about storytelling scheduled to be up on the Writer Unboxed web site.  See? WU already has made your day better. Go check it out! (And please feel free to leave me a comment.)

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Feed and Water

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I read this post a few months ago, and it has stayed with me almost every day since. It is so hard in today’s society to do something you are passionate about that doesn’t produce a dollar return, to make time for something just for the sheer joy it gives you. To give that something some of your best hours, not the ones you have to cobble together around work or family or other responsibilities. Like sleep.

I interviewed a group of women recently who have taken up hockey. Hockey requires logging lots of hours just to be good enough to stand on the ice, to move around without the puck. These are women in their forties, women with children and jobs and carpools and houses to run and dinners to make. And yet they are cheerfully going off and spending hours and hours each week learning to play hockey. I asked one of them what she planned to DO with these skills (because don’t we always have to DO something with our skills? Make something out of them? Turn a profit?) and she looked at me as if I was slow, and said “I’m going to keep skating, I’m going to get as good as I can for as long as I can. Because I love to skate.”

Duh.

It’s hard to put our passions first. It makes us seem selfish, or immature, or oblivious to the needs of those around us. Lazy, even. But sometimes our passions aren’t just what we want to do, they are who we are. And when we neglect them, we starve our souls.

Don’t forget to feed and water yours today.

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IMG_1402If I squint, I can just see the end of this book I’ve been working on for such a long time.  It’s there, misty and unformed, but close enough to touch — hopefully sometime in the next few weeks. After I’ve written those blessed last words  — The End — I’ll take a week or so off, and then start in on … revisions.

Yep.  “The End” doesn’t ever seem to mean the end.  It just means the beginning of the next stage. I always find it helpful when other writers share their processes, so here’s what I’ll be doing:

1) This novel has multiple POVs, so I’ll pull each one out, make it a single document, and work on making that voice as strong and consistent as possible. (See more here.) Starting my revision this way has the added bonus of making the manuscript seem fresh and new to my eyes.

2) I’ll put the manuscript back together and face down the abyss with the help of Elana Johnson, who gives my go-to advice on revising here. 

3) I’ve been sending the manuscript to my awesome first reader in chapters all year, and she’s been sending it back with comments. The proper response to anyone willing to help critique your manuscript is a big fat “Thank You!” but sometimes advice is hard to read. So I stick comments I might question in a separate folder and let them simmer there. I’ll do one last read through that folder, and be amazed at how much great advice she’s given me. That means another round of edits.

4) Time to send it out to my regular reader (if she’ll have me) plus a fresh pair of eyes.

5) Repeat.

That’s my summer vacation — what do you have planned?

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After umpteen months, I can finally see the end of this novel. It’s there, just out of reach, perhaps three chapters away. I’ve been writing those final lines at baseball games, at dance rehearsals and while grocery shopping, carving them out of the air, inscribing them on my mind. But I haven’t put them on paper yet.

Why not?

Some of it, of course, is the time factor. It takes time to get in the zone, to set up and immerse myself in a world that’s not this one. But there are plenty of people with much busier schedules than mine who manage to write a book or more a year, so it’s not really a valid excuse.

And then last week I was scrolling through my Facebook feed (see how much time I have??) and Vaughn Roycroft posted a link that caught my eye. It was by Steven Pressfield, and it talks about how resistance is secondary to the dream.  Resistance only exists because of the dream. If you are blocked or stymied when you are writing, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. You just need to see past that resistance to whatever dream is on the other side.

This makes sense to me. As writers, there’s so much angst surrounding what we do. Writing is so subjective, and we’re always worried — is it good?  Will an agent like it? Will an editor like it? Is it good enough to publish?  Good enough to sell?  What if it’s not? Can I rewrite it?

Remember the movie Bull Durham? I love that movie.  It’s filled with great quotes, like this one: “”This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

Unfortunately, writing isn’t like baseball. You can throw, catch AND hit the ball, and sometimes you still lose. So you have to be in it for something else. And that’s the dream. The dream of writing well, of creating a world so perfect and true and believable that while you are there, you can forget, at least for a moment, that you created it. You can forget all the noise outside (is it good?  will it sell? what will people think?) and just exist in that world for a while. You have to get out of your head to get into it.

Or, as Crash says, “Don’t think. It can only hurt the ball club.”

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Point of view is on my mind this month. My friend Vaughn Roycroft wrote an excellent post on head-hopping that you should read. And  as I am deep in the midst of my own head-hopping with my current book, I thought I’d share my favorite tips here for any writers who might be going through the same process:

Give each character her own book. Go through your manuscript and cut and paste each character’s story into a single document. Yes, it’s a bit of a pain to do (easier in Scrivener than in a regular word processing program) but it will help your writing in several ways. I find I’m much more likely to see inconsistencies this way —  Trudy hates the color blue in chapter  five but wears her favorite blue sweater in chapter 17, for example — than I would if I were just reading through each chapter in the larger document. Plus, creating a separate ‘book’  really helps you nail the voice of each character. And mixing up your work this way will help you with the overall editing, too.

Now read each character’s story aloud. You can do it yourself or paste the copy into a words-to-text program. Are the intonations, the slang, the speech patterns different? They should be. Can you close your eyes, listen to the reader, and know immediately who is speaking?

I’m not saying to go crazy with odd word choices or verbal tics to distinguish your characters. But think of it this way — if an email from a good friend arrived in your in-box with the sender’s name stripped out, you’d probably be able to figure out who sent it based on the way they ‘talked’ in the email, correct? You should be able to do the same thing with your characters.

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Diversity in your characters’ voices — it’s a good thing.

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For someone who hates being cold, I love winter hiking. There are no ticks or mosquitoes to contend with, no vicious horse flies, no gasping for air in the humid New England summer. Often, particularly if the weather is unpleasant, the Slobbering Beast and I can go for miles without seeing another human soul.

There’s a short hike I love to do in the winter.  In summer, the trail runs alongside a narrow, muddy stream.  Clouds of insects buzz about it, extracting bits of flesh in exchange for passage. In warm weather we go early and quick or we don’t go at all.

But in winter, the scene is completely different. There’s no rush, no hurry, so long as we’re out of the woods by dark. The downside, of course, is that this is New England, and the same weather that keeps the blood-sucking pests away has its own hazards. Ice and snow, sleet and cold, can make for treacherous footing. The most challenging section of the trail winds upward, through the pines and the birch, and runs along a small cliff. At the top, it weaves between two large boulders, skittering down among rocks and tree stumps until it meets level ground.

In summer, the path is a fun challenge, requiring just enough effort to make my heart race pleasantly. But in winter, the way is harder. What looks like secure ground is often no more than dried leaves covered with a dusting of snow.  Step too hard, put too much weight in the wrong spot, and you’ll find your feet flying out from underneath you. Going uphill, a fall may bruise your pride. Downhill, the stakes are a little higher.

There’s an alternative, of course. I could not hike at all, could traipse about my neighborhood, doing laps and logging miles. Or I could take a different path, a safer one, a path that has neither the highs nor the lows of this one. But the view from the top feeds my soul with joy, and the view from the bottom reminds me of my accomplishment, my tenacity and my strength. And so there is no other choice, not really, but to kick the toe of my 10-year-old hiking boots into the soft snow, scrape out a foothold, and hope that it holds.

For me, writing is like that these days. I’m not a ‘baby’ writer, not just starting out anymore. I know how high the hills are. My time might be better spent, more profitably spent, finding another type of writing. There are other calls on my time — family and friends, jobs and responsibilities, any one of which has more ‘real’ claim to how I spend my hours. There are book stores closing, publishers merging, a once staid landscape turning unstable. Step wrong, and who knows what will come plunging down next?

But just as nothing else gives me the same joy as tromping through the woods on a snowy afternoon, nothing else feeds my soul like writing. When it goes well, when the black lines on the page turn into words that turn into sentences that turn into a real, true story, there’s nothing else quite like it. And so, even though the path is no longer smooth, even though it’s turning cold, I’ll keep kicking into the snow for a toehold, no matter how small, I’ll keep climbing upwards, one step at a time.

it may not look like much, but in winter it's my own personal Cliff of Insanity.

it may not look like much, but in winter it’s my own personal Cliff of Insanity.

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The only one more joyful about winter hiking than me is the Slobbering Beast.

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It snowed here last week — crisp and white and heavy. I’d planned for a snow day and finished  my work early, but the kids wound up having school.  And so I found myself with several whole hours and nothing (besides laundry! writing! dinner!)  to do.  I decided to play hookie and go for a hike.

Near the preschool where my children went is a parcel of conservation land. When the kids were little, I knew it well. The school was just far enough, and the program just short enough, that most days it didn’t make sense to go back home after I’d dropped them off, so I spent many of those two-hour segments wandering the trail.

I still hike there from time to time, but almost always the shorter loop — the longer one requires a time commitment I’m rarely free to give. Last week,  it felt almost sinful to start down the longer path, but I did.

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My, what big footprints!

The trails have changed since my children were little — the conservation organization has added new paths and extended old ones. The snow had covered the way in several places, and I had to backtrack until I found the right direction. And then I found a pair of footprints leading off on their own, through a part of the woods I hadn’t visited before.

I was hiking by myself. Normally I have the Slobbering Beast for company. He’s an ideal companion — an 80-lb missile of muscle with Orca jaws and white shiny teeth, ready to have my back if required but a waggle-bottomed enthusiastic greeter of the toddlers and their parents we sometimes encounter. He’s also my personal GPS.  He can find a trail in any condition, and is a stickler about staying on it. (Unless there are bunnies, in which case deviations are allowed.) But even the most handsome Beast occasionally needs to be bathed, whether he wants to be or not, which is why I was on the trail and he was getting his nails cut.

So when I saw the footsteps, I hesitated. I worried whether I would be able to find my way back. I wondered who I’d encounter on my own, with no Beast by my side. But the woods were lovely, dark and deep, and I had no promises to keep that day. Except to myself, so I stepped off the path and wandered away.

And it was lovely.  Peaceful and quiet, aside from the ice and snow falling from the trees, shattering into a handful of sparkles when they hit the ground. There were deer tracks, raccoon prints, and disturbingly large dog-like tracks that appeared on their own and disappeared down a little gully, but the only human prints were those that I’d followed into the woods. And then they veered up, toward where the trees broke along the meadow, but I continued on, along the hint of the path ahead, which curved and double-backed and eventually met up with the main trail, at the exact spot at which I’d meant to be. But the way I’d gone this time was so fresh and new to me, I was able to see it with clear eyes, and so the journey was completely different than it might have been.

Writing is like that. Sometimes you have to break away from the known, from the carefully constructed outline you’ve made, and follow that hint of inspiration where it takes you. It may get lonely. You may come across something that disturbs you. But the journey will be your own.  It will be unique, and it will be what your reader remembers, even if you end up in the exact same spot you’d intended all along.

The end.

The end.

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The tree is up, the outside of the house is decorated, and the holiday cards are in process. Every year, December seems to go by faster and faster — the month hasn’t even started yet and I already can feel the days slipping away. I want to pay attention to every single second this year. I want walks in the snow, nights curled up just gazing at the tree, meals eaten by glow of candlelight. I want carols on the stereo and lots of time just hanging out, reading or talking or playing board games. I’ll let you know how that plays out sometime in January, ok?

In the meantime, here are some ways to make the holiday season more merry for you and your loved ones:

Watch From Time to Time It’s written and directed by Julian Fellowes, the selfsame fellow behind Downton, and you’ll recognize several of the faces.  It’s a lovely, haunting story set at Christmastime during World War II.

Invest in your inner writer (or the inner writer in someone you love).  If you live in New England, consider giving a gift membership to Grub Street, or a workshop or class. It’s a great organization that truly helped me grow as a writer (and continues to do so). Which reminds me, I need to renew my own membership….

Eat chocolate. Okay, chocolate makes a good gift too. I’m particularly fond of Taza chocolate, especially their chocolate mexicano line. It’s sweet and spicy and addictive.  I also love the dark chocolate sea salt caramels from Whole Foods. (An awfully nice friend gave me an entire box just before Thanksgiving, and I have hidden them away for those dark writerly moments of the soul.)

Give a book. Sadly, I cannot post many of the books I plan to give because a certain eleven-year-old who lives in my home has figured out how to subscribe to my blog. (It’s bad enough when they snoop in closets for presents!) But I can safely share two here. They are:

  •    Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull.  I loved, loved, loved this fairy-tale esque story so much that I might have captured it from the local library several times in a row.  I’m planning on purchasing it so it can live on my shelves without guilt.
  • Papertoy Monsters.

    Our paper monster family. Aren’t they cute?

    A cross between origami and cartoon art, the book has over 50 teensy  monsters, each with its own backstory, to be pressed out and glued or folded together. Both my kids love making them, and I may have created a few on my own when they were asleep one night. I’m not confessing.

What’s on your holiday list this year?

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Who Owns Author?

Last week, I wrote about the difference between the terms writer and author. This week I want to know, when do you get to call yourself an author?

I have friends who write for very well-known blogs, or have established blogs of their own, but haven’t written a complete manuscript and thus won’t use the word to describe themselves. Are they authors?

What if you’ve written a fabulous, world-inventing novel, poured your heart and soul into it, but haven’t sent it out for publication yet? Are you an author?

What if that same manuscript is with an agent — do you get to call yourself an author now?

How about self-publishing?  Was Amanda Hocking any less an author than JK Rowling when Hocking was self-publishing millions of ebooks?  Or is it Hocking’s deal with St. Martin that makes her a ‘real’  author?

Is it the act of creating that makes you an author? Is it the  number of people who read your books? Or is it the validation of having someone in the publishing industry say you are?

I’ll share my opinion in the comments.  What’s yours?

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Denim versus Dress Up

Collection lace dress

Collection lace dress from J.Crew

Twice this week people have asked me what I do for a living. That’s a question I always find interesting, and perhaps one of these days we’ll get around to the whole Mommy Wars discussion on this blog.  But today I want to talk about how I tend to answer, which I also find interesting and I hope you will as well.

My book Evenfall has been out for over a year now.  I love the story, love the cover, and am pretty happy with how it has been received. I recognize how lucky I am to have had a book in bookstores when publishing is going through such a hair-rending time.  And yet, when people ask what I do, do I say “Oh, thank you for asking, I’m an author?”

I do not.

My usual response is “Gah, babble babble babble, I’m a writer.” Sometimes they’ll ask what I write, in which case I reel off a list of my publishing creds, tacking Evenfall at the end. Other times (like this past week) I’m lucky enough to have my youngest with me, who immediately breaks into my babbling with “She’s an author. She’s been on television and she has a book named Evenfall and in it the dog (reveals entire ending of book).”  This may not help me with sales, but it is gratifying to my ego.

So why does a seven-year-old have no problem saying the A word when I do? I think the answer is in the definition. At my son’s age, writer and author are interchangeable. But I’ve been a writer so much longer than an author I can spot the difference.

Writer, to me, is an action word. It says dig in and get your hands dirty (or as dirty as you get  using a keyboard). It means to take notes, to research, to string words together and then take them apart, to do this again and again until they are as polished and smooth as possible. It’s craftsmanship,  denim and work boots and a soft, comfortable t-shirt.

Author is static. It’s a lovely word, too, but it says “look what I’ve done” not “look what I’m doing.” It’s dress up, don’t touch me, special occasion wear, high heels and sequins and maybe some Spanx. Author has its place, but it’s not for every day.

Despite my occasional attempts to appear otherwise, I’m strictly a t-shirt and blue jeans girl, and that’s fine. I’m more comfortable with a notebook and computer to hide behind. Maybe someday, when I have other books out there, the sparkly bits will incorporate themselves into my working wardrobe a bit more and the line between writer and author won’t be so stark. But for now, I’m still getting my hands dirty.

How do you define the words writer and author?

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I am behind today. There are many reasons, including the holiday weekend (in the US Monday was Columbus Day) and the fact that someone was Put Out about having to run in almost rain conditions. Can you tell?

The Slobbering Beast does not care for damp.

Instead of rocketing along at near-heart attack pace, we took a more leisurely approach today. Which was wonderful for my lungs, but not so great for time management. So I am asking you to go and play with these links, and I’ll be back next week with a real post.

What does your brain look like on Jane Austen? NPR finds out.

Are you a gritty writer or reader? My friend Vaughn Roycroft asks the question over on his blog. (My answer: Not so much. The world is a pretty gritty place already, and I try not to add to it. My reading exception is John Sanford, whose Prey books and hero are awfully gritty but very compelling.)

Can changing your genre change your career? Newly repped author Kell Andrews thinks so.

And finally, what causes a published author to disappear? (Besides grumpy Slobbering Beasts and poor time management skills?) Find out here. (Link stolen from the wonderfully readable Jan O’Hara.)

Happy Reading!

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I love being a writer. I’ve been doing it for so long, in one capacity or another, that I can’t imagine not being able to play with words. Spending hours alone at the keyboard making stuff up (as my son puts it) is satisfying, but there are days when it can be a tiny bit lonely, too. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to stumble across a wonderful community called Writer Unboxed. It’s filled with writers of all types, published and non, established and just starting out. It’s a resource I’ve drawn heavily upon for information, ideas, and just companionship. Recently my friend and fellow writer, the very humorous Jan O’Hara, asked if I’d be willing to get more involved, and of course I said yes. I’m now the official Q&A person for the WU newsletter, which means I get to interview all kinds of interesting authors and other writerly types. It also means I get to give Jan, the newsletter editor, heartburn on a regular basis. I am so looking forward to this!

If you can spare a second, head on over to see the official announcement here. To celebrate the revamping of the newsletter, WU is running a contest, too. I hope you’ll check it out.

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Revising

Many of my writer friends appear to be in the middle of revising their manuscripts.  I can tell because they are making the noises I hear when I hurry past the waxing section of the salon.  To ease the sting, I thought I’d share how I revise these days.

First, go read this.  It is the most helpful revising strategy I have ever found — Elana Johnson is brilliant.  Her plan makes revising seem possible.  (Not painless, because no one is that brilliant, but possible.)

Back?  Okay.  So when I’ve finished a complete manuscript, I do what Elana suggests.  But I do mini-revisions every 100 pages or so.  I finish a 100 page section, send it off to my long-suffering and amazing beta reader, and while I’m waiting to hear from her, I go back 100 pages, revisit her comments on that section (much easier to do now that some time has passed) consult my own notes that I’ve scribbled off to the side, and whip that puppy into shape.  Around the time I’ve finished, beta reader extraordinaire will have sent back the newest segment.  I read through her comments, flag any that I need to keep in mind going forward, and stick the whole package in a deep, dark drawer to rest. (Or compost, depending how I’m feeling) until it’s that section’s turn for attention.  Then it’s off to write the newest section.

Sometimes a comment from my beta or an inspiration means going all the way back to the beginning.  For example, the manuscript I’m working on right now has several points of view, told in alternating chapters.  One character is not behaving, and I’ve just figured out why.  That means pulling out every chapter that’s told from her point of view and working on them together to make her voice more believable and her actions seamless.  (For stuff like this, I ‘m finally seeing the value of Scrivener.)

Revising in stages like this might not work for everyone, but I like feeling that my manuscript isn’t  an enormous mess when I type ‘the end’ — somehow chunking it as I go makes revising less intimidating.

How about you?  Do you revise in stages, at the end, or both?

 

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Apparently I need this t-shirt!

This was originally a snarky post to the driver who almost sent me into a ditch when I was out jogging this weekend, but cooler heads have prevailed. (Lady in the tan SUV, you can thank my husband. In the meantime, back away from the accelerator!)  While I calm down, I’m sending you over to Vaughn Roycroft’s blog (Did you know Roycroft means Royal Craftsman?  Neither did I, but he’s certainly well-named) for a post that compares house building to writing.

And when you get back, I am sending you right back out to buy Last Will, by Bryn Greenwood.  I have quietly stalked Bryn’s blog for years, and whenever she posts a bit of what she’s working on, I can’t get it out of my mind.  So when I had a chance to win this book, I couldn’t resist.  And I won!  And now I can’t put it down.  It’s quirky and odd and funny and not like anything else I’ve read lately. So go buy her book, darn it.  Particularly if you are a woman who drives a tan SUV.  Because lady, after what my husband made me pull off this blog, you owe me.

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A writing board I am on is asking tough questions these days. Questions like ‘Why do you write?’ and ‘Will you stop writing if you don’t get published?’ (Usually the questions are more like ‘Does anybody want to meet for drinks on Friday?’ and ‘Who is hotter, James McAvoy or Daniel Craig?”) A few of the writers on the board have their work out on submission to agents and editors, so the questions have a renewed sense of urgency.

I write because I am an extremely internal person, and writing things down helps me to process them. It’s a way for me to work things out. I tend to have the self-awareness of a starfish, and oftentimes I don’t realize a problem is bothering me until it shows up on the page.  And then I’m all “Hey, I wrote about X today.  I wonder why that came up?” And my husband just shakes his head.

I write because I am a storyteller at heart, and I always have been. As a child, I told my sister sweeping sagas about a little girl who looked just like us but lived on the moon.  I tell those same stories to my children now. I kept journals for years, well before I’d earned a byline. And when I have been too busy or too tired to write or make up stories, I’ve retold classics like The Wizard of Oz, adding elaborate embellishments.

I would write and tell stories even if I was never published, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be.  But for me, writing a whole novel with the single goal of being published is off-putting.  It’s too big of a journey, with too large of a disappointment at the end if it doesn’t work out. I can only write the way I write, one page at a time, with the goal of a cohesive whole at the end.

Looking at publication directly is too blinding, like staring at the sun. I can only look at it with soft eyes, at the peripherals that surround it: Crafting a readable story with a viable plot and characters that hold my heart. If I do that, if my work is the best it can be, I’ve done everything I can do.  Anything else is beyond my control.

Why do you write?

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Back when I started writing Evenfall, I had very little time for writer’s block.  I had one, then two, small children, a barn full of horses to keep fed and cleaned, and a very busy freelance job. Writing fiction was a break, a moment stolen from other responsibilities. It was fun.

Today, the horses are gone, and the children are bigger and require less care than I like to admit.  I’ve made a conscious decision to cut back on freelancing, and while I’m still busy, I have two days a week where I block out time just for writing fiction.  And every now and then, guess what?  The words, they don’t come.  In the hopes you might find it helpful, I’m sharing what I do when that happens.

Don’t panic.  Okay, maybe I panic a little — this is me we’re talking about, after all.  But YOU shouldn’t panic.  Remind yourself that this has happened before, it will happen again, and it’s a natural part of the writing process.  Really.

Work on something else. Put your manuscript away for a bit.  Work on your query letter, your synopsis, even a blog post for the rest of the day.  Sometimes, just the act of writing can help jumpstart your process.

Zone out.  And I don’t mean on Facebook.  Do something intense that engages your brain and your body fully, so that you can’t think about anything else but what you are doing.  I’m not talking about a nice walk in the woods, either.  You need something that shakes your brain synapses loose.

My activity of choice used to be riding, because if you stop concentrating while on horseback you are liable to find yourself on your back looking up at the sky.  Since I’ve ended my equine addiction, fencing is a handy substitute — my son fights like a crab, scuttling back and then charging in for an attack, and he’s very excited that he has permission to get stabby with me, so my full concentration is required.  If you don’t have someone willing to stab you, try a Zumba class, yoga — anything physical that fully engages you. You don’t have to be good at it, you just have to get moving.  I don’t know why, but this type of activity usually works to get me typing again.

Take a break.  If a deadline isn’t breathing down your neck, put the project away.  Box it up, stick it under your bed, put it in your office and shut the door.  Let it hang out somewhere where it won’t make you crazy.  Give it two weeks.  You’ll come back with fresh eyes and it will be easier to see whatever problem your subconscious is wrestling with.

Set limits.  If nothing else has worked, try this — get a kitchen timer, or use the app on your phone, and set it for fifteen minutes.  Open your document, turn the timer on, and get to work.  When that timer goes off, get up and walk away, even if you are in the middle of a sentence.  You’re done — that’s all the time you have to write today. Do the same thing for the next three days.

By the end of those three days, I’m usually dying to get to work, and my block has vanished.  If you try it, let me know what you think.

What are your tips for getting past writer’s block?

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Pin This!

I am a late comer to the social media bandwagon.  I just joined Facebook a few months ago; I’m not on Twitter.  But I have to admit — I’m pinning like crazy.

Remember the collages you made as a kid, where you ripped all the things you liked out of a magazine and glued them on poster board?  Pinterest is just like that — a giant virtual bulletin board where you can collect any image that catches your fancy, without the messy glue and scissors part.

How can this help you?  Well, first off, it’s fun.  And we all need a little more fun, right?  Second, it’s a great place to store that lustful list of shoes or bags or whatever it is you are coveting.  (Shoe girl, right here.) You can also create a board of craft projects for your four-year-old, a list of gifts to give for the holidays next year, even a board for home improvement projects.

Since this is kind of a writing blog (and sadly, not a shoe blog), you might be reading for ideas on how Pinterest can improve your writing.  Here’s a great article on how to use the site as a writer, and here’s another. The takeaway is that Pinterest can be a handy tool for building worlds and characters.  You can stay broad or break your writing boards down by specific category.

I haven’t gone so far as to break my boards down by character, clothing, etc.., but I am keeping a general inspiration board, and I’ve found some fabulous images that have helped to spark scenes or descriptions for me.  I’m also pinning snippets of text from my work in progress under relevant photos – a fun way to share a little bit of what I’m working on with readers. And I’m following some amazing artists and writers who inspire me every day with their work. (Okay, I’m following some shoe mavens too.  Don’t judge.)

If you are on Pinterest, how do you use it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts. (If you aren’t, and want to be, let me know and I’ll send you an invitation.)

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Once More With Feeling

I hate revising.  I put it off by doing everything else possible – I clean the bathrooms, fold laundry, ask for more freelance work, write my blog posts in advance.  The cleanliness of my house is inversely proportional to how much I need to revise, and man, is my house clean right now.

My office is a whole other affair.  Want to see?  Here:

And the piles just keep growing...

It seems so grossly unfair, doesn’t it?  You write, and write, and write, get the words down perfectly (at least in your head) and then, are you finished?  Nope.  You have to write them all over again.  So, in the interest of procrastinating some more, I thought I’d share my process with you.

1) Every time I sit down to write, I start at the beginning of the chapter I’m working on.  I read through slowly, often out loud, changing a word here or a sentence there, until I get to where I left off.

2) Every 50 pages or so, I go back to the beginning of the book and do the same thing.

3) When I get to about 150-200 pages, wherever I have a natural break but also feel confident enough to keep writing, I do a more serious revision, which is where I am now.  I print out the whole manuscript, sit down with a new pack of sticky notes, and read through the entire thing.  Every time I have a question, think something could be made more clear, find a plot hole, etc. I write a comment down on the sticky and slap it on that page.

4) I break the manuscript up into chapters, put each chapter on the floor, and add any feedback I might have received that deals with that section of the book.  Digression:  I have awesome beta readers, who shall remain anonymous, but whose critiques I really trust, and who write me notes like: “ACK, LIZ ACK THIS IS THE TOTALLY WRONG PLACE FOR THIS.  WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!!!!!  and in general whip me into shape.  We write completely different genres, which I think helps, and they are  more than generous with their time.  I’m very, very lucky.

Further digression:  I send my beta readers 50 pages at a time.  One reader works very well like this, and one of them seems to prefer to read the whole thing at a stretch, so I tend to value the latter’s opinion more once the whole manuscript is finished.  Both of them totally rock, and I liken their comments to getting a really good deep tissue massage — it hurts like crazy when you are going through it, but it makes everything so much better later on.  I’d be lost without them. My agent, too, is fabulous and gives me terrific feedback, although he respects my delicate writerly feelings and usually refrains from writing ACK in the margins.  (That’s only because he’s super professional.  There’s no doubt at times he must be thinking exactly that.)

5) I go through each chapter, taking into account my notes and my beta’s feedback, and make the necessary changes.  Around this time, it starts to be kind of fun, like putting together a puzzle and wondering if you have all the pieces. Any changes I can’t make in that chapter but that I feel need to be done somewhere, or that relate to a larger plot point, go on a sticky note and are posted at eye level above my desk, where they stare accusingly at me each time I sit down to write until I make the changes, at which point I happily throw them away.

6) Once I’ve gone through all the chapters, I check the wall for any outstanding notes, address them if necessary, and then read through from the beginning again to check for typos, continuity, etc. etc. etc..

7) I write another 150 pages, wash and repeat.

This time around I’m also making brief summaries of each chapter on index cards, placing them on top of the pile, and trying to evaluate how much action takes place in each chapter, and then in each segment.  (I’d tried doing this on notecards in Scrivener, but it wasn’t working very well and I was using it as a major procrastination tool, so I stopped and went the old-fashioned method.)

So that’s what I’ll be doing over the next few days.  How do you revise?

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For me, one of the most interesting and challenging parts of writing character-driven books is making sure my protagonists stretch and change in a believable way.  Frodo from The Lord of the Rings series is my shining example of this:  He starts off the series as a happy-go-lucky little hobbit with good intentions, and ends it fundamentally changed in spirit and in body.  (I’ve always wondered if he would make the same choices if he could go back to that famous birthday party in the Shire.)

To evoke this kind of change in a novel is one thing.  To sustain it in a believable way across multiple books is another.  That’s why I’m thrilled to have K.A. Stewart here to talk about how she does it.  Stewart is the creator of Jesse James Dawson, a slender, ponytail-wearing demon slayer who wields a samurai sword by day, but moonlights in a funky retail store to pay the bills.  (Apparently demon killing doesn’t come with great dental coverage.) A dad and husband, Jesse consistently faces tough choices that tug him in directions he might not always want to go. How he reacts and changes is what keeps me reading.

Jesse is a wise-cracking slayer worthy of Buffy herself, and I was delighted to discover him in A Devil in the Details.  I’m looking forward to seeing where the next book, A Shot in the Dark, takes him. Please welcome Stewart as she shares her secrets for character development in the first-ever Secrets and Obsessions guest post!

Creating Characters That Grow

K.A. Stewart

It is a fairly well-recognized fact that character development (ie: emotional/spiritual/mental growth on the part of a character) is essential to stories in general, and to series in particular.  Face it, nothing will lose reader interest so fast as a character that does exactly the same thing for books and books and books and books.  Stagnation is never interesting.

Ergo, change = good, yes?  Well, hold your horses.  While an unchanging character can lose reader interest, a character that changes too drastically, or without logical cause, can make a reader run screaming in the opposite direction. After all, the reason that people stick with the same series for multiple books is because they’ve found something in one of the characters that they identify with, and they’ve come to care about them.  If their favorite is suddenly not the same person at all, it’s hard to still care.  It’s like learning to love a total stranger all over again.

So how do you find this happy medium, the narrow trail between stagnation and making your character unrecognizable?

First off, let’s think about our favorite character.  Mine is (and I know yours is too) Jorge, the psychotic zombie marmoset.  (Just play along, ‘kay? I swear this will all make sense.)

We love Jorge.  He has a dark past, but strives to do good.  He has friends around him who remind him all the time why he wants to help others and leave his wicked ways behind.  He might, just might, even be falling in love again, even though that witch Denise broke his heart years ago.  We like his new girl, Penelope.  She’s good for him.

Now, if Jorge hovered at this point forever, eventually we’d get bored.  We’d know that in every book, he’ll have a deep meaningful conversation with his mentor, Harvey the June bug.  He’ll have a charmingly awkward exchange with Penelope, without ever asking her out, and he’ll defeat the bad guy of the week by using some bit of dark knowledge from his past that he’s now put toward the forces of good.  Sure, it’s fun for now, but by book five, you’re thinking, dear gods man!  DO something!

Conversely, let’s say that in book three, Jorge suddenly wakes up and instead of inhaling his first cigarette and black coffee like always, he suddenly opts to have orange juice and start jogging. Wait, what? Healthy foods are anathema to the Jorge we know and love.  Next, he rescues a kitten from a tree and pats the impish-but-mischievous neighbor boy on top of his curly little head with a smile.  Why? Jorge barely tolerates that kid!  Dear lord, the entire world has gone insane!  Now, if this were to lead into a storyline where Jorge had been taken over by the Pod People from Alpha-Gamma 12, that could be cool.  But if he’s just suddenly different, with no explanation… Well… That’s just not Jorge.  It’s some other character, with Jorge’s name slapped on him, and that’s not what we want to read!

BUT, I’m willing to bet every one of you would like to find out what would happen if Jorge asked Penelope out, only to have her kidnapped by his arch nemesis (long thought dead, of course).  What lengths might Jorge go to, to get her back?  Not just because she might be the new love of his life, but because she is the one truly good thing that keeps him walking the straight and narrow.  How far into his dark side is he willing to go, to preserve that light?  And let’s say he has to kill a few innocent bystanders to get there…  That kind of thing leaves a mark, mentally, emotionally…grammatically…  Let’s say he saves the girl, defeats the bad guy, but he’s also learned just how bad a guy he is himself.  We the reader are intrigued!  Will Jorge truly slip back to the dark side?  Will Penelope leave him if she finds out?  And OMG, he picked up the Cursed Sword of Nathmazaaaaaaar!  We ALL know what THAT does!

Now, what if in the next book, Harvey was also killed, and Jorge had no one left to be his conscience?  Left to his own devices, can Jorge still cling to the path he’s chosen?  And in the book after that, Jorge is betrayed by the one guy he thought he could trust.  His faith in the goodness of humanity is forever shattered.  In the face of that, will Jorge continue to fight his own demons, or will he slip back down into the shadows where he came from?

These are the questions that keep us coming back to series.  We love these characters, yes, but we also want to see what happens when they are stretched to their mental and emotional limits.  And in the end, though the road may be long and twisty and dark and possibly paved with the skulls of a thousand sacrificed pygmy shrews, we are satisfied to see that Jorge fights through and comes out the other end, perhaps scarred and battered, but whole.  We get to see that Penelope loves him just for what he is, dark corners and all.  And we get to finally see him kiss her, so that’s just a bonus.

For this, we would tune in again.  Put a character through their own personal hell, and the reader will certainly come back to see just who walks out on the other side.  Because deep down, we can’t say that we would have done differently in his place.  We lived through it with him, walked that road, fought that fight at his side.  It gives us that connection to him, that desire to see if he (and therefore we) could conquer such adversity.

Character development is one of those things that must be handled carefully, yes, but it is also something that can develop quite naturally, organically even.   It’s all about how your character reacts to situations, both good and bad.  Your character should never live in a vacuum.  There is STUFF around them, and that stuff shapes who they were, who they are, and who they could become. If you just let it.

Want more?  Learn more about Stewart, Jesse, and the books  at Stewart’s blog, On Literary Intent.

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The very last horse I ever owned was a beautiful, giant chestnut who had spent too much time in the show ring.  We worked out a very good deal:  I agreed not to show very much, and to spend the majority of our time together outside in the fresh air.  He agreed not to try to kill me.  Everybody wound up happy.

The only flaw in this contract was that Cen hadn’t actually spent a lot of time outside.  At first, it didn’t matter.  He was kind of miserable and just plodded along with his head down.  Then one day, around the third or fourth month he’d been with me, he picked his head up, looked around, and essentially went “HOLY $#!T!  Look at all these giant scary things!” and put it in reverse.

This was a problem on oh so many levels, starting with the fact that the scary things were trees, and sometimes rocks, and that we lived in New England where trees and rocks are prevalent. The going in reverse wasn’t so much fun either. And of course, I made it worse: We’d be bopping along, having a fine ride, and then a very large odd-shaped tree would appear on the trail bend.  Since I was frantically scanning the horizon for just such a tree, I’d see it before Cen and tense up.  He’d feel me tense up, look around  and see the tree, and be all “WHOA!  That’s a big tree!  Obviously it’s making her nervous — now I’m terrified!  Let’s get out of here!” It was clear a new strategy was called for.

My instructor made me reread my Sally Swift.  Sally, for those of you who don’t do horses, was an amazing woman who taught riding for decades, and rode until she was a very old woman.  She came up with a theory called Centered Riding.  One of the tenants of Centered Riding is Soft Eyes.  It’s hard to explain without too much detail, but basically, instead of staring at an object (such as the tree that is terrifying you) you relax your field of vision, encompassing not just the object, but everything around it.  You are still aware of it, but your awareness has expanded, and has put the object in perspective.  This relaxed viewing changes everything, including your breathing.

When I started using Soft Eyes again, oftentimes Cen never even noticed the horse-eating tree or rock — since my breathing and tenseness hadn’t alerted him that there was a problem  — and we were able to slide right by it.  Eventually, we slid by so many of them that they were  no longer scary, and he turned his attention to other threats, such as the stalking barn cats and the deer that used to love to crash out of the woods at us.  But trees and rocks?  No problem.

Are those trees I see?

I bring all of this up not just because I like to remember Cen and those days, but because I think Soft Eyes has writing applications, too.  Too often, when there’s a problem with our story, we try to beat it into submission, forcing the plot, making the characters behave a certain way.

Instead, I’m practicing Soft Eyes this week. I know there’s something I need to improve in my story, but instead of letting the problem be the center of attention, I’m going to relegate it to the outskirts.  I can still see it there, hanging about, in my peripheral writing vision, but it’s not scaring me anymore.  It’s not making me tense. And with my attention focused on writing, not on fixing, I’m pretty sure the issue will resolve on its own.

How about you?  Can Soft Eyes make a difference in your writing?

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1) Moo and Writer Unboxed are running a contest in which five people will be given a free pack of mini-moo business cards, and everyone who enters will get 25 percent off their order.  (I love my moo cards.) Even if you have no plans to enter, go and read the entries — they are funny and amazing.

2) You know how, when you are out driving, you sometimes see people dragging their dogs for a run?  And you feel bad for them, and want to stop the car and give the poor animal a drink of water or something?  Harley is not that dog.  Harley is the dog who, when I take him for a run, other dogs hang out their car windows and yell “Yo, stuuuuud!  Keep on truckin’!”  We ran 3.5 miles together yesterday (or rather, I ran, and Harley kind of ambled along ahead, breaking into a trot only when I sprinted at the end) and when we were done, he would have been happy to do the whole thing again, only without the 115 pound weight attached to him.  I want people to stop their cars and give ME a drink.

Mid-stride, with a halter on to prevent me surfing along the pavement.

3) I am writing again, slowly.  I find I can write entire sections in my head, but then when it comes down to getting them on paper, I have to write all this other stuff to get to where I want to be first, before I can write those scenes.  And then I wind up cutting most of the other stuff anyhow.  Does this happen to anyone else?  Or am I just exhausted from all this running?

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