As I was working on my first novel, Attachments, I remember reading author blogs and listening to authors talk and always hoping they would reveal some secret that would make all the difference. Some sort of publishing shortcut or insider information or unbeatable writing tip…I don’t think these exist.
Everyone pretty much says the same thing — READ. WRITE. FINISH. (That third one is crucial)
But one piece of advice, which really didn’t have anything to do with writing, really did end up making all the difference personally. I read an interview with Diana Gabaldon, who writes the excellent Outlander series, and she was talking about how she managed to write and work and be a mom. And she said (paraphrasing here) that she stopped caring about cleaning. She forgave herself for not being a great housekeeper.
This idea hit me like three and a half tons of bricks. It seemed so wise — and so freeing!
It’s too much to work full-time and have small kids and write novels. That right there is already too much. Trying to keep up with laundry, too? MADNESS.
I asked myself what my real priorities were. Being a good mom and a good newspaper columnist were important to me. Giving myself a real shot as a novelist was important for me. Making sure that my house was always ready for company…was not.
So I gave myself permission not to clean. (Does that sound radical? It felt radical.)
My husband pinched in a lot. Between the two of us, we kept the house from smelling or changing colors. But we didn’t try to beat back the clutter. We still don’t.
There are almost always dishes in our sink — we pat ourselves on the back for getting them that far. And I sort my personal laundry on a quarterly basis. (You probably think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. I have a hundred pairs of socks. I dig out the high-priority stuff, jeans and my favorite nerdy T-shirts, as necessary.)
I’m not exactly proud of our messy house. And it does bother me sometimes … the stacks of shoes by the door, the piles of homework and mail, the dust. But I try to think of everything I’m accomplishing instead.
My first novel is published — it’s real, I can touch it. My second comes out next year and I just finished my first draft of the third. I could never have written these books and stay on top of everything else.
I have plenty of dirty laundry, yes — but no regrets.
Punch up the Emotion!
By RaeAnne Thayne
Writing a book about an emotional topic without your prose becoming maudlin or overblown can definitely be a challenge – but if you’re able to pull it off, your readers will definitely connect to your characters and your story.
I just finished my 40th book and in the course of my career, I have written about many emotional issues – infertility, the loss of a child, the loss of a spouse. My current release, WOODROSE MOUNTAIN, focuses on a girl who was severely injured in a car accident a few months before the book opens. It’s about healing and hope, about leaning on others and also about some of the difficulties faced by both the victims of TBIs (traumatic brain injuries) and those who love them.
In this book – and all my others – I try to depict my characters facing their adversities with humor and grace, never losing sight of the emotional connection I want my readers to find with my characters. Here’s a quick checklist that might help improve the emotional punch in your writing:
WOW CHARACTERS: Are my characters compelling, vivid, larger-than-life people that my readers can easily relate to? Even if they’re aliens or shapeshifters or demons, do they possess emotional depth that resonates with my readers?
TRUE CONFLICT: Have I created a conflict between my H/H that cannot be resolved without flaying them open, digging deeply into their psyche and exploring their innermost fears and insecurities?
PROPER PACING: Have I paid careful attention to proper pacing, interspersing moments of raw emotion with levity or sweetness or quiet reflection?
DIALOGUE: Have I used dialogue appropriately to best convey my characters’ moods and emotions? Not just what they say but how they say it: Terse, hard words during moments of anger; softer, rounder sentences in times of reflection or quiet sharing?
POINT OF VIEW: Is the point-of-view character I’ve chosen in a given scene the appropriate one to best intensify the emotional arc?
SETTING: Have I truly utilized setting as effectively as possible to enhance the emotions my characters are experiencing? Weather, time of day, physical location: All can be used to reflect the emotional mood.
THE WRITING! Have I “layered in lusciousness” as the fabulous Barbara Samuel so eloquently puts it, by using all sensory tools at my disposal to accentuate my characters’ emotions through texture and scent and color?
LIVE THE EMOTION: Finally, have I been willing to dig as deeply as I can – in my characters’ psyches and in my own – to explore the wide range of feelings inside us all? If I tend to shy away from intense emotions in my life, am I willing to overcome that instinctive self-protective mechanism in order to allow my characters to experience reactions that might personally frighten me?
If you look at your own favorite books, I’m sure you’ll find the selections on your keeper shelf are those books where the emotional intensity of the characters really resonated with you, no matter what the genre.
What tips do you have for heightening the emotional connection your readers can make with your characters?
Carol Snow, author of WHAT CAME FIRST, http://www.carolsnow.com
Tips for Writers
“I wrote a book, and I need to know how to get it published.”
There’s no rush, I told her: for now, she should spend some time experimenting and focusing on her craft.
She put her hands on her hips. “The book’s ready. I’ve been working on it for four months. I just need to find a publisher.”
Then the bell rang and she picked up her Hello Kitty backpack and headed into her fifth grade classroom.
Most of the people who ask me for tips on fiction writing and publishing are older than this particular girl (and a lot less pushy), but much of the advice I give to beginning writers is the same:
- Focus on process rather than product. If you keep writing, there is plenty of time to publish later on. To begin with, have some fun with words, characters and stories without worrying about whether or not they are perfect.
- Write often to develop fluency. Keep a diary, blog, journal . . . whatever works to keep you writing daily (or almost daily). The more you write, the more easily words will flow.
- Live your life. Get out and do things, learn new skills, explore different places, and meet a variety of people. Take jobs that have nothing to do with writing. It is all material. More importantly, it’s your life; you should live it to the fullest.
- Read widely. All writers are readers first. If you don’t like to read, then you shouldn’t be a writer. And if you do like to read, try widening your scope to included new genres, which can expose you to new possibilities for your own writing, and daily newspapers, which can spark all kinds of story ideas.
- Learn to type. The hunt-and-peck method takes too much time and distracts you from your ideas.
- Experiment with different styles and perspectives. The first time I wrote a story in the first person, it was a revelation: at last I had found my voice. After writing seven books in the first person (the last in three different voices), I’ve switching back to third person for my eighth, now in progress, and am amazed at the ways in which it opens up the story.
- Find a good teacher. By this I mean someone who balances constructive criticism with constructive praise and who helps you come up with ideas on your own rather than just assigning a bunch of exercises.
- Become part of a community of writers. Early on (and for some writers, forever), a writing or critique group can help give you the confidence and skills to move forward.
- Learn to self-edit. While group support can be wonderful, fiction writing is, for most of us, a solitary activity. It’s best to share your writing only after you’ve gone as far as you can on your own.
- Read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Repeatedly. You can write the most imaginative, perfectly constructed book in the world, but if the writing is murky and the manuscript is littered with grammatical and punctuation errors, no agent or editor will give it more than a cursory glance.
Becoming a Writer
I wrote, but I wasn’t serious about writing until the summer of 1995 when I sold my car, quit my job, and jumped on a greyhound bus with no idea where I was going. My life was a mess and I needed to find myself. I got off the bus to discover new places like Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, before I ended up in Moorhead City near Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. There I rented a small house (I think it may have been haunted), bought a typewriter and started writing my story, which became my first novel, The Gentlemen’s Club: A Story for All Women.
“No matter where you go, there you are,” kept ringing in my mind. I had heard the saying years earlier but it didn’t make sense until I was alone, sitting in that house, looking for the answers that were hidden deeply inside of me. While writing my book I got honest with myself, and wanted to face my problems the way Angie, my main character, was facing hers. I had to stop running, get strong and stand up for my life. So with the first draft of the manuscript in my hands, I got back on the bus and headed back to Minnesota.
Once back in Rochester, Minnesota, I returned to my old job at Dison’s Drycleaners. I rented a hotel room; I had to pay rent by the week and had to share the shower with others, but at least I had my own toilet and sink. I liked it. The place was perfect for a writer—old, rundown, lots of character and lots of characters living there; I was one of them. With my feet planted firmly on the ground, I focused on work and my writing.
My writing was giving me purpose and a deeper understanding about life. Feeling confident that I wouldn’t run from my life anymore, and being tired of paying for phone calls and eating out for most of my meals, I decided it was time to find a place to live and sign a year’s lease like normal people. I rented an apartment in an old building—another great writing place. I lived above a variety of always failing businesses—furniture store, hobby shop, record store—and the people in the store below controlled the thermostat for my apartment. When the store was empty, I had no heat. So during the winter, I’d pull a folding chair in front of the open oven door, sit down and write for hours.
Around that time, my mother was cleaning closets in her house and wanted to get rid of a lot of old school art projects, report cards and other keepsakes from my younger years. She packaged it all up and mailed it to me. As I sifted through the box, throwing most of it away, I came across an old test comparing students in the same class throughout the state. As I looked down the column of my x’s, it was clear I was average in everything. But I noticed one x that was further to the right, meaning above average. I curiously followed the x to see what it represented—written expression. I started crying and knew this was a sign that I was on the right path.
Never having had a father, I was taken in by a man who owned a small publishing company. Ray offered to help me but refused to publish my books, claiming I needed a bigger publisher. I took the bus or walked to his place almost every day after work all year long. I didn’t have a car, a warm coat or winter boots, but I’d trudge my way through the Minnesota seasons to his place to use his computer and to get his guidance. Ray disciplined me, motivated me, inspired me and encouraged me to be great, just the way I envisioned a real father would.
At night I’d leave his place and walk two blocks to catch the bus back to my cold apartment. If I was early, I’d step inside the gas station and grab a vanilla coffee from the machine before getting on the bus. Then high on caffeine, I’d write into the early morning hours.
I was writing constantly but publishing nothing, so Ray helped me send out about fifty query letters. Eight agents were interested in The Gentlemen’s Club until they read the manuscript. I was told that the story was good, but the manuscript needed some work. I couldn’t afford a professional editor, so my written books were put on hold and I continued writing.
In spite of this, my many rejection letters gave me a sense of accomplishment—at least I had tried. Every small step I took in my writing career was a step in the right direction, and one step closer to achieving my goals. So for two years, I lived a disciplined life of work, writing and living below my means. I went back to school and I started volunteering with Victim Services. I wanted to do better, and I wanted to be better.
When the hard work paid off and I had money in savings, I started looking for an editor and investigated independent publishing, which is basically starting your own publishing company. You put up all the money, do all the marketing, promotion, etc., and hope your book sells. The idea was exciting: Instead of going back through the long route of looking for an agent to look for a publisher, I started Due Publications, found amazing people to help me and the rest is history. I published The Gentlemen’s Club, Blue the Bird On Flying, Touchable Love, Returning Injury, The Dumpster and I’m working on my sixth book, and all of my books have either won or been finalists in several national independent competitions. I’ve made many mistakes; I’m still making them, but I love my career.
Tips for Writers, Sort Of
By Deborah Coonts,
Author of Lucky Stiff
Let’s get this out right up front — I have an authority issue. Rules and me, we mix about as well as fire and gasoline. So, if someone tells me how to do something, odds are, I’m not going to follow that path. The results are usually either brilliant or disastrous. I am very familiar with the latter, but not so much with the former. But at least I did it my way (yes, I feel a song coming on). After trying many professions (some had no appreciation for independent thinkers, imagine that), I finally landed on writing — primarily because, as you might have suspected, I am eminently unemployable. Curiously enough, I’ve discovered that writing is what I should have done all along.
You see, I’ve always loved stories. But, I wasn’t born a writer fully formed. I know you find that hard to believe, but it’s the truth — although I make stuff up for a living, I never lie. Anyway, when I started writing I was as clueless as a politician with a camera phone and a Twitter account. So, I did what everyone else would do — I just sat in a chair and typed “Chapter One.” Then . . . nothing. I had no idea how to tackle something as intimidating as a novel.
So, I baled and hit the Internet. Curiously enough, I found some “rules” for writing a novel. The first one was “write what you know.” Well, letsee, I was a single parent, frazzled and over-worked tax lawyer, living in a very conservative and snobbish small city in Colorado. Hmmm, didn’t sound like good fodder for a bestseller.
The next rule was “write what you read.” I loved romantic suspense. Maybe I could be Sandra Brown — or at least have her wardrobe? This at least got me scribbling madly. But, alas, I was not Sandra Brown. I wasn’t even a marginal romantic suspense writer. Darn.
Okay, next “rule:” Write what you can imagine. Much better. So, I imagined an overworked young woman who was Head of Customer Relations at a large Vegas Strip hotel with a former hooker as a mother, an absent father, and Vegas’s foremost Female Impersonator as a best friend. This story I could write! And it became Wanna Get Lucky?, my first published novel.
Along the way, I’ve developed my own set of “rules” for writing a novel — truisms all learned the hard way.
RULE ONE: GET DIVORCED, QUIT YOUR JOB, SELL YOUR KIDS
(I warn you, a slightly used teenager will bring nothing on the open market. Ditto the slightly used husband.) Writing is an all-consuming passion, an exacting taskmaster. If you don’t understand that last sentence, pick another form of self-flagellation other than writing — there are many, or so I’m told.
RULE TWO: LEARN THE BASICS
Writing is an art form. Asking someone to teach you how to write is akin to asking Picasso to teach you how to paint. He can teach you the basics of color, composition, media and whatever, but the expression — the part that makes it art — is up to you. The same goes for writing. Learn the basics of sentence structure, active voice versus passive, showing not telling, and the particular narrative nuances of your chosen genre, then quit taking lessons. Find your uniqueness and let it flow.
RULE THREE: KILL YOUR EDITOR (no, no, not that one! I’m referring to the INTERNAL one!)
Self-editing as you write will kill your story. The goal of the first draft is to get words on the page — as many words as you think might be helpful. Trust me, it is MUCH easier to take words out than it is to add more later. I don’t know why that is, but it is.
And that voice in your head that says you can’t do this, that you can never write a complete novel, much less a good one? Strangle that little SOB right now, BEFORE you begin. You will thank me later. Actually, I prefer donations in lieu of gratitude.
RULE FOUR: NEVER TRUST YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Even if you don’t owe them money, your family and friends will all tell you that your novel is wonderful. Don’t trust them. Find a group of writers — published or not, but make sure they know what they are talking about and their motives are pure — share your pages. You read theirs, they read yours, then you CONSTRUCTIVELY offer and receive unbiased opinions. This can be a goldmine. It can also be a very negative experience, so choose who you listen to wisely.
Put your butt in the chair, power-up the computer and write — everyday. I have written on planes, in casinos, at coffee shops in airports, skanky hotels when I was too tired to remember why I was even there, at family gatherings (a great way to keep out of the fray), in the park, at the gym after being defeated by the Stairmaster . . . in short, my daily word count goal is non-negotiable. I don’t care what your excuse is, you can find the time. I am the Queen of Procrastination, and if I can find a few hours each day to play with words and imaginary friends, so can you. And, some days my imaginary world is much more fun than the real thing. Bet yours is, too.
RULE SIX: ENJOY
Have fun. Play.
© 2011 Deborah Coonts, author of Lucky Stiff
Deborah Coonts, author of Lucky Stiff, says her mother tells her she was born in Texas a very long time ago, though she’s not totally sure — her mother can’t be trusted. But she was definitely raised in Texas on barbeque, Mexican food and beer. She currently resides in Las Vegas, where family and friends tell her she can’t get into too much trouble. Silly people. Coonts has built her own business, practiced law, flown airplanes, written a humor column for a national magazine, and survived a teenager. She is the author of the Lucky O’Tool Las Vegas adventure series.
The first book in the series, Wanna Get Lucky?, has been nominated by the Romance Writers of America for the 2011 RITA awards in the categories of Best First Novel and Best Novel with a Strong Romantic Element. Her second book, Lucky Stiff, was published in February 2011.
Patience, Perseverance, Pluck…and Prayer!
“When I grow up I’m going to be an artist!” These words spilled from my mouth when I was the tender age of three and I never strayed from my dream. I was one of those blessed kids who just knew what I wanted to do. But life can take some unexpected turns.
In art school I narrowed down my life’s ambition to illustrator and, after graduation, I began free-lancing. What I hadn’t acknowledged yet was a talent for writing. Looking back now, though, I vividly remember two moments, in high school and in college, when two teachers suggested I become a writer. At the time, I wasn’t interested…art was my passion!
Eight years later, an idea for a children’s book slipped into my mind and I discovered that writing it was the easy part. I came up with some illustrations to go along with my words and after two years of rejection a publisher finally called. I was over the moon! Two more children’s books followed and I was on my way…or so I thought.
After my third book didn’t sell very well, my publisher said that my ideas were too quiet and, one by one, my books were remaindered. My promising career was slipping away. I continued to write and submit new stories…and receive more rejections; but I refused to give up! Years passed and still I persisted. I worked odd jobs, had an art show, raised two sons, and despaired…Would I ever be published again? And how would we, as a family, manage?
I prayed, lamented, and argued with God…Didn’t he want me to use my talents? Around this time, I did something crazy: I started writing a novel! I had no idea if I had the ability; I’d never even taken a writing class. I didn’t have an outline or a plan. The only experience I had was reading books; but I had a title…and an idea…and I’d done the hard part…I’d started!
I plugged along when time allowed, one sentence at a time, and the story took on a life of its own. Before long, I couldn’t sit down soon enough after my morning walks because it was like giving birth…and that baby was coming! I realized that I wanted it to be a story of faith and, although I didn’t know the details, I had the basic plot in my head. The story unfolded before my eyes and I found it to be almost like reading a book….except that I was writing it.
Then one day, it was finished. It had taken two years. I immediately ordered Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, wrote a polished query letter, a brief summary, and began submitting…and praying! After two years of rejections (or no response at all!) I found an agent and, ultimately, a publisher. I was elated…and a bit deflated: the contract I signed said it would be two more years before my book was published.
It has been nine years since my last book was published. During this time, I read two wonderful books: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle (author of A Wrinkle in Time) and Knit Together by Debbie Macomber. Both of these ladies endured long periods with no success and both carried on in faith and with determination. These books inspired me and kept me going. With perseverance, patience, pluck…and prayer, I can once again say, “I’m going to be published!”
Life can take some unexpected turns…so get started!
Big thanks to Nan for stopping by and sharing her story! Please visit her website for more information.