Monthly Archives: July 2016

Do More Than Just Write

AKA: Why I’m not done with my novel. Or, my acknowledgement that writing is hard and it’s okay to keep learning.

I started writing Shadow of the Portico during Thanksgiving 2014. I’m still writing that book, though I see light down there somewhere, if I squint…

People write novels in a month, they tell me. Great, I say, but I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted to take my time and learn as much as I could about the craft before I put something out there.

Once again proving that we should be careful what we wish for.

Some years ago, I used to write a lot of flash fiction–short stories of less than 1,000 words that were sort of like vignettes, glimpses, word pictures. I was good at it. I won stuff. It was fun. And in my wildest dreams, I never would have sat down and planned a flash fiction. It was a flash, there and gone, and you catch it or vaporizes into a little cloud and you’ve wasted a Pokeball.

Sorry. Yes. I’m one of those Go people.

Anyway, I wrote that way because I didn’t think I could sit and plan a story. I didn’t credit myself with the attention span.

When I decided to write a novel, I still wasn’t sure I had developed that attention span yet, but I had these two intriguing characters who fall in love. Surely I could do something with that.

And I did! I wrote about 90,000 words–a decent sized novel–about these two characters and about some other characters and some time travel and converging timelines and a murder mystery… and realized the plot was a hot freaking mess. And I still had 40,000 more words to go before I made it into something remotely readable. It was still problematic at best.

Ninety thousand words, pretty good words, but I had no idea where they were headed. Well, I did have an idea. They were headed into the trash heap along with the last of my confidence.

Then I started doing that “learning the craft” thing I talked about. I read KM Weiland, who wrote about the importance of story structure. Then I tried out Randy Ingermason’s Snowflake Method so I could sort out in my mind where my multiple storylines were going. My writing partner, Olivia Folmar Ard, shared her elegantly simple and lifesaving outlining spreadsheet. Then I watched Dan Wells’s Seven Part Story Structure to better understand why my story should progress the way it does. Now I’m learning Ring Composition from KB Hoyle, and I’m excited at the level of sophistication that is possible with my novel series.

Did all this writing advice confuse me? Lord, yes, and I have college degrees in this stuff. Did it slow me down? Glacially. Did I do everything they said? Not remotely. Did I learn anything?…

You guys… I learned everything I now know and the depth of what I could know. And the result: my novel is so much better for it. Or, more modestly, it’s a lot more fun to write with the lights on.

Today, a writing group I am in collectively decided that writers should just write, and not get hung up on structure, advice, writing books, or any of that. Not if it stifles their creativity. Just write.

I get that. Most of my book was written as unconnected scenes, like pearls. My friend Katharine Grubb once made that analogy, and I love it. I write in pearls. Lovely pearls, yes, but for so long they sat there without a string. Not a necklace. Not living up to their potential.

Listen. If you have a pearl in your head, write it. By all means. I still write pearls for my subsequent novels. When that magical scene plays out in my head, I don’t want to lose it. I write it! If it’s that good, we’ll make it fit.

But can I write a whole novel that way? People do, they tell me. But here’s what happened to me when I tried that. I found myself in a painfully long revising and editing process. Much painful. Bad weepy. Pearls cast away without even the benefit of swine enjoying them. A process in which months pass into years and I’m still working how to take my readers from Point A to Point Q without losing them. Or myself.

I’m still there, you guys. It’s hard. Even going back and fixing it, knowing all I know now. It’s very hard to rewrite a novel I thought was done.

I’m glad I didn’t just trust my initial storytelling instincts. They may be pretty good, or they may be awful. Honestly, if I don’t learn the craft, how would I know? Oh, the things I could have published.

I want to send a message to the people in my writing group who say Just Write. I love you guys, but if you had given me that advice a year and a half ago, I would have never been able to make my pearls into a book. My darlings would all be dead. All of them.

If you said Just Write and blow off structuring the plot, I would have trashed it and given up. Just have fun, you say? I was miserable, lost, and convinced that I was a terrible writer and a stupid human because I didn’t really know how to tell a story. I had no idea what I was doing wrong, but I knew something was wrong. It hurt. That was so not fun.

If your advice to Just Write was never followed up with But take the time to thoroughly understand structure and know how to tell your story beyond instinct, I’d be spending this summer binge-watching Friends.

Yeah, I know all the things they say about advice. Mine, like everyone else’s, is worth what you pay for it. But if you’re reading this, and you have that manuscript that you know can be better, but you have no idea what’s wrong and you hate it and yourself… maybe, just maybe, you’ve moved past the the Just write it and have fun advice. Click some of those links I put in this post. If they confuse you, find advice that you understand and that speaks to you.

Maybe you’re ready to get cozy with structure. No lie, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s worth it. And once you get it, it liberates your creativity, because maybe you won’t end up like me, sobbing over your manuscript, wondering what you’ve done wrong, or if you should bother going on at all.

There’s a million ways to write, and I don’t want to sound dogmatic. I can only tell you my experience. I hope you’re encouraged (or duly warned) by it. If not, keep seeking. Advice, like writing techniques, is part of a huge smorgasbord. Nobody is forcing you to eat the head cheese or the eel. Take what you like, leave the rest. Just don’t forget to eat, feed, grow. Learn. That’s the fun part.

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Top Ten Things I’m Thinking About On My 50th Birthday

I’m 50 today. No, I’m okay, it’s good. It’s a nice number. So after teaching summer school and goofing off on social media, I have a few things on my mind:

  • It’s very, very difficult to choose between prime rib, pizza, gyros, and crab legs. Really… really difficult. Part of my birthday gift should be that someone else picks.

  • I will not demand the right to have a midlife crisis and put pink highlights in my hair. I will ask my husband and expect him to say no and make faces. Why do I need his permission? Because I love him, that’s why. But I reserve the right to badger him until he confesses that he doesn’t really care.

  • When we discuss issues and you devolve into ad hominem attacks, you lose. You lose the argument and you lose credibility. Maybe you lose at life, but I don’t want to get personal here.
  • Sometimes the things we are most passionate about in life sort of sneak up on us later, or evolve from the things you thought were passions, but didn’t quite work out. Just because a girl turns fifty doesn’t mean she shouldn’t keep seeking and feeling that passion. Evolving is fun! It makes letting go of things much easier.
  • Being a Christian doesn’t make me bigoted, narrow minded, ignorant, or homophobic. It doesn’t make me a sparkling snowflake either. It just means that I acknowledge something higher than myself. His name is Jesus. He’s awesome. He makes me want to be a better person.
  • We don’t live in a Christian nation. We live in a nation full of individuals who have free wills, and God calls us to love them. All of them. Even the ones who annoy us. This is not easy. See the next point.
  • Now and then, you’ll have friends with whom you don’t necessarily agree about issues, and yet you can have a civil, mutual discussion and learn a lot from each other. Except that only happens once every 93,926 years. Don’t let that friend lull you into a false sense of civility. Most people are exasperating and will make you feel like pond scum for disagreeing with them. Consider your blood pressure. Let it go… let it go…

  • It is perfectly acceptable to play Pokemon Go at age 50. Also to put pink highlights in your hair and get fairies painted on your face. And sing Let It Go loudly. Because fairies. And pink. And Disney. And happiness that is not remotely based on my chronological age or, indeed, anything else of substance.
  • Coffee. Just kidding. I’m so glad I made it to fifty. I like it here! Let’s dance on to sixty, shall we? And let’s get some coffee, though, for real.

And the #1 thing I’m thinking about today:

  • When my family asks what I want for my birthday, I can’t think of a single thing, except being with them. (And that amazing book that Amazon just delivered.) Woot! Happy Birthday, me!

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Adventures of a Novice Novelist: What’s that Genre Again?

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a small, local writer’s conference here in Austin. Had a great time, learned a lot, reinforced pretty much everything I’ve been doing (whew!), and enjoyed the camaraderie immensely.

But something happened in the beginning that was a little… off-putting.

The participants were given badges with our names preprinted on them. On the bottom they said, “I write…” and had a small, blank space where we were supposed to write our genres.

So I grabbed me that Sharpie and in big, indelible letters I answered the question wrong.

ROMANCE

“Wait!” I said. “I didn’t mean to write that! Can I get another one, please?”

The nice ladies at the door smiled and wrinkled their noses as they shook their heads.

Crap.

I didn’t even leave room to say “Time-Travel ROMANCE” or “Non-traditional ROMANCE with a lot of history and adventure and sci-fi/fantasy and inspirational elements.”

So, when I wasn’t hobnobbing or participating in workshops, I found myself reflecting on this. Why did I decide to write romance on my name badge, when my stories are much more than that?

To be honest, it’s because I haven’t let go of the idea that, at its core, The Journeymen is a love story. It just happens that I use this fish-out-of-water, historically-set, adventure-laden story to drive home the fact that Sarah and Giovanni are falling in love.

And love is hard.

Especially if you find yourself five hundred years apart from each other.

I’m not ashamed to be a romance writer, but I have to admit, most fellow authors will look at me askance when I identify this way. It’s a shame, but I think I understand why.

There is an idea that if you write romance, your story fits neatly into a certain box. And while I’ve read a number of romance stories that fit into that box exceedingly well, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy them. And it certainly doesn’t mean that every romance fits in the box.

In fact, romance is a pretty general genre. It has a central love story and an emotionally satisfying ending, according to the Romance Writers of America. From there, it can go pretty much anywhere, which makes for a pretty big box, right?

It just so happens that my story started off comfortably in a cozy box as a happy little contemporary romance and it wandered out and turned into something else. It transcended the genre. That’s scary. I liked the box. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have written ROMANCE in huge Sharpie letters as my chosen genre.

During the conference, I had another revelation. We worked on being able to answer the question, “What are you working on?” without opening our mouths and allowing a great heaping vowel movement to come forth.

Admittedly, this has been something I thought I was getting better at doing. (At least I was using actual words.) “Well, it’s about this guy, Giovanni, who is trying to straighten out his life, and he meets a nice girl, but then he finds out he’s a time traveler…”

By now there’s enough glaze over people’s eyes to make a box of Krispy Kreme donuts.

“…They’re called plumbers of time because they have to go back and fix all the clogs.”

And just like that, the light would return to their faces and I’d get a chuckle.

So what if my novels weren’t just about Sarah and Giovanni finding true love? What if they were also about a group of time travelers who clean the clogs of time?

That sounds fun, and there would be no mistaking that for something that comes from a box, I hope.

Ultimately, I’m not telling a genre. I’m telling a story. It’s a story about love. And about personal growth. And about the disruptive nature of time travel. And about life in 1578 Italy.

In the end, the best part of writing The Journeymen is blurring genre conventions and having fun telling the story of these poor hapless time travelers who really would prefer to be normal and fall in love and have the satisfying happy-ever-after we expect from romances. But like life itself, it just isn’t that simple.

Life is a blurry, complex genre mix that is best lived without boxes.

I’d love to hear from you! What genres do you enjoy reading? Or authors, what do you write? And how much fun is it to get outside of your genre and play in other sandboxes now and then?

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