I’m Back – Why I’ve Started Working on My Novel Again and What I am Learning

After a long break, I’ve returned to the editing process of my novel, From a Distance. Some of my readers have been with me from early days and I am extremely grateful to you for your patience. As writers, we know this is a complex process that involves many different components, not the least of which is believing in the value of our story.

For awhile I took a side-trip into journalism and almost gave up on my novel. I questioned whether I am actually a novelist. What caused me to return to it now?

I simply decided to apply the most basic truth about writing, namely, the butt in the chair principle. No amount of talent can compensate for time spent refining the craft. I simply said to myself that I am not going to give up without doing the hard work.

After I doing everything I know to do…I will see what progress I have made.

So, this is the beginning of the process. After doing everything I know to do, after spending a year, with an average of two hours of writing on my novel a day, I will see what progress I have made. I’m not allowing myself to quit this time.

I think I have found a new faith and grace to write. It happened after I watched a movie last night. The main character reminded me of my main character and her challenge was similar to my character. I began to feel like I had a worthwhile story to tell. This is what every author needs.

I spent about four hours editing my first chapter and I thought it sounded pretty good, so I called my husband into the room. He is turning into my editor, support, and critique group, all rolled into one. I didn’t get halfway down the first page before he was correcting me.

“You have too many pronouns. Who is “her” and “she”? The reader is being taken out of the action.”

I looked at my paragraph and it was indeed filled with pronouns. It was an easy correction to make, but I missed it on my own. I began to see how badly I needed another set of eyes.

A little while later he commented, “I like that. I like what you did there.”

Good. I thought that part was done well, too, and I really appreciated that he noticed. My reader was in the action, feeling what my character was feeling.

Before long I had another pronoun issue but then we ran into something bigger. Too much telling, not enough showing. I’ve had this critique before. It is a critique that most, if not all, new writers get.

I was sharing back-story. I had too much back story, another very common mistake. You can really only afford to have a couple of sentences of back story in your first chapter. I shortened the paragraph and tried it again.

“It’s probably alright to “tell” when it’s backstory,” my husband said.

He is the reader, I acknowledged. I need to pay attention to how he feels when he is reading my story. If he thinks the amount of telling I did was alright, then it’s probably OK.

I was beginning to see how these little adjustments were making a big difference.

But his next critique was more difficult to digest. He didn’t like several paragraphs describing what was going on in the setting, and highlighting the scenery.

“What’s the point?”

In other words he was asking, Who cares? Long ago a critique partner did some serious damage with the same question, because, after all, I care. I care a lot. Everything I’ve written affects my character’s experience and the development of her story. I’ve tried to get my reader to enter into my character’s world.

Evidently there is a more effective way to do this.

I swallowed and took the critique in stride.

It’s not uncommon for writers to burst into tears or experience something near tears when their laborious efforts are effectively trashed. We are supposed to develop a thick skin, supposedly. It’s not what most sensitive writers have. But we can have an open mind, which is probably just as good.

Parts of my writing distracted the reader from the main story, which my husband saw clearly. I didn’t want that to happen, did I? So, how could I correct this?

I felt troubled. Should I just delete these segments? Delete part of them? Shorten them? Combine them?

We had reached the end of the chapter and I returned to editing.

I did all of the above. I cut my chapter from 1800 words to 1200 words and ended with the main part of the story as the focus.

An hour later my husband kindly listened to another reading.

“That’s great. You did it.” He was almost emotional. “You’ve got a hook, now.”

The hook is the all important thing readers need from a first chapter. It is the thing that makes them want to read the next chapter.

In the first chapter a writer has to accomplish the task of making the reader feel invested in the character. They want to know what happens next to her. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Needless to say, I was encouraged. But now I am looking at the rest of my book and asking, Who cares? What’s the point?

Organizing for Writing

As writers we are always collecting material. I have file boxes full of notes. Numerous computer files. Bookshelves of books. My brain is constantly coming up with new concepts to write about. New angles. New stories. I can’t possibly keep track of them all.

Between my electronic notes and files, and my physical files and notes, I sometimes am overwhelmed with all the resources I have collected. It’s as though an avalanche of ideas is always coming at me and I don’t have time to sort it all and to prioritize it.

I received the book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert, from my son for Christmas. He knows I am a creative type as I dabble in art and music and writing. Incidentally, I finally found a template that works for featuring my photography online. You can view it at LensArt. What I was going to say is that Elizabeth Gilbert sees inspiration as a sort of entity of its own, like a “spirit” that makes an entrance into our lives and beckons us to follow it and create something. She also says we can’t sit idly and wait for this sort of inspiration to knock on our door. We grasp it when it does, but in the meantime creativity needs to find us busy working.

As I’ve already said, my problem is not that ideas don’t come to me. On the contrary, there are too many ideas competing for my attention. Too many projects I’ve started, and so many more I want to begin. My problem is more in the area of effectively working with my ideas and not losing them.

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it is alright to have all of this evidence of raw writing material–files upon files, books upon books. For too long I compared myself with others who were not writers and who didn’t have this semi-organized chaos, and thought I needed to be like them. Then one day I observed that other writers did indeed have the same challenges I have in dealing with endless resources. I wasn’t some odd sort of hoarder. I saw that writers need a lot of material before we put pen to paper. We need lot of exposure to other sources. We end up doing a lot of gathering and collecting.

If only I had someone to help me with the task of sorting, organizing, storing and retrieving. What a luxury that would be.

In the early church there were theologians who had sponsors who enabled them to write because they provided them with scribes or secretaries and often paid their living expenses. I read about one church father, I believe it was Origen, who had seven secretaries at one time. Imagine that. In this way he was able to write reams of material.

Of course, back then all of it was done by hand. At least I have the advantage of a computer which, compared to handwriting or using a typewriter, is an incredibly useful tool, taking numerous hours off of my writing time. I don’t miss the days of pulling paper out of my typewriter and erasing.

Like most writers, I continuously face the tedious task of documenting my ideas and organizing and prioritizing them, without the aid of a benefactor or the assistance of secretaries. I’ve had to train myself to be alright with a bit of chaos when too much focus on cleaning up my reference materials takes energy away from actual writing. 

There is a sort of dividing line I need to be conscious of, an imaginary line dividing the past from the present. It separates the collected material from the collections I am working with.

When I write, I pull items forward from the past into the present. Some of my collected material is no longer relevant. It needs to go. Other material must be accessible, not lost in some slush pile–namely, a place from which it is never retrieved.

From time to time I need to go back into the past and remind myself of what is there.

Memory is an amazing thing, the way it retrieves information. But my memory  occasionally needs a little help and so I go back and review what I’ve written and stored.

I am determined to continue to work at implementing an effective organizational system. An effective organizational system is one where I can utilize material that is helpful and retrieve it when I need it.

Currently I sort documents into broad categories and sub-categories on my desktop, in Scrivener, in my email program (I email links to articles to myself), in online bookmarks and in my physical filing cabinet. I use Google Keep to take quick notes when ideas come to me. I have to consistently work to keep ahead of the clutter and remain focused on what it is I want to write.

Organizing is not an end in itself.  The result I am trying to achieve is to free up more time to write and to become a better writer. Keeping this in mind helps to protect me from what could easily become an obsession–organizing.

How I Beat Writer’s Block

At the Peace Arch border crossing, entering the U.S. from Canada, the border patrol person asked me what I did for a living. He seemed very interested when I told him I was a writer and offered me a cure for writer’s block.

“You know what you have to do to overcome writer’s block?”

Of course I wanted to hear what he had to say.

“You have to travel. That’s what will get you over writer’s block.”

He sounded so confident, I decided to take his advice to heart.

I travel to a park or the beach, and sit in my car and write. I travel to a local tourist area and walk around for half a day. I travel to home decor stores to see their enticing displays. I visit the ocean, or the mountains. Since I live in the Pacific Northwest I have access to numerous places to get inspiration for writing, places like Granville Island, Fort Langley, White Rock, Crescent Beach, Deep Cove, Belcarra Regional Park, Stanley Park. I could go on.

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Granville Island, British Columbia

My budget constricts me a little, but I have still managed several longer vacations in the past year or so, traveling to the Okanagan Valley, to Manitoba to attend two weddings, to Ontario to visit family I hadn’t seen for decades, to New England to do research for my novel, and most recently to Portland, Oregon to attend a writers’ conference.

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Red Lion Hotel on the River-Jantzen Beach, Portland, OR

 

I’ve read a lot of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. If I am blocked, it is for a reason. Usually it is the pressure of the urgent. The sense that something is more important than writing.

I am also an artist and a musician and the answer to why I don’t paint, or play piano or guitar is the same. The mundane duties of life supersede my artistic ambitions. If I am not writing or painting or making music, it is because I have not placed a high enough importance on these activities.

I recently visited the website of an author and agent I met at a writers’ conference and saw that his last writing post was dated June 28. My natural response was one of sadness. Why is this skilled writer not writing regularly?

Maybe it is because we writers are not machines. Yes, we can seat ourselves at our desks and determine not to get up for four hours. This will produce results of sorts. Some writers are able to adhere to a self-imposed writing deadline and I expect their email as consistently as Saturday, or a full moon. But we are not all like that.

The greatest hindrance to good writing is a depressed spirit. Traveling, getting into a new space and making new encounters, works very well to lift one’s spirits.

One weekend I travelled down to Lynden, WA to help my son and his wife paint the interior of their house. My husband took a separate car and came later, after work. When I returned back home, my husband went through the border first and I followed after him. The border guard greeted me and I told him I had been visiting my children.

“I heard you ‘Tom Sawyered’ your husband into painting a house.”

I laughed, and thought to myself, border guards read too. Once again my little journey proved to be inspiring.

Maybe traveling isn’t your way of getting over writer’s block. Find out what works for you and do whatever it takes to get your thoughts out there for people to read. Somebody is waiting to hear from you.

 

My Writers’ Conference Experience

Last week I attended the Oregon Christian Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. The conference began on Monday and ended Thursday afternoon. For any writer who has never attended a conference, I highly recommend it.

One of the reasons to attend a writers’ conference is that writers have access to agents and editors in a way that doesn’t happen by simply sending in a query. Editors and agents pay more attention to writers who attend conferences because they can tell that these writers are serious about their craft and willing to invest time and money to improve their writing skills.

If you are planning to attend a writers’ conference it is important to thoroughly familiarize yourself with who will be at the conference and know what you want to accomplish. This will help you to prioritize and make the most of your time. My priorities were 1) to help out with morning worship by playing the guitar, 2) gain a better knowledge of the craft of writing women’s fiction, 3) talk with a mentor about writing as a career, 4) build relationships with agents, editors and authors, 5) get an understanding of the place of my writing, 6) volunteer, and 7) spend time in the pool. I managed all of the above.

Before the conference I selected a coach and signed up for a Coaching Class–seven hours of in-depth teaching in three morning sessions. My class was taught by Angela Hunt. Angela has written contemporary fiction, historical fiction, children’s fiction and several books on the craft of writing. It was inspiring to hear her tell about her writing journey and her technique, which she covers in her book, Writing Lessons From the Front: The First Ten Books.

I also selected a Mentor for a half hour appointment. Poppy Smith–an author, international speaker and life coach gave me some helpful input as we discussed writing as a career path.

At the conference I signed up for 15 Minute Appointments with Editors and Agents, based on their availability. If I could not get an appointment I waited for mealtime and sat at the Tables of Editors or Agents I needed to meet. I also had a conversation with two agents during the Thursday afternoon one hour Autograph Party.

There were twenty-six Afternoon Workshops. We could only choose four. Since we were not committed to particular classes ahead of time I was able to change my plan at the last minute and attend the class of an agent I was encouraged to see, based on my other meetings. Thankfully I managed to spend time with every person I planned to talk to.

At the end of the day, after the Keynote Speaker, I felt too tired to attend the final Night-Owl Workshop. I went to my room to rest and my roomie almost dragged me to the Night-Owl. She knew I needed to go and she was right.

One of the things I discovered in speaking with several agents about my book is that it may not be suitable for Christian publishers. The Surrey International Writers’ Conference is a renowned conference held in my hometown every October, so I’m thinking of attending it next year and hearing more on the subject.

The hope of every writer is to get a publishing contract but, realistically, the chance of this happening at a conference is still pretty slim. As you may have noted in an earlier post, I participated in the Manuscript Submission Program by submitting my first ten pages, cover letter and synopsis to two agents and an editor a couple of months before the conference. The response was that my novel has “promise” and “potential” and needs more editing.

In summary, I got much more than I expected out of the conference. If you are going to a conference I suggest you read Chip MacGregor’s post, Ask the Agent: How Do I Get the Most Out of a Writers’ Conference. I heeded his suggestion to plan which sessions to miss in order to have time to spend with friends and added my own version–remember to include time at the pool too!

Orienting Your Reader

I am currently on holidays in Manitoba for a month, visiting family and attending two weddings, as well as my mother’s eightieth birthday celebration.

While I am here I am also trying to carve out some daily time for writing. This is more easily said than done. I don’t have an internet connection so doing research presents a challenge. But the library is not far away.

Recently a friend loaned me a book I wish I had known about years ago. It is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. If I had studied this book early on, it would have saved me countless hours of editing I am now required to do on my novel.

Techniques of the Selling Writer was published in 1965 and reads like a college textbook, so you have to be prepared to plod through it, but it is well worth it. It has more practical advice than any other book I have found. I would say it is a must read for every beginning novel writer.

Like the old saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” We all have gaps in our knowledge and we don’t know what they are. As I read Techniques of the Selling Writer I recognized many of my gaps. It was thrilling for me to learn why some things I was doing were not working and to find out what I could do to improve my story. I am not yet finished the book and every time I pick it up I learn something new.

One thing I learned was that with every scene, and particularly in the beginning of the story, it is important to orient your reader. Give your readers a sense of time and place. It sounds simple, and maybe you have always done this. But I looked at my story and went, at what point does my reader realize that the story happens in Portland, ME? It was way too long before this became evident.

Also ask yourself, what time of day is this incident happening, and then slip in a clue. Sometimes you make a clear statement like, It was six o’clock, on Friday, March 6. But more often you’ll probably say something like, Sally dried the last of the dinner dishes. Or, The sun was sinking behind the trees as he turned into the driveway and saw Jayne sitting on the front step with the twins. Earlier you have clued the reader in to the fact that your lead character looks after the twins every other weekend.

Think about seasons too. Is it cold or hot with humidity? You could state, It was January in Chicago. Or, maybe the month isn’t that important and you simply want to give your readers a sense of the weather by saying, He wrapped his woolen scarf around his neck as he bent his head against the wind and blowing snow. Here is another example, Dark clouds loomed in the sky. Maria slapped a mosquito on her arm as she sat down on the grass and opened her lunch bag. The reader knows it is noon, there is the threat of rain and it is warm enough to sit outside on the grass without a coat.

Our readers will appreciate this small consideration. It will help them to relax and get into the story. If we tell them early on, then they will not feel jolted by information that came too late and didn’t match their assumptions. After you do this for awhile it becomes second nature.

If you are serious about writing, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer. I’m sure you will make some surprising and helpful discoveries.

What is Your Writing Worth?

My writing is important to me, but lately I’ve had to take an honest look at what it is I want and need to do with my life. I’ve concluded I want to write. As a result, I am setting aside time to write.

And, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and investing in resources. Connecting with people who write, buying books, attending conferences.

As part of my honest analysis, I admitted to myself that I also need to make money.

This week I came across some very timely advice that I plan to apply to my writing and you might find it useful as well.

I went to Chip MacGregor‘s website because he will be at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference I plan to attend in August. Before a conference it’s a good idea to do some homework and read up on the agents and editors who will be there. Chip is a sought after agent, and the owner of MacGregor Literary. I have also submitted the first ten pages of my manuscript to him under the OCW Manuscript Submission Program.

In his article, Ask the Agent: Is it Realistic to Think of Making My Living at Writing, he caught my attention with this statement:

Set a financial goal, start to work toward it, and look for opportunities to generate some income from your writing skill.

Writers, Chip says, are pathetically underpaid and we seem to think we just have to accept that, but this is not the case. Chip’s idea is we need to take charge of our careers and make sure we are getting paid.

Here are a couple of suggestions from Ask the Agent: What’s the One Piece of Advice You’d Give a Career Writer:

Develop a writing calendar….a document that details what you’re going to write each day.

To figure out what you put into each day, you look at your “to do” list and do some prioritizing. What needs to get written today? What will pay off? What will push your career forward?

…you don’t just write down the goal for each day and stop. You then go back and add in a dollar figure, so each project is seen as contributing to your budget.

Figuring out your writing value isn’t hard — if your goal is to make $36,000 per year at writing, you’re trying to make $3000 per month, or $750 per week, or an average of $150 pr day.

“Write in a dollar figure.” Have you ever thought of your writing in this way? I hadn’t.

This becomes important when you are considering a writing assignment. You estimate how many hours/weeks the job will take you to finish, and then you calculate how much it will bring in and consider if it fits within your overall budget plan. He gives an example:

You’re expecting to sell that book for about $5000, so each chapter has a monetary value of roughly $250.

Let’s do the math. If you are only making $5000 on a book, or another assignment, then, to stay within a $36,000 budget, you need to complete this project in less than two months. That’s probably unrealistic for a book.

If you know it will take you six months of steady writing to complete the work, you need to make $18,000 when it is finished.

Our writing has intrinsic value as it educates, informs, entertains and inspires our readers. But from a practical standpoint, if we want to survive as writers, we may have to become strategic and place a dollar value on our writing.

Thanks Chip MacGregor for the heads up!

Will your voice sink or swim?

OK, enough about me and my journey. Time to get back to what I love to write about. I love sharing my discoveries about writing with my readers.

I am excited because I just read an article in the September 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest that has been particularly insightful for me on the subject of voice. I hope it will help you as well.

The article is an excerpt from the book, Creative Nonfiction (1996), by Gerard Philip. In it Philip quotes Bob Reiss as saying our writing will sink or swim, based on our voice–a sobering thought.

So, as writers, you can see it is critical that we understand what is meant by voice.

According to Philip, voice is the cumulative effect of the following:

  • the words you choose
  • how you craft your sentences
  • the form in which you write
  • how you do your research, and even
  • the questions you ask in an interview.
    • An excerpt from Steven Harper’s book, Writing the Paranormal Novel (2011), printed in the March/April 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest, adds that voice is also about:

    • how your words sound on the page (rhythm)
    • the themes you explore, and
    • your emotional response.

      Philip says, “Voice is what the reader hears in his mind’s ear, the strong sense that the words of the story are coming from another living, human personality with a unique perspective on events.”

      I agree with Philip that you can’t fabricate or “overlay” voice on your work–“It is intrinsic in everything you do from the moment an idea occurs to you until you turn in the finished draft.”

      You bring your unique perspective and attitude to the story. Philip quotes Bob Reiss as saying voice is, “You’re kind of sensitivity. You’re kind of anger. You’re kind of whatever the dominant thing is in you.”

      In other words, it is everything that is you. Everything that distinguishes you from another person.

      Are you reading Writer’s Digest?

      I noticed today that I can drop $40 on two books with scarcely a thought, but I’ll spend considerable time deliberating over the purchase of a blouse for $39.99. Needless to say, my closet looks a little bare and my bookshelves are overflowing.

      My reading is mostly about curiosity and learning. I do read the occasional novel, but I’m more often in every section of the bookstore but the novel section. Sometimes I buy a couple of novels the library is getting rid of for 50 cents or a dollar. I don’t like to worry about returning novels.

      Recently I have been making more trips to the library. My latest reading has been about the writing process, as you may have guessed. The book I borrowed yesterday is called HELP! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces, by Roy Peter Clark. I just returned Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington. It is an excellent reference book. I extended my borrowing time and made some detailed notes for later reference.

      I have also borrowed every Writer’s Digest copy the library has, all thirteen of them. You’d think a library would have a good stack of back issues. I mean, isn’t a library all about writing? I’ve been deliberating getting my own subscription, but it’s so much more fun having a half dozen magazines to peruse. I just looked online and between the five libraries in my city they only have a total of 46 Writer’s Digest magazines. A shame.

      The advantages of reading a magazine is that it condenses the best and the latest information.  Take for example, 25 Agents Who Want Your Work: How to Land a Book Deal, from the October 2012 issue. Or, How Creativity Works: 5 Writers Take You Inside Their Process, November/December 2012.

      The magazines are published approximately every other month and each is a collector item if you are a writer. An annual subscription costs 19.96 if you live in the US, 29.96 if you live in Canada and 31.96 for international customers. You get eight copies for that price. Writer’s Digest also offers valuable resources such as webinars and tutorials, free writing downloads, a weekly writing prompt and workshops.

      A special reduced price is made available for those who purchase a subscription to WritersMarket.com at the same time. This actually looks like a great deal. WritersMarket has up to date listings of writing markets (you probably guessed that!). It can also help you track your submissions and has a few other special features that make it like a personal assistant for writers. I haven’t subscribed to WritersMarket yet but I am seriously considering it.

      I will be away on holidays without consistent internet access for the next two weeks so you may or may not hear from me. In the meantime, check out a couple of Writer’s Digest magazines. You might get hooked on them.