Thursday, December 31, 2009

Getting ready for the New Year ... or What the heck happened to 2009?

By Julie

My husband mumbled something the other day about needing to figure out his New Year's resolutions. I laughed and said, "You make New Year's resolutions?"

I mean, I guess I can see it. He's a process engineer, spends most of every day figuring out how to make things run better for his company. Gets frustrated when things don't work the way they're "supposed to" around the house (a.k.a. "those kids"). I'm just not sure I ever realized he made concrete resolutions. He hasn't really mentioned them out loud. Or I'm just getting old and don't remember.

He also makes black-eyed peas on New Year's Day.

I fall into the camp of not making New Year's resolutions so much as setting goals. Could this be the same thing? I suppose. But it's somehow not as painful -- as failure-loaded -- to not reach a goal as it is to see I failed to keep a New Year's resolution when the next New Year rolls around.

Goals are good. I'm deadline-oriented. And although I often fail miserably at certain goals, mostly having to do with weight loss or fitness (ugh!), I typically make my writing goals or come pretty darn close. (Note: I haven't presumed to set goals like: Get agent this year. Or Get book contract this year for publication next year. Hmm. Maybe I should!)

But there's something else I find myself doing to prepare for a new year that can as good as setting goals and maybe better than making resolutions, and it's just that:


I caught myself doing some of that tonight, and the activity inspired this post, which is a good thing because I had no idea what I was going to write about.

As writers, we can do many things to prepare for a new year. Here are just a few I find helpful.

Clear Away

You know that old saying, "Out with the old, in with the new?" It doesn't just apply to the events of the old year, or the pile of outgrown or out-of-style clothing we cart off to Goodwill to make room for the new duds we bought or received over the holidays.

As a writer, what can you clear away to help you prepare for a productive and healthy new year?

Perhaps, like I did tonight, you need to take a look at your RSS feeds or email subscriptions and ruthlessly clear out the ones you no longer really need to read every single time something new is posted.

I've been reading industry news on blogs for about four years now. I've seen the same subjects dissected over and over again. Sure I need a little line on what's going on in the world of publishing, but do I really need to hear about it from twenty different bloggers? Probably not. I deleted without mercy.

I'm still at twenty subscriptions or so. But I bet I had close to a hundred. What remains are mostly friends. Friends who are authors. Friends who are aspiring authors. Friends who aren't "writers" at all -- except they like to blog. And a few selected agents and industry experts who give me the news I really need to know in a nutshell or just make me laugh out loud on a regular basis (Hello, Betsy Lerner). Because that's important, too.

Funny how most of these are the first blogs I ever subscribed to. I'm still reading them after all these years.

Take a Time Out

The discipline of choice for most parents these days since corporal punishment went out of fashion is a discipline we writers should also employ.

Maybe, like I've done during the last few weeks of this year, you need to simply step away from the writing for a time. Give it a few weeks or days to simmer in the pot. Not to mention, it gives you more time to spend with your family! Everyone else is on vacation, why shouldn't you be?

I haven't opened the document for my newest manuscript since the end of November, when I completed my forty thousand words during NaNoWriMo. The last few days, I've started getting itchy, wanting to open it up and take a peek at what I wrote so hastily during that month. But I've forced myself to let it be. I'm looking forward to seeing it with fresh eyes next week when the kids are back at school and my husband has returned to work. Will I love it or hate it? Will I keep at it or set it aside for the something new I've been pondering lately?

Though I began to query my previous manuscript in December again after completing an extensive revision, I've been able to leave that document mostly alone, too, in the last few weeks. I've opened it for a few seconds here or there to fix a typo noticed when sending sample pages, but otherwise, I'm considering it "done" for now. It's officially on hiatus until someone else is asking me for revisions -- i.e., an agent or editor.

My time out has given me time to read a stack of fiction I've looked forward to for months.

It's also created a new hunger in me to get back to the page. I've shored up a supply of new enthusiasm for my work.

Take stock

This goes hand-in-hand with the last two. Clearing away the chaff and stepping away from routine gives us the opportunity to consider if what we're writing is the right thing.

It seems some writers are born knowing what it is they are to write. The subject matter and material flows from them effortlessly. At least it looks that way from the outside.

I'll crawl out on a limb here and say I bet most of us really haven't got a clue. It takes a great deal of trial and error to figure out who we really are to be as writers. For those of us who would like to be published one day -- and maybe even make a living doing it -- there's a fine balance between who we are and what is commercially viable.

It seems I'm at that crossroads again, having felt sure the last few years I was writing the kind of book I was supposed to be writing, and now being somewhat uncertain again. I'm a big believer in Timing (with a capital T) and so I have to wonder if the process of querying and rejection is simply telling me, "Be patient," or whether it might mean, "Are you sure about this?"

Who knows? Maybe I'm being given some extra time to truly find my voice. Maybe my voice isn't showing just yet with the stories I've been writing.

It's something I've been thinking about in preparation for the New Year, and something I'll certainly explore when it arrives. I'll write on some clean pages in a new journal or open some brand new documents on my computer and spend some time in free writing and see what happens.

What about you?

What are some things you've been doing to prepare for your New Year, whether you're a writer or not? We'd love to hear about them.

(photo by Optical Illusion / creative commons license)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

It's so puzzling

By Pamela
I spent my formative years braving the harsh Indiana winters. During the roughest weather, you’d typically find me hunched over a jigsaw puzzle, thawing out after a day of playing in the snow.

These days, I skip the playing in the snow part (easy, usually, since I now live in Texas) and just spend the colder months with a puzzle-in-process on the dining room table. It’s a good way to zone out, spend some quiet time with a child or two who might drop in for some bonding, or kill time in between commitments.

As my mind wandered while working on the latest puzzle, I thought about how similar puzzle making is to constructing a story.

Start with the border/plot

The easiest way for me to get a puzzle started is to frame out the picture. Separate all the edge pieces, get them together and I get a good feel for how large the puzzle will be.

The best way for me to write a story is to first determine the plot. What’s the main idea of the story that all the action will center around? Get the plot to come together and I get a good feel for where the story needs to go.

Separate like pieces/themes

After the border is done, I try to group similar colored pieces together into piles. In this puzzle, I have pieces that go together based on cookies and candies. If I get stuck on one area, I can switch over to another pile of sorted pieces and get them to fit together to drop in later.

Once I know what my story is about, I can plan out themes and scenes that have started to form in my mind. Although my storylines typically play out consecutively, if I get stuck on what comes next, I might switch over and write a scene that takes place in chapter ten, even though I’m still writing chapter five. Because I know where the story is going, I don’t hesitate to write even the last chapter, way before the book is done.

Periodically check the floor/memory for missing pieces

Sometimes I will search around for a particular piece forever before realizing that it has fallen to the floor. If I retrieve it before the dog gets to it, I feel relieved to finally put it in its rightful place.

Sometimes I will panic because I thought of a clever line or ironic twist to add to my story and then, by the time I get to my computer (or find a scrap of paper), I can’t remember what it was. If I make a note to myself (Or tell it to Joan, in hopes that she remembers it—as I did today over breakfast!), then my brilliant idea is not lost. And, if I do forget it, I console myself by saying it must not have been so exceptional after all.

Make sure all the pieces are properly connected

I tell the kids, when in doubt, hold up two pieces to the light (or turn them over) to make sure they’re a perfect fit. Sometimes two pieces appear to be mates when in reality, they’re just close. Better to be sure than to continue and realize it much later, when the poorly connected pieces make the surrounding ones not fit.

I’ve loved a line or scene in something I’ve written, only later to discover that it really doesn’t fit the story. Then, as hard as it is to highlight a section of text and hit delete, it’s better to take it out than to make it derail the story.

Once the puzzle/story is done, sit back and enjoy it a while before tearing it up

It takes days to complete a 1000-piece puzzle, so there’s no need to quickly disassemble it and put it back in the box. I enjoy the result of my effort for a few days. And there’s always another puzzle to do.

It takes many months for me to write a 70,000-word manuscript, so there’s no need to quickly tear it up. I take a few weeks (or months) to let it sit before delving back into it for an edit, enjoying the result of my effort. And there’s always another story to tell.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ghosts of Christmas Past

By Kim

As a place to celebrate Christmas Gananoque was ideal. We had a Christmas tree to outdo all Christmas trees, our friends skied over from the island, the turkey was cooked just right; all in all a perfect day. Carl made me cookie cutters for Christmas cookies; I had every known animal, almost, and I made them with a little ring of dough at the top, through which we ran fine wire, and they hung all over the tree. Ducks, reindeer (those took some care in the baking), pigs, elephants, cats, chickens, geese, I could go on indefinitely. Those on the lower branches were the sole property of our cat, Peter. It was funny to see him nonchalantly reach up with his paw and knock one down, then lie under the tree and eat it. His Christmas package was always the same; a box of puffed rice wrapped as any other Christmas gift and tied with a red ribbon. He attended to the unwrapping with perfect ease. I can’t say he cleared up the mess afterward, but neither did the children.

Madonna Ahrens on Christmas in Gananoque, Ontario. (1917)

When I first read these lines written by my great-grandmother, I could smell a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg in the air. I remembered those cookies; my dad made them a few times in my own childhood, always lamenting that he did not have his grandfather’s animal cutters. He stopped making them around the time his mother passed away. Perhaps the memory of her rolling out the dough grieved him, though he never spoke of it.

It was Christmas time when I began researching for my book on Carl and Madonna Ahrens. I had a small child of my own by then and desired a way to bring the past alive for her in a way a three-year-old would appreciate. Aunt Siegie happily supplied me with the Imperial cookie recipe, and mentioned that she had some of Granddaddy Carl’s handmade cookie cutters. She sent me tracings of them so I could see what they looked like, and my Dad used the pattern to make a copy of the rooster. I’ve made the cookies every year since.

Christmas is a season of nostalgia, so perhaps it’s not so unusual that I’d feel especially close to the ghosts of Christmas past at this time of year. Making Granny Madonna’s cookies allows me a connection to family I never had the chance to know in life. My kitchen smells the same as Madonna’s would have when she made them. Like my grandmother, I think they taste best after being dipped into hot chocolate. This year, in memory of my aunt Siegie, who passed away this past April after a four year battle with cancer, the first cookie I reached for was the pig. Among the things I received after her death was a box containing cookie cutters in the shape of a goose, rooster, squirrel, camel and pig. The first time I used them I saw a flash of Siegie seated at a table flanked by her mother and Granddaddy Carl. Madonna stood behind Carl, her hands on his shoulders, cheek resting on the top of his head. All were young, healthy, and laughing. While I miss Siegie very much, I couldn’t bring myself to feel sad.

In honor of the memories of Carl, Madonna, Tutu, and Siegie, I share this recipe with all of you and hope you have a wonderful holiday.

Imperial Cookies (From the kitchen of Madonna Ahrens)

1/3 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1 egg (well beaten)

¼ cup milk

2 cups flour

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

2 tsp vanilla

½ tsp nutmeg

½ tsp cinnamon

Cream shortening (with fork or pastry cutter)

Add sugar, egg, milk and vanilla and cream again

Sift together remaining (dry) ingredients

Add dry ingredients to butter mixture ½ cup at a time

Cover and chill in refrigerator for 24 hours. [Madonna must have put it in the snow before they had electricity.]

When ready to bake, take some dough and roll out on a floured board as you would a pie crust. [Kim leaves it a bit thicker for softer cookies.]

Use cookie cutters to cut out cookies. You can re-roll the dough, but try to place the cutters as close together as possible. The dough can get tough if you reuse too much. [Kim adds fresh dough in each time she re-rolls.]

Lay cookies out on a cookie sheet. Cook at 360 degrees until they are lightly browned on the bottom. [Eight minutes works for Kim.]

Let cool and enjoy – especially with hot chocolate!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nostalgia and Tradition

by Elizabeth

It's that time of year again. Many of us have hauled a tree out of the rafters or home from a lot, or already placed a treasured menorah back in its velvet-lined box. Or both, in some cases.

This time of year always gets me thinking about traditions. Some I've cherished every year of my life, like hanging the stocking my grandmother knit for me the year I was born. Others are younger, like the pans and pans of homemade toffee I stir up each December. Newer still are those I celebrate with my children, like the gift of pajamas on Christmas Eve. And this year, I'm thinking about books.

I'm reading my second Thrity Umrigar novel in less than two weeks right now, this one called If Today Be Sweet. I just finished chapter two, and already I'm celebrating the fact that there's at least one more novel of hers I have yet to delve into. I've discovered a few other new favorite novelists this year as well, and that's always a treat. And then my reading has also included some old favorites, Jane Austen and Anne Tyler, and just this month I've reread some childhood favorites: Magic Elizabeth; All of a Kind Family; The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Nearly every Christmas I revisit Maeve Binchy's This Year It Will Be Different, a collection of decidedly un-Christmasy Christmas stories.

The holiday season makes me nostalgic as well. Maybe it's those old traditions cropping up, helping me remember all those Christmases of my life and the people who filled them. (The grandmother who knit that stocking would turn one hundred years old on Christmas Day this year.) But it's a happy nostalgia, and like the tomes of my childhood that I've recently enjoyed, the memories conjure the girl or woman I was in those memories. It's like being the ghost of my own past*, if only for a moment. Books, like the tangible keepsakes of the season--the high school band ornament my best friend and her mother made for me in 1981 still hangs on my tree, as does the "soph cheer" glass globe another girl handed out the next year--remind me of who I was in a slice of time. I love that. Smells do it too--turkey roasting, my family's famous creamed corn, See's Candy--and bring about the nostalgia that gets me to climb the rafters and pull down the pre-lit tree, even years we are barely in the house long enough to admire it.

I'll celebrate Christmas on a beach this year, delaying most gifts until New Year's Day, and none of the holiday feast will be made by anyone I love. But I'll have my new friend Thrity, and the thoughts of all the books old and new I've devoured this year, and the nostalgia the day carries for me whether snowy or sandy. I've heard the particular beach where I'm headed has unusually white sand.

Here's wishing you all a white Christmas too, and a merry one, and books under your tree.

*No, this post was not written by Joan.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Cheer

by Joan

If you’re at all like me, you’re feeling stretched for time right now. Between holiday shopping, cooking, wrapping and partying, kids off school, visiting relatives, work/work (as we WWWers like to call it) reading, movies, laundry, year-end tax planning and, oh yeah, writing projects, I feel as though I’m a Christmas tree ladened with too many ornaments.

I’ve always been a multi-tasker, but lately I feel as though I’m not giving 100 percent to any one project. I’ve bookmarked (or paused) six books, and I’m in the middle of writing three manuscripts (thanks NaNo!), while submitting two others. My desk is a mess, my house is littered with rolls of wrapping paper and unopened mail, and my sink is decorated with a broiler pan that won’t come clean no matter how many times I soak and scrub it.

So here are my tips for surviving the holidays:

Pick two things and check them off the list
I might not be able to finish The Women in White (400 remaining out of 600 pages) before it’s due at the library today (okay, yesterday), I might not be able to write a full chapter in my WIP, but I can write a character sketch and this blog post.

Make a list and determine what absolutely must get done today. Repeat tomorrow. It’s easy to push off writing, especially with self-imposed deadlines, but commit to a goal and stick to it. (Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain.)

Make a schedule
When I write with Pamela, we set up a timeline. Let’s say I have until December 31 to complete the items on my list. How long does each thing take? In order of priority (see above), make a daily schedule and stick to it. I’ve committed to finishing one of my WIPs by March 31. How many words do I need to write to get it done?

Manage your time
Easy to say, but when you’re reading blogs, answering email, watching a movie for “research” purposes, an hour or three can get away from you. Set aside a time when you’re less focused (for me it’s right when I wake up, before the coffee has soaked in) and be diligent about the rest of your time.

Ask for help

No one can write your book for you, but you can enlist your kids to take on some of the day-to-day. Can they wrap a few gifts? If your kid drives, give him the shopping list while you write a few hundred words.

Beg off
I know I can’t do everything. Push a lunch or two into the New Year, so you can rehash with friends what you enjoyed most about the holidays.

Take a walk

We’ve been told by both Aldous Huxley and Kingsley Amis that, (paraphrasing) the art of writing is applying the seat of our pants to our chair. But unless I observe life every once in a while, whether it’s a walk through the neighborhood or in a shopping mall, my writing does not reflect the world around me and the interesting characters I encounter.

Don’t beat yourself up (I’m good at this)
It won’t all get done. But do what you can and feel good about it.

And finally…

Enjoy! (i.e. Drink)
Everyone knows writers are more inspired after a few drinks. Whether it’s some spiked egg nog or a peppermint patty (hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps) like I had the other day, enjoy and refuel your imagination.

Happy holidays everyone!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How beginning a new novel is a lot like decorating for the holidays

By Julie

Last week, after hemming and hawing and procrastinating for weeks and weeks, my family and I made our annual appointment to buy a (formerly) live Christmas tree and decorate it Saturday afternoon. The appointment was necessary – I have teenagers.

After hemming and hawing and procrastinating for months and months, I make an appointment with myself to start a new novel. NaNoWriMo seems like as good a time as any.

Friday evening, after not really being in the mood this year, I was finally feeling a little festive. But in typical Kibler fashion, we puttered around an extra hour Saturday. Finally, we started out with little enthusiasm for the task ahead.

By the end of October, I'm finally feeling a little enthusiasm for my new story after spending too long revising my old one. Still, I putter around, not writing my first words until November second.

It might surprise you that in our group of three females and one male, the females agreed on the first tree we propped up, while my husband wandered around a bit, saying, "Are you sure this one isn't better?" and "I think this one is straighter." But, nope, we girls are usually pretty good at making a speedy Christmas tree decision.

The subject is easy to identify. I've been thinking about it for months. Others say, "Why don't you write about this?" Or "That would make a good story." But I know the one. We writers are usually pretty good at identifying our next story topics.

We dragged the tree on top of the old SUV we keep for exactly that purpose (well, okay, it's also paid off!) and tied it down. Though they never let me do much of the tying. I like to practice my lasso skills, and the others get bored while I miss nearly every throw over the top of the vehicle.

I create a beautiful, clean new file, nail down a working title and tentative outline, and spend far too much time selecting character names and songs for my writing soundtrack.

All this seemed very idyllic. Such a happy family occasion! We will get home and get this done before we know it! And have fun, too!

All this new writing is kind of like a honeymoon! The words fly onto the page so fast! My fingers can hardly keep up with my brain!

Then the fun began.

Let the fun begin.

We got the tree home, argued over who held the thing up and who got to cut off the net. Who put on the lights and who untangled the beads. Whether that strand went here or there, and whether to wind it around or up and down. Whether the sixteen-year-old was really helping by sleeping on the couch, or whether it was even too much to ask the twelve-year-old to let her sister help her. I tried to stand back, to allow the kids to learn the art of tree decoration by trial and error instead of by Mom's Exact Plan.

The characters start preening for attention. "Pick me! Pick me!" one says, begging to tell all her back story at once, while the quiet one in the corner is obviously hiding something big. I can't get some of them to open up at all. I try to stand back, allow the characters to mold themselves, to find their own paths in my story instead of forcing them into my preformed direction.

I wondered if it was all worth it. Whether, in the interest of family harmony, we should have given up on Christmas this year.

I wonder if it's all worth it. In the interest of sanity, should I forget my dream of being an author and find a day job?

After an hour or so, we were about ready to call the cops to solve our domestic squabble, but then something began to creep in, to take us by surprise.

After a few weeks, I'm about ready to call a therapist, ask what kind of crazy I am for thinking I'm capable of writing a story anyone in their right mind would read—much less
pay to read. But then something begins to take me by surprise.

We got to the good part. Unwrapped the ornaments, laughed at the awful school pictures on the handmade ones, oo-ed and ah-ed over the delicate heirlooms, shed a few tears over the ones that wouldn't make it many more years unless we bronze them. We hung the stocking holders and the stockings sewn by my mother and grandmother. Cheered up drab corners with the freestanding decorations and rediscovered ones we'd forgotten.

I'm getting to the good part. Unwrapping my characters' secrets, giggling at the ones who shock me with their humor in the midst of depressing predicaments, dropping my jaw at the serendipity I'm seeing in the scenes I wrote earlier that perfectly set up later ones I didn't even see coming, shedding my own tears when my characters grieve. Embellishing the scenes with all the senses. Prettying up drab dialogue with a clever turn of phrase. Rediscovering layers I've almost forgotten to include.

Before long, the house was filled with a different kind of oxygen. It was a little brighter, a little cozier, a little more ... peaceful.

Before long, my manuscript is filled with something new. It's a little more dynamic, a little more promising. A little more ... alive.

For a few hours, life seemed just right.

For a few weeks, the story seems just right.

Of course, this doesn't take into account how we had to do it THREE times. Yes, the stand was cracked. The water leaked. We had to buy a new stand, take off the most delicate ornaments, and transfer the tree. Then, the next morning, the tree was leaning at a scary angle. The new stand didn't work and the tree wasn't sucking up water, so we bought a new new stand. Took the ornaments off. Propped the tree on the vee of a ladder. Sawed off more trunk. Moved the tree. But the last time seemed to stick.

Of course, this doesn't take into account that by the time I'm ready to query my novel, I'll have done ninety-nine revisions. The glaring plot hole. The entire point of view I have to remove. The chapters I have to rearrange. The whole new dimension of conflict I add so the story doesn't fall flat on its face. But eventually, it's a wrap.

Oh, yeah, and the dog ate a hand-sized hole in the tree skirt my mom sewed by hand fifteen years ago.

Oh, yeah, and the hook I think is so unique? Something eerily similar will inevitably show up on Deal Lunch before I write The End.

But still, it's our home, our unique decorations, and our one-of-a-kind method of getting it done. And it began to look a lot like Christmas. Finally.

Still, it's my story, my unique spin, and my one-of-a-kind way of putting the words to paper. It's beginning to look a lot like a novel. Finally.

Happy Holidays and Happy Novel Writing!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Patience, thy name is not Pamela

By Pamela

When I first started on this crazy writing journey, I’ll admit to being a little green. No, probably more like a lot green. Think more avocado than lime.

As I perfected (not even close) my first query letter to my first manuscript (what was I thinking?), I carefully followed the guidelines suggested by agents. I expected each one to want at least the first few chapters, if not all twenty-eight of them. Besides, how could they possibly judge my story until they read all the way to The End? (Which I promise, I didn’t type in, since my fifth grade teacher once told us, when the writing stops, it’s the end. Duh. That was possibly one of only a couple mistakes I didn’t make.)

But getting back to submissions and what agents want to see. Some require only a query letter. Others like to peek at the first few pages. But really, can they get a feel for what a story is about in only a few pages? Absolutely.

To prove my point, let’s take into account how we read. Over lunch the other day, I sat across from Julie and not surprising, the conversation turned to what we were reading/what we’ve read. It astonished me how many books I’ve read but not read. There are many popular books out there (and quite a few on my bookshelves) that I’ve started and not finished. Some by authors whom I’ve loved and read a good many titles from. Others that were breakout novels by writers who achieved great success. But like the book (and movie) title first stated, I’m quick to admit that sometimes: I’m just not that into you.

Julie is not like me. She said that nearly every book she picks up, she reads to the end. It’s her commitment to the author and the story (and probably because she invested the money to buy it) that keeps her reading. Me? Not so much. I have a huge stack on my to-be-read pile and it keeps on growing. If I’m not hooked in by the first few pages, I set it aside. Occasionally, I’ll get coerced into picking it back up again, but that’s rare. And one instance, I didn’t get into the novel, but later saw the movie version and then returned to the book and really enjoyed it.

So, while it seems unfair when an agent asks to see only the first few pages (or chapters) of your manuscript, resist the urge to cry foul. Or if you say, “But the best part doesn’t come until the fifth chapter!” you’d better find a way to bring that in earlier. Because, unless a reader named Julie picks up your book, you’ll likely not find someone so patiently waiting to be hooked.

Make the first few pages grab your reader and suck them in—because that first reader is likely a very busy agent.

Care to weigh-in? Do you read past the first few pages if you’re not hooked? Did any book take a while to pull you in but was worth the commitment?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What We're Good At

By Elizabeth

Right now, a couple of handymen are installing a closet system in my daughter's room. They already tackled a new ceiling fan in another bedroom, plus a fixture to clothe an ugly naked lightbulb. Next up is repairing the disaster of a closet in my room with a shiny new mirrored door.

They seem very good at what they do. I am very bad at what they do. But I write a lovely thank you note.

As someone with the luxury of a day job that doesn't pay, I get to set my own schedule and write as the muse strikes. (Assuming a laundry emergency doesn't strike at the same time, or a kid function, or...) This is both a blessing and a burden. I don't think I need to explain the blessing part. The burden, though, is that my office is my home, and nothing here is ever fully done, always needing more, and it's hard to sit down to write without feeling the pull of a thousand other things. (True leisure time is another blog post altogether. When your work space and your play space are the same, it can be hard to chill. At least for me. What really happens is too little work of both kinds, without the benefit of any real fun. Which is not so fun.)

And here's the real rub, for me. I am not so great at a lot of the around-the-house stuff that falls under my purview. You want moist banana bread tomorrow, I'm your girl. Need errands run, or to find the best local prices for macadamia nuts, or an ethnic restaurant recommendation? Give me a call. Pay the bills, plan the trips, keep four schedules and a trio of picky eaters' preferences in my head while remembering a couple dozen birthdays, check. The kitchen floor? Not so much.

I think I've blogged before about coming to terms with admitting I'm a writer. I'm still practicing, getting better at saying it out loud and then the brief follow-up to the the inevitable questions that follow. Here's where it's tricky: by proclaiming I'm a writer, I'm also saying I believe I'm good enough at it to publicly label myself such. Deep in my heart, I've always believed I'm pretty good with a pen, but saying so out loud, to friends and strangers, carries at least a whiff of vanity.

But here's the thing: it's not vain to be good at what you are good at, or to say so. Oprah is not only the Queen of Daytime, she's a queen of empathy, and I'd bet she'd tell you so herself. Steve Carrell knows he's funny and would likely say so. And Jane Austen was not only beloved by her many nieces and nephews, she considered good aunting nearly an art, one at which she excelled. (Rumor has it she wrote a little on the side as well.)

Those guys working in the other part of the house are good with their hands and tools. Maybe they're good writers as well--heaven knows we scribblers come from all walks, including stay-at-home moms like me. I write. I'm good at it. And I'm working at it, except when I take a break to write a check to cover some other stuff that's not my forte.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Co-Writing Fiction

by Joan

It’s been said that you don’t know someone until you live together. I’ll go one further: You don’t know someone until you write a book with her. Pamela and I just finished up an edit on CENTER COURT SEATS AND A PAIR OF JIMMY CHOOS, a story we co-wrote. Now we feel the story is tighter and a much better read. I won’t share the circumstances that instigated our writing that particular book (because then I’d have to kill you), but I will offer tips we learned by co-writing fiction.

First, choose a partner with whom you know you can get along. Most importantly, choose someone you respect. If you were friends before you became writing partners, remember the friendship comes first. My feeling is, and I think Pamela would agree, material things are not more important than people. Ever. The first day, we both concurred that if writing together caused us to not get along, we’d quit without a second thought.

Make sure you share the same vision of the project. What’s the genre? (Confession: this one took us a while!) Will it be funny? Will it be tragic? What’s the theme? Do you agree on the plot? The characters?

Prepare an outline. When you’re co-writing, it’s best to set out ahead how the novel will unfold. Sometimes I’m a planner, sometimes a pantser, but when we write together, we prepare a timeline and an outline, both of which can be modified. Staying well organized and focused is essential when someone else is writing beside you.

Agree on deadlines. A week to write a chapter? Two days to edit? If one person is consistently on time and the other late, frustrations can set in. Life happens and we all have other commitments, but if you can’t meet a deadline, be upfront about it. In our case, we both write solo projects and take on freelance assignments. Being sensitive to each other’s schedules is imperative. Now that CENTER COURT SEATS is finished, I think we’d both agree, we’ve pushed our second story, FIVE DAYS TO KILL BOB, to the back burner too many times. In fact, Pamela says poor Bob has been waiting so long, he probably figured out his fate months ago and fled the country.

Agree on a method of final say. In our case, since our books so far have featured two sisters, we each write one voice and have the final word on our own character’s lines and behavior. But be considerate. If one person feels strongly about something, give on it. Just like in any relationship, pick your battles. Just last week, we texted back and forth several times about a line of dialog I loved, but she wanted to kill. The last two messages read: It’s your character, if you love it, keep it. My response: Thanks, partner. Secretly she’s probably hoping an editor will make me change it!

Keep your voice true to the book you’ve chosen to write. Even though our styles may be different, we both agree on our novel’s tone and do our best to stick with it. As co-authors, we tend to think and write as one, even choosing a penname as though together we are a third person. Our story is hers, not mine or Pamela’s.

Stay positive (i.e. don’t both get down at the same time). Along the way, both of us have been discouraged, whether about a scene we had trouble writing or by a rejection of the full manuscript—this one or a solo venture. But we’ve avoided the pitfall of pulling the other one down. It helps that we’re both fighters and determined to never give up.

Choose a method that works for you. We met in person to plan the book, agreed on characters, mapped out a plot. Pamela wrote a chapter and emailed it to me. I edited it with the help of the Track Changes feature in Word and emailed it back. As noted above, she had the final say on whether to go with my changes or keep her own. We’ve edited each other for so long, our styles seem to have merged, at least for our co-written projects (and, um, this blog post). Confirmation comes when someone reads the story and asks, “So which one of you wrote which part?”

Record your intentions for the working relationship. You'll likely sign a contract with an agent, definitely with a publisher, so it's best to put down in writing your view of the arrangement, either for a particular project or several. Even partners with the best intentions sometimes have misunderstandings that could have been avoided if discussed up front. Are you 50/50 partners? What's your succession plan if one of you backs out or dies (sorry, worth a mention)? Can one of you write another book using the same characters? We found a template online that worked for us.

Today we will meet and together read through the final version before we send it out again. We’ll let Ghost Reader serenade us for a few chapters (and pretend it’s our audio book), then we’ll split the rest of the book, scouring for typos and checking for continuity. Perhaps the next agent will love it as much as we still do, but if not, we’re confident someone will. We’ve fine-tuned a system that works, and plenty more books await.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Year of Kentucky Reading

By Susan

I haven't lived in Kentucky in almost 10 years, yet consider myself a proud Kentuckian. The framework and setting of my current work in progress is soaked in bourbon--a true Kentucky product. I consider myself a writer of southern fiction, and I use that as an excuse to dive into the histories and mysteries of my home state. Because of that, I am fascinated when I find people and things related to Kentucky, because Kentucky news is a rare thing here in Texas.

This year, in my quest for Kentuckiana, I was thrilled to stumble across Russellville native Holly Goddard Jones, the author of Girl Trouble: Stories (Harper Collins, 2009). Her depiction of the fictional town of Roma was so true-to-life of modern day Kentucky that reading it made me suck in my breath and shake my head. It reminds me why I moved away, and it reminds my why I still love it so. Each story in Girl Trouble carries a simple elegance, yet speaks loudly about contemporary rural life.

From there, I found Silas House. I checked out his blog first, then went immediately to Amazon and ordered every novel he's written. (The list is at the end of the post). I sent a shouting email to the whatwomenwrite group after completing Clay's Quilt, saying: I CAN'T BELIEVE I CALL MYSELF A KENTUCKIAN AND I JUST DISCOVERED SILAS HOUSE! From there I found some audio he'd done on NPR and thought: Wow, that man sure talks like home. I allowed my tongue to find the accent of my childhood for a few days after listening to him. I called my mother back home just to hear her say "Tuesdee." The voice in his stories, coupled with his own sound on NPR, pulled my heart home in a way that surprised me.

Next on the list was Barbara Kingsolver's first book in nine years: The Lacuna. I waited anxiously for months for it's arrival. (It's currently #5 on the bestseller lists.) Although she wasn't born in Kentucky, she grew up in Carlisle, Ky, which is about as Kentucky as you can get (and is also 24 miles from my hometown). I loved The Poisonwood Bible, but I will always claim The Bean Trees as my favorite of all of her work--primarily for the same reason I love Silas House: It has a tremendous voice--a Kentucky voice.

Perhaps I can hear this voice so clearly because I don't live there anymore. Texans have their own drawl and twang, as everyone knows. But it does not sound like Kentucky. How can the curl of the words, the cadence of a sentence, and the tone of a paragraph be stamped so solidly to be undeniable Kentucky? And how can these three very different writers all sound like home to me? The voices I hear from Silas House, Holly Goddard Jones and Barbara Kingsolver are fascinatingly distinct. I can't help that think that maybe, just maybe, it's because the voice I keep hearing is also my own.

Silas House's novel list:
Clay's Quilt, 2001
A Parchment of Leaves, 2003
The Coal Tattoo, 2005
Eli The Good, 2009

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

NaNoWriMo, the month that was and is no longer

By Julie

Like the leaves from the tree in the photo on your left, November is gone. December is upon us, and for several of us at What Women Write, that means a huge sigh of relief.

At the beginning of the month, Pamela wrote of how as a group, we'd decided to make some writing goals in honor of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it's affectionately called. Or NaNo, as it's sometimes not so affectionately called when the weariness sets in.

We thought we'd do a wrap up and weigh in now that it's over.

You heard from Kim last week.

Kim talked about her writing process and how a marathon to write a massive, untamed number of words over the course of a month would have completely messed with not only her mind, but her fictional account of her great-grandfather's life. Nonetheless, we also saw how the group dynamic she experienced at our retreat contributed to a productive month for her, even in the midst of sick children AND animals plus holiday travel.

You also heard from Joan.

She started out with good intentions of completing thirty thousand words on her work in progress, but quickly found that it wouldn't work to do it that way, and a new story wiggled into her brain and didn't let go. In a little more than two weeks, she managed to write more than fifteen thousand words on a brand new idea, one she hadn't spent time brainstorming or outlining at all. Then, she decided it was time to lay the pen aside for the holiday weekend and spend time in the real world, not always easy for us introverted writer types. Word on the street is she had a lot of fun.

Susan says:

I wrote about 7,000 words, and focused on my NaNo goal for about, hmmm, 24 hours. Then life got in the way. In addition, since I wasn't starting a new project and wasn't really following the rules of the challenge, I felt a little freer in creating my
own rules, which meant a slightly more structured, but still chaotic, writing life. Overall, November was a very good writing month for me, especially because of our writing retreat – I left rejuvenated about my work and what I was trying to put to paper.

As far as NaNo or NaNot? I'm not on either side of the fence. I can see great advantages if your full-time work is writing, but I can also see how upending your apple cart by attempting to completely change your style can be a detriment. I just say, stay focused and push forward at whatever pace works for you. To those who completed 30,000 to 50,000 words last month? Wonderful job! Keep writing!

And our fearless leader, Pamela,
who reserved our retreat space, organized the food, made room assignments, loaded most of us up and chauffeured us, and overall made it a great writing weekend, says:

I didn't really do NaNo in the true sense of the movement. I did take a renewed look at my WIP, set about embracing the story and got better organized with it. All that is a round-about way of saying that I didn't accomplish much in November. :) Though I did take another look at polishing a completed project (along with Joan), and that edit will be completed by week's end. Plus, I managed to keep up with my job. So, hard to complain.

As for me
, Julie, my own original goal was to add fifty thousand words to my work in progress, a kind of modified NaNo goal, as the "rules" call for a brand new project.

Two years ago, I set a goal of adding forty thousand words to "finish" a manuscript. Imagine my surprise when I made that goal, only to discover over the next several months that it took another thirty-five thousand or so to really finish it. But I would never have made it to "the end" had I not written the 40K, because those are words I mostly kept – much of the earlier stuff eventually got cut. I truly found the heart of my story that month.

This year, I figured I should up my goal and see where the challenge took me. It soon became clear, though, that 50K would exceed the pace that kept me sane and produced material I wasn't ashamed to read again. I wasn't embarrassed to revise my goal down to forty thousand, telling myself it was kind of like the offering goals they used to post in the country churches I attended at various times in my life – the "Praise the Lord" goal and the "Hallelujah" goal. Had I met the 50K hallelujah goal, I probably would have then proceeded to collapse on the floor for the entire month of December.

I'm happy to report, however, that I squeaked in with 40,253 words at 11:50 p.m. Monday night and am still quite alert.

It wasn't an easy month. Not by a long shot. My final writer identity crisis came in the very last weekend, after the turkey and dressing had been cleared away. My brave husband wouldn't let me give up. He spent time with me Saturday evening brainstorming the story I'm writing, helping me to see it is an important story with a universal message. I'd pretty much declared it worthless and insignificant after struggling to write day after day and being sick to death of it, and that bothered me more than I care to admit.

When I took Barbara (Samuel) O'Neal's Voice Two class a few years ago, it became clear how important it was to me to identify topics that go beyond entertainment and address subjects that challenge readers – ones that get people talking. I am so grateful to my husband for that pep talk and not letting me quit.

My plan now is to let those 40K words "set a while." They'll simmer and stew while I finish deep editing my last story and begin pestering agents with it again. My next goal is to add perhaps another ten thousand words or so to it this month and then maybe even try another marathon of sorts in January and February to complete a rough draft.

And now for a drum roll, please!

Big, huge accolades go to Elizabeth, our solitary "winner" in the true spirit of NaNoWriMo.

She signed up on the site, followed the rules to a T, and clocked in on time for her final count. After watching her work like a speed demon at our retreat, none of us were surprised to see this message to the group early Monday morning:

And . . . 50,928! I'm done!

Elizabeth went on to say:

I found a novel I really like after all, and now I'm far enough in to quit the ridiculous waffling I've been mired in since summer (or earlier) and so I'm going to finish this dang book, and if I don't get an agent with the queries I've got going, then I'll query this come spring or whenever it's done.

We couldn't be prouder of Elizabeth for putting her mind to this task and getting it done. Not only that, but her nine-year-old daughter met and exceeded her own NaNo for Kids goal and plans to continue and finish her story and self-publish it on Lulu.

The way I see it, with a little guesstimating, the members of What Women Write tallied up well over 115,000 new words this month, not to mention a wealth of new knowledge about how we write and how far we can push ourselves.

And that's no little feat.

What about you, readers? Anyone else care to share about their November goals and results? Please weigh in with a comment!
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