Lesson re-learned

When my first two non-fiction books were published, I was elated. A real publisher had accepted my submissions. It was a small, indie press, but to me it was a first step. Never mind that the company went out of business a few years later and I had to re-publish the books on my own. The experience was invaluable in that I realized I was no longer a wannabe, but a professional writer.

The second lesson I learned was during the editing process. Each book (Angels Unaware and The Lunch Club) elicited the same directive from the editor: Lose the first chapter.

It’s good advice. Many writers, including me, think that everything has to be explained in the first pages. We throw in too much back story, we put in too much detail about the characters and their lives, and we never get to the point of the story until chapter two. It’s not until then that the action begins to gain momentum.

I tried to follow that advice with my next books, published by a different small press. I started out with the problem and the story accelerated from there.

But I must have forgotten with my current work in progress. Like the tablecloth I mentioned in my last post, I kept starting and stopping, knowing something was wrong, but just not getting it. The first chapter limped along like a dog with a sand spur in his paw. Aggravating and painful.

Then one evening the answer came to me. The first chapter is boring because it doesn’t state the problem in the first page. It drones on until about mid-chapter, and then we discover the dilemma the protagonist faces. By then, most readers would have yawned and tossed the book aside.

Yep, I needed to lose that first chapter. So I highlighted and deleted the whole thing  and rewrote the second chapter (now first) so that the reader knows immediately what the heroine faces.

The lesson here is that we continue learning, but sometimes we forget what we learned. That’s why it’s so important to keep reading craft books and magazines, to attend workshops, and to work with a critique group.  I submitted that now-gone first chapter to a critique partner who said succinctly that she wasn’t sure if the protagonist was 13 or 30. I re-read it and realized in an effort to make the heroine young, I had essentially made her a teenager. More cuts and revisions.

But now that I’m aware of the red flags that I’d ignored in my blithe assumption that as a published author I knew what I was doing, I am eager to tackle the story again.

And I’m still eager to learn. On October 28, Joseph Bathanti will lead an intensive short story workshop in Wadesboro. I don’t write short stories very often, but I believe that what I  learn from a master writer can be applied to longer works.

If you live in the Charlotte area, check it out at Carolinas Writers Conference. Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

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Family secrets

Secrets and lies. Every family has them. Events are omitted purposefully from the family history, questionable relatives are white-washed, stories are half-told or not at all.

This makes for great reading. We want to know why and who and how. We cheer the plucky heroine as she unravels the mysteries of the past to explain the present.

I’ve been playing with writing our family history. I say playing because, like the tablecloth I’ve been cross-stitching for 50 years or more, I pick it up and put it down again, leaving it for months at a time. I could tell the story with no trouble. It’s what I put in and what I leave out that makes me give up and go to something else.

There are amusing anecdotes that come easily. But how do I write the sometimes horrendous events that also make our family who we are? Does posterity really want to know? Do they need to know? Or should some secrets stay buried until they are pushed so deep that no one remembers?

It’s easier when you are writing about fictitious characters. They can be as angelic or evil as our imaginations can paint them. Their stories hurt no one except other fictitious characters. And as the author of their imaginary lives, we can heal them with our words.

But in real life, the truth can hurt. It changes how we feel about not just our forebears, but about ourselves. If they are not who we thought they were, then we are not who we thought we were.

So I write a few pages and then come to a stopping point when I realize I don’t really want to include some things. I wrestle with the necessity for telling the whole truth or not telling the story at all. I hope some day I will be brave enough to include the ugly as well as the noble.

It’s much easier to write fiction.

 

 

The journey to “the end”

Our writers’ club instituted a new challenge about a year ago. We make goal for the next month and throw in 25 cents each. Winner of the draw, if he or she accomplished their goal, takes the pot.

No one has won in the last six months. Maybe our goals are too lofty. I’ve had to confess I missed my goal (but I don’t confess by how much) the last few times.

Image result for goals, the end

In May, I wrote that my goal was to finish the edits on my WIP.  I was fairly confident I would be able to do this. I’m pleased to announce I did.

I will be even more pleased to announce it when we meet this afternoon.

It seems that when I begin a a story I procrastinate. I can find more excuses to do something else — anything else –than sit down and write. It’s achingly slow. I delete more words than I write. I moan and groan and decide this story was a mistake and I will never finish.

But somehow, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter, it grinds its way to the end.

Then I start the second draft process. The bare bones of the story take on a new life. I add conflict, flesh out the characters’ backstory, add a few twists just for the fun of it.

I’m not creating the story any more. I’m just hanging on for the ride. Instead of forcing myself to sit down at my desk, I am looking forward to it. Phone calls are no longer a welcome interruption, but a distraction. I love how my characters lead me down new paths of discovery.

I know this is the opposite of what I hear from other writers. For them, it is the first draft that comes easily, and the re-writing that becomes the chore.

The trick is not to become so engrossed in re-writing that I spend the next 10 years rearranging paragraphs and adding and subtracting plots and characters. I have to know when I’m done.

So when I’m asked if I reached my goal, I can say yes. But the truth is, the goal was never the point.

It was the journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve come a long way, baby

Among a box of goodies I received for Mother’s Day was a book: The McGraw Hill Author’s Book, copyright 1955.  I think it was intended as a curiosity from my daughter-in-law, who is an antique/collectibles dealer and who comes across curious items in her search for treasures at flea markets, yard and garage sales, and estate sales.

Just reading the “Foreword to the Author,” I realized how far we’ve come since the mid-2oth century. We are all familiar with galley proofs and making changes. To us, this is minor. Back then, revisions were (and I quote) something “we devoutly hope to avoid, for after-thought is time-consuming and very costly.” Evidently it took the work of 4-5 “highly skilled and commensurately paid” printers to make changes, even small ones.

I guess all those printers are retired, or as the British say, redundant, now. I hope they got commensurate retirement benefits.

The book was written so the hopeful writers submitting their work to McGraw-Hill would know exactly what was expected of them. Clean copy is not a new thing, every publisher hopes to see it. But back then it was more of a necessity than a courtesy.

The first chapter, Preparing the Manuscript, tells us that the submitted copy will be handled by as many as 25-30 people, and so must be printed on good quality paper, and a black noneradciable ribbon should be used on the typewriter–a ribbon that should be replaced often to ensure a good impression.

This brought me back to the days when I had to write term papers and that stricken moment when I realized I’d made a mistake, and the work had to be painstakingly re-typed on a fresh sheet of paper.

Then Betty Nesmith Graham invented a typewriter correction fluid she first called “Mistake Out” in 1956. The name was later changed to Liquid Paper. I know I am not the only one who kept a bottle handy on my desk…and said a daily prayer of thanks to our benefactor.

The chapter goes on to admonish the writer not to use mimeographed, ditto, or photostatic copy “which cannot be corrected with ink.”

I haven’t seen a mimeograph machine in ages. We had one in the school office and I recall running off copies of  worksheets for my elementary age students. Purple goo that got all over your clothes and hands…ugh.  And ink? Can you even buy ink in a bottle any more? I still have–somewhere–a pen with a refillable cartridge, but I’m pretty sure it’s an antique.

Then the writer is advised to be sure and make a carbon copy of her work. Oh yes, I remember trying to line up the carbon paper with my white typing paper, only to have to it go awry when I rolled it in the cartridge. And again, the purple ink on my fingers, ink I had to be sure not to smudge on the paper. Carbon paper, like the typewriter ribbon, had to be replaced often. I suppose someone somewhere still uses it.  I simply hit hit “copy” and “save” on my computer. No mess, no waste.

I’m eager to continue my walk down memory lane, reading this book chock-full of antiquated advice. It makes me realize how much easier we have it today. I’m sure some of the  advice still holds. Some things never change.

But thank goodness the mechanics have.

 

 

 

That “Oh, no” moment

I got my proof copy of Riverbend from Amazon last week. I started to look through it, and —

Yes, you guessed it. I saw a typo. Then another.

To make matters worse, when I began reading it more carefully, I noticed places where I could have chosen a better word or phrase. Oh, the beauty of hindsight.

When I think about ordering a book online, I read the reviews. If readers complain of poor editing or too many typos, I usually pass.

I do not want that to happen to me!

So one more time, I went through it page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by … You get the idea.

I followed some advice I heard at a workshop and started at the last page and worked my way to the beginning. When sentences are taken out of context, it is much easier to see errors.

And now I see my back cover blurb doesn’t really tell what the story is about, so I need to work on that as well.

At this rate, I’ll never be ready to let go, but I have a firm publication date of May 1.

I remember reading about an author who  wasn’t satisfied with the ending of his book, so every time he was giving a reading or lecture in a new city he’d visit the library and cross out the last paragraphs and write in the new ending.

I don’t intend to go to that extreme. But I am going to make sure this book is as ready as it can be for its debut.

There are people, and I used to be one them, who think writing a book is easy. You just sit down and begin typing.

They don’t  know the whole story.

Pun intended.

 

 

Juggling the genres

Last week I was at the beach, enjoying sunny warm afternoons, splashing through the waves in my bare feet.

This week, I dug out my sweatshirts and warm coat, going outside only when necessary.

Yes, this is North Carolina weather. Rather than complaining, however, I used the time to hunker down at my computer. The stories were written, but  it was time for the next step.

The novel I polished at the beach during the writers retreat needed one last-minute check. Then I had to write the synopsis, which I just finished.

I wrote a synopsis before I started, as I may have noted before. This was my guide, my lifeline that made certain I didn’t stray too far afield. But it isn’t the same synopsis that one submits to a publisher. This time, I had to be more careful of my grammar and punctuation while still, hopefully, retaining my original enthusiasm for the project. This I will send off, fingers crossed.

My other novel? I decided to self-publish, so I spent some hours working on the cover design, then formatting the Word document. Luckily, by this time around I know the pitfalls and most of it went smoothly, with only a few corrections to be made. I’m fine-tuning it now, having looked at the first proof copy and deciding the margins were too wide and the indents too deep. Saved about 50 pages there, which allows me to lower the price.

They are wildly different books. One is a contemporary romance and the other is historical fiction with a bit of mystery and of course, a love interest because what is any story without some romance?

It’s kind of an experiment. Which will fare better? Should I stick with light stories, meant for a few hours’ entertainment, or should I continue to tackle the research a historical requires?

If you’ve been following my path, I’ve done women’s fiction, romance, paranormal, and now historical. That may not be the best way to build a firm platform, but I’m not trying to make a name or career for myself. I write what I love to write, and if the genre’s differ from one book to the next, it’s because it expresses my interests at the time.

If I were younger, it’d be different. I’d choose a genre and stay with it, book after (yawn) book. Most authors do well this way. We know what to expect from them and aren’t disappointed.

But I’m not young and so I give myself permission to write what I please. If the book sells, I’m delighted. If not, I write another. So far, the reviews have been positive, so I must be doing something right.

My contention is, if someone picks up one of my books they have only to turn it over and read the blurb to decide if they want to buy it (or borrow it from the library). Who knows, they may decide to try a new story, even if it wasn’t what they expected, and like it.

I love to read and at any one time I may have a stack of books consisting of a biography, a historical romance, an action drama, and a mystery.

So if I like reading different genres, it follows that I like writing them.

I’m not sure what comes next. I have a few ideas …

We’ll see where they lead me.

 

 

 

 

Writers retreat and beach memories

Home again!

I’m home after a week away. It was a fantastic week: sunrise over the ocean, the sky tinted pink and baby blue with whitecaps rolling against the shore.  Coffee, drifting to our self-appointed stations, everyone working on her project from a published writer meeting deadline to a novice working on her first draft. Ice cream breaks, walking along the beach, feet crunching over  broken shells or seeking balance on softly shifting sand, claiming the reward of sweet, cold strawberry or salty caramel. Silent afternoons, then laughter as eight women work together to prepare an evening meal.

It was a fantastic week in the company of women who got me, who understood what it is to create a story from nothing but our imaginations, what it means to select the right word, to bring a character to life.

They say writing is a lonely life. It is. It is the nature of the profession. Oh, we have critique partners, beta readers, editors, and hopefully, publishers, who help us along the way.  But the essential work is done inside our heads.

That’s why writer’s retreats, such as the one I just completed, are important. We remember we are not alone on our journey, that others are traveling the road with us. Some are a little ahead, and they look back and hold out a hand to help us along. And we do the same for those behind us.

I confess I was a little reluctant to go.  Live with strangers for a week? How did this work?

But I’m glad I did.  Within 24 hours, the doubts had fled. The strangers became friends. When the week was over we hugged goodbye with real emotion and pledged to meet again next year.

Did I accomplish the goal I had set? Yes, I did. I finished my edits. Others finished their drafts or met their deadlines. We all did what we came for, but for me, it was more than that.

It was realizing I was in good company. That I was not alone. That I was a part of a sisterhood of writers.

Of course I was glad to get home and accept the welcome meows of Spooky, Jack and Frenchie. There was mail, telephone messages, and the inevitable dirt to be swept up because my cats love to dig in the houseplants. Bags had to be unpacked, laundry done. Every vacation — even working vacations —  end.

But the memories remain.

 

 

 

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