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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Start ’em early

One of the goals of our local writers’ club is to promote literacy.  I guess we’ve said this so loud and so often, it wasn’t a surprise when someone actually took us up on it.

A summer camp for kids needed someone to lead a class on story writing. Guess who they called?

So Kaye and I set out last Monday morning for the camp, which was held indoors. Given the 90+ temperatures we’ve had lately, I considered ‘camping’ in an air-conditioned room a perk.

How did it go? We had a blast. We had two groups of kids, the first from 4-8 years old and the second from 8 to about 14. Talk about enthusiasm! Once they grasped the idea of creating a story from scratch, the kids were falling over themselves to contribute their ideas.

They  knew the basics of story writing: Beginning, middle, end. They knew there had to be a problem and a solution. They knew a story was better when it contained details to set the scene. So our job was made easier because we just had to build on what they already had learned. We tried to steer them away from retelling Hansel and Gretel or The Parent Trap and get them to thinking on their own.

The first group’s story was imaginative even if it didn’t make a lot of sense. It didn’t have to follow a perfect story arc, it just had to entertain. And that it did.

The second group of older kids had a rocky start as the tweens and teens argued about the plot and where it was going. I had some doubts, but I needn’t have worried. They settled down and began backing up each other’s ideas, cooperating beautifully. Their story was heartfelt and had a satisfying conclusion.

I took my notes home and wrote down the stories they envisioned. I’ll print them out, a copy for each camper and a few extra, and take them back to camp next week.

I think the kids had a good time. I know Kaye and I did.

Who knew giving back could be so much fun?

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Alone or with a group?

It has been said many times and by many people that writing is a lonely profession.

While the act of writing is solitary — who can get into our heads and create stories except ourselves? — we aren’t necessarily alone.

I’m thinking of the writers who scribble their words while keeping an eye on their children playing underfoot, or keeping an ear out for the summons of a spouse who doesn’t quite get that writing time is sacred.

Some writers prefer the background noise of a pub or coffee shop, where they can be alone surrounded by people.

And some enjoy writing in the presence of other writers.

I didn’t get this latter situation. Why would a group of writers want to sit down at a table and work on their novels or short stories or memoirs? I thought it would be distracting, with more interruptions than my brain could handle. I thought, somewhat disdainfully, that the hour would be spent talking about writing rather than actually doing it.

But my writer’s club (where we talk about writing) decided that we should initiate a Write-In once a month. A restaurant with a private room was selected, and our president made a standing reservation.

The first time I took my tablet and pens and serious doubts.

I needn’t have worried. My fellow writers greeted me and we set to work. For an hour we scribbled or typed in silence, the ambient noise from the diner in the main room filtering through the closed doors. Occasionally the waitress poked her head in and ask if we needed anything. We muttered “no” or requested another cup of coffee.

While we didn’t talk, I was aware of the others sitting on either side and across from me. It was curiously comforting to know they were there, struggling as much as I was with the chore of digging out the right word, the perfect phrase, the shaping of our stories. While we were working on individual projects, we were also involved in something that connected us.

I can’t say I accomplished very much. For the past months, ideas have come and been rejected. I haven’t been able to settle on anything specific. It has been like traveling through a barren land and for some time I have wondered if I will ever write another book.

But the fact that I had to write something during that hour got me going. I can’t say I have started a new project, but at least I have some ideas on paper. Being around people intent on their work acted as an impetus I hadn’t known I needed.

We did talk writing after our allotted time was up. We ordered lunch and some read what they had written while others asked for help in specific areas. I didn’t share my ramblings, explaining that it was just thoughts that needed to be put into a coherent whole.

I left with the feeling that perhaps my desert had a a few oases I could rely  on to get me to where I wanted to be, and fellow travelers who would join me on at least a part of my journey.

Writing is a lonely and sometimes frustrating profession.

But you don’t necessarily have to do it alone.

Commercial break:

You can still vote for A Question of Time, listed under Historical-Post Medieval, in the RONE contest at http://www.indtale.com/2016-rone-awards-week-six. Voting ends today.

 

 

Role reversal

There’s difference between beta readers, critique partners, and editors.  As I understand it, a beta reader reads the finished manuscript to comment on the overall story. The main thing you want to know is if she liked it or not.

If she says yes, you can do your happy dance. If she says no,  she may not  be able to say exactly what she didn’t like.  She may say only, “It felt wrong.”

The fact that she senses something out of kilter is enough for you to go back to your story and re-read with a dispassionate eye. You may have to put it aside for a few weeks in order to be able to do this.

A critique partner works along with you, chapter by chapter or scene by scene. She is an essential part of your journey, helping you  spot flaws before they magnify into major problems.

An editor — or editors, as you may have more than one — doesn’t care as much about the story as he does grammar, spelling, and typos. Your editor may hate your story, but he will point out that you changed tenses in a sentence, or were head-hopping, or had your heroine yell “You’re a xenophilic!” at the hero without your looking it up first to make sure she knows what she is yelling about.

I’ve asked friends to be beta readers. I’ve had critique partners (and need to find some new ones since my last group disbanded). And I’ve asked professional friends to edit. I value their opinion.

This past week the shoe has been on the other foot. I’ve been reading a manuscript both as a beta reader and as a critique partner. Oh, and editing/proofing along the way. It’s not easy because I have to put my own writer’s hat aside. I use an Oxford comma; my friend doesn’t. I have to stifle the urge to add a comma in every string of phrases or words. It’s an internal battle of wills, believe me.

When I send it back all marked up I will repeat what I told him at the beginning when I accepted the assignment: these are suggestions and you can delete them or accept them, whichever you want. Because what I see as an error may be exactly how he wants it written. And, I could be wrong.

Does editing someone else’s manuscript make me a better writer? I think it has to. If I see an error in his work, I am more likely to spot it in my own. It sharpens my skills, and that has to be a good thing.

Oh, and while editing/proofing my friend’s work, I’m also proofing the galleys on mine. It’s my fourth time to go over the pages — three previous editors have marked them and sent them to me for approval. I dare not disapprove. These people work for the publisher. Their job is to make my writing better, not be my Facebook friends.

I have a week to get this done, so I may have to slack off on my friend’s book until then. Release date for “A Question of Time” is October 13.

Just letting you know:)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beware the scammer

You have probably been told never to send money to an agent.  I repeat this mantra because I wish I had heard this when I first started out.

In the dark ages before personal computers, I wrote my stories on a typewriter (for those of you too young to know what one is, look it up). Then I took it to a stationary store that had a copy machine and paid to have a copies made so I could send my stories to various publishers and agents. The manuscript went into a manila envelope (or a box if it was a large manuscript) with an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) inside.

I trudged to the post office and had the clerk weigh it for me, so I knew how much postage to put on the SASE  so the publisher or agent could return it. Because I had paid for that copy and if the publisher or agent didn’t want it, I did.

Of course, I hoped it wouldn’t be returned. I never wanted to see that big manila envelope wing its way back to my mailbox. I wanted a  #10 envelope containing an acceptance letter and a contract.

My hopes and prayers when answered when I got a call from a woman with a very distinguished British accent. The agency liked my work. If I would send them X amount of dollars they would send it to X number of publishers. The money was to cover the cost of paper, printing, and postage.

I talked it over with my husband, who was as clueless as I was. It sounded reasonable to him, so I sent the check.

In the following weeks I received more calls. They’d had some nibbles. I shouldn’t give up, but I needed to send more money.

Being as savvy as a two-day-old  kitten, I did.

By the third call, I began to suspect things were not on the up-and-up. I regretfully said no, and then began wondering if I had blown my Big Chance for a few hundred dollars.

And then the world opened up. I bought a personal computer. I read on-line blogs about writing. I joined critique groups and writers groups. I attended writing conferences.

I wasn’t alone any more, fighting my way blindly to the to goal. I had help.

The first time I heard someone say “Never send an agent money” I knew I had been seduced by a cultured British accent.

I suspect they are out of business now, because stamps and paper and copy machines are no longer a necessary part of submitting. Or maybe they have found  new way to scam gullible newbies. I don’t know.

It was a painful, embarrassing, and expensive lesson for me and that is why I want to repeat the words I wish I’d heard way back when: Never pay an agent. If you are good enough, they will take a chance on getting their money from their fees.

Now editors. Editors a different story and if you are serious about your work you will hire one before submitting anywhere, and especially if you self-publish.

That money is worth it.

 

 

 

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