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Entries in Craft (73)


One + One=Mass Confusion for Me

Question of the day: How many manuscripts do you work on at once? 

I was thinking about this question, and it reminded me of a brief period of time in high school when I made the misguided decision to take both Spanish and French at the same time. What happened was not that I excelled at both languages, rather I found myself spitting out Spanish words in French class, and Spench (that's a mash up of both of them) in Spanish class, since French was my more dominant language.

In other words, it was a disaster. A well-intentioned on, perhaps, but my brain just couldn't hack it.

The same holds true for me and writing. I simply cannot fully immerse myself in the voice of my protagonist while listening to another voice in the back of my head. Actually, I haven't even tried it. It sounds too exhausting, too confusing. For me, so much about creating my books comes from 100% understanding the world of my heroine (and her supporting players), that if I remove myself from that even a little bit, the writing becomes much, much harder.

Currently, in fact, I'm working on a screenplay while juggling edits of The Memory of Us. I find myself mixing up my heroines' names, having to backtrack to ensure that I haven't swapped in details of one for the other, etc. I'm doing both of them now because it's necessary on my time frame, but I cannot even imagine the mental havoc that would ensure if I were to do this with two manuscripts.

So that's my thing. I KNOW that a lot of others DO manage to juggle - maybe if you're writing two different genres, it's easier? So the characters and plots don't really morph into each other? That may be the case. I'd love to you write more than one work at a time, and if so, how do you manage it?


On Having Something Important to Write

Question of the day: I am (as I have always been) compelled to write on a fairly regular basis. Most often, though, I find myself sitting down and staring at a blank page until the frustration becomes unbearable. Say something worth saying; else, say nothing. Is that a fair maxim? Am I being stymied by a false belief? And regardless of the validity or invalidity of the maxim, what am I to say when I honestly feel that I have, at present, nothing worth saying? 

This is one reason why Nanowrimo is such a great (if exhausting) exercise. Because, especially when you're just getting started, you absolutely should not feel the pressure to put anything down that is close to genius. The idea behind Nanowrimo is that any form of writing is good, as along as you're writing: that this is a necessary muscle to be flexed, and in flexing it, you'll strengthen it until it's strong enough to be taken to another level.

Think of it this way: if you were a really excellent tennis player, you wouldn't have acquired such skills by simply showing up one day and knowing how to serve aces or whip backhand winners. No, you'd work on these tools over time, getting stronger and stronger until that backhand in the corner base line became instinct. And EVEN ONCE it was instinct, you'd still show up and practice with your coach.

That's how I feel about writing. Look, at a certain point, it's important to just put something down on page. It can be total crap, but it gets you in a mindset, a rhythm, and you really will learn things as you go. Even now, four books later, I write PLENTY of paragraphs and dialogue that are total stinkers. Less than I used to, sure, but still...plenty. But I've gotten in the practice of being okay with this because I know that propelling the ms forward in the early drafts is much more important than making in perfect. That's what revisions are for. But without anything on the page, there's no chance to revise it - and learn from those revisions - in the first place. So I say, consider a character, his or her life, what you'd like to explore about that life and the themes behind it. Let that information gestate and sink in, and then, just start writing. See where it takes you. It may not be anywhere, but you'll never know until you find out.


The Writing Cycle

Question of the day: How long does it take you to write your first draft? How about the finished product?

I think every writer is going to have a different answer to this question, but I generally write my first draft in about six months. At least that's been the standard for my last two books. My first two books, I wrote more quickly, but now, this is about what my stamina and concentration afford me. I'm the type of writer who loses momentum (and enthusiasm) easily, so I truly have to write every day (barring weekends) when I'm working on a first draft. I often equate writing to going to the gym - it gets easier when you schedule it and make it part of your routine - so again, for me, I sit down and write and build and build until I hit 85k (or so) words. Generally, this means putting about 1k words down a day - sometimes more, rarely less, with some time to go back each 50 or so pages and smooth out some rough spots.

Sometimes, I surprise myself and get there before six months, but even if I do, that leaves me plenty of time to revise a bit before handing it over to my agent and editor. When I do hand it into them, that's what I consider to be the first draft.

From there, I spend about three months revising. The second round of revisions is probably the toughest for me: because I'm a pantser and write without a map, sometimes, certain plot points don't work and certain characters need heavy alterations. This is the draft in which I do that - go back and pull out anything that is really clunky and then figure out how to fix it. From there, I bounce it back to my editor, and we probably go through two or so more rounds of smaller fixes/tweaks/shading.

All in, it's about a 9-10 month process, and then, I give myself some downtime to decompress (and take care of things like copy edits, publicity for other books, etc), which I think is critical. It's usually in this downtime, even though I can't IMAGINE starting something new, that another idea springs up. And after a few months, I'm itching to start all over again, even though I know I'm a glutton for punishment.

So that's my writing cycle. As I said, everyone is different. Franzen takes 10 years between books. Many of my other friends take two or so. I don't know if I'll keep up this pace forever - it is somewhat draining, but I also sincerely feel that itch to start over, so for now, this is what works for me.

What works for you guys? Will you share your own writing cycles?



The Big Idea

Question of the day: How do you come up with your ideas? How do you know if they're good ones?

Wow. This is a huge question, and I'm not even sure how to answer it because I don't have a concrete method of brainstorming, but I'll try my best.

When I'm casting about for a new book idea, I think I go about it in two ways. One, I start with a theme I might want to explore. The best way to articulate this is by using Time of My Life as an example: I knew that I wanted to play with the idea of what-ifs and time-travel, so I let those two concepts gestate for a while, trying to assess how to write a novel with that "sci-fi" (and I put that in quotes because TOML isn't at all sci-fi) element while still staying true to my writing style. I can't explain how things suddenly snapped into place, but they did. And they snapped into place by me writing the opening page in my head. I hear the character's voice, and coupled with the overriding theme/idea, I just take off from there.

Similarly, with The Memory Of Us (which obviously, I know you guys haven't read), I knew I wanted to play with the idea of a woman who had her whole life wiped out, and how maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing. I explored - in my mind - how I could do this on a big stakes level. How can you feasibly set up a character to live both her old life and an entirely new one? The idea of memory loss came to me, as well as the thought of uncovering how deeply we're all defined by our memories and how that shapes us. Then, as with other books, I drafted those opening scenes in my mind, then finally put them on page. A book was born.

As far as where I get those little nuggets of ideas themselves? I think it's just from watching and listening and observing my friends and my own life and what's going on around me. I think that the themes I write about are pretty universal, and I think any good writer needs to open her ears and eyes to the rhythms that life takes us on. Isn't that what all writers do? I maybe press my ear up to the overriding themes of where I am in my life, and then I hone in on the specifics - how do I build a story around these themes? Again, the easy example is with Time of My Life - the theme being "what ifs" and regrets, and then I get smaller and smaller with the idea until it lands me something concrete: the character, the opening scene, the voice, etc. 

So that's how I do it, but I'm sure every writer has his or her own methods. Writers, will you share how you come up with your own ideas?


Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

Question of the day: Did you ever not follow a piece of writing advice that you wish you had?

Wow! This feels like a huge question, but I'll try my best to answer! :) In general, I have to say - and I don't mean this in any sort of self-satisfied way - but I'm really pleased with the advice I've gotten, what I've chosen to listen to (and just as importantly, what I've chosen NOT to), and where my career has gone. I don't look back with too many "wish I'd done THAT" moments because, well, as I've articulated on this blog time and again, even my mistakes lead to learning experiences which have then lead to where I am now. (Not to sound too sunshiney about it or anything.)

But that said, if I could go back and tell my younger self something, it would be to be less cocksure of my first manuscript. To keep revising even when I thought it was good enough. As you may have read here in the past, this manuscript got me an agent but ultimately failed to sell because, well, it was atrocious, but I didn't realize it at the time. So it's not that I got advice to keep rewriting, but the truth is, I should have. Actually, that's not true - some of the agents who turned me down did indeed tell me it wasn't good enough, but since I had one agent tell me that it was, I listened to her. (And frankly, I wouldn't have done this any differently because we all know that agents are subjective and you only need one to tell you yes. How could I have known that the others were actually the right ones here?) :)

Anyhoo, the lesson that I learned - via good advice or not - is that even when you think you're done, you very well may not be. I'm learning that lesson even today. I thought The Memory of Us was basically finished. My editor came back to me and said, "Um, no." I wasn't initially thrilled but then I remembered that the goal here is to make the best. book. possible. Full stop. The shortcuts that my younger self would have taken aren't acceptable any more. So I rolled up my sleeves and guess what? I'm revising again. Could the previous draft have been published? I think so. Will the next draft be even better? It damn well better be.

So I don't know - is this advice that I disregarded way back when? Kind of. Either way, it's still a good lesson learned and one that I won't ever forget. 


The Name Game

Question of the day: I've always wondered where authors and writers get the names for characters. People you know? Names you like?

I can only answer this for myself, as I'm sure that every author has different reasons and methods for choosing names, but for me, I opt for a name that I think really embodies who the character is about, almost like tipping my hand to the reader before we've even gotten to know much about the character. In that sense, I'm almost like a parent who waits to meet her child at birth to name him or her: you take a long hard look and say, "Oh yes, he looks exactly like an Andrew."

With Time of My Life and The One That I Want, both Jillian and Tilly struck me immediately. Jillian because it conveys a little girl feel with Jill (and the story is very much about a woman who is now grown up and kind of wishes that she weren't), but also because Jillian has a certain seriousness about it, and at the same time, doesn't conjure up a certain type of person. That's who Jillian was: amorphous, especially to herself, and I felt like readers could buy her as an unhappy, suburban mom, as well as a corporate upstart back in her 20s. I opted for Henry for her husband because it's a classic, almost serious name, and her husband is both classic and serious - he's reserved but still handsome, and that's what Henry says to me. And Henry's parents - Vivian and Bentley - well, doesn't that just say upper-class Connecticut? Similarly, with Tilly, I wanted a name that was too immature for the person she's grown into over the course of the book. When you hear "Tilly," you can see the retired cheerleader, the blonde at the high school reunion, and that's exactly the image I was going for. (With no disrespect to anyone named Tilly, of course! It just worked for this character."

Interestingly enough, in The Memory of Us, I renamed my protagonist four times, which I've never done in the past. You asked if I just use names that I like, and that's where I started - she was Margo, a name that I adore. But as I wrapped up the first draft, I realized that "Margo" said nothing about who she was. It was a bland description of her and didn't provide any clues, and if it did, they were the wrong clues. This character, and I kind of can't explain it, just wasn't a Margo. I bounced through a few others, finally settling on Nell, a nickname for Eleanor, after the song Eleanor Rigby, which becomes a very critical aspect of the plot. All of my early readers agreed that it was perfect: the name, what it connotes - classic, clean, a nickname with a very different feel than the original name (Eleanor, to me, is much stodgier than Nell), and a link to an aspect of a game-changing plot. Her sister too, was changed to balance her new name. You needed to believe that these were names that parents would give both their children. So she went from Keeley to Piper to Paige (until I realized I'd already named a secondary character Paige!) to Rory. Nell and Rory, who is a leggy redhead. It just seemed to work.

One thing to consider: I try NOT to go for names that are too, too out there. One or two in a story is great. There's a character named Indira in this next book. There's also a character named Peter. Quirky and not quirky. As a reader, (and obviously this is just my opinion), if all the names are fairly unusual, I find myself being pulled out of the story at the unbelievability of it: I mean, in this world, most people do NOT have funky names. So I try to keep a nice blend, sort of what you'd see in your average demographic, while still making the names interesting enough to distinguish who the characters are.

So that's how I go about it. Others want to chime in? Where do you come down on the quirky vs. non-quirky situation?


Knocking Down Writer's Block

Question of the day: At a Jonathan Franzen reading the other day, an audience member asked what he did to combat writers' block. Franzen suggested he didn't believe in it, and said the "blocked" feeling should be a signal to the writer that he or she isn't relating to the work correctly. Feeling a bit blocked lately, I'd love more insight. What are your thoughts on writers' block?

Hmmm, well, I kind of agree with Franzen, and I kind of don't. (But whatever works for him is clearly working for him, so hey, I'm not knocking it.) :)

I think that writer's block is a real thing, but like him, I also think there are very actionable solutions. Unlike him, I don't think it's an issue of relating to the work correctly. Though at times, certainly, it can be. If you don't know your characters well enough to know what they'll do next, then yes, relatability is the issue. And if that's the case, I'd find one of those questionnaires online - or invent one yourself - in which you have to explore every last detail about your character - likes, dislikes, history, allergies, exes, music choices, high school experiences, etc. Jonathan Tropper recently said that he keeps a running document about his protagonist (if I'm remembering correctly), that he keeps adding to as he writes - jotting down anecdotes, quirks, likes/dislikes/etc, and that most of this never makes it into the book, but that it really helps with character development, and I thought that was a really smart suggestion.

So there's that, and I suppose that's what Franzen means. (Though obviously, I wasn't there when he said it, so I apologize if I'm misinterpreting.)

But for me, when I'm struggling to write, it's almost always because I don't know where the plot, not the characters, should go next. And the way that I resolve this - and I always tell aspiring writers to resolve these sorts of things - is to create conflict, conflict, conflict. Books are spurred forward by ACTION, and the best way to add in action is to throw an obstacle in front of your character. What can go wrong in her love life? In her family? At work? In the world? Let's say your plot and character have plateaued. Throw in an affair, a heart attack, a collapsed roof, a layoff, and you force your character to keep stretching herself, keep wading through, and voila, you're writing again. This isn't to say that you should add conflict just for the hell of it, but that's what books are built on, and too often, writers forget this. You're there to screw up your characters' lives and then put them back together.

So that's how I deal with it. Other wise ones out there, what do you do when writer's block crops up or, like Franzen, do you not believe in it in the first place?


Scheduling Part 2: Long-Term vs. Short-Term (i.e. What's Getting Me Paid)

Question of the day: I'm interested in how you manage longer term deadlines (novels) vs. short-term deadlines (magazine articles, etc). How do you prioritize what to work on, and do long-term projects ever suffer when the short-term deadlines loom? Or, more specifically, how do you prioritize stuff you're not getting paid to do (ideas for future books, etc) when deadlines loom for things for which you're paid? This is always what traps my time.

Great follow-up to Thursday's post, and thank you for asking because I realized I didn't really address this. I gave a generic look at my day, but obviously, things shift around depending on what I'm working on - that glimpse was sort of an average work-load sort of day, but definitely, setting priorities is a big part of making my schedule work, so here's how I handle that.

For me, most of my fiction deadlines are self-imposed. What I mean by that is that I have a delivery date for my publisher - let's say, September 1st, and I know this delivery date probably six months (if not more) ahead of time. So knowing this, I set deadlines for where I need to be in the book and when. So let's say I got this delivery date on March 1st. I'd want the first 100 pages (or 27k-ish words) cranked out by April 15th. I'd want the next 100 pages by June 1st. And I'd want the last 100 pages by July 15th, which gives me enough of a cushion to step away for a week or so, then go back and do a light revision. That's generally approximately 27k words over six weeks, and six weeks is five working days per week, which means 30 days. Which means if I write 1k words a day, I easily hit my goals. 

BUT, some days, yes, I will have a magazine deadline, so maybe I'll cut myself some slack and write less. And some days, I'll absolutely be flying with inspiration, so I'll keep going. The point is that I aim for averages - if I can hit that 27k/100 page goal over six weeks, I give myself a lot of wiggle room, whether it's spending the afternoon drafting a celeb piece or spending the afternoon working on (non-paying) blog posts or spending the afternoon brainstorming new book ideas (I actually don't do this, as I only focus on one book at a time, but I know that some of you do, so I'm just throwing it in there as an example). :) 

I think the key, for me, is to have a real long-term strategy in place. If I feel like things are constantly cropping up and being thrown in my direction, it makes me too jittery, unable to be pinned down and really focus on what needs to get done. So with this foundation in place - six weeks to hit a target - even when other hurdles arise, I'm okay. I know what the end target is, and I know how to compensate to get there. Yes, I can accept that last-minute celeb piece because I wrote 10k words last week, and now this week, I can slow down and take a breather. Is that making sense? 

So getting back to the original question about priorities, I'd say that by organizing my life with these goal posts, I don't really HAVE to prioritize. I can't neglect the fiction because I'm contracted, but I don't WANT to neglect the other stuff because I enjoy it. But the only way to manage both is to have that foundation pinning me down. I never, ever miss any kind of deadline and with these longer goals in place, the shorter goals are easier to manage as well.

Does that help?


Flying High Concept

See how I did that? Like on Wheel of Fortune where they do before and after?


So this weekend, I'm presenting a seminar at the Grub Street Muse and The Marketplace conference about high concept fiction, and today, I'm putting together the presentation. I was hoping that you guys might help me shape it...I've never really spoken on this subject, and it's something that's sort of innate to me, so...I'm not entirely sure what the most helpful things are to touch on.

Obviously: what high concept fiction is, some examples, why it's important. But that doesn't cover an hour and change. :) We're doing a pitch session, in which people toss out their ideas for their novels, and we work together to make them more high concept, but still...I feel like there are probably a lot of questions out there that I'm just not realizing, and I'd love to open up the blog to this discussion.

So, anyone willing to share his or her own ideas of high concept fiction and/or offer up your questions about the genre? Or want to offer examples of what books you think ARE high concept and why/why not? Please, help me help you! (Or the attendees of the seminar, anyway.) :) Thanks in advance!



So, I am seriously having a hard time believing this, but I am done the first draft of The Memory of Us. Honestly, I'm a little in shock! Writing this book has felt a little bit different than any of my others. Time Of My Life flew by in a whirlwind of two months. The One That I Want was a lot of hard labor. And this one? Well, this one was kind of when I realized that writing a book is just like any other task: if you build it slowly and methodically, it gets done. Like organizing a closet, cleaning out a pantry. (Now doesn't THAT make this gig sound glamorous!) :)

Now, that isn't to say that the real work doesn't begin now. Actually, no, that's not true. For me, the real work is getting from start to finish, but my work is hardly done. Often times - and I'm pretty sure that you guys will be able to relate - I'll think certain aspects of a book are really AWESOME while writing them, and then I'll go back and reread them, and just be aghast. AGHAST! Not only that I thought they were awesome, but that I wrote them in the first place! And conversely, I'm now spending a lot of time reflecting on the problems that I know are already there. Because there are plenty of problems. I think this is one of the biggest differences between who I am as a writer now, and who I was as a writer when I first started out. Not only my ability to pinpoint problems, but the recognition that a draft is...a draft. Not a finished product, not even close to a finished product. Five years ago, I bet that I'd have given this a quick one-over and thought it was pretty damn good. Now, I am literally keeping myself awake at night trying to figure out not only how to make it better, but how to eliminate every last weakness in the plot, the characters, the writing, the dialogue. And I think this evolution of understanding just how much work it takes in getting a manuscript just right can't be underestimated. Whether you're looking for an agent or already contracted with a publisher, I really, really recommend pouring over your manuscript on time more than you think you need to. It's worth it to be 1000% sure that you've gotten it right.

But anyway, that's for later. For now, I'm taking a day to enjoy it before I pull on the goggles and dive back in.