Finding Time to Write

If you aspire to write, you know the dream—quit the day job, write full time, make bucketloads of money doing it.

Yeah. I’m familiar with that one, too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, at least not for most of us. Even published writers have said to break-out sessions at conferences, “Don’t quit your day job. Not yet.” (Read N.K. Jemisin’s blog post from 5/24/16, “Turn and Face the Strange,” at http://nkjemisin.com/; she talks about this, too.) This is a tough business. Every single agent and/or publisher is looking for that next Big Title, so they want to find you as much as you want to find them. But—and this is huge; pay attention—all of them are slammed with manuscripts from other writers who, like you and me, dream the dream. Every one of their desktops overflow (figuratively speaking) with what’s called a “slush pile,” unsolicited queries and/or manuscripts sent by hopeful writers looking to break out of the daily grind. It isn’t easy to get and hold an agent’s attention, unless you’re at a writers’ conference or pitch fest and have paid for their time.

But that’s another post.

What I want to point out here is that writing is apparently a full-time job; that’s what I’ve been told by agents, editors and other writers, and their warnings are consistent with what I’m seeing for myself. An author can’t just write and publish. Not anymore. In this digital age of social media and online networking, you need a social media presence and an Internet platform, especially if your work is non-fiction. That means You. Are. Always. Writing. (At least, I am.)

“What did you do over the weekend (or vacation, or holiday, or other fill-in-the-blank time), Drema?”

“I wrote.” Makes for a simpler discussion, doesn’t it?

Or how about this one?

“Hey, I’m having a party next Friday, and—“

But you can’t, because you’re on a deadline. Or you’re working on revisions. Or you’re working through a particularly sticky plot point. Or you’ve signed up for a writing conference/class/seminar that’s happening that same night. Or Fridays are one of the few times you have uninterrupted writing time.

I know some of my friends assume I’m avoiding them, or hermitizing. (It’s a word now.) But every one of those are actualities, not excuses. And if you’re a writer, you know this Truth, up close and personal.

Because practice makes perfect, or at least better writing, and if you have even a prayer of getting your manuscript read, it had better be the absolute best effort you can produce. That takes time, undivided focus, uninterrupted sessions at the computer, sometimes talking to yourself as you work out dialogue (what, I’m the only one who does that?). For me, everything else becomes secondary when I’m in that Zone. Sometimes I think that when I’m writing, the house could burn down around me and as long as it didn’t cut power or wi-fi, I’d never notice.

But you have to put it first, after the essentials of self-care, family and paying the bills. It takes some small amount of discipline and sacrifice, and very understanding family and friends. Mystery writer Brad Parks (if you haven’t checked him out, do yourself a favor – http://bradparksbooks.com/) said one time at a conference that his mantra is this: BIC HOK TAM, which stands for “Butt in chair, hands on keyboard, typing away madly.” I’ve adopted this mindset, myself, and it makes a difference. He also recommended setting a daily word count goal for yourself. BIC HOK TAM your way to your daily goal, then go to the party or chat with a friend, or attend an outing with your fellow bird-watchers.

The point is that if you want to be a writer, you have to commit. For me, that means my trilogy and short stories, my non-fiction book on spirituality that’s been simmering for years, regular blog posts and book reviews, writing classes, critique groups (I only just found one of these), even some poetry now and then. It also means editing, research and editing. (No, that was not a mistake.) It means waking up at 3:00 a.m. with an unbelievable story idea, and making myself get up and write it down. It means listening to that little voice in my head (and gut) that whispers new ideas and twists, warns me when something isn’t working, or points me in the right (write?) direction on research or contacts. That little voice is always there, too, even when I’m trying to sleep. No, especially when I’m trying to sleep.

So yeah, it’s a challenge. But if you want to write—or if you need to—you’ll do it and gladly. And those in your life who love you and want you to be happy and succeed at this dream will support you. And the ones who frown and say, “Why are you always writing? You never spend time with us anymore,” or “Why is it taking you so long to write this story? I’d have thought you’d be done by now,” yeah. Do your best not to laugh in their faces and carry on with your dream.

You can do it. And so can I.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

I’ve heard it stated over and over at conferences, in blog posts and articles, and from my editor, Paula. Good writing isn’t about a character, or group of characters. It isn’t even about those characters doing things. It’s about those characters being prevented from achieving a goal. The whole point of a good story is the conflict. If the character doesn’t struggle, there’s no story.

What’s more, all the conflict in the world won’t matter if the reader doesn’t care what happens to the character. Caring + conflict = story.

As simple as it seems, that was so hard for me to learn. My first attempts surrounded my protagonist with drama, but she sailed through it without any turmoil or personal angst. I’m still honing this skill.

I try to think of it this way.

No matter how relatable or lovable the hobbits and elves and dwarves and other characters, regardless of rich storybuilding, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings would never have become a classic if:

  • Sméagol had not been overtaken by Sauron’s evil influence through the One Ring;
  • Bilbo had gone all the way to the Lonely Mountain and back without encountering trolls, goblins, Gollum, wargs, giant spiders, and a dragon;
  • Frodo had simply strolled up to the fires of Mount Doom, tossed the ring in, and walked away;
  • Aragorn had quietly assumed the throne in Gondor without any opposition;
  • Saruman had agreed with Gandalf that his actions were counterproductive to peace, and changed his ways.

Do you see?

Readers want a vicarious experience. They want to fall into a great tale well told and live it through the characters’ joy and pain and anguish and success or failure.

So how do we, as writers, give that to them?

First and foremost, we need a relatable protagonist, someone the reader can connect to on an emotional level. Whether the character is human, alien, animal or something else, if the reader has absolutely nothing in common with that character, they won’t care what happens to her. There must be some connection for the story to work, even if it’s only that the character has some compelling or sympathetic trait to hook the reader.

Second, the protagonist needs a goal, something more important than finding every item on their grocery list. Think young girl who longs to live an average life. Think scientist who wants to complete a routine mission with his teammates. Think aspiring female journalist who seeks a successful writing career in the 1960s.

Third, the antagonist (which is sometimes an environmental element) must do whatever it takes to prevent the protagonist from achieving her goal. What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen? The young girl who wants an average life is forced into an arena where she must fight to the death against other children until only one of them remains alive. The scientist is stranded alone on a hostile alien world with an inadequate supply of food and no hope of rescue for four years. The journalist decides to write about the plight of the black maids among her racist white socialite neighbors, and must convince the maids themselves, who have everything to lose, to help her.

Ah, now the stories take on life, substance, empathy. The reader roots for the protagonist and lives through her struggle and eventual success or failure. That is what will interest an agent and, eventually, a publisher. That is what will sell the story and hook our readers.

And that is what a writing career is all about.

An Education In Craft

That first summer I worked with Paula on editing my manuscript, I read more than I wrote. Some of the books I read were helpful, and still sit on my shelf for future reference or inspiration. But the three that really stood out for me were Larry Brooks’ Story Physics and Story Engineering, and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. All three point out how to plot a storyline—that’s right people. That’s when I left behind my “pantser” ways and became a “plotter.”

Okay, maybe not totally, but at the very least I added plotting into my wayward pantser process.

Books on the craft of writing marketable fiction seem (in my limited experience) to take one of two positions: a three-act plan or a four-part plan. Vogler takes the first; Brooks takes the second. If you are familiar with the great American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, you’ll understand the concept of the Hero’s Journey. That’s the structure that underlies Vogler’s planning tactics. And it works. I can see it in every book and movie (try watching Star Wars or the Matrix series without seeing the Hero’s story arc). It’s a timeless, classic method of storytelling that really works.

Brooks’s four-part plan in Physics and Engineering is essentially the same thing, just broken down differently. He teaches that the writer needs four major plot elements: a hook and three major plot points where everything changes for the protagonist. But he still breaks it down to the hero’s journey: the hero’s world changes, the hero reacts, the hero takes an active role, the hero succeeds, even if success doesn’t look anything like what she expected. Of course I’m oversimplifying here; the point is that there is a “formula” (I know, that’s a dirty word for pantsers) that works. What’s important to remember is that following a formula does not mean the story has to be predictable or boring.

For me, it’s sort of like using a map to plan a trip—it shows all the routes available to get a traveler from point A (her starting point) to point B (her destination). Once she knows her options, she can then select the route most suitable for her purpose. For a direct trip, perhaps interstates would be best. However, if she wants a scenic journey, the traveler might choose the most roundabout path. Either way, knowing the route ahead of time helps her to plan effectively.

It’s the same with writing a story. From the starting point (Scene 1, my hook, how my book will begin), I decide how I want my story to end. That final scene is my overarching goal, my objective. Knowing this helps me to aim my story’s course with every scene, every action and word from every character pointed in the right direction for maximum impact.

That doesn’t mean my characters can’t divert onto side roads, as long as those detours tie in to the main storyline in some meaningful way. Remember: publishing houses have very specific expectations on word count. Too many detours without meaningful connections waste those precious words that might otherwise be used to tighten and embolden the hero’s main journey. They detract from the reader’s focus. How many books have you read where the writer seemed to meander from the main plot without any rhyme or reason? Did you love it or hate it?

Think of it this way. An archer can’t really be effective without a target. That’s what a beat sheet (one of Brooks’s plotting tools) does: it offers a series of targets at which the writer can aim her scenes.

I said in a prior post that my old ways of writing left me not knowing from moment to moment what any given character would do, or how, or to whom. Having a beat sheet is, for me, like having a story skeleton, onto which I can then layer the flesh of characterization and scenes and twists. Without the underlying structure, the rest becomes a shapeless blob. I even use it for short stories now.

I won’t say plotting is easy. It ain’t. What I can say with confidence is that Brooks’ method of pre-planning through a “beat sheet” has been an incredible help for me! (Larry Brooks also has a blog called “Story Fix.” Check it out at http://storyfix.com/ to see more of his instructional writing.)

There are a ton of books out there on the craft of writing, and just as many on technique. If you’re looking to learn more, shop around. Read the reviews. Then check one out from the library. If you like it, buy it—mostly to support the writer, but also because you’ll want to keep it around for later reference. Just remember that every writer has her own process, her own style. Even if none of the books offers a usable recipe, you will have learned the necessary ingredients to create your own, one that will fit with the publishing industry’s wish list. And for those of us seeking publication through traditional avenues, that’s as good as the recipe for the philosopher’s stone.

Where It All Went Wrong

How hard can it be?

Remember that? Yeah. (Nostalgic sigh.) I must admit I was overwhelmed at the thought of reducing the 800K-word tome I’d produced to the manageable 120K draft manuscript recommended by an agent. After only a day or two of lingering freak-out, I took the figurative scissors to my draft and chopped out bits relevant to the main character—Alira—then laid them end-to-end and read it through.

No good. I’d relied too much on that other content to bring sense to Alira’s story in the larger tale. So I added in relevant details until it made sense, tweaking it along the way. In the meantime, a fellow writer had recommended an editor in Texas (Hi Paula!) who could help. I contacted her and worked out an arrangement by which she could give me advice and take me on as a client. When I thought it was ready, I sent her my manuscript.

Needless to say, it was garbage. My characters were flat, their reasons for doing things unclear. Overall, the story had no passion on the page. Those aren’t the exact words Paula used; she was much more diplomatic, much more encouraging. Still, hearing that I’d have to completely rewrite the whole thing was like a blow to the gut. I cried for two days. (Laugh, published writers. You know exactly what I’m talking about.)

When I stopped crying, I started reading. Paula gave me a string of books on the craft of writing, which I’ll talk about in a later post. I read—and learned—all summer, and when I finally put the books down, I picked the pen up. (Figuratively speaking.) I felt supercharged. This time, I’d get it right!

I wrote all through the Fall and Winter, and by late Spring, I had another draft for Paula. All during the few weeks she had My Baby, I filled my hours with things I didn’t normally have time to do, like visit friends, go to the beach, see a movie, spend time with my husband. It was almost like a mini-vacation, back then. (Since then, I’ve learned that a writer never stops writing. If it’s not on one project, it’s on another.)

Finally, Paula was finished. I read through her comments, and rejoiced: No Need to Rewrite!!! The manuscript did, however, require a lot of work. Paula suggested a few more books and resources, which I dutifully explored, then I got back to it. When I “finished” that draft, I enlisted beta-readers (Thanks, Laura! Thanks, Dominique! Thanks, William! Thanks, Hubby!), who gave me their unvarnished opinions and comments. I, too, re-read it and marked up the copy.

By the time I gave it back to Paula the next Spring, I loved the story even more than I had to begin with. All that work, all that focus, all those tears and late nights and lost sleep had resulted in a tighter, more fleshed-out version of my characters and their various worlds. Paula had offered to read the first 100 pages again without further fee, and you better believe I took her up on it.

Her response? It’s ready.

Can you see me happy-dancing all over my office? Can you imagine the squeal of delight? The power is real, my friends. Fiction-writing, along with my characters and the worlds that have blossomed and born fruit in my mind, has shoved its roots so deep in me I may never again leave its stony path.

My point is this: the writing was easy. Making it an acceptable piece of marketable fiction is proving more of a challenge. If a writer wants to make this business their career, it has to be an all-or-nothing approach. Presenters at this year’s writers’ conference all seemed to be pointing out the same theme: this is a business. Agents are looking for new clients, yes; but for every single client slot, there may be hundreds, nay thousands of writers angling for an opening. Every single word I write must shine, or no one will even notice my work. At least, not at first. Even once I make it (as of course, I will), I can’t stop striving for excellence. An old friend used to challenge me whenever I expressed weariness: “What, you’re going to sit back on your laurels? How far do you think that will take you?”

My advice? If you’re a budding writer (as I still am), find an editor, someone who comes recommended or someone you know and trust. Then—and this is the most important part—LISTEN TO WHAT SHE SAYS. Yes, it’s your story. Yes, you get final say. But unless you’ve been in the business a while, she’s likely to know more than you. You’re paying for her service. Stand back and let her do her job.

Don’t forget to keep writing, and never—NEVER—give up!

It’s a Love Thang (or How I Fell In Love With My Characters)

Writers are omniscient, at least within their own worlds. They know who’s doing what to (or with) whom and why, what the probable outcome will be, what price will be paid by those involved, and where all the action is taking place. Ask any author about the city where her story takes place. She can tell you without hesitation where the seedy dives are located, where the upper crust population shops, where you might find black market bargains, and which streets are safe to walk after dark. Not that all those details ever show up in a story; most likely, they won’t. But the writer has to know them, nonetheless. Just in case.

When I put that same principal to work on my characters, it was love—the same sort of love I imagine any creator has for her creation. I know each of my characters intimately; all their flaws and secrets lay bare before me. Their accomplishments make me proud. Their quirks make me smile (or make me want to smack them silly, depending on the sitch). Sometimes they surprise me but for the most part, I know which ones will be strong, which ones will falter and where or how. I understand their motivations, whether or not they are acting in accordance with what I would personally do. Even my antagonists have reasons for their foibles.

Years ago, a friend gave me a canvas tote that says, “Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you off.” While I haven’t done that (yet), I can sympathize with the idea. Many of my characters are a conglomeration of real-life people, usually (though not always) friends or family members—this one’s musical ability and happy-go-lucky attitude and that one’s philandering, wrapped up with criminal tendencies and a dark streak a kilometer long make up Bardo, one of my favorite lovable bad boys who is actually one of the good guys. Mix one friend’s hedonism with another’s desire to ignore problems until they bowl her over, sprinkle in a generous amount of surprises hidden deep beneath the surface and voila! Magdalene appears! Even people I have never met are fair game; in fact, if you see me sitting back sipping my coffee in a public place and staring at someone, I’m probably watching for stealable traits.

So yes, it’s true. I love all my characters, even the ones you will (hopefully) love to hate. I can’t help it; they’re real to me. They have to be, or I can’t make them real for you. I wrestle with showing their strengths and weaknesses through words on a page, even though I know what they are by virtue of the fact that I created them. That struggle fleshes out each character even more for me, making her that much more solid, so that when the plot bits come together and dictate that one of them must die, it’s a sad day for me, even if they “deserved” it. That’s part of the omniscient writer package. Sometimes, no matter what I do or how I twist the details, there’s just no other way it can reasonably end. (It makes me wonder if the Universe has the same problem sometimes, laying out the threads of our futures. Things that make you go “Hmmmm….”)

In the long run, the characters in my current storyline will take a back seat, and new ones (like the budding characters in a future crime drama or dystopian future tale) will shift to the front. The inhabitants of the Umani’s universe will never leave me; they’re my first created beings, and will always have a special place in my heart. Besides, their stories are ongoing, and hold fodder for a lifetime of tales. I hope I’ll have the privilege of all their Tellings.

Going with the Flow

As I said last week, my initial foray into writing fiction was flawed. In the science fiction market, the genre for my first novel, acceptable manuscript word count tops out at around 120K as a maximum for a first-time author; mine was greater than 800K and still going with no signs of ending any time soon. But I’m pretty sure it was a launch problem, not a design problem. I’m still convinced the story itself has real potential.

See, writing fiction has power—power over its audience, surely (hopefully!), but also over its writer. The ability to design my own world(s), plots, character-driven and plot-driven crises and resolutions or lacks thereof, even the research I did to make the scenarios realistic, as well as the opportunity to say something worthwhile within my storyline, rooted in me so deeply I didn’t give the rules much thought, if I even knew what they were. I just wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

At the time, I told people, “I hear voices in my head. They’re going to make me rich.” (Yeah, experienced writers. Laugh. You know you want to.)

Apparently, in the world of professional fiction writing, there are “plotters” and “pantsers.” Plotters map out their entire story from beginning to end, knowing where every detail will happen and how it will affect the scenes to follow, as well as where the crisis points will take place and how it will all end. Pantsers sit at the other end of the spectrum, winging every single scene, handing the reins over to their characters and their plot and the worlds they’ve built and saying to themselves (and their agents), “Let’s see where this goes.” I was (past tense) definitely in the second camp, so far to that end that I had no idea how or even if the darn thing would end. My characters would dictate story so loud that I sometimes had trouble sleeping, and so fast that my fingers could barely keep up. I was as surprised by what they did as anyone who read my work. Every time I finished a chapter, a small crew would gather to hear it read aloud, then offer their critiques and comments. It was great fun, and a wild ride, but that was only the beginning.

Most writers, I’m told, fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, plotting the major points while allowing some degree of creative flexibility in the plan; their characters are given some leeway to drive the engine along controlled segues and side-streets, as long as the whole train ends up at a reasonable and believable juncture in the end. I think that’s where I’ve landed, at least so far. I have no illusions about coming to rest on any particular process this early in my writing career. My education continues.

I still hear the characters in my head, just not all at once. The crowd has thinned, so to speak. Those other characters, the ones I don’t hear so often any more, haven’t left the building. They’re just in another room, waiting their turn. The secret I had to discover is that one book should be about one protagonist, two at most, and the prevailing conflict that separates her from what she wants. I started working with an editor (hi Paula!), whose brutal guidance assured me that I had to cut out 75% of my content, and focus what was left. Two years and four drafts later, she finally e-mailed the words that prompted my happy-dance: “It’s ready to pitch.” My current draft sits at 119K words, and is awaiting an agent’s attention.

It’s not perfect, not yet. But I think it’s ready for representation. Books two and three (that’s where some of those other characters will get their shot) are in the planning stage; if book one takes off and my agent thinks it would make a good series, I can move forward on them. Otherwise, they can become stories in their own rights for later books. In any event, I continue to learn and grow into this craft. Because yes—writing is a craft. It takes guidance, education and practice, practice, practice to get it right (or is that “write”?).

Letting My Inside Voice Out

Nobody takes fiction writers seriously.

That’s what I used to think. As a volunteer journalist and editor on a small non-profit press for more than ten years, I snorted at the suggestion I should write fiction. Why, if I wrote something as superficial as a novel, no one would ever buy my non-fiction books, which simmered happily on the back burner of my creative imagination. (Still do, actually.)

Then our family income level dropped, and I had to go back to work. Standing for 6-8 hours behind a register in a retail chain clothing store has its charm, I’m sure, but it was completely lost on me. After more than a year of dealing with thoughtless, sometimes even hostile customers on a daily basis, I revisited the idea of fiction. Maybe I could write a short story. I knew absolutely nothing about writing fiction or, more importantly, what it took to get my work to market; but if I could get one published, it would be a small income. Then I could write and publish others. Repeat as necessary. Really, how hard could it be?

If you’re a writer, you’re probably laughing your tuchis off right about now. How hard indeed.

That little short story became the manuscript that ate New York. Running about 800,000 words, it would still be going if someone—an agent at a writer’s conference who, to her credit, did not laugh in my face when I quoted my word count—hadn’t stopped me. I’ll talk more about that in a later post.

My point is that the fiction bug infected me with its fiery allure and ardent expression, because let’s face it; you can’t write good fiction if you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing. My characters came alive in my mind, spoke often and loud about what “they” wanted to happen, and endeared themselves to me almost as much as the “real” people in my life. I understand from other writers that this is common; fictional characters, especially protagonists and antagonists that drive the story, demand your focus. If you don’t give them 100% of your attention, they can’t fully manifest into three-dimensional beings that live and breathe in the reader’s imagination. Who would buy a novel without that?

I sat down to write that “short story” in 2008. Here it is, early in the year 2017. I’m not yet published, but I’m so much closer than I was, and what a ride it’s been! Just as with any newbie, I devoured one book after another about story structure, publishing, and the art of writing in general. I sought advice from one advisor after another. I attended classes and conferences in an effort to find the “right” way to write. What I’ve discovered so far is that everyone has an opinion, sometimes at opposite ends of the spectrum, and most of them insist theirs is the only “right” way.

I’ve come to believe that ultimately it’s up to the writer. As long as our methods work for us, and we’re able to get our work out there to our readers, I’m not sure it matters whether we follow methods of a writing guru or create our own path to success. Besides, with so many ways to publish these days, options are unlimited. I’m currently trying the traditional route. We’ll see where it goes.

But hey, like I said, I’m new to this business, learning as I go. Who am I to say what will or won’t work for you? (I’m not even sure what works for me, yet.) I’m sure I’ll hear comments from both sides of the argument on that score. I will say that most agents I’ve heard from tell me that publishing is a very subjective business, that what works for one agent or publisher won’t work for another, and that you should keep trying and don’t get discouraged.

Never give up, never surrender!

My adventures in writing have all proven educational; I don’t look for that to change any time soon. Now that I have a website and am seriously querying and branching out in my writing endeavors, I want to journal about them here, so that you can follow along, if you wish. Keep in mind as you read that I am a new writer, and am writing from limited personal experience. Your mileage may vary, and I encourage you to share your own constructive or helpful input here in the comments.

So come along for the ride! I hope to share my discoveries so far, as well as my ongoing adventures into the realm of traditional publishing (as they occur) in coming posts. Stay with me, and we’ll find out what happens together!