Characters are it, in both fiction and memoir, if you want to publish. Of course you have to have a good plot, something happening. And your characters have to be externalized enough that we readers feel they're believable, interesting, intriguing. But characters drive a story, and no more than in today's publishing market.
Several of my clients have had happy news these past weeks--agents or book contracts--and almost all of them have emailed me about their agent or editor loving the characters. Those who get rejections know that this is also the most common complaint: I just didn't fall in love with your characters.
This week, I'm sifting through "notes to self," gathered this past year in my own writing and in my students' and clients' writing, to see exactly how characters are coming alive on the page--and when they aren't. I what to share my new finding in the Afternoon Characters Intensive I'll be teaching at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis next Thursday, March 29.
One of my private clients told me that her most important lesson on writing characters came when she learned about their inner and outer purpose, and how these purposes must conflict. Although I'll go into this in much more detail in the workshop, here are a few tips to try this in your own writing.
1. Most memorable characters come into the story with some inner obstacle or memory or belief that makes life challenging for them. Since A Wrinkle in Time is hot in the news (movie, at last!), let's look at Meg's inner obstacle. She knows she's smart, but she believes she doesn't fit in--anywhere. She also believes she's the only one really concerned about watching out for her baby brother, Charles Wallace. Finally, she has a secret mission to find out what happened to her father. Meg has to face her misunderstanding about herself a lot during the story. She comes to a new place by the end.
2. This inner obstacle or false belief conflicts with the outer purpose. Meg is asked to go hunt for their dad. She thinks she's a mega failure in life, so how can she succeed at this? Her love for Charles Wallace will force her to do it anyway, and she'll reach many crossroads where she has to decide what's really true--her false belief or what's in front of her.
3. Backstory and interiority (thoughts and feelings) are how the false belief is shown to the reader. One of the great techniques for finding out relevant backstory is by writing a character bio. You'll be astonished by what you learn. If you were to write Meg's bio, only stuff that happened before the story began, what do you imagine it would include? She's such a great character, I suspect Madeleine L'Engle might have done this.
These three tips are just a few of the ways you can bring out "why" of the story--the real reason it's happening. Rather than just depend on outer circumstances to drive your story along, consider the line from cause to effect. Which is all about characters.
In two weeks, on Friday, March 30, I'll be teaching an all-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. We'll examine book structure: what makes a book successful, in terms of its structure, and how can you choose the pivotal moments in your story wisely? Many books are beautifully written but poorly structured, and many writers haven't a clue as to how to fix that.
In the workshop, we build storyboards. These might be very developed or very rough--idea stage--depending on where you are with your book. Some writers have an entire manuscript drafted but can't tell if it's hanging together well. Others want to get started, they have a good idea and some writing or no writing, and a storyboard can be the perfect activity to help them "brainstorm" their book's flow. It's very exciting, by the end of the day-long workshop, to see how many "books" are in place now. Storyboards make a writer realize how real the book is--sometimes for the first time.
One of our most important conversations in the workshop is about triggering events. I thought I'd share a post from my current online book-structuring class, to give you a preview of the workshop and an exercise to try, if you'd like to make sure you have the best possible launching moment for your story.
Robert Frost famously said, "Poems begin with a lump in the throat." He went on to describe the beginnings of the best poems as always about something lost, homesickness or lovesickness, a longing. This is, of course, the inner-story motivation for whatever happens in your book. It triggers movement by the main character (novel), the narrator (memoir), or your reader (nonfiction).
The outer aspect of this "lump in the throat" is called a triggering event. Because literature must show us, not just tell us about, story, the inner motivation must be demonstrated in outer event.
So the triggering event, which launches your book, will be born of inner movement, but it will always be demonstrated through an outer event.
Outer events can be dramatic, or they can be everyday, but they must be delivered to the reader via outward action, dialogue, and a specific moment in time and space.
Check out the opening of favorite books to see how other authors do this, especially ones published within the past few years. Check out what you might be thinking for your opening and see if it follows these criteria.
Of course--there are exceptions! Some well-loved authors begin slowly, and the triggering event comes within the first few chapters. But you'd be surprised how many manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishers because "nothing happens" right off. Readers nowadays are geared to events, action, and seeing stuff happen--before they know the background or meaning.
And--it's a balancing act. We have to care about your story, your characters, and their dilemmas, so there has to be some meaning embedded. Triggering events are both outer story and inner story for that reason. You have to choose well.
So what kind of outer event makes the best triggering event?
Something happening now, in the present-time story, onstage before us readers.
We need to witness it ourselves, not be told about it secondhand. It's not summarized, usually--"ten years passed" or "it was a week before we . . . ." They are immediate, now, right in front of us, onstage. That's the ideal to shoot for.
Some writers wonder if their best triggering events can be in the past. This is less ideal, but possible. Most really great books launch with an event happening now, not a memory or backstory (events in the past) or an internal decision.
Sometimes, if a backstory event precedes the story and is vital to the story, the author creates a prologue.
But, bottom line: a triggering event must be demonstrated outwardly, so readers can see and feel its effect on the character. Best option is to choose an event in the current time of your story, where the story begins.
I like to think of the triggering event as the launch-pad for a book. Without it, none of the book can happen.
Some examples of triggering events:
Novel or memoir--A fire, an accident, a discovery of letters, a phone call that changes everything, a birth or death, something lost that will need to be found, a mundane everyday happening that changes everything, a wedding that has a hint of something not right, an impulsive action that is embedded with regret, a move, a starting over.
Nonfiction (how to, or informational) book--An anecdote about someone who needs the material in your book, such as a disaster or problem that occurs in a business, a person’s “lowest moment,” a loss of something valuable, a dilemma that is puzzling.
Your weekly writing exercise Brainstorm three possible triggering events for your book. You may already have one in mind, even written. Make sure it follows the criteria above, tweak if it doesn't, consult your brainstorming list if your chosen triggering event is way off base or too internal.
Think over the guidelines above: is it outer story, is it happening now, is it dramatic enough to launch the rest of your story?
Choose one of your triggering event possibilities. Set your phone alarm or kitchen timer for 20 minutes.
Freewrite about the cause and effect of this opening--what might come of it. List ten things that happen as a result.
Then check to see how many of these are embedded in subsequent chapters
If you'd like to join me at the storyboarding workshop on Friday, March 30, and get feedback on your triggering event ideas, here's a link to the Loft Literary Center's website to find out more. I'm also teaching this workshop in Boston at Grub Street on April 21 (link is here).
Writing teachers and writing classes-- if you've worked with either, if you've shared your writing for feedback, you've probably heard the golden rule of first chapters. They need to have something happen. Preferably something outwardly dramatic.
It's called a triggering event, and it literally triggers your story. Here are some classic examples:
All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr): war begins The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls): homeless mother is spotted rooting through dumpster The Passenger (Lisa Lutz): husband dies falling down stairs Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng): daughter is missing Cruel Beautiful World (Caroline Leavitt): high school girl runs off with teacher
Each of these has an event that readers can logically, outwardly follow. Usually one event. And the event must have meaning in the character's life. It must be life-changing in a way. It must cause readers to know the character in a new way, as we see their reaction to the event.
If you don't have a triggering event in that first (or second) chapter, how will you show us the character in a way that we can grab hold of? Engage with? Want to follow?
I think of Americanah, by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The first chapter, or triggering event, has the narrator going to get her hair braided at a salon. It's an event that tells us about her, her culture, her background, and her tenuous hold on life in the U.S. It's not war, death, murder, loss. But it says so much about this narrator, we understand why Adichie chose it to launch the story.
One of my long-time students is finishing her novel and asked the question: Can the opening chapter be too dramatic? Can the triggering event just keep your pulses racing but not really engage you in the story? I think, yes.
If the triggering (dramatic, outer) event reveals the character's dilemma, shows where the character gets their false agreement or misunderstanding about this dilemma, and presents a possibility of overcoming it, then it's character-engaged drama and we want to read more. If it doesn't relate to the character, it's just drama for its own sake. We can listen to the news for that.
Your weekly writing exercise: Ask yourself if your triggering event reveals the character who's involved in it. Ask if it reveals the dilemma that character is going to face during the book, and if it presents some basic misunderstanding or false agreement the character has that fosters this dilemma--a misunderstanding that will need to be faced and dealt with during the book. If yes, your opening event is golden. If not quite, what can you change?
How can "event writers" develop stationary moments in their narrative and sections in their books where the main characters reflect on the meaning of what happens? What's the purpose of this, and what's is benefit to the story?
This is a question about pacing, but it also hints at our natural preferences as writers, to write certain kinds of scenes.
Some writers enter their writing via reflection--the meaning of a situation or memory. Reflective writers write meaning first, then translate it into action. Some writers enter via image or setting. If you're one, you think first about where the story is happening and you love the details of place. The third group, event writers, prefer to have things moving forward. They think action first, and they may get impatient with too much (to them) description. None of these is stronger or better or worse; all are needed. It's just where we naturally like to start.
Back to my reader's question. Stationary moments are the domain of reflection or image writers, and they would almost scoff at the question: what is the benefit to the story. The benefit is that the reader gets to absorb meaning. What is a story without meaning? It's all momentum. It leaves you breathless, charged up, but possibly without a clue as to the purpose of what you just read.
It also creates a dense feel to the writing, which I addressed in a earlier blog this year (scroll down). Counter intuitive to say that too many events create dense writing, I know--but that's how readers perceive it. So meaning, or pauses, are the places we catch our breath and think about the purpose or meaning of what we just read.
How does an event writer, who prefers not to pause, put in pauses? First, it requires an awareness of the benefit of pauses, so the best first step is to find a book you love, preferably in a genre similar to the one you're writing, and comb through a chapter for pauses. If it's a skilled writer, it'll take some work to see the pauses. Look for something called "beats" in screenwriting, or breaks in the action or dialogue--gestures, movements, a glance out the window, a brief flashback, a bit of setting. They don't have to be long but they allow just that moment to regroup and absorb that a reader needed. Notice how often these appear, how long they are, where they are placed.
Then go to a chapter of your own and model the writer you just read--their structure of pauses. You would use your own words, your own story, but mimic the placement of each beat and what is included. For instance, if the writer uses two lines of backstory just there, you do the same. If they use a gesture or movement in another place, do it too. Use your words, their structure.
This modeling exercise is a great way to get muscle memory of pacing, as well as the benefit of pauses or stationary moments. Try it this week, as your weekly writing exercise.
Several of my private clients are completing their manuscripts this month, getting ready to pitch to agents at one of the large writing conferences happening in April: The Loft Literary Center's Pitch Conference, April 20-21, in Minneapolis, and Grub Street's The Muse and the Marketplace, April 6-8, in Boston.
Writers can meet with agents and "pitch" their book--or give a short description designed to spark an agent's interest. Some pitch sessions permit a written query letter and sample of your writing, others just allow you to pitch verbally.
Most writers agree that crafting a winning query letter is all important. Even if your pitch is verbal, the query can help you figure out how best to describe your book in a unique, interesting way. Agents often receive hundreds of these a week. How do you make sure that yours stands out?
One of my clients forwarded me this excellent article from Sarah Jane Freymann's agency. "The Perfect Pitch," it's called, and it's worth a read--not just to get an insider view on agents and the process of reading queries but also to know what to avoid.
Your weekly writing exercise is to educate yourself--and enjoy the smart writing in this article about crafting queries. Then try one yourself. You may not feel nearly ready to pitch your book, but just the act of writing the hook and other parts of a query can help you focus on what that book is actually about.
And if you're at Grub Street's Muse on Saturday, April 7, stop by my workshop and say hello in person.
They say it takes a lot of support to write a book--the process is long, hard, and personal for most writers. We need encouraging words and people who believe in what we're doing, so we can keep doing it when the journey feels useless. I know most writers who complete books gather a team of supporters by the end. Supporters like writing groups, writing partners, or hired editors/coaches. I don't know many who get published without this kind of backup.
Recently I taught a week-long writing retreat in Tucson and two of the participants were returnees from last year. Between then and now, they had been accountability partners via email, logging their progress with each other each week. Not exchanging writing, but keeping each other on task via encouragement and support. Another writer in the retreat talked about her two writing groups, formed after taking online classes--she had found a small circle of support that kept exchanging after the class was over. Not surprising that all three of these writers were still moving forward with their books. They'd found the secret of good writing partners.
Others aren't so lucky. Even excellent writers, even published writers, can inadvertently fall victim to unkind feedback.
One of my past students joined a writing group where an unknown writer was keen on giving feedback. The exchange looked promising, but the reader was of the slash-and-burn mentality, so even this skilled, experienced writer felt "yucky" afterwards. She's strong enough not to stop her project, but I've heard stories of one bad feedback exchange devastating someone enough to quit their book. That's a shame, and it's not necessary. But unfortunately, this happens more often than not.
A bad feedback exchange is NOT a reflection of the value of your book. Many times it's a marker of poor communication skills, or training that leans towards critical rather than supportive.
In my book, Your Book Starts Here, I devote a whole chapter to getting and giving feedback. Since support is essential, it's also essential to know how to take care of yourself and your book idea or manuscript, as it gets ready to be born.
But how does a writer find a safe home for their work, at any stage? Here are some tips from successful partnerships forged by students in my past classes. They might be helpful to you, too, if you're looking for a writing partner.
1. Most said that the safest way to find writing partners is through online classes, where you can test out feedback skills in a moderated environment. The teacher makes sure folks are kind to each other. You get to see how the other writers respond. Eliminate the ones who simply parrot the teacher's remarks, or say they just love the piece but have nothing more to add. Also avoid those who give only "surface" feedback--spelling errors, for instance. That's proofreader stuff and not necessary until you're about to submit to agents.
Look for those who share original, helpful comments that make you think. The comments might sting a little, but they don't flatten you. Often, the best comments are in the form of questions--that's the mark of a really superior reader, in my experience. Questions open doorways for the writer.
2. Look, also, for gratitude in the partnership. If a writer in one of my classes receives but doesn't thank the people who give her feedback, it doesn't bode well for future writing partnerships. Partners who are good bets long term are usually very aware of and grateful for feedback. They know how valuable it is!
3. Look for consistency. Does the writer post regularly? Are they moving forward on their book, steadily? This is sometimes harder to assess, since some people in classes can show up to please or impress the teacher, not for themselves or their books. Some writers also feel more comfortable giving feedback than sharing their own writing--another danger sign. You want someone who posts their own work as often as they comment on others' work.
4. Always vet the partner with a sample before you begin. Even if you know each other from class, share only a little outside, at first. See how it goes. Be prepared to say no thanks. You HAVE to safeguard your work, no one else will do it for you, and you have the right to first refusal, even if it means making up something like, "Got suddenly busy, have to pass, but wish you the best!"
5. Don't ask too much in the beginning. If you're used to inline comments from class, you may need to start private partnerships with something easier. People don't always understand how much time a regular exchange takes, and it can be harder to maintain without a class structure. You want this partner for the long haul, not a short flash.
Writing dialogue should be easy, right? Most of us talk. We text, we email, we use words in conversation all the time. We listen (sometimes) to other people talking. Dialogue runs through our thoughts all day, every day. So why isn't dialogue on the page just a matter of listening well and copying down what we hear?
Literature has different rules than real life--obviously. So dialogue on the page also has different rules than spoken dialogue.
It makes sense. What we read must present high stakes, tension, and not give it all away--otherwise, why would we keep reading?
Next week, I'm teaching an eight-week online class on writing authentic, amazing dialogue for fiction and memoir. The class was born from a one-day workshop, which often left writers wanting more. They understood the basic tenets of writing good dialogue but they wanted to practice, get feedback, and get better at it. So the online class will cover both the mechanics of dialogue--how dialogue is created, crafted, and used; when it's not used (there are real rules about this!) and when it's most effective in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction books--and placement.
Placement of dialogue is important. Dialogue speeds up your story's pace. It's faster than description, for instance. But too much dialogue in a chunk creates the fast-train-ride that you may not want just then. So dialogue needs to become a conscious tool in the writer's hands.
This week, I wanted to share one of the writing exercises we'll be using in the class. It helps tune your ear to the essential difference between real-life spoken dialogue and dialogue on the page. It also trains you to hear subtext, then begin to use it effectively in your own writing.
Listening for Subtext
In real conversations, subtext, or undercurrent, what's not being said, the meaning or emotion underlying the talk, is presented by visual aids: gestures, a facial expression, looking away or down, movement. It's also revealed via the setting around the conversation.
Imagine a bad date. One person is eager, the other totally turned off. Although the conversation itself, the stripped-down dialogue, might stay polite, even pleasant, there are all kinds of visual cues as to what's really happening, right?
In writing, you don't have these visual cues. You have to create them on the page. You can use all the same tools (gestures, etc.), but even more important are the actual words you use in your dialogue. So there are two steps: learning to hear and see subtext in real conversations, so you get good at noticing this undercurrent, then learning to craft your dialogue so it's evident on the page.
Here's one small example out of many of the craft skills you need: Placing the reveal. What's a reveal? In dialogue, it's where people say what they really mean. If you "reveal" too soon in your written dialogue, or say too much true stuff, you lose tension. Why? Because there's no subtext. So "reveal" dialogue (where people really say what they mean) is reserved for special times in the written dialogue scene.
Another example of a craft skill we'll learn and practice: Writing in "beats." Beats are where people pause, interrupt, or change the subject. That's increasing subtext, because it signifies an emotional shift. Maybe the topic is getting too hot and the speaker shifts away from it abruptly. Ever have this happen in a real-life conversation? It's used a lot by novelists and memoirists to show the subtext. But where you place a beat is the key to making it work.
In early drafts of a scene, we often work with the just obvious level: text. We're still telling ourselves the story, rather than bringing in the subtle layers. We're writing close to real-life conversation, which is what most writers begin with. There are few beats and the dialogue will often contain too much "revealed" information, at that early stage.
In revision, we begin to craft it. We get more subtle and we look at placement for the "reveal."
I find it's helpful during this crafting stage to find a published book or story in your genre. Turn to a page or two of dialogue that you admire. Study where the "reveal" is placed, how much subtext you perceive, what kind of beats are present and where. What's the placement of this dialogue in the overall chapter?
It helps you build your listening and writing skills, but it takes time and practice. Try it more than once, if you can.
Your dialogue will begin to explore what's not being said--and that's where the true literary conversations take place.
If you want to try one of the online class exercises, I'll include it below. It's an eavesdropping exercise that tunes your ear and eye to subtext.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Find a busy place to sit for a while with your writer's notebook and take notes. Cafes are good. Or bus stations or doctor's offices or airports.
2. Eavesdrop. Take notes on how people talk. Write down all the jigs and jags of human speech.
3. Pay attention to the rhythms you're hearing, how many times people interrupt or talk around the topic or use partial sentences.
4. After an hour or so, or however much time you can spend, take what you've written and read it over. Underline the best three lines, the ones that speak about something that not's being said.
5. Using one of these, begin a freewrite for 20 minutes (no editing) for a scene from your book. Write the overheard line of dialogue at the top of your page and start adding responses until you've crafted a conversation.
6. Look it over. Decide what's not being said (the subtext). Is it a strong current under your characters' words?
And if you'd like to find out more about my online dialogue class, click here to be taken to the Loft's website.
A past student from my Madeline Island retreats emailed me recently with a great question. It's one most writers struggle with: How do I know when my book is actually finished? "An overarching question I find more difficult," she says, "is whether it could ever be ready. Some things may not be worth the effort or the money. Is it better to pay someone willing to say yea or nay first or does that have to go together with sending it out for paid editing?"
There are five stages to writing a book, from seed idea to final revision before publication. I think of them as gateways to the process. If a writer can go through all of them, the book is probably ready to submit. If you get stalled at any, know that you're not alone--I estimate only a third of writers who start book projects actually complete them. But it helps to know where you are in the journey, so you can intelligently choose whether to go on.
1. Gathering stage: When you start a book, you have an idea. You sketch out chapters, or scenes. You research. You freewrite. You do a rough storyboard, if you're into structure like I am (saving tons of time). You may outline instead, or in addition to the storyboarding. This is only a gathering stage, but it's essential to the process. It allows you to explore, to really decide if you have enough for a whole book (maybe the idea is just a short story or essay or article). A big gateway exists after the gathering stage, and not many writers make it through. Structuring shows you whether you have a book--or not. And some of us would rather not know.
2. Structuring stage: At critical mass moment, when your gathered material becomes overwhelming, you either learn to structure or you hire an editor to help you see through the morass. This is often when writers come to my class, Your Book Starts Here (online starts February 14, in person workshop on March 30, if you're intrigued). Or they hire me to help them privately. This is what editors at publishing houses used to do, back when I began publishing. It's what takes your writing, however good, into a logical shape that a reader can follow.
3. First draft: Once the material is shaped, you create your first draft. Some writers do a draft before structuring, which is fine--as long as they know it's basically going to be a freewrite until it's structured for a reader's viewpoint. I usually structure, or at least attempt to, first, to save time. I've worked with hundreds of writers, some well published already, who don't know this. (I don't blame them--we're not taught structuring in MFA programs or writing classes, normally. It's the editor's domain.) Your first draft should be about 60,000-90,000 words, depending on your genre. It should have cohesive chapters.
4. Revision: There's a huge gateway here too, probably the biggest and hardest one. Most writers aren't trained in revision. They need to hire an editor or coach to help them. Revision is a LOT more than just refining sentences. It double-checks your structure on three levels: outer story (plot or information), characters' narrative arcs, and the sense of place. You may be good at one or two of these, weak at the third. Even though I've worked as an editor since the eighties, I still hire out revision help. It costs too. What you're looking for is a careful read-through, structure analysis (if you can get it), and suggestions for revising those three areas. Your editor might come back with suggestions like: (1) your plot falls apart in chapter 15; (2) I don't believe this character's motivation; or (3) I don't know where we are in time or place--your setting is not anchored yet. These are hard to hear! I know, I've been there for every book I've written. Editors are gold, though, because they see what you can't see.
Many writers take an intermediary step before hiring an editor. They attend classes on revision, to learn the basics. Downside of most classes at revision stage is that you workshop only part of your manuscript at a time--a chapter, say. If you go for a class at revision stage, try for one like Grub Street's Novel Incubator or Memoir Incubator (not revision stage for all writers but useful for whole-book perspective), or the Loft's year-long writing projects. Classes do help hone individual skills, like dialogue or setting or character motivation. But don't expect whole-manuscript help from a class. Nobody is paid that much!
Other writers use writers' groups for this stage. They are great, and I've used them too. Again, you rarely get whole-manuscript revision help, since your groupmates read only chapters or scenes each time. You can, however, make great writing connections in groups and classes, and from these, if you're lucky, come beta readers. I coined that name, which means an early tester of your whole manuscript. Beta readers are helpful in ways that writers groups and classes can't be. You exchange manuscripts with them. I always go through this step with my own manuscripts before hiring an editor; beta readers often catch problems I can fix before I spend money.
Revision can take years. At some point, like the student who emailed me above, you have to decide if you're going to take the manuscript one more step, into submission. You may not be sure, which is why I recommend both beta readers and a paid editor who will help you with structure and whole-manuscript review in the three categories mentioned above.
A world about magical thinking: Many writers, especially first-time book writers, believe that an agent will help them with this stage. That used to be true--when I first was publishing in the eighties, my agent did just that: take fairly unformed material and help shape it. Also, the publisher's editors did this job. No longer true. Agents won't even glance at your manuscript unless you've done your utmost to get revision help. One agent I know gets 400 submissions a week. Unless the writing is tight, bright, and clean, it doesn't even get past her assistant's desk. Don't count on an agent to bail you out.
5. Submission: Why do writers decide to submit to agents or publishers? It's the toughest gateway of all. Maybe you want validation that the book works and someone else can see your genius. Maybe you desire fame and fortune. (I'm laughing a little at that one, because although I've published thirteen books, I've never made a living from any of them. The advances were good for some, but not living-worth. I won awards but I didn't get famous.) Mostly, the reason I go through the agony of submitting my manuscript to agents and publishers is that I believe in the book. I wanted it out there, in readers' hands, helping and inspiring others. This has been my go-to reason for every book I've published.
I also want the book to be the absolute best it can be, before I start this process, because it's a glorious feeling to read one of your published books, ten years later, and still love it. So loving your book, given the incredibly tough publishing industry right now, might be s the most valid reason to approach this final gateway.
Many writers, even well-published ones, are looking at self-publishing or partner publishing now, instead of traditional publishing, and using a publicist to help market the book. This is less painful. It requires an investment of money and time and energy. But so does traditional publishing, these days. You'll be spending your own energy to get your book read, no matter which avenue you choose.
But bottom line: Is the story worth it, to you? There's an axiom in writing circles about the first book being the one that you learn on. I understand this, because you might get to this fifth stage and decide, No, it's not worth the energy, the rejection, the cost. That's fine. You've learned a lot, you've come far. But it's a very individual choice, not one another can make for you--not even all the agents you query that say no thank you. Because agents aren't the final word as to whether your work is worthwhile. You are.
I guess this would be my answer to the student who wrote me asking how to know if you're done. Is the book something you'd like out there, in readers' hands, as it is now? Would you be proud of it in ten years, if it were published? If not, then scroll back to earlier steps and ask yourself which would be logical to consider. Which you may have skipped over, telling yourself you didn't need it. Or consider this book is your learning curve and you learned a lot. And now you can move on to the next project.
The road to writing a book demands the same kind of--or more--belief in yourself and your purpose than a triathlete training for a race or an entrepreneur starting a business. Books aren't easy to write, revise, and publish. they'll take everything you got. But they give back in many ways--the joy of achieving a dream, the light in a reader's face as she tells you how she stayed up all night, reading your book.
If you accomplish any of the stages listed above, congratulate yourself. You've achieved something that few writers have. Consider the next stage, what skills or stamina or tools you need to approach it. Consider your belief in your book--is it still strong enough to carry you through?
Not everyone will agree with this post, so skip it if you already know it's not your thing. Walking has saved my writing life this week. Even though I live in snow country, northern New England, and we've been hit with a series of snowstorms these past weeks, I have to walk. It keeps me sane when I'm working out a gnarly problem with a story.
Julia Cameron made a big deal of walking in her sequels to The Artist's Way, which many of you read, as I did, to recover our blocked inner artist. I thought, yeah, OK, when I first saw "daily walk" up there with "morning pages" and "artist's date." I liked to walk, but not every day and certainly not as part of my writing routine.
These past months have changed my mind.
I've been preparing my manuscript for an editor. Finding problems, large and small, embarrassing and must-be-fixed, and getting excellent questions to ponder. Problem is, I can't easily ponder at my desk. When I'm at my desk, I write, revise, research. I need to get away from the desk to think.
Add to that some family issues (elderly mom, young adult son) that arose this week, which were equally gnarly, which distracted me from the creative flow, to put it mildly. After an hour of teeth gnashing and too many snacks, I threw on my down jacket and put Yak-Traks (netted metal grippers) on my walking shoes and went outside.
For about a mile, I just stomped. Anger and frustration over life and writing pushed me up the country road by our house, which is mostly uphill. When I reached level ground, I began walking faster. The Yak-Traks kept me from sliding on the snow pack left by the plows and I didn't have to watch my step. It took another mile before I stopped being mad, before the cold air and stretches of snow-covered farm fields and woods calmed me down. By the time I reached my turn-around point, I had my first solution to the writing problem (family problems take longer). By the time I got back home, I felt completely ready to start up again.
That afternoon's writing went very smoothly. Surprisingly so. I sent the chapter off to my editor and felt great about it. I didn't attribute it to the walk, not that day. But when it kept happening, I caught on.
Those of you who run regularly, who work out, who garden, who kayak, who do any kind of sport or activity that lets the mind rest, know what I'm talking about. It doesn't have to be walking. It just has to be something that gets you out of your own way, which usually means getting you out of your head long enough to refresh the inner screen. I imagine it gets jammed up like my browser does, loading old ideas and images, and it needs to be refreshed. The mindless movement does that.
A tiny bow of gratitude to Julia, who first introduced the idea to this reluctant receiver. Now I'm a convert. I write, I walk, then I can write again.
Your weekly writing exercise is to notice your rhythm. Do you hit a wall and keep pushing, because you think you should? Because some writing teacher or friend said you were (1) lazy, (2) procrastinating, or (3) not a real writer if you took a break? Because you are afraid you won't get going again if you stop? How has this worked for you? If it hasn't, consider a mindless movement activity. Try a walk.
And if you live in snow country, make sure you bring those Yak-Traks.
Two of my private clients just completed their books. A time for celebration, since they both worked extremely hard for the past year or more. One of them, a first-time novelist, wrote me this week about how stunned she feels and how little creativity she can muster in other areas of her life. She's a parent, great cook, and gardener, but nothing is feeling charged with energy at the moment.
She's happy her book is done--at last!--but worries about her lack of umph. Is this normal? Shouldn't she be gung-ho on the next project, so as not to lose momentum?
I don't know many writers who feel charged with energy when the manuscript is finally completed. They're excited, yes. It's been a long hard road (very few writers find book-writing easy) and to reach the end is a thrill. But it's also like running a marathon or sailing across the ocean. You've used a lot of resources to reach this point. It's time to recharge.
One of my colleagues, who publishes well and often, shares a trick: she always starts another project, be it book or other creative venture, before she finishes the current one. She has this other idea simmering, maybe some notes started, maybe even a couple of chapters sketched out, so it can welcome her and remind her she's not entirely used up.
I liked this idea and, typical of me, when I tested it, I pushed it to the limit. Around 2009, I was working on two books simultaneously. One fiction, one nonfiction, but both requiring a LOT of energy. I liked toggling back and forth--when I got stuck on one, I moved to the other--and I began to think of it as creative multi-tasking. But it drained me. Then I tried starting another book while my current one was cooking. This was fueled by agent interest, but it also became hard to maintain, creatively. I got confused between the two stories and the different characters overlapped in my head. I stopped the new book and just focused on finishing the current one.
I guess it depends on how you're wired. Also, what else is going on with your life. I was raising a teenager at the time, and anyone who's lived with teens knows what that means. Enough said. I just didn't have the resources to multitask in my creative life.
Now, I know to honor the process of generating a story, what it requires from the creative self. When one book is wrapping up--or when you've worked hard to learn a new skill, like how to write dialogue or how to bring a character's voice alive on the page, you might find yourself needing recovery time. Maybe it serves you to push through, to start the next project immediately. For me, the writing comes forward again only when I allow my imagination to rest.
I need to daydream and dream. I need to read great literature (and trashy novels too). I need to play music, start seeds under my grow lights, cook something wonderful, take long walks or snowshoe in our back fields, have good conversations. After I've done enough recovery, I notice a restlessness comes in--a sense of curiosity about words, ideas, images. I might be reading something and get a flash of a story I could write. This tells me it's time to get back to the page.
I also recommend reading books on the creative process. Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic is a favorite. Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, oldie but goodie. These will usually get me excited, ready to work.
The creative faucet is turned on, the pump is primed, and there's water flowing again.
This week, pay attention to your creative process. What stage are you in, right now, with your writing, your book? Are you full of energy? Are you restless, needing inspiration or new skills or feedback in a new way? Are you depleted, needing recovery time? Part of the maturation of a creative soul is the ability to pay attention to the natural cycle of creativity. It just takes tuning in to yourself and honoring what's best for you.
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