This Is My Brain On Index Cards

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I could not remember the dead friend’s last name.

I realize this is a problem likely reserved for novelists, because if I had a dead friend, I’d probably recall her last name.

At that point I hadn’t written many pages of my third novel yet, but I had an outline and a short synopsis for my agent, and ideas jotted down on paper just for me. I rifled through all of it.

Cooper.

The last name was Cooper.

I intentionally choose simple last names but obviously THAT memory trick didn’t work this time. I was going to have to figure out something so that this story, the new one, didn’t have me scrolling through pages to remember every name and every eye color.

So you know what this meant. A trip to the corner Walgreens.

There is not a plethora of index cards in Walgreens, but when I’m on a writing roll I am not prone to a shopping trip. So I worked with what I had. I chose the large, white cards because in a moment of stark realism, I know the small ones would not give me enough space because my ideas come out sideways and in large loopy letters, not neatly, and not on little blue lines.

I must say I was disappointed with the quality of the cards. They were more like paper than cards, but I was determined. I wrote each character’s name at the top, and anything I knew about him or her. Boys in blue. Girls in pink. I didn’t have check list or a method, I just jotted down what I knew about the character, mostly things like all their names (middle, maiden, nick—you get the idea), eye color, hair color and style, short or tall, thin or fat, and maybe his or her relationship to another character. I wrote the things that needed to remain consistent through the story, the things that wouldn’t change. Maybe for this novel’s first draft I wouldn’t have to type “find out what color Celia’s eyes were” on page 86, because I’d have a card that told me what i needed to know. I would limit my scrolling backwards and increase my moving forward. And in story writing, that is a good thing.

But I had more cards. What to do?

I don’t use the common novel-writing lingo because it doesn’t work for me. I’m a rebel that way. I find the words CONFLICT and TENSION empty. I look at them and think HUH? But, I do understand WORRY and ANGRY and SCARED and WONDER and SECRET and WANT and NEED.  So I wrote those out on cards for each character. Not in any order. Not the same for each one. Just what I knew to be important. Just what I knew at that time. That’s the great thing about index cards. There are always more.

I also put the major story points on cards. And—I wrote words you’re not supposed to write. AND THEN. That works for me. I wrote each major and minor event (you say plot point, I say event) on an index card followed by the words AND THEN…. This allowed me to consider the flow, and what was happening when and to move things around without major cutting and pasting in my Word doc.

I also wrote themes of the story on cards, and I’ll likely transfer those to—you guessed it—Post It Notes, when it’s time for me to revise. Those will stick all over my computer reminding me of what needs to float beneath the story to give it buoyancy.

For a few weeks I had each stack neatly paper-clipped together and tucked into an adorable little case I could carry around and look all writerly. Then one day I was chatting with my lovely agent and she asked, “What’s the last name of the dead friend again?” (No joke, she really did. She was writing up little blurb for the new book.)

“Oh my god,” I said. “I forget.”

“Well, call me when you remember.”

And then I did remember.

“I have index cards!”

And yes, the last name was still Cooper.

That’s when I realized index cards do not belong in pretty pouches. I wanted the cards out and around me whether I’m on the sofa or in bed (rules out the desk, but I don’t write there anyway).

The cards are like a little pat on the back to myself. I’ve thought it through, I have a plan, there is sense and order where I often feel there’s none. Even on days I get no writing done, I can read a card or two and have a good sense of story, remember something old, think of something new, and add a card to the pile.

I had no roadmap at all for The Glass Wives. When I wrote my debut novel I outlined the Chapter 3 when I finished Chapter 2. Yep, that book took four years to write. Not happening again. Ever. When I wrote The Good Neighbor I started with a (take a deep breath) twenty page synopsis. That synopsis served only as a loose tether to the story, because 1) stories always change as you write them, and 2) who is going through twenty pages to remember what’s just happened, what’s happening now, and what happens next? Not me.

The index cards are manageable size bites of the story and the characters, They’re snippets of time and place, fragments of intention and emotion. And on those days all writers have when the gifts of the writing life are elusive, when the rewards seem improbable and the words are fuzzy, these index cards are tangible rectangular reminders that many thoughts have been already been thought, and much of the work has already been done.

Cooper.

 

 

 

 

Author Interview: Anita Hughes Takes Readers To France With An Exotic And Fun Summer Read

FrenchCoast_Final Cover 1.28Today I’m pleased to welcome Anita Hughes back to Women’s Fiction Writers! Her newest novel, FRENCH COAST, whisks you far away without leaving the comfort of your favorite chair. Or bed. Or beach blanket. Anita shares with us how she chose the location for FRENCH COAST, and offers advice on choosing character names when you’ve used your favorites for your children (and Anita has five children)! I’ve known Anita since before our debut novels were published, and she’s as lovely as she is prolific. FRENCH COAST is her fourth novel!

Please welcome Anita to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Author Anita Hughes Takes Readers To France With An Exotic And Fun Summer Read

FrenchCoast_Final Cover 1.28Amy: Your novels are set in interesting and exotic locations. Do you spin the globe, close your eyes, and point? How did you choose the location for French Coast and your other novels?

Anita: I chose the location of French Coast because I have always loved the French Riviera and Cannes. When I was young, my mother, who was European, always talked about the Carlton-Intercontinental in Cannes. I also watched How To Catch A Thief with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly a few times. It is set at the Carlton and it is one of my favorite movies. When I pick a location, I think where I want to spend the next few months, because while I’m writing I feel like I’m there. Then I pull up images on the internet and soak them in.

Amy: I have names on the brain since I’m writing a new novel and still deciding on some character names. How did you arrive at the names for some of your characters in French Coast? 

Anita: Names can be a challenge, especially after you’ve written a few books! I have five children and I can’t use any of their names. I usually just let names come to me, but they really have to fit the characters. I sit with them for a few days and if it feels right, I start writing. A sign that a name is right is if I start not being able to imagine my characters having any other names – a bit like my own children.

Amy: Have you ever used the name of someone you know, even if the character was nothing like him or her? Can you tell us about that. (I do that sometimes, as a little nod to someone important.)

Anita: I think I have used names of movie stars but no real people. But that’s a lovely idea – to give a nod to someone important!

Amy: I know you’re a fast writer—so what’s your secret? Do you outline or do you write and see where the story takes you? What is planned out in your stories and what do you allow to happen organically?

Anita: I do an outline for my publisher and that helps me see the whole story and not feel lost. I definitely let the story go where it wants to and often have characters and plot lines that weren’t in the initial outline. I think some of the best work I do is not at the computer – I think about the story all the time and write what I’m going to write the next day in my head: complete with dialogue. Then when I sit down to write it is easy and I never have to think more than a day ahead.

Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction today? 

Anita: I think the best advice is always to read. I have always been a reader and still read a couple of books a week. I think the most important thing to develop as an author (especially of women’s fiction) is a voice. You want your reader to want to spend time with your characters and care about them and the way to do that is through voice. Developing a voice comes from spending a lot of time at the keyboard until you feel confident in your writing and can really let the characters take over.

Thank you for having me on your wonderful blog, Amy! You are a real inspiration and guide to authors of women’s fiction.

20101121_FFF_0023-EditcAnita Hughes was born in Sydney, Australia. At the age of eight, she won first prize in a nationwide writing contest sponsored by THE AUSTRALIAN, Australia’s most prestigious newspaper. She graduated from Bard College with a B.A. in English Literature and a minor in Creative Writing, and attended UC Berkeley’s Masters in Creative Writing Program. She lives at The St. Regis Monarch Beach, where she is at work on her next novel.

http://anitahughesbooks.com/

https://twitter.com/hughesanita

https://www.facebook.com/AnitaHughesBooks

Author Interview: Author Holly Robinson Talks About Emotion, Mystery, and Names—Oh My!

Haven Lake_FCSometimes you just click with someone, and that’s how it was for me and my friend, author Holly Robinson. I’m not sure even how or when we first connected, likely due to her first novel with NAL, The Wishing Hill, which was published around the same time as The Glass Wives. TODAY, Holly is launching her third novel with NAL, HAVEN LAKE (and has another coming out in the Fall, OMG). The best part of interviewing an author-friend is learning new things about her, her writing, her stories. They’re not usually the kinds of things that come up in casual phone conversations, but they’re the things I want to know and the kinds of interviews I want to share here.

Actually, that’s the best part of interviewing anyone—quenching my own curiosity by getting the answers to MY questions and knowing what, how, and why those answers would be of interest to others. (Hello, Journalism Degree!!)

Holly’s novels are family dramas strewn with emotion and mystery. Family secrets are woven through each one, as well as vivid settings, and character voices that ring clear and true. You’ll see what I mean when you read the interview! 

Amy and Holly and lots of plates on a wall—September 2014

Amy and Holly and lots of plates on a wall—September 2014

Please welcome Holly Robinson back to WFW!

Amy xo

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Self-Editing for Authors—Getting Rid of the Aww and the Awe

I often question my writing, judge my prose, belittle my word choices, and doubt my plot points. Some days I love what I’ve written.

The “disbelieving me” is in awe of the time and effort it will take to get from first draft to final draft. The “believing me” might think, “Aww, this is so good it doesn’t need to be changed.

No! To both.

I must self-edit.

I also must strike a balance where I am confident in my work but know it needs work.

Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time, self-editing can be daunting. At least it can be for me. I stare at the monitor and all this little black shapes stare back at me. Just looking at them is exhausting.

I know myself. I self-edit differently than I write. I’m a binge writer, but a bit-by-bit editor. Not that I can’t, or haven’t, edited for hours, but I can also edit a paragraph, then leave for an appointment or to do the dishes.

Oh, who am I kidding? I do not stop editing to do the dishes.

But I do stop if I’m overwhelmed.

The key here is not to get overwhelmed.

First Drafts

My first drafts are embarrassing. I write in sentence fragments and run-ons. But what I have when I’m finished, I hope, is the beginning, middle, and end of a chapter, the right idea to build upon. I write light in first drafts. That means I know I’m going to go in again to flesh out ideas. Many of my friends write 125, 000 word first drafts they edit down to 90,000 words. My finished first drafts are about 50,000 words. I edit up. No matter how you work, some of these tips might work for you to take the sting out of first draft editing.

  1. Do it quickly. Later I’ll advocate stepping away, but with a first draft I want to capitalize on my momentum. I’ll write a scene or chapter and go back and self-edit the same day. Sometimes, same hour.
  2. Don’t look back. For this draft I just go back in and change things with no mind to what was there before. I don’t want to remember the dreck, I want to revise it.
  3. Dump what doesn’t work. I elaborate on my sentence fragments and cull my run-ons. I specific “something like purple but not” and write lavender or periwinkle.
  4. Decide what does works. Or what doesn’t. This is usually the time I get a gut feeling at this time if the names I’m using really works for me. I also get a feeling about characters and if I need them. I want to move forward writing about what’s necessary.
  5. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. This is where I clean it up. No one’s cursing (well, maybe a little), but in a first draft I type so fast I don’t always use proper formatting. I want to GET IT OUT. So I go back and tidy up. Appearances are everything (you’ll see why later).
  6. Define the path. Is there a beginning, middle, and end of the chapter? If something’s missing I don’t write it, I make a note that it’s missing. Does the chapter ending leave a question or cliffhanger? If not, I consider how to make the chapter end so that the reader must turn the page. Have I buried anything in overwriting exuberance? (Who, me?)

My first draft isn’t really finished until it’s self-edited. Until I know someone else could read it and make sense of it, even with the weaknesses and holes. I call it my finished first draft. Before that, you don’t want to know what I call it.

Second Drafts (Or, to Infinity—And Beyond)

I have never counted drafts. Let’s say that with each of my novels (published, soon-to-be published, and under-the-bed) I’ve written more than two drafts and fewer than a hundred.

This, for me, is where fine-tuning begins and where I remember the best advice/joke I ever told my daughter.

“How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bite at a time.”

If I looked at a whole manuscript and imagined editing the whole thing on my own, I’d crawl under this bed I call an office and that would be that. But because I write, and edit, my novels a chapter at a time, at first, it’s more manageable to me. For the time being I pretend that’s all I need to worry about, which allows me to focus (ie: which eliminates panic).

  1. Print out pages. Whether I’ve written the whole book or not, I print out one chapter. If you’re not a paper person, this is where I’d use track changes.
  2. Get your hands dirty. Yes, I use multicolored markers. Yes, they end up on my hands. When I do Track Changes, I go into the options and make all the different kinds of changes different colors. Makes it fun.
  3. One Bite At A Time. I go paragraph by paragraph and polish so that what’s going on there makes sense to me, and is tightly written, but I don’t go overboard. This is where I’d rather have too much than too little. This is where I start my editing up.
  4. Read aloud. Especially dialogue. I tend to use characters’ names in dialogue until I edit it. I also use a lot of “Well.” Because, well, I just do.
  5. Lay it out. I look at chapters by laying the pages side by side on my dining room table. I look for visual cues. Do the paragraphs all start with the same word? (A no-no) Are the sentences and paragraphs the same lengths page after page? How long are your dialogue runs? These are things you can consider when revising, because variations make stories more interesting.

Final Drafts

Final drafts take many forms. I have final drafts for my critique partner, then for agent, and then final drafts for my editor. If you’re not hiring an editor (silent scream) and you’re self-publishing then your final draft is for your reader.

For me, this is the detail and danger zone. This is where I nit-pick and where I usually am convinced that all my time and effort and energy has resulted in a big pile of poo. Luckily, this is normal. And that’s why I start with the hardest thing of all.

  1. Step away. Unless I’m right up against a deadline, I leave the manuscript untouched for days or weeks if possible. This provides perspective. If I have an epiphany (in the shower or while driving, ‘natch) I write it down but don’t open the Word doc.
  2. Go slow. When it’s time to get back to work, I start again by tackling one chapter at a time. I read for content and clarity. I circle or highlight what I need to come back to.
  3. Be honest. I note overused words and clichés. No one is above using them. Now is the time to get rid of them. Then, I do a search for any crutch words. Every writer has them. I use “and” more times than should be legal. I also make note of lingo and colloquialisms that might not work if the publication of the book was delayed, or if someone reads the book in five years. With backlists readily available as ebooks for both traditionally and self-published authors, this is a real concern. Here’s a list of “banished words” from Lake Superior University. This is a list of overused words and phrases at Write Divas. I’m not affiliated with either site, but these lists are comprehensive and helpful (and fun to read).

The best thing about self-editing, is that it’s not the end – it’s just the beginning. This is how I get my writing ready for others to critique and edit it. Yes, at some point, it’s finished, but you shouldn’t be the only person editing your work if you want it read by others. If you want people to pay to read it.

Beta readers and critique partners, agents, and editors will not only help your story, but their feedback will bolster your ability to self-edit in the future. Self-editing is the gift that keeps on giving.

By that I mean giving us headaches, some heartache—as well as the opportunity to be the best writers we can be.

This article was first published in Write On, the magazine of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (not affiliated with my WFW blog, although I am a founding member of the WFWA organization.)  You’re not a member of WFWA? Check it out here

Have you read the early praise for THE GOOD NEIGHBOR? Click here!

Praise Moses and Pass The Matzah: A Passover Primer

MatzosThe Easter Bunny and his entourage are back at the mall, and that means one thing to me.

Passover is coming.

Passover, the eight day celebration of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt, is my favorite Jewish holiday, although I’m not sure why. It entails cleaning and more cleaning and then cleaning some more, and that is my least favorite thing to do. It also involves macaroons, so perhaps that explains it.

In Hebrew, Passover is Pesach — PAY-SACH. The end of the word is that Jewish guttural throat roll that sounds like you are about to hock a loogey. It does not sound like the “k” in Saks or the “ch” in, chosen, as in — people. But I digress.

The first order of business in my household when I’m getting ready for Passover is to plan a Seder (SAY-der). A Seder is the holiday meal that revolves around the retelling of the Passover story through symbol, prayer, song and food. Think Thanksgiving on steroids but without the stuffing. I invite friends who are like family and we sit around the table and squeeze an otherwise four hour long ordeal into a modified fifteen minute yet comprehensive poetic version of the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston without any love affairs or Technicolor. It goes something like this…they tried to annihilate us, we whipped ’em, let’s eat.

During the planning process, I am also faced with the quandary of how to best observe the entire holiday, not just the Seder part. While I don’t change dishes or buy all foods that are “Kosher for Passover,” many Jewish families do. But, during the eight days we do not eat bread or anything that has obviously “risen” and in my house that’s basically just bread, cake or anything we deem to be fluffed up. My own internal debate as to whether Oreos without the middle are flat enough to be eaten on Passover is as of yet, unresolved.

To make room for Passover foods in the house and for the holiday, in our heads, we begin by eating all the chametz (it’s the “ch” sound again), or leavened products in the house. Certainly we could sell it all for a dollar, as is customary, to a non-Jew, but eating it is more fun. We then perform the ritual dusting with the feather to ensure that all the chametz crumbs are gone from the house. The problem is, in my cabinets we need a full feather duster. In Passover as in life, every family has their own rules.

With the cabinets cleaned, the shopping ensues. I arrive home from the grocery store with boxes of matzah, matzah meal, matzah farfel, matzah flour, matzah cake mix and a case of macaroons. I store it all on top of our spare refrigerator in the laundry room right in front of the leftover matzah from 2006, 2005 and 2004. Matzah lasts forever.

And while some of that (new) matzah packed in my kids’ lunches might spark comments among their classmates, I always include extra, because it seems to be the hit of the cafeteria every year.

It’s a time when my kids wear their religion on their sleeve, so to speak. They share a bit of Jewish culture at the lunch table where their friends can taste it, for real. That’s the reminder in one full swoop that they’re different and the same, at the very same time. They’re sharing bland and binding crackers, but part of a rich and colorful heritage of which they are both educated, and proud – and then they go off math class.

Even when I make light of it, it’s pretty heavy duty.

The fact that my kids know what to expect, and therefore, expect it, is very reassuring. They remind me about everything from making homemade matzah to the Passover mac ‘n cheese to our aversion to gefilte fish to who gets to search for the Afikomen (a hidden piece of matzah) during the Seder to the silly props on the holiday table to a debate on why or why not beans or pasta or rice are eaten on Passover.

So I guess the best part of Passover, aside from the macaroons, is the unfailing recurrence of every part of it every year, making it a week filled with our own family traditions.

And for me, that’s enough, or as we say at the Seder—Dayenu!

(Originally published on Imperfect Parent years ago when my kids lived at home and I was bit more ambitious with holidays. This year, it’s me, the dogs, and vegetarian matzah ball soup! Also, my new fave—homemade macaroons!)

Amy xo

Have you entered WFW’s 4th blogiversary giveaway for THE LIFE LIST, THE GLASS WIVES, and WHAT I REMEMBER MOST? Click here to find out more! 

Win 3 Novels by Women’s Fiction Authors! (Now THAT’S March Madness!)

Let’s celebrate Women’s Fiction Writers 4-year blogiversary with a giveaway, shall we? One winner will receive THE LIFE LIST by Lori Nelson Spielman, WHAT I REMEMBER MOST by Cathy Lamb, and THE GLASS WIVES by Amy Sue Nathan (that would be moi)!

Check out the Rafflecopter link  below to enter!

Thank you for being part of Women’s Fiction Writers! 

Click here to enter: a Rafflecopter giveaway for Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

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