In Writing And In Life, You Have To Be Able To Bend

For the first time in over a year, today’s author interview did not work out as planned.  [Collective Gasp!] A jumble of small miscommunications, perhaps.  Or maybe one big snafu.  Anyway, I was knocked off kilter by the whole thing. I was disappointed more by the fact that the schedule was interrupted (I am a crazy creature of habit) and that the continuity and consistency of Women’s Fiction Writers would be compromised, than that this new-to-me author didn’t answer my interview questions and kept me hanging until, oh, 7pm Wednesday night.

And then I realized that this was just another one of those things. Life is full of them.  As is writing.   And so my advice to myself was simply: bend.

Bending doesn’t imply weakness, it implies flexibility.  I can pop right back to where I started or take on a whole new shape.  And this makes me think about my book, THE GLASS WIVES (which had a different title until this perfect one hit me last summer) and how I resisted certain suggestions by my agent Jason Yarn when we’d just stepped off the curb into our agent/author relationship.  I soon realized that making those changes didn’t even mean those changes had to stick (but of course they did). I saved all my deleted parts and if version 1 was better than version 7 (which face it, it never is, but work with me here, it’s an example) then it’s my decision which version anyone ever gets to read, especially in those very early stages. What I realized back then with Jason, was that listening — really listening — employed my deepest personal resolve.  I had to trust myself enough to let go a little. I had to be flexible enough within the confines of my own personal character — to take suggestions on something as personal as my writing.

I’ve since grown accustom to bending, to shaping and reshaping my manuscript with suggestions from my rock-star, rock-solid editor, Brenda Copeland, even if a few of those suggestions made me think of things I hadn’t before.  I resisted the temptation to scream (in my head) ENOUGH!!!! because  I knew enough to bend with all my might. I knew full well that the choice was mine.  And that’s empowering.

When writing, the suggestion to bend and change our work somewhat may come from outside — but the real work and the real words come from inside.   And just like with other things in life, no one really knows how far they can go unless they try.  Look at me, I’m writing a blog post at 8pm on a Wednesday night.  For little-miss-obsessive-planner over here, this is very bendy. But, I figured that bendability (which doesn’t seem to be a real word — until NOW) has to apply to writing blog posts as well as novels. As well as life in general.

Amy xo

P.S. I do realize I was actually ditched by this author, but we’re not going there.  Instead…if you didn’t catch my post on Writer Unboxed on Monday about the great debut author group, Book Pregnant, bend your little finger right here and click! 

How Reading A Historical Thriller About A Nun Helped Me Write Women’s Fiction About A Jewish Family

We’ve talked a lot about reading widely, which is probably the most prevalent advice given by the published authors who’ve graced this blog.  I think one thing that makes it easier to go outside outside our (eh hem, my) comfort zone when reading is the fact that most of us are part of one or more writing communities.  When you know the author of a book that might not be your usual thang, you have another reason to read it.  I’m not saying you should read everything everyone you know writes, I know that’s impossible.  Delightful-sounding, but ambitious, considering most of us have, well, lives.

I digress.

In January I found myself compelled to read THE CROWN, written my fellow debut author Nancy Bilyeau, even though never in my 40-cough-cough (ok, maybe one more – cough) years, had I ever read — or had I ever considered reading — a historical thriller set in Tudor England.  That’s the 1500’s, folks.  Way before the olden days even.

I met Nancy Bilyeau in a debut author group called Book Pregnant.  She’s a social media lackey like me, so we had a lot in common.  Her book came out in January, it was one of the first Book Pregnant books to be published (our books are all being published in 2012 or 2013).  Since I’d just unofficially resolved to read books unlike those I’d read before, Nancy’s was the place to start.  Slowly.  I downloaded the sample.  I was hooked.  I finished the book in two days. I did not analyze the book while I read it (it’s a page-turner, breath-holder, nail-biter) but I realized afterward that not only did I want to read widely for pleasure, but for improving my own writing craft.

Taking myself away from a contemporary, literary-light, realistic work of character-driven fiction (which is what I most often read) allowed my mind to wander (when I was finished reading) the way it does when we’re doing something mindless like the dishes or when I forget my glasses at the gym and can’t read or watch TV.  The fact is — in this case — I was so removed from my own writing that I was actually able to see it more clearly.

So, while a young nun was chasing secrets all over England, and I was learning things about the Catholic Church, kings and nuns and monks, I was also internalizing a deft hand for setting, conflict, mystery and even a little bit of romantic tension.

I think we store our own work in pockets in our brain where we know they fit — and when we read something just like it — we tuck those other stories into the same pockets without paying much attention because the comparisons, lessons, conclusions are obvious. They’re important, those lessons are crucial, but they don’t stretch us in every direction.

When I read something that is nothing like The Glass Wives, my lessons are almost epiphanies. Reading about the monastery and abbey in Tudor England prompted me to enhance some of the setting descriptions in my book.  I loved the visual nature of Nancy’s book, and while my main character, Evie, is driving a mini-van in the suburbs, I was so taken with the images I saw in my head that I wanted to make sure that effect could happen for my readers too.  Nancy’s main character, Joanna, is a strong, driven 26-year-old woman with a strong head and a (mostly) sure heart.  Hey — sounds like Evie, although she’s 45. THE CROWN is steeped in history and the Catholic religion.  The Glass Wives is peppered with Jewish customs, holidays and Yiddish words and phrases.  It’s not the same as Catholic Tudor England, but the weight of its effect on the reader needs to be the same.

Even though I knew nothing about this time period, I easily fell into the rhythm of the cadence.  Context allowed me to derive meaning.  The writing enabled me to learn things without removing me from the story. All good, relatable, universal tools for writers.

There are 30 of us in Book Pregnant (it’s an invisible/secret/private FB group, but we also have a very public blog), and my plan is to read all the books eventually, but this experience has also opened my eyes to more great books out there that I normally might have — no, would have — ignored.  It’s true that the fact that I know Nancy made this even more fun.  I mean, really, what’s not fun about seeing your friend in your local paper — and then realizing it’s written by one of your neighbors, who has been a Chicago Trib reporter for years and also, you guessed it — knows Nancy!

Me in the Chicago suburbs holding The Chicago Tribune with an article about Nancy Bilyeau, my author-friend in NY, and the article was written by my neighbor and friend, Bonnie Miller Rubin. Say that ten-times, fast, I dare you.

This, my friends, is three degrees of writer-separation!  (Better than being Kevin Bacon I tell you.)

The point of all this is…give other writers a chance because you are going to want them to give YOU a chance and because you can and will learn from them.  Don’t know other writers?  Yes you do, you know me!  Just check out the comments section, follow folks on Twitter, leave a note on a thread on one of your favorite author’s FB pages.  I feel fortunate (as you know) to connect here at WFW with women’s fiction writers.  It’s what I do. I write stories and novels about families and friendships that revolve around women.  But — since January, in addition to the literary/women’s fiction that’s usually on my reading menu, I’ve read historical fiction, memoir, humor, Southern fiction and a paranormal romance. I have also read the lauded and laughed-at 50 Shades, but purely in the name of research about grey eyes.  And elevators.  We will not discuss the fact that there are neither grey eyes nor elevators in The Glass Wives.

And let’s just say I am glad my dining room is no longer painted red.

Consider those your spoilers for the day. 😉

Amy xo

PS My opinion of that 50 Shades is that the writing is lackadaisical at best – but this isn’t a review blog – and I get the lure. A friend told me Ryan Gosseling is going to play Christian Grey in the movie. I’m more of a George Clooney gal, but whatever.  I may just have to see the movie too. You know.  For research.

I urge you to learn more about Nancy Bilyeau and THE CROWN by visiting Nancy’s website and by reading the interviews and articles listed here.  THE CHALICE, the much anticipated sequel to THE CROWN, will be published in the UK and Germany.  You can read about Nancy in the Chicago Tribune, the same article that I’m holding and subsequently mailed to Nancy.  Then it will be like zero degrees of separation for all of us!  Click here!  If you’d like to read a review of THE CROWN, click here.  Want an in-depth interview with Nancy? You’ll find that here

Top photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ladymixy-uk/

How Perspective Impacts Fiction Writing. And Golf. A Guest Post By Historical Women’s Fiction Author Kristina McMorris

In this special guest post, author Kristina McMorris reminds us be willing to change our perspective.  That things — and people — might be different than we expect.  Kristina’s insight encourages us to pay close attention as we take swings at writing and at life  — because we just never now where that next story, lesson, or blog post might be hiding. 

Please welcome Kristina McMorris to Women’s Fiction Writers!

~ Amy

A Change In Perspective

By Kristina McMorris

Looking back, it’s fascinating to me how lessons learned from an unexpected golf encounter in 1996 somehow found their way into my latest novel, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves. Which, by the way, has nothing to do with golf.

It was my usual routine while living in Burbank, California to visit the driving range several times a week. But my golf swing was off that day and I continued to hook the balls—for those unfamiliar with the term, this is not a good thing. I went through my mental checklist: feet shoulder-width apart, grip in place, arms relaxed. Still, the balls soared in a sharp curve.

It didn’t help that the stocky man seated a few yards behind me, slouched on a park bench, baseball cap pulled low, was barking criticisms periodically at his son in the next stall. “If you’re not gonna do it right, don’t do it all,” he snapped at the kid, who couldn’t have been older than twelve. Frustration clearly compounded on both sides and the boy’s practice session worsened.

Doing my best to shut out the man’s harsh remarks, I focused on my checklist, until…he addressed me personally.

“Want a suggestion?” His tone had turned notably gentler.

“Sure,” I answered, more afraid to refuse than eager for advice.

“You’re raising your elbow,” he pointed out simply.

And he was right. In my backswing, an old habit had managed to return. I set my stance, dropped my elbow, and took a swing. Whoosh! A perfect drive. I tried again, to the same result.

I voiced my appreciation and he nodded. Soon after, the kid’s bucket was empty and the two departed. That’s when the sweet, elderly manager of the range shuffled over to see me. “You don’t realize who that man was, do you?” he said excitedly.

My mind raced but came up empty, and I admitted I didn’t know.

“The guy giving you tips—that was Pete Rose!”

Although my baseball knowledge was relatively limited, I certainly recognized the name and couldn’t help but laugh. From this bit of information, a new perspective changed how I viewed the scene.

The same theory can be applied to fiction as the author unpeels layers of a character’s backstory, defenses, or outward traits in order to reveal the truth. In Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, for example, I presented many of my characters in this very manner. In fact, I built my entire novel upon the premise of a unique perspective: a Caucasian spouse who lives voluntarily in a Japanese American relocation camp. The day I stumbled across an actual account of this occurrence, I knew it was a story I had to tell. A story told from a viewpoint that could completely change—and hopefully enhance—the reader’s experience.

For writers, lessons in craft are indeed everywhere around us, even if we don’t realize it at the time.

Kristina McMorris is a graduate of Pepperdine University and the recipient of nearly twenty national literary awards. A host of weekly TV shows since age nine, including an Emmy® Award-winning program, she penned her debut novel, Letters from Home (Kensington Books, Avon/HarperCollins UK), based on inspiration from her grandparents’ wartime courtship. This critically praised book was declared a must-read by Woman’s Day magazine and achieved additional acclaim as a Reader’s Digest Select Editions feature, a Doubleday/Literary Guild selection, and a 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards semifinalist for Best Historical Fiction. Her second novel, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves (March 2012), has already received glowing reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, among many others. Named one of Portland’s “40 Under 40” by The Business Journal, Kristina lives with her husband and two sons in the Pacific Northwest, where she refuses to own an umbrella.

For more, visit www.KristinaMcMorris.com

How Do You Start Writing A Novel?

I’ve received a number of emails lately — from acquaintances, potential editing clients and strangers.  And these sincere aspiring authors have one thing in common.

They haven’t started writing their books.

So that’s my first piece of advice.  Write. Write with abandon. Write with acceptance. Write with forgiveness. Write with the knowledge that you are going to rewrite several if not many times.

Wait. Rewrite? Folks stop me there, especially if we’re talking face-to-face. “I don’t have time to rewrite,” they say.  My reply? “OK.”  I mean, really. Who am I to say that it will take someone four years to write a novel?  That the novel they start won’t resemble the novel they query and the novel they query will only resemble the novel they sell in some ways, but not in other ways?  Saying “OK” may be a copout but it’s also the truth.  It’s OK with me if these folks don’t rewrite their books, but it shouldn’t be OK with them — and then they shouldn’t be querying or even self-publishing.  But that’s not my job.  I’m always eager to send a list of websites or some blog names or links; to recommend books and vouch for online forums.  But the nitty gritty has to come from within, because learning how to write and publish a novel is only the start.  Heck, writing a novel is just the start.

But what if you are at the point of writing that first draft — and you just want to get it out — onto virtual paper so that it’s real and can be “saved as” the first draft of your novel?  Some people are ready to get moving but get so hung up on writing right and being perfect that they don’t make it past Chapter One.  I did that for a long time. I rewrote the beginning of my book so many times that I had a fabulous first 50 pages and nothing else. Mind you — those fifty pages are not part of the novel I sold.  They weren’t even part of the novel I queried.  So I spent months and months and months writing something that went no where.  I wish I knew then what I know now.  And that is — getting the barebones story out is what’s most important.  I don’t get held up in the what if’s and it’s not fabulous.  I just write.  And then I go back.  A gazillion times.

Since writing and querying and selling THE GLASS WIVES, a process, that in its entirety, took five years, I have written one other almost-completed novel.  One that won’t see the light of day.  I have the beginnings of two others and ideas for yet one more (the keeper, I think).

Here is a post that I wrote for Writer Unboxed that first appeared on their site in October 2010, right before I signed with my agent, Jason Yarn.  At that time I’d published one short story.  Now I’ve published three and have had two more accepted.  My goal was to be a published author.

So here’s my best advice for how to get started when you want to write a novel — or when you’re struggling through an early draft.  I even do this in later drafts, but I find then it’s often a matter of trimming, not adding.  We have a lot of lurkers here — who write all different kinds of fiction and some non-fiction and they just want a jumping off point.  We can’t push them — they have to do it themselves — but a little nudge coupled with a smidgen of advice couldn’t hurt.

What color is your balloon?

By Amy Sue Nathan

I wrote, rewrote, proofread and edited my story. Three times. I typed ‘The End’ and then with a writerly sigh and a wink, emailed my fifteen-hundred-word short story to my best reader-friend.

“It’s really good, Ame,” she said over the phone. “But I want, well, I really want more.”

Who did she think she was? Oliver Twist? I replied as eloquently as possible. I was, after all, a writer, wordsmith and lover of language.

“Huh?” I said.

Until that time, my published writing had ranged from six-hundred-fifty to one thousand words. I had never written anything longer. Had she missed those additional five hundred words? Perhaps her version of Word didn’t have a counter.

I printed out my story and stared at the first page. I turned it upside-down, read it with one eye closed and read it aloud. Then, I read it aloud with one eye closed. I knew what the story needed and was up for the challenge but didn’t know how to start. The thought overwhelmed me. Then, because when writing didn’t work, doodling did, I uncapped my favorite, fine-line blue marker and drew a circle around the first paragraph. (I’m that delicate balance of procrastinator meets visual-learner.)

And that’s when I saw a blue balloon.

That first paragraph separated from the rest of the page as deflated blue balloon needing enough air to make it round, but not so much that it would burst. So, with short, precise breaths I exhaled into that first blue balloon and then the ones that followed. I meticulously added detail, emotion and meaning, all the while holding tight to the story so it didn’t drift away.

Those fifteen hundred words became three thousand. And eventually the story was published.

At one time I did not believe I could write more than one thousand words. Then for a while I thought three thousand was my limit. I’m happy someone had the insight, faith and chutzpah to ask me for more.

I’m even happier that I had more to give.

It’s now four years, many blue balloons, essays, stories and one seventy-seven-thousand-word, yet-to-be-published novel later. So, when writing friends and colleagues ask for advice (and sometimes when they don’t ask) I suggest looking at each paragraph as a deflated balloon. Just try it, I tell them. It doesn’t have to be blue. Go wild. Pick any color at all.

And it’s still my best advice to myself. When my writing needs a little (or a lot) of something, I automatically see each paragraph as a floppy, blue balloon. Then, I take a deep breath and huff and puff just enough of the right words to evoke the images and emotions I had truly hoped for.

And then not only is the page filled up, but so am I.

Please share you best advice or tricks for getting started or for just getting through an early draft!! 

The Little Writing Retreat That Wasn’t

Back in November, I had the best of intentions.

My sixteen-year-old daughter would be away (and safe and happy – essential for my peace of mind) for two-and-a-half days (my son is in college).  I stocked up on coffee and half-and-half (also essential) and snacks and coupons for take-out.  I replenished the dog-treat stash.  I devised a plan that consisted of reading and writing and watching movies based on books.

What did I really do?

I talked on the phone to friends and watched reality television.

And…it was fabulous!

I guess I needed a break.

Who knew?

The fact is, I knew.

My daughter will be away again this weekend.  Friday I’ll finish a freelance editing project.  I’m waiting for my edits from my editor.  It would be the perfect weekend to light a fire in the fireplace and open up my works-in-progress and flesh out some ideas that are pinging around in my brain.

But instead I’ve made plans with friends and have episodes of Downton Abbey to watch.

While I’d love to know that I’d hunker down with the laptop and get a lot done — I have much coming up (those edits, mind you, and I can’t wait!) and it’s not often I get a weekend to myself.  So I’m thwarting the should and embracing the could.  While I can!

Writer’s Epiphany #1: If You Don’t Write It, No One Else Will – or – Strip the Wallpaper Yourself if You Want to Paint Before Labor Day

My son is home from college and as of yet without a summer job. The local, transferable class he is scheduled to take starts in two weeks.  So, while he lies on the couch with his laptop and iPhone, watching DVR’ed episodes of every TNT show he can remember to record, I look at him and wonder how long he can sit there, staring at two screens, composing amusing Facebook statuses, watching YouTube videos and texting his friends.

Uh oh.  (At least I know where he gets his proclivity for technological multitasking.)

Except — I have things I have to do.  In my professional life I write, I edit, I read.  In my personal life I have two teenagers and two dogs. Yet, sometimes, I just stare at my laptop like it is going to erupt in song (which it can, as you know) and the way I can also stare into the refrigerator waiting to Guy Fieri to pop out and take me to Flavortown. (Yes, I watch a bit too much TV sometimes.)

Lucky for my kid, I have a list of chores and household projects just waiting for an able-bodied nineteen year old to do them.

Lucky for me, staring at him made me realize that I wasn’t doing enough either.

So I handed him the tools necessary for removing wallpaper — and I sat down to revise my novel at a faster pace. For him, I pointed to the directions of the back of the packages.  For me, I made a cumulative list of changes to make in my book.  He’s working on the wall in strips.  I’m tackling my manuscript ten pages at a time.

The difference between stripping wallpaper and revising a manuscript?  As with most tasks or chores, anyone can do them.  You can do it yourself, with a friend, with your kids or you can pay someone to do it for you (my personal preference when the budget allows). Ordinarily, I am not a Do-It-Myself  kinda gal.  But when it comes to writing my own unique story in my own unique voice with the characters and twists and turns and emotions and endings that originated in my imagination, well, I’m out of options.

Do-it-myself, I must.

And even if I had a gazillion dollars, I wouldn’t pay someone to Snookie a book for me.  I’m a writer, I love to write. But the logistics of the how-to’s get in the way and there’s no instruction manual. Not even in another language. So, I do-it-myself.  I realized recently that if I don’t revise these pages — stop the presses — they are not going to get revised!

And that, my women’s fiction writer friends, is not an option.

Is it an option for you?  Could someone else write the book you’re writing?  Could someone else tweak and tone your book better than you?

Probably not. It’s very motivating – at least it was to me – to realize that the story I was picking at and wading through was one only I could tell.  And while I asked writers how they tackled revisions and fixed their manuscripts, the answers really didn’t matter because the real solution was in my own head waiting at the door for me to let it out and onto the page.

The plan was to have my revisions back to my agent by the end of May.  Um, uh, well, that’s now.  To get my novel as close to literary gorgeousness as I can, I’m looking at finishing by the end of June. But, considering the backlog of DVR’ed episodes of House and King of Queens, that’ll still be weeks before the wallpaper stripping is done.