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!! 

Turns-of-phrase, underline-able quotes and really cool kids

As a preschooler, my son would have told you that he liked Wake Up Blue.

Wake-Up Blue is the color of the sky when you wake up in the morning. It’s not navy blue or royal blue. It’s Wake-Up Blue.

His unique terminology really hit the mark. It was visual and specific before he ever picked up the crayon or pointed to the T shirt or even to the sky.

Another thing he made up invented was: Pick me down.

Pick me up — followed by — pick me down.  Why didn’t I think of that?

My daughter, years later, aptly coined the term “lasternight.” A compound word, no less, from a two-year-old. Last night + Yesterday = Lasternight.

We also have family words. All families do. Pass me the fishy crackers and when we have spaghetti don’t forget the sprinkle cheese. I don’t have to add a qualifier or explanation at home or for you either, do I?

Writers do this all the time. They – we – can have a way of saying things that no one else does. It’s more than choosing the right word, it’s putting the right words together the right way so that the reader knows exactly what we mean. And it sounds good, even if it sounds different. Maybe especially if it sounds different. We call it turn of phrase.

When I first started writing people told me a could turn a good phrase. Frankly, I had no idea what they meant, although I certainly said thank you. (They always said it so nicely, I knew it was to be taken as a compliment) As I got more into writing and did more and more reading with writer’s eyes, I knew exactly what they meant.

I was glad I’d said thank you.

For me, the best women’s fiction has underlineable phrases, sentences or paragraphs — something the author said in just the right, hit-the-nail-on-the-head way.  It’s also true of all fiction (for me) and non-fiction like memoirs.  When I read and the words are so evocative and precise, lyrical and smart that I am blown away.  Sometimes something underlinable is just explaining something in a fabulous way.  It’s the Wake-Up Blue and Lasternight of literature.  We love to read it and we LOVE when we write it.

Do you have a particular turn of phrase that really made you think “I wish I’d written that!”  Something that made you take a visual step back, read it again and realize it was masterful or just plain clever? 

How about something one of your own characters says that’s specific to her or  him only — whether it’s in dialogue or within the prose.  In THE GLASS WIVES, one of the main character, Evie’s, best friends, Laney, refers to another character as The Widow.  Laney never uses this gal’s name.  It’s Laney’s thing.  Not a turn of phrase but definitely a Laney-ism.

Are there any “isms” in your book? In your real life?

I realize you can’t come up with something better than Wake-Up Blue or Lasternight…but tell me anyway!

~ Amy

Moms, Writing, and Guilt – A Year’s End Guest Post With A Message To Take Forward

One of the best things about this blog, for me, is making it work for myself and all of you.  As you have probably realized, this blog focuses on the authors, business and craft of traditionally published women’s fiction. I’ve declined many requests from self-published writers because I’m steeped in the publishing machine and that’s my focus.  But I’m also not stoopid.  (no emails please, the error is for emphasis, it’s a blog, not a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, although if it could be, I’ll fix the spelling). When a fabulous writer/reader offers me a gem-of-a-post I don’t say no even when she doesn’t fit neatly into the WFW box.  

Just read Holly Robinson’s post and you’ll see what I mean. And if you’re not a mom — or a dad — or a step-parent — I believe it still applies.  Because the overriding message is — you must make time for what’s important to you.  Seems obvious, but it’s not always so simple, as we know.

Please welcome Holly Robinson to Women’s Fiction Writers.  

And…see you next year! (couldn’t help it, sorry)

Moms, Writing, and Guilt:  Do You Get In Your Own Way?

by Holly Robinson 

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked at book signings or when I teach writing classes is this one:  “When do you write?”

The aspiring writers who ask this questions are searching for a recipe to follow.  They want me to say something like:  “If you sit at your desk from six to nine every morning, you will become a writer.”  Or maybe:  “If you set a goal of writing just 500 words every day, you’ll have a novel in a year!  Easy as ABC!”

Even people who aren’t aspiring writers ask me this question.  Maybe it’s because they struggle to imagine what writers actually do.  They imagine us on safari or having affairs like the characters in  novels, or maybe kicking back with a brandy at noon.

“It must be so exciting to be a writer!” people often tell me.  “When do you write?”

Writing, alas, is not that exciting, seen from the outside, and there’s no simple recipe for getting it done—especially if you’re a mother.  Because mothers get so little time to actually put words on paper, we often look like we’re doing something else when we’re writing.  We’re burning dinner because we’re working out a plot line, or furtively jotting notes during a school concert, or suddenly walking the dog when the dog is tired and acting like a cement block at the end of the leash.

In my early years as a writer, I, too, was looking for the secret to success.  I had already become a mother by the time I was seriously trying to publish, and I was juggling a paying job as a public relations consultant besides.  I was so exhausted when my kids were little that I just wanted to lie down at the end of the day with a pillow over my face.

My question at book signings therefore had a slightly different flavor.  Instead of asking writers when they wrote, I would ask, “How do you find enough time to write?”  I couldn’t imagine it, you see, because I already had more tasks than hours in a day.

Most male authors gave very prescriptive answers to this question.  They had set hours for writing—even if they had regular jobs and kids.  “I get up early and write for two hours before my job,” they might say, or, “When I come home from work, I go straight to my study and write until bed.”

As a mother, I couldn’t crack this secret code.  How could I write early in the morning, if I had to find gym clothes or pack lunches before school?  How could I write at night, if the baby got up every hour with colic, or if I had to help with one of those dreadful fourth grade dioramas, the kind where you have to fashion little ears of corn out of Play-doh and ladders out of twigs?

Finally, a famous male mystery novelist shed some light on how many male authors were finding the time.  I knew that he had small children as well, so when I heard him speak at our local library, I said, “How do you find time to write?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the famous novelist said.  “I have a wife.”

I swear to you that this is true, but I won’t divulge this man’s name.  His wife would surely kill him if she heard this, or leave him, if she hasn’t already.

Finally, though, someone gave me a recipe that I could actually use:  the now-deceased short story writer and political activist, Grace Paley.  When I approached Ms. Paley at the Boston Public Library to ask how she got any writing done when she had small children at home, she grinned and said, “Day care.”

Day care!  I mulled this over in my mind.  I had day care for the hours I worked as a public relations consultant, of course, but did I dare pay for babysitting if I was just writing?  How could I justify such a debutante expense?

I couldn’t.  There was no rational reason on earth that I could give to support the idea of spending solid cash on a babysitter.  How could I, when my efforts at writing short stories, novels, and essays were being rejected, one after the other?

For a couple of years after that comment by Paley, I kept trying to fit writing around the edges of my life:  while the kids watched videos or played in the yard, or after everyone was in bed, before I fell into a coma.  I had a ritual, where I’d make a cup of tea and allow myself two squares of chocolate, essentially bribing myself to sit in front of the computer.

Finally I started running away from home, abandoning my family to go on occasional weekend writers’ retreats—typically to Wellspring House in the Berkshires, but sometimes just holing up in a cheap hotel to write for ten hours a day.  Not everyone’s idea of fun, but for me it was bliss.

Going away for even a weekend was tough at first, because I felt so guilty.  I’d abandoned my family!  I was missing that Girl Scout camping trip, that track meet, that night of video and pizzas with my children!

Plus, once I was at the retreat, it was hard not to mother everyone around me.  I’d feel compelled to do all of the dishes in the communal kitchen at first.  Once I even moved a glass out of the way, so that another writer (a young guy) wouldn’t knock it off the table with his elbow with his wild gestures.

Once I got over the guilt, though, these retreats were amazing.  It was absolutely liberating to just get up in the morning and go right back to the sentence or chapter I had been working on the day before, with nobody demanding that I make breakfast or tie shoes.

The downside was that sometimes it was more difficult to write when I got home.  I’d face the same fractured work schedule and house chores as before, and I’d despair again because I wasn’t making any progress as a writer.  I needed more hours to myself if I was ever going to focus on ideas long enough to put words on paper.

My husband, luckily, was supportive.  He urged me to essentially buy those hours.  “If this is what you really want to do, then get extra day care,” he said.  “We’ll get by somehow.”

God bless him.  I lined up extra day care hours.  Guilt drove me to become assiduous about dividing my time:  day care hours two days a week were for writing my own essays and fiction, and three days a week I would use day care for paid work.

Amazingly, it wasn’t long after that when my previously unpaid writing efforts started to pay.  I didn’t sell any fiction, but I sold one essay to Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, and then another.  An editor from Parents magazine saw one of my essays and asked if I’d like to write an article for them.  From there, I was able to use my clips to convince editors at many other magazines to buy my pitches for articles and essays.

It wasn’t long before those day care hours where I was writing my “own” stuff were actually paying more than my per-hour PR work.  I flip-flopped my schedule and started using day care three days a week to write and two days a week for public relations.  I finally sold my first book, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, to Crown, and from there, I started taking on contracts as a ghost writer and book doctor.

Best of all, because I had those long, uninterrupted hours to think and write, I was less frustrated, and more able to enjoy the days when I wasn’t writing.  Even more surprisingly, I found that I was more creative on my “off” writing days.  Thoughts bloomed at odd times, like when I was grocery shopping or yelling, “Good job, honey!” on the playground.

When I visualize why this happened, I see it like this:  the whole top of my head opened up and let ideas flow out like water on the days I had day care, as I poured the words out and arranged them.  On days I didn’t have day care hours designated for writing, that well in my head was able to fill with new ideas from some secret area in my brain that I’d never been able to tap into before.

Okay.  I need to work on that metaphor.  But you get the idea.  Now, when people ask, “When do you write?” I answer, “There’s never a time that I’m not writing, even if it looks like I’m doing something else.”

And, if the person asking me the question is a young mother, I add, “You’ll write best if you pay for day care.  Run away from home sometimes, too.  Your children will survive.  They might even be proud of you.”

Holly Robinson is a writer and comic whose articles appear regularly in national publications such as  Family Circle, Ladies’ Home Journal,  More, and Parents.  She is the author of the novel Sleeping Tigers and The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter:  A Memoir.  To learn more about Holly Robinson, visit www.authorhollyrobinson.com.

Revising Part 3: The 6 Most Common Dialogue Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Revising Part 3: The 6 Most Common Dialogue Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

by Laura Harrington

Writing dialogue.  Why does it matter? Great dialogue makes a good book even better.  Dialogue that’s really working can move your plot along almost effortlessly.  Less than great dialogue can undermine our belief in your characters and our interest in the world you’ve created.  How does that happen?  Every time a reader thinks: That’s awkward, or: That’s not how people talk, you’ve chipped away at what you’ve so carefully created: your reader’s belief that these characters are real.

In addition, dialogue can be a wonderful way to elegantly reveal back-story or exposition.  Too often, however, dialogue can seem like the poor stepchild in a book; under-nourished and ignored.

If you really want to learn how to write great dialogue, take a playwriting workshop.  It will be well worth your time and energy.

Mistake #1:  Characters use each other’s names all the time.

For example:

“Bob, I’m so sorry I ran over your cat.”

“Jenny, what are you, an idiot?”

Maybe Jenny would use Bob’s name in this situation, to soften the blow of her bad news.  But why would Bob interrupt the explosion of his anger by using her name?  He wouldn’t.

Writers overuse characters’ names as a form of exposition; it’s a simple way to let us know who’s talking.  But in real life when you know someone well you almost never use their name.  When you do, it’s usually for emphasis.

For example:

A parent using a kid’s full name: “John Joseph Stanley, you get in this house right this minute!”

A disappointed lover: “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny … how could you … ?” But unless you want his lover character to sound whiney, I’d avoid it in that instance as well.

A simple rule of thumb (and there are always exceptions): For each page of dialogue don’t use character names more than once.

Mistake # 2: Forcing characters in high context relationships to speak low context dialogue.

What are high context/ low context relationships?

People in a high context relationship know each other very well.  For example: married couples, siblings, or roommates.  Married couples do not need to tell each other how old they are, how many children they have, or how long they’ve been married.  When/ if they do, the reader experiences this as false and it undermines their belief in your characters.  People who know each other have a wonderful kind of short hand to their dialogue; they assume a great deal.  This is very interesting for the reader because we get to try to read between the lines.  Much is inferred in high context dialogue.  That inference engages the reader, we prick up our ears and pay close attention.  For an excellent example of this, look at the first scene in David Mamet’s play: Glengarry Glen Ross.

Low context relationships occur between people who don’t know each other well.  For example: you and your doctor or lawyer, the prosecutor and the accused, a cop and a suspect, a new neighbor introduced into a decades old poker game.  In all of these relationships it is natural to ask direct questions and solicit information.

You can create these situations in order to get a great deal of exposition out quickly. This is why low context relationships are so important and why you’ll find them used to great dramatic effect. Think of police and medical dramas, courtroom dramas, narratives based on the new kid in town.

Mistake # 3: Only one person in your scene has anything to say or do.

For example:  You’ve got two people in a dialogue scene but only one of them needs or wants anything. Here’s the classic example of this:

Scene: Main character and best friend in a coffee shop. Main character is going through a crisis. Friend asks questions, drawing main character out, so the reader can learn all about the crisis and then the friend can offer sympathy and support.

Sometimes these terrible scenes happen over the telephone.  Even worse.

What’s wrong?  This kind of scene happens all the time in real life, doesn’t it?  Maybe, but even in real life there’s a bit more back and forth just to be polite.  And, face it, that’s not particularly interesting and it’s certainly not dynamic or dramatic.  Nothing urgent is going on; this is just an information dump.

A scene can’t crackle with interest and intensity unless both characters want something and have something at stake.  So spend some time developing the friend so that she has a real life and wants and needs and an agenda of her own.  Your readers are smart.  The friend/ side-kick character doesn’t feel real to them, because she’s not.

And while we’re at it: How about a more interesting setting for this scene — a setting where something could actually happen that might impact the scene and the characters or a setting that would offer them a challenge, where things could get worse.  But even the tired coffee shop setting can be rendered more interesting if you let things go wrong and allow unexpected things to happen.

Mistake # 4:  Overuse of telephone conversations.

The telephone, Skype call or email version of the previous scene is even worse.  Why?  Telephone calls, unless they are short and urgent, signal the reader: Pure Exposition Ahead. You’re a writer; you’re a wonderfully imaginative person.  Come up with a more interesting way to convey the information that’s crucial to your story.

Avoid phone calls/ emails/ Skype calls entirely or use them very, very sparingly. Trust me, technology does not make a boring conversation more interesting.

Mistake # 5:  Bold exposition tarted up as “remember when …” monologues or, heaven help us, “I had this dream last night …” monologues. 

I won’t even read these monologues anymore.  That’s right, I skip right over them.  Other readers may be more polite.  I read “remember when…” and know that I’m in for a lovingly, even poetically rendered pseudo memory, which is really just back story.  This is the easy way out.  I understand it in a first draft, but never in a finished book.  The same is true for “I had a dream …” monologues.  Does anyone really enjoy listening to someone else’s dream? Be more clever.  Delight me with your exposition, don’t bury me with it.

Be very careful and very sparing with monologues in general. They tend to stop the action.

Mistake # 6: All your characters sound the same.

Each character’s voice should be unique and recognizable.  How do you achieve that clear “voicing?”  Go back through you book draft after draft, layer after layer until each character’s voice is utterly distinct.  Your tools to differentiate character through their use of dialogue are word choice, length of phrases, use of metaphor, beats per line, cadence and tone. The more you do this, the easier it will become.

And finally, you can’t write credible dialogue without reading your work out loud.  You need to develop your ear for good dialogue.  Reading dialogue out loud will make awkward work immediately clear.

If you missed the first two installments in Laura’s 4-part series, here are they are: Revising Part 2: Character Arcs and Revising Part 1: Dealing With Plot (or Why I Love 3×5 Cards).  And for more on reading your work out loud, you might want to take a look at a post Laura wrote for Writer Unboxed: “Reading Out Loud: Not Just for Kids.”

Laura Harrington, award winning playwright, lyricist and librettist, winner of the 2008 Kleban Award for “most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre,” has written dozens of plays, musicals, operas and radio plays which have been produced in 28 states, Canada and Europe, in venues ranging from Off-Broadway to Houston Grand Opera to the Paris Cinemateque.

Harrington has twice won both the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England.  Additional awards include a Boston IRNE Award for Best New Play, a Bunting Institute Fellowship at Harvard/ Radcliffe, a Whiting Foundation Grant-in-Aid,  the Joseph Kesselring Award for Drama,  a New England Emmy, and a Quebec Cinemateque Award.

Laura teaches playwriting at MIT where she was awarded the 2009 Levitan Prize for Excellence in Teaching.  She has also been a frequent guest artist at Tufts, Harvard, Wellesley, Skidmore, and the University of Iowa.

Alice Bliss, her first novel, published by Pamela Dorman Books at Viking/ Penguin has been widely acclaimed in print and online reviews and has been chosen by Barnes & Noble for their “Discover Great New Writers” program for Fall 2011.

Foreign rights for Alice Bliss have been sold in the UK, Italy and Denmark.

For reviews, interviews, etc please visit: www.lauraharringtonbooks.com

For additional information about Laura’s theatre work, please visit: www.laura-harrington.com

Write the Right Dialogue And Dialect Into Your Women’s Fiction

Writers love words and words are part of dialogue. Witty banter between two characters or a frenzy of tagless ramblings running the length of a page adds flavor to fiction the way under notes of oregano and basil and toppings of bubbly cheese add flavor to pizza.

But unlike pizza — anything does not go when writing fiction and writing dialogue.  Because as silly as it sounds, fiction must be believable and that includes the way characters talk to one another, to themselves and sometimes, depending on your book’s POV, to the reader.

For realistic fiction – which is how I usually think of most women’s fiction – you have to nail it.  Kids have talk like, um, kids.  Adults must speak clearly but within character — like in real life.  What happens when you talk to a friend and he or just “just doesn’t sound right” to you?  Either something is wrong or they’re trying on a new way of talking.  And the same is true with characters in fiction.  Your readers will want to know and trust that they understand who your characters are, especially when they’re relating so closely to the main character in a work of women’s fiction.  An “off” sentence that is unintentional, not meant to indicate a change, can really throw off a reader off the story’s trail.  The  best advice I ever received – and it’s nothing new – is to read your dialogue aloud.  It’s a good idea to read all your writing aloud but I read dialogue aloud as I’m writing it to make sure it sounds right.

To me, dialect and regional idiosyncrasies are fascinating.  I think this is so because I lived in one place for twenty-six years and when I left I realized not everyone says “Yo” to get someone’s attention.  Yes, regional colloquialisms come with a learning curve and I was happy to oblige.

I now live near Chicago, so I carry a purse. But where I grew up, in Philadelphia, I carried a pocketbook… and something fancy might have been a handbag. A purse was where you kept your coins.

So if I was writing a character who lived in Chicago or a fictional Chicago suburb like in THE GLASS WIVES, those characters would never utter the word pocketbook.  Even if I didn’t live in the midwest, I’d have to have done the research to know the right lingo.  Oh, also in THE GLASS WIVES  my characters sit on the couch.  I grew up sitting on the sofa (often with a clear plastic slip cover, but that’s another story).

Another thing I learned is that no one in the Midwest sits on a stoop.  And neither did I growing up in Philadelphia.  I sat on the steps.  I also ate water ice — not, not, not — Italian Ice.

In THE GLASS WIVES as well as in my short story, The Kindness of Neighbors,  I use a bisele Yiddish – bi’-seh-leh – a little bit. It fits the characters – one old and one not-so-old.  They are words familiar to these characters and I hope the way I write them makes them familiar to the readers.  It adds something that reminds us the characters in those scenes are Jewish, or at least that they enjoy a good kvetch.

It’s important to know how your character would refer to someone or something so that the dialogue sounds real, so that the voices have a lilt or a twang or a joy or a hurt.  Add to that the words that fit the time and place and person and it’s going to read real.  If you’re writing two best friends, the dialogue is casual and familiar.  You might include private jokes.  If you’re writing adversaries or strangers the words would be different — perhaps more formal.  When you read some of your dialogue aloud try imagining people you know saying the words instead of your characters. It’s an exercise in detachment, and Friend A might not be like Character B, but it’s a good way to “picture” and “hear” the words.  You might actually be able to imagine another fictional character who would be comfortable with your dialogue.  I think TV characters are great for those purposes.  (I’m a big TV watcher, so it works for me)

Of course there are also ways to add elements to your characters that have no basis in anything real, like the nickname one friend calls another, or someone’s favorite regional meal.  Those are the bits that make your characters themselves, something that a writer must keep consistent and believable throughout.  The last thing you want a reader or editor to say is, “So-and-so would never do that.”  Characters can (and should) evolve and change but they must still remain true to themselves — and this comes out through their mannerisms and thoughts and dialogue.

At some point during one of my six-thousand revisions of THE GLASS WIVES over the past three years  I compiled a list of the idiosyncrasies and verbal acuities associated with my main characters. I realized that the decadence in both reading and writing dialogue and dialect, is in the details.

Capiche?

Which words, phrases or verbal idiocyncrasies help to define your characters? And how do you make sure you get it right?  

Revising Your Novel Part 2: Character Arcs

Welcome to another insightful and step-by-step guide to revisions by author Laura Harrington.  Share with us how you work on your revisions, and if you think Laura’s method would work for you!

Revising Your Novel: Part 2: Character arcs: Get out your sharpies and get ready to draw.

by Laura Harrington, author of ALICE BLISS

We’re going to look at how to track every character’s dramatic arc in your book, and thereby find out if each main character has a dramatic arc.  As with my first post about plot, our method here is to look at one aspect of your book at a time.  Breaking a revision down into manageable parts makes it much easier to tackle.  You do need to develop some trust in the process, because initially it can feel like you’re dismantling your book.  And you are.  But I can promise you that if you do this work, when you re-construct your book, your work will be stronger, tighter, and more nuanced.

Okay, so you’ve lavished weeks and months creating a phenomenal main character.  Her journey is compelling, she has powerful wants, she encounters interesting obstacles, she’s flawed, she makes mistakes, and during the course of the novel, she changes.  Brava!

That journey is your character’s arc.  You should be able to draw it.  Classic drama is rising action, climax and denouement.  Many other arcs or “shapes” are possible, but that one’s been working for centuries so let’s adopt it for our purposes.

Draw the arc of your main character: pen, paper, sharpie, whatever you like. What does it look like?  If it looks more like a spiral or a long plateau or a series of bumps without any high or low points, then you’ve probably got some work to do.  As Marsha Norman (Pulitzer Prize winning playwright) says: “No one wants to take the great bumpy ride to nowhere.”  (Hopefully you have already fixed those bumps by first looking at your book’s plot and structure.  See my earlier post : Rewriting Part 1: Dealing with Plot or Why I Love 3 x 5 cards.)

This is where a lot of writers seem to stop these days.  They’ve got a wonderful main character with an interesting journey and that’s that.  These books bore the pants off of me because no other character is actually fully realized or fully alive.  All other characters exist to serve the main character’s journey; they don’t have a life of their own.

Try drawing the arc of your other major characters.  If it’s not a strong arc or a strong journey, what can you do? Sometimes you’ll need to seriously re-think a character who has not yet come to life or does not have anything much going on.

Main Characters:

Here are the steps that I find useful when dealing with the main characters:

Working with one character at a time, read through the book focusing only (or as much as possible) on this character, asking the following questions:

1)   Can you identify, connect with and care about this character’s intense hunger or desire or need?

2)   What obstacles does he/she encounter?

3)   What’s at stake? Is anything urgent going on?  Do you need to raise the stakes?

4)   Is the character revealed through actions and behavior? I’m not talking about smoking or pacing, we all know that those activities do not really reveal much about anyone.  I mean lying, stealing, cheating, making mistakes, betrayals, eavesdropping, etc.

5)   And this is a brutally simple question to ask: Where’s the drama?

Make notes as you’re reading: possible additional scenes, places where a scene could use another beat.  Note where dialogue isn’t really dialogue – those places where your secondary character simply serves to ask the questions that your main characters needs to answer.  Once you start to develop that secondary character you can go back and re-write those sections of dialogue as well.

Every major character has to have a strong arc. Continue to build and develop these characters and their stories.

Minor characters:

But what do you do with minor characters who feel flat or just not quite as interesting as they should be?  I like to call this kind of detailed work “working in brushstrokes”.  These characters don’t need to take center stage, but you do want them to be real and intriguing.

So what do I mean by brushstrokes?  Think quick, brief, subtle.

1)   Read short stories to see how quickly short story writers establish character. They have to be economical and concise.  How do they do it?

2)   Look at your minor characters and start asking questions about them, so that you can delve more deeply into their lives. I often find that the right character is there, but I just haven’t paid enough attention yet to who they are.

3)   You’re looking for a telling detail. For example: I wrote a scene in the principal’s office that required a brief encounter with the school secretary.  First draft I breezed right past her.  “When she glances into the principal’s office she can see Mrs. Bradley.”  Who is Mrs. Bradley?  At this point, she’s just a name.  Nice that I was specific and concrete, but so what?  If I’m going to draw the reader’s attention to Mrs. Bradley, she needs to be an actual character, otherwise she needs to be cut.  Second draft I added this: “When she glances into the principal’s office she can see Mrs. Bradley; even Mrs. Bradley looks worn as she pulls her sky blue sweater over her soft stomach and then leans over to search for a file in the filing cabinet.  Alice is trying to remember – didn’t somebody tell her that one of Mrs. Bradley’s kids died of cancer when they were little?  Yet here she is everyday.”

I’ve suggested Mrs. Bradley’s grief through the fact that she looks worn. I’ve touched on the most important part of her history – the death of a child.  I’ve inferred that she’s an unsung hero because, in spite of her loss, here she is at work everyday. As the novel continues these tiny moments where characters survive life’s tragic losses both add to our sense of depth and plant the seeds for Alice’s survival as well.

One final note:  That last sentence could have read: “Yet here she is everyday, taking care of other people’s children.”  But “taking care of other people’s children” is unnecessary, because it’s implied, and the reader already gets it without the writer having to be overt.

This is the power of the unspoken word, which is the subject for my next guest post: Revising: Part 3: Compression: Why Inference, Implication and Indirection are Critical to Good Writing

Laura Harrington, award winning playwright, lyricist and librettist, winner of the 2008 Kleban Award for “most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre,” has written dozens of plays, musicals, operas and radio plays which have been produced in 28 states, Canada and Europe, in venues ranging from Off-Broadway to Houston Grand Opera to the Paris Cinemateque.

Harrington has twice won both the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England.  Additional awards include a Boston IRNE Award for Best New Play, a Bunting Institute Fellowship at Harvard/ Radcliffe, a Whiting Foundation Grant-in-Aid,  the Joseph Kesselring Award for Drama,  a New England Emmy, and a Quebec Cinemateque Award.

Laura teaches playwriting at MIT where she was awarded the 2009 Levitan Prize for Excellence in Teaching.  She has also been a frequent guest artist at Tufts, Harvard, Wellesley, Skidmore, and the University of Iowa.

Alice Bliss, her first novel, published by Pamela Dorman Books at Viking/ Penguin has been widely acclaimed in print and online reviews and has been chosen by Barnes & Noble for their “Discover Great New Writers” program for Fall 2011.

Foreign rights for Alice Bliss have been sold in the UK, Italy and Denmark.

For reviews, interviews, etc please visit: www.lauraharringtonbooks.com

For additional information about Laura’s theatre work, please visit: www.laura-harrington.com

Women’s Fiction Author Barbara O’Neal Says Good Writing Should be Accessible and That Your Book Should Excite You

So much of this interview with Barbara O’Neal resonated with me that I was more excited than usual to share it with all of you!  The insight Barbara shares comes from a place of both experience and foresight — a great combination! 

Please welcome Barbara to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Women’s Fiction Author Barbara O’Neal Says Good Writing Should Be Accessible and That Your Book Should Excite You

ASN: You’ve had a long career writing in multiple genres.  How did you transition to writing women’s fiction?  Was it a natural progression or was it a conscious career move (I guess it could have been both!)

BO: My idea of what I would write was always what I’m writing now–women’s fiction with a love story (or more than one) woven into the plot, the woman’s journey.  When I started writing toward the intent of actually publishing, making writing novels my job, my life’s work, I had to find something that paid, and paid well enough I could make it work.  I didn’t need a lot of money, as I was married and living in a working class town where the cost of living was very cheap, but it had to be more than the copies literary magazines paid.  I was a journalist, so I knew I could supplement with articles, but the whole purpose of not finding a newspaper job right out of college was to see if I could make it as a FICTION writer.  I had always enjoyed reading straight romances along with everything else in the universe, and the market was exploding.  I understood, mostly, the beats of what made a romance satisfying, so I gave it a try. It was a very fast turnaround–I sold the second manuscript I wrote, and my career was in motion.

When I shifted toward women’s fiction, it was a slow, long lean. Many of my romances had strong women’s fiction leanings like the domestic violence issue in The Last Chance Ranch, in which a woman has killed her husband and gone to prison for it, and in doing so, lost her only child. When I wrote In The Midnight Rain, my first women’s fiction, it was at first for myself, to write about a world that reflected my mixed raced life–about my children and the African American people I loved, and a big, sad story in the past, to play with time lines and food and music in a way that just isn’t possible in a 70,000 word book–and in the end, they are more satisfying to me now.  I have a Gemini mind–once I understand something, I’m generally on to the next challenge.

That’s a super long answer!

ASN: Your books are accessible and readable and also deal with real life issues — not always easy stuff.  How do you strike that balance?

BO: Good writing is meant to be accessible, in my opinion. I like to imagine that my reader is someone like me, on a day when she’s just had it with the world. She’s taking my book and a glass of wine into her bathtub, which she’s filling to the top with very hot water, and she is not going to talk to anybody until she is damned good well and ready.  My job is to give her beauty, a meaty escape, maybe a good cry, and ultimately, a feeling of hope.

ASN: Can you tell us a little about How To Bake A Perfect Life — and maybe what’s next for you? (if you’re not superstitious!)

BO: How To Bake a Perfect Life is the tale of a baker, Ramona Gallagher, whose special passion is for sourdough, also called “mother dough.” Bread baking, and the special qualities of sourdough starters provide a lush metaphor for the mother/daughter bond.  Ramona, whose relationship with her mother was badly wounded when she was pregnant at fifteen, finds herself suddenly caring for a 13-year-old girl who comes into her care. There is a desperately wounded soldier, the reappearance of a lost love, and a truly wonderful dog named Merlin. It’s as much a story about the healing power of work in a woman’s life as it is about any of the other things–passion is a saving grace for many of us.

The new book, THE GARDEN OF HAPPY ENDINGS, is the story of a woman who has lost her faith, a pilgrimage, and a community garden. Dogs and cats, and one of my favorite male characters in a long time.  It’s a tougher story than some–opening with terrible murder that sets events in motion.  It will be out in mid-April.

ASN: How do you write your first draft and what’s the process like to finished product?

BO: I write my first draft in reluctant fits and starts for a couple of months–a character bio. A snippet of storyline.  Some element of magic, or something that feels magical and exciting to me–like a ghost or a beautiful aspect of cooking or a character’s passion. ( In The Garden of Happy Endings, one of the characters loves quilting, and uses quilts to express everything beautiful.  Another is in love with Spain.)  At this point, I’m sorting through the basket of good that the girls in the basement have handed up to me, all the material we’re going to be working with, but I’m still just playing.

After I’ve procrastinated as long as I possibly can, I sit down and try to pull it all together for a synopsis I can show my agent and editor.  When they approve it, I am then forced to get busy and start writing every work day (five days a week, unless I’m near the end).  I collage the book at this point, trying to let the girls give me images that will help me stay on task.  At first, it’s slow–three pages one day, five pages the next.  Then around page 100, it gets a little more clear.  I write some version of a detailed outline at this point, usually color coded, on a big Postit that covers half a wall. And I try to just show up, day after day, and see what the book has to say.  Around this point, the 100 page mark, I’ll start writing around 6-10 pages a day, depending on the scene, how much I’ve had to rewrite that day, all those things.   Finally, toward the end, I fall into the Book World and stay there until the rough draft is down, writing sunup to sundown, rarely doing anything ordinary or talking to people or even remembering to wash my hair.  This only lasts a couple of weeks, because I don’t like it, and feel disconnected from everything and not at all like a normal person–but it seems to be the way I finish.  I have tried dozens of times to change this process, but even if I don’t have a deadline breathing down my neck, this is how I finish.

Then I go back through and rewrite the entire book.  Very methodically, rewriting everything, from character traits to bettering the language to plot threads. All of it. Usually, at this point, I’ll get a read from agent and editor, and then rewrite again at least once, usually twice.

AN: There is so much talk (malarky as well as differences of opinion) out there about what women’s fiction is and what it’s not. What is your definition of women’s fiction?

BO: Women’s fiction is a story of a woman’s journey. It covers such a broad spectrum of stories that I find it hard to generalize too much, honestly. It’s sometimes commercial, but sometimes its literary. Sometimes it’s very romantic, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s contemporary, sometimes its historical. But mainly, we know it when we see it. It’s probably published in trade paperback, and sometimes in hardcover. It focuses on a woman or a group of women. We know it when we see it, don’t we?

ASN: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

BO: Be authentically you and write about what inflames you, what thrills you, what matters to you.  There is absolutely no point in writing somebody else’s book. We need YOUR book. Write it.

Barbara O’Neal fell in love with food and restaurants at the age of fifteen, when she landed a job in a Greek café and served baklava for the first time.  She sold her first novel in her twenties, and has since won a plethora of awards, including two Colorado Book Awards and six prestigous RITAs, including one for THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS in 2010.  Her novels have been published widely in Europe and Australia, and she travels internationally, presenting workshops, hiking hundreds of miles, and of course, eating.   She lives with her partner, a British endurance athlete, and their collection of cats and dogs, in Colorado Springs.

Rewriting Part 1: Dealing with Plot (Or Why I Love 3×5 Cards) by Author Laura Harrington

Rewriting Part 1: Dealing with Plot (Or Why I Love 3 x 5 Cards)

by Laura Harrington

Breaking it down:

It can be overwhelming to approach a revision.  How do you take something as large and complex as a novel and break it down into component parts that are possible to analyze and work with?

My years in the theatre have made me very confident about re-writing.  Every play or musical I’ve ever written has gone through dozens of drafts. But you can’t tackle everything all at once when you’re re-writing or you’ll become lost and muddled. This is why I break it down before I begin to build it back up again.

Write in layers:

I write in layers and I also revise in layers. This essay will deal with what I do first, which is focus on plot. I’m planning a series of subsequent craft essays, which will focus on revision as seen through the lens of character, setting, voice/ dialogue, and compression. But for now, let’s look at the big picture.  If the plot isn’t clear, dynamic, surprising and satisfying, then all the beautiful writing in the world will not save your book.

I begin with an incredibly simple technique that allows me to analyze my novel, scene by scene, or chapter by chapter, create a visual map of the book, and begin the process of crafting the dramatic arc of my story.

First things first: take a break:

When I’ve finished a first draft I step away from the desk for a while, maybe even a week or two.  I take long walks, swim, putter around in the garden, read great books; I do the things I love to do that look like wasting time. My intention is to shift my mind into another gear for a while before I approach my book again. I also want to become a bit detached from the love affair or wrestling match I’ve been engaging in with these pages for a year or more.  A little bit of distance really helps.

Make a second copy:

Before I begin I make a second copy of the book.  Now I know that I’ve got that version, safe and sound, stowed on my desktop.  Which means that I’m free to really dig in to that first re-write, knowing that I can always return to the “original.”  This is key to making me feel safe enough to begin revising and, where necessary, re-imagining my book.

Step 1: 

Grab a stack of 3 x 5 cards.  Go through your book, chapter by chapter and write down the following, as succinctly as possible:

Where does the scene/ chapter take place? Who’s in the scene?  What happens/ what is the event of the scene?

Keep it short and sweet. Shorthand is best here.  Can’t quite synopsize what happens? This may be a red flag telling you that not much is happening.  Make a note of that.

For example:

Setting: A catering kitchen, after a wedding reception.

Characters: Steve (bridegroom) and Greg (best man and younger brother)

Event: A fight that’s been brewing over the lost wedding bands ends with Greg’s admission that he’s been in love with Steve’s bride for years.

Definition of terms: EVENT:

What, exactly, do I mean by “event?” An event is what happens: a birth, a holiday, a betrayal, falling in love, lunch, an illness, buying a car, a funeral, getting fired, a murder, a marriage proposal, robbing a bank.  From the most mundane to the most profound, events are what drive a plot forward.  How your characters respond to, struggle with, or attempt to control the events in their lives will define and illuminate them. We use events as building blocks to create a story.

Step 2:

Sit down and read through the cards.  Here’s your chance to become familiar with the bare bones outline of your book.  And here’s where structural problems will begin to appear. You may notice repetitive settings, several scenes that are similar in tone, scenes or chapters that cover the same ground. You may find that you have some events, but not very many, or that the events you have do not have any causal relationship to each other. We’re looking for cause and effect for maximum dramatic impact. You may realize that your plot unfolds too easily – where are the obstacles? Where do your characters struggle to get what they want? You may notice that you have more than one ending, or that the emotional ending occurs several chapters before the book ends.

Step 3:

Lay your cards out on a table, if you have one that’s big enough, or the floor, or pin them up on a wall.  If you can borrow a friend’s conference room, or find a space with several long tables so that you can lay out the whole book and be able to walk around it, that would be ideal.

Right now you have a simple visual map of your book, all in one place. Focusing on the events of each scene or chapter allows you to focus on the plot.  You are not distracted by that gorgeous prose you’ve written; you’ve only got the bare bones to look at.  This can feel a bit brutal; but it’s a chance to look at the skeleton of the book, to see if the structure you’ve created supports your storytelling as well as it possibly can.

Begin the questioning process:

In this very simplified format, you can take a look at the flow of the story and ask:

Does every scene/ chapter have an event?  Is it a strong event? Interesting? Surprising?

Do the events link up to each other? What event caused each scene to happen? What event does each scene cause to happen next?

How do the events impact the characters? Change them? Hurt them? Knock them down? Redeem them?

Are the events in the best order for maximum impact? Does the book move forward with energy and urgency to its inevitable conclusion?

If you think of your plot as a series of events, then your job is to arrange that series of events in the most interesting way possible.

Step 4:

Cut the repetitive scenes. Is there key information that needs to be rescued from the scenes you’re cutting and inserted elsewhere to better effect?  Put that information on another card and tape it to its new scene.

Step 5:

See where you can compress 2 or 3 scenes into one. Compression is key to heightening the drama and giving your story a sense of urgency.

Step 6:

Re-read for flow and impact.  Keep asking the question:  Where’s the drama?

Step 7:

What else can you cut? Are there scenes that are lovely but that you can see now are actually filler? What can you leave out?  Be bold here: readers are smart; they love to make leaps with you.

Step 8:

Walk away for a day or so and think about the building blocks of your plot.  Have they been organized in the best way possible to tell this story, to fulfill the promise of this book?  If not, play with them, experiment; move those cards around.  You can always move them back.

Step 9:

Make the changes you’ve decided on in your MS.

Step 10:

Re-read. Take notes on what’s working, what’s not, and whatever new ideas emerge.

Congratulations: You’re ready to move on to the next layer of revising.

Laura Harrington, award winning playwright, lyricist and librettist, winner of the 2008 Kleban Award for “most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre,” has written dozens of plays, musicals, operas and radio plays which have been produced in 28 states, Canada and Europe, in venues ranging from Off-Broadway to Houston Grand Opera to the Paris Cinemateque.

Harrington has twice won both the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England.  Additional awards include a Boston IRNE Award for Best New Play, a Bunting Institute Fellowship at Harvard/ Radcliffe, a Whiting Foundation Grant-in-Aid,  the Joseph Kesselring Award for Drama,  a New England Emmy, and a Quebec Cinemateque Award.

Laura teaches playwriting at MIT where she was awarded the 2009 Levitan Prize for Excellence in Teaching.  She has also been a frequent guest artist at Tufts, Harvard, Wellesley, Skidmore, and the University of Iowa.

Alice Bliss, her first novel, published by Pamela Dorman Books at Viking/ Penguin has been widely acclaimed in print and online reviews and has been chosen by Barnes & Noble for their “Discover Great New Writers” program for Fall 2011.

Foreign rights for Alice Bliss have been sold in the UK, Italy and Denmark.

For reviews, interviews, etc please visit: www.lauraharringtonbooks.com

For additional information about Laura’s theatre work, please visit: www.laura-harrington.com