Writing Is An Uphill Battle (Thank Goodness)

Originally posted on Writers In The Storm

I blame it on a lunch date. Or maybe I should say I owe it to a lunch date. Yes, my entire writing career is predicated on the fact that I met someone for lunch whom I’d never met before. I don’t remember his name, or what he looked like. I never saw him again.

Good thing you don’t pay royalties on inspiration.

During our pleasant midday conversation in an Irish pub, the first conversation since exchanging a few emails, my lunch companion mentioned that my email voice was “very well-suited to blogging.”

I thanked him.

Then, I went home and Yahoo-searched “blogging.” This was 2005, after all, and I unceremoniously entered the blogosphere.

After a few months of fervent blog reading and following and commenting, I started my own blog in early 2006. It had a polka-dot background and nary a reader. In my first-ever blog post I thanked Lunch Date Guy for setting me on a journey whose destination was unknown, and noted how that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I’d begun. I couldn’t have imagined where it would lead. Had someone told me, they’d have gotten a head slap.

I am big believer in momentum, that going downhill means you’re picking up speed and getting stronger, readying you for the climb.

My early blog where I wrote anonymously about being a single mom, dating, and life (like the main character in THE GOOD NEIGHBOR–coincidence?), led me to writing essays for photocopied ezines, and then for newspapers and online publications. My essays led me to attempt a memoir (because whose life isn’t worthy of 300 pages?), which led me to try fiction, which led to a book deal. Which led me to start a new blog about the kind of fiction I loved and was writing.

My full circle has a point. It doesn’t matter where or how you start. It doesn’t even matter WHERE you go. It just matters THAT you go, that you keep moving, that the momentum in your writing life mimic the momentum you admire or strive for.

Even as a brand new blogger in 2006, I always wrote, rewrote, and edited my blog posts. They became writing exercises, stretching muscles I’d not used in years. I read many blogs daily in those days before quick life updates on Facebook and Twitter, and dreamed about having comments on my posts. And I got them eventually, and a solid following of bloggers and blog-readers. Some of whom now read my novels.

I learned from my lunch date that we don’t find our inspiration, we choose it.

We choose to look up blogging and take a chance on something new. We choose to use our observations about the blue sky to write an essay or a poem. We choose to tell a story that makes us laugh because we want others to laugh. We choose to spend a year, or two, or six, writing a book.  Maybe writers are compelled to write, but we choose to do it. How many people have you met who say they want to write a book? My answer is always the same. “You should.” And I mean it. If you want to write a book, you should write it. Without a degree, without classes, without feedback. You have to start going if you want to go somewhere, anywhere. (I’m not suggesting that this is a good idea forever, that craft isn’t important, that knowledge isn’t king (or queen)).

I don’t mean you can always decide what you want to write about but you can choose to embrace the inspiration that is presented to you, to cultivate the ideas that rattle around in your head, to embrace curiosity without hesitation, and to move forward despite uncertainty and fear.

And if you get lunch out of it, all the better.

Amy xo


This Is My Brain On Index Cards


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.


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.






How to Write When You Don’t Have Time (or have had too much egg nog—or Hanukkah gelt)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? It’s cold, wet, gets dark at 4:30, and most of us have no time or energy to write.

Let me explain. We’re entranced during this season. I don’t even celebrate Christmas, and Hanukkah/Chanukah/Hanukah is technically classified as a festival, and while important, it does not, in any way, have the heft of, let’s say, Passover or Yom Kippur, yet it gets all the good press. I digress. There are lights, food, and happy faces. People want to chat. They want to know your plans, about your kids, about your life (which has given way to those Xmas letters). What’s not to feel good about? Don’t forget Christmas decorations. Because lights. Need I say more?

What’s not to feel good about is falling behind on a deadline or a work-in-progress. It’s not bad to take a break. At one point while writing The Glass Wives (which seems like a lifetime ago) I stopped for six months for some life-tending. But if you don’t want to take a break, but feel like it’s time to spend your time on other things, remember that you can’t really write without living your life.

So go live it!

When people would ask me if the characters in The Glass Wives were based on real people, I answered honestly. Yes and no. Did I know people exactly like the characters? No. But were they snippets or truth stirred with pure imagination? Yes. But one of my favorite stories to tell is how one day I was waiting for my daughter to come out of junior high (she’s a college sophomore now) and I saw another pick-up lane mom get out of her car. She was dressed just the way I’d imagined my character, Laney, to dress. So I watched her. I watched the way she walked in her books and the way her coat swayed. I watched her push her long curly hair off her shoulders then scoop it back again. And, creepy as it may sound, every time I wrote about Laney I thought of this woman, this scene. But at that moment, I wasn’t writing a thing. Nor did I take a note, or record a voice memo. I simply had the experience and used it later.

You know, in my writing.

Nowadays I’m working part-time at a friend’s restaurant. Every day I talk to a hundred people if not more. Most are friendly, some are not. A few are rude. Some are in clothes that tell me what their jobs are, like a policeman or road worker (it’s the fluorescent vest that gives it away). Some are in clothes that tell me nothing except that the person cares about style, or doesn’t. I also know that I don’t know much about any of them but that it doesn’t matter because I write fiction. And when it’s time for me to write about something icky — I’ll likely remember the guy who handed me his credit card after holding it in his mouth.

When I want to write about confusion I’ll write about people who don’t leave a tip (I don’t waitress, but please, if someone is cooking your food, delivering it to you, and cleaning it up, leave a dollar on the table).

When I want to write about entitlement I’ll likely try to channel the woman who is never satisfied, never has enough crackers, or pickles, or mustard, and always wants something free to make up for it.

Maybe if I want a little angst, I’ll write about the bathroom lock that gets stuck every time I’m in there.

Perhaps one of my characters will wear a lovely hat with a purple flower, like a woman I met yesterday. Or maybe I’ll describe the reaction to someone having matzah ball soup for the first time. Or kreplach.

So, in the season of parties and shopping and family gatherings lies your opportunity to gather up all of the goodness and save it for a time when you do have time to write. When you have a character who requires a joyous demeanor, or an overstuffed belly, or even a Grinchy mood. Or a fancy hat. Or food on his face.

The best part is, no one knows what you’re doing. And you won’t be writing about these people, just your experience of them.

Don’t forget about the feeling you get when you wait in line for an hour, or get caught in a two-for-one sweater frenzy. Don’t forget the excitement of seeing someone you haven’t seen all year—or maybe that’s worry.

Whoever you see and whatever you do, if you need to, just pack away the pen and the smart phone and enjoy the season. Take it all in, but don’t take notes.  It will all be there when you need it, ready to be retrieved, and when your belly is filled with food, your calendar is filled with plans, your closets are filled with hidden gifts—hopefully your head will be filling with ideas!




She Reads Co-Founder, Ariel Lawhon, Brings Us: The Impatient Character

I feel a special kinship with anyone who has started a website or blog or community for the benefit of writers and readers. I’m honored to have Ariel Lawhon here today, the co-founder of She Reads, a national on-line book club.  

Please welcome Ariel to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

She Reads Co-Founder, Ariel Lawhon, Brings Us: The Impatient Character

My biggest reading surprise of 2011 came in the form of Diane Setterfield’s gothic masterpiece, The Thirteenth Tale. Though published in 2008, I somehow managed to miss this novel until last summer when my family took a 1500 mile road trip. I packed five novels in the hopes that one of them would be good. I never made it past the first. And I’m not entirely sure if I spoke to my husband at all during that trip. I was consumed.

In her novel Diane Setterfield introduces us to Vida Winter, a prolific, reclusive author who chooses to tell her life story to a young biographer by the name of Margaret Lea. Vida Winter is one of the most memorable literary characters, and certainly the strongest female character I’ve ever read. She says something in the novel that felt so familiar to me that I’ve never forgotten it:

My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people anxious for life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen, the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamor starts up again.”

I have experienced that demanding character, but never so intensely as while finishing my recent novel, The Rule of Three.

For months a new story had been nagging at me, creeping in during those moments when my mind was quiet. A long shower. That stretch of thought before drifting off to sleep. The dream that comes in the stillness before waking.

I recall writing a scene from my newly finished novel. It was a particularly tense argument between my Hero (her name is Stella) and Opponent that took place in an old, Jazz-era bar. There they were, leaning across the table in a dark, corner booth, both of them reaching for a tattered envelope containing a long-kept secret. I paused for a moment, fingers lightly touching the keyboard as I mulled a piece of dialogue. And then…

In the far corner of the bar was a woman delivering a baby! Of all the strange and bizarre things, the character in my next novel had walked into my current novel and set up shop. I could see it in my mind, like a fuzzy TV station that’s been caught between two channels, superimposing one face, one story, over another.

Vida describes that sensation best:

And every so often, through all these writing years, I have lifted my head from the page—at the end of a chapter, or in the quiet pause for thought after a death scene, or sometimes just searching for the right word—and have seen a face at the back of the crowd.”

I knew who this character was, of course. Her name is Martha. She’s a midwife. A mother. A diarist. A strong and capable woman if ever there was one. But in that moment she was an intruder. So I gave Martha her own notebook. I scratched down what she was frantically trying to tell me, and I politely escorted her from the premises. Then I shook off her specter and went back to the bar, and my characters bent in heated conversation.

The scene turned out well in case you’re wondering. As did the rest of the novel. But now it’s done. My mind, so battered after wrestling that story to the page, is finally rested. And Martha has renewed her protests, filling all that recently vacated space. It’s time to open her notebook.

There are other faces in the shadows behind Martha of course. A carpenter. A hoarder. A tattoo artist. They are waiting patiently. For now.

Ariel Lawhon is a novelist, blogger, storyteller, and life-long reader. She is also the co-founder of She Reads, a national online book club. Her latest novel, The Rule of Three, is based on the still-unsolved disappearance of a New York State Supreme Court Justice 1930 and is the story of three women who know what happened to him but choose not to tell. Ariel lives in Texas with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

How College Move-In Day Is Like Writing A Novel

A few weeks ago, my son Zachary and I packed up two cars with the necessities and incidentals for his junior year in college.  I stared at the mess cargo while standing in my driveway before we left home, and it hit me how that tightly packed, carefully chosen, absolute catastrophe in the back of my SUV and his compact car somewhat resembled my work-in-progress.

That was not a pleasant revelation, at first.

As for the stuff in the car, why he needed it all – why he needed even half of it — well, I was both intrigued and incensed.  Kind of like the way I felt about my story.  I knew there was a lot of dreck I wouldn’t need, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t end up schlepping it all along for a while, just in case.  Plus, on that early Monday morning in mid-August, there was no time to fuss, I had to get moving. Also the way I felt about my novel-to-be.  Usually when I have no time to write I have the most ideas. And with 3.5 hours to myself, I had plenty of time to think.

Always dangerous.

The way my son  meticulously and sometimes randomly, chose what was accompanying him this year, was not unlike the way I was thinking about my new story.  I had some threads from discarded work, ideas I’d jotted down on napkins, unusual names that piqued my interest, an old storyline I was renovating into something sparkly and new. I’d packed it all into the idea for a new novel, but had yet to unpack it, organize it, rearrange or make it pretty.  I mean handsome.

On the drive through two states for 3.5 hours, as I listened to a book on CD (old-fashioned, I know).  For me, this time seemed to serve as bridge between having Zachary home for three and half months, and going back for another ten months with just me and my daughter, Chloe.  It was also the bridge between me thinking about my new novel and actually writing it.  The metaphors became real as I made that final left turn into his picturesque college town and drove over, you guessed it. A bridge.

At his new house, we unpacked the cars for a very long time, bit by bit, first into the garage, then putting the boxes, bags, crates, and cases in the rooms and onto the floors in which they belonged, or where we thought they belonged.  When I rested on the questionably obtained pleather couch, and I watched Zachary and some his friends do the heavy lifting (ah, male youth) I knew that the  heavy lifting of my novel would also be when I would sort out the bits and pieces I’d compiled and decided where they were supposed to go.

Zachary has to look at something for a while to know where he wants it to be. He has to live with it for a while before finding its place and making it fit.  But when he’s ready, a few days in perhaps, it’s a whirlwind of activity and the results are great.  He’s always had a knack for getting things done right — especially when left to do in his own time, in his own way.

I too, have to look at something to make it make sense — and after a lot of thinking about the work in progress and messy notes and lists and outlines (outlines without Roman numerals that do not look like the outlines I learned to write in elementary school).  But, like with rearranging closets, drawers, furniture, electronics,and food – not to mention the yet to be purchased books — I would also  take everything out and make sense of it, look at it, study it, make it work. And, like Zachary and his four fraternity brother roommates, sometimes things would sometimes go smoothly, sometimes not, sometimes it would be noisy and sometimes it would be quiet.

As I ordered pizzas from right across the street for $6 each to feed the kids (the men) that helped him move in, I knew that he would continue to make changes to his room, to the kitchen to the living room — there would be input from trusted friends, and he’d take some advice and some he would toss with last week’s beer bottles — oh — I mean soda cans.

And then it was even more clear to me.  It’s a process – the book, the move-in, everything. It’s been a while since I’ve started something from scratch that I knew would be a full novel.  It’s been a while since I want things in their place so much that I became impatient with the process — but that won’t get me anywhere. I had to wait. Just like Zachary had to wait for his bed to be delivered the next day, just like he had to wait for the landlord to install — get this — toilet paper holders.  Waiting pays off.  In the end, waiting gives you time to make things the way you want them to be, the way that works for you — an  that is what will help you going forward, whether that’s moving on to a senior year of college or a third novel. Or your second kid going off to college in about a year if anyone is counting.


The next day I left for home, eager for Chloe to start her senior year of high school, and to unpack, organize, rearrange, rethink and remodel my WIP.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the keyboard. With my hands alone I would move into that new story and make it my home.

Even with lots left for him to do, when I drove away after having breakfast with Zachary, I didn’t shed or tear or feel a twang. I knew he too, was in good hands.

His own.

NYT Best-Selling Author Susan Wiggs Shares Her Writing Journey With Women’s Fiction Writers

My Writing Journey

by Susan Wiggs

Although I’ve been a published writer for 25 years, I’ve been a WRITER for twice as long. Storytelling is somehow embedded in my DNA, and I’ve got the evidence to back it up. My very earliest writings were preserved by a doting grandmother, and survive to this day. I was just three years old when I learned to make recognizable marks on paper and call it writing. Something else I used to do, perhaps channeling writers who dictated their stories to secretaries, like Barbara Cartland and Sidney Shelton, was dictate stories to my long-suffering mother, who wrote them down while I illustrated them.

At the age of eight, I met my first writing mentor–Mrs. Marge Green at School 11, my third grade teacher. Like most writers, I was an advanced reader, so while she worked with other students, I was left to my own devices. She told me if I fancied myself a writer, then that’s what I should be doing–writing. I took her advice and self-published a book, which can be seen here.

Throughout my childhood, I read books all day every day. I told stories to my friends. I lied to my parents, invented stories for show-and-tell, and even fabricated outlandish “sins” to relate to Father Campbell in the confessional. For me, making things up was as natural as breathing.

In 7th grade, I rewrote the ending of OF MICE AND MEN because I was easily able to figure out a way to save Lenny in the end. (Side note: My chihuahua was rescued from a shelter in Salinas, and yes, his name is Lenny.) In high school and college, I was that annoying student who would request extra blue exam booklets for essay tests, because I had a knack for filling them at an alarming rate.

As a graduate student, I worked with a critique group for the first time, and I loved the process. A piece of bad writing could be transformed by this magical concept known as Rewriting. Who knew?

While in graduate school, I wrote my first full-length novel, a romantic historical saga about (I kid you not) the Dutch Revolt. Convinced I was on to something, I wrote its sequel. Eventually, I came to understand that storytelling is a lot more fun when READERS are involved, so I looked around at what readers were devouring at the time (1987). Big sexy western historical romances were the order of the day. And they just happened to be my favorites.

I wrote all 600 pages of TEXAS WILDFLOWER on a typewriter. In about three months. Shiloh Mulvane and Justin McCord consumed me every night. Why at night? Well, because in addition to writing, I was a full-time teacher, a full-time mom of a toddler, a wife, a homeowner, a dog owner. So if you want to write but are waiting until you can “find the time,” forget about it. You HAVE the time. You just have to decide what to do with it.

I sold the book to Wendy McCurdy, then an editor at Kensington, in 1987. Since then, I’ve published a book every year or so, honing my craft and learning the business along the way.

RETURN TO WILLOW LAKE, just published, was written by an older, wiser and much more skilled writer than the one who pouded out Texas Wildflower. My process is pretty much the same as the way I wrote at the age of 3. I make marks on paper, and call it writing.

How about you? What does your writer’s journey look like?

Susan Wiggs’s life is all about family, friends…and fiction. She’s been featured in the national media, including NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and is a popular speaker locally and nationally.

From the very start, her writings have illuminated the everyday dramas of ordinary people. At the age of eight, she self-published her first novel, entitled “A Book About Some Bad Kids.”

Today, she is an international best-selling, award-winning author, with millions of copies of her books in print in numerous countries. Her recent novel, Marrying Daisy Bellamy, took the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List, and The Lakeshore Chronicles have won readers’ hearts around the globe. Her books celebrate the power of love, the timeless bonds of family and the fascinating nuances of human nature.

She lives with her husband and family at the water’s edge on an island in the Pacific Northwest, where she divides her time between sleeping and waking.

Facebook- http://www.facebook.com/susanwiggs

Twitter- https://twitter.com/susanwiggs

Website- http://www.susanwiggs.com

Pinterest- http://pinterest.com/beachwriter1/

How Author Cynthia Racette Sailed Into Her Career As A Published Author

It seems aspiring authors are spoiled for choice these days. Well, not really, but there are more decisions to make than ever before.  As someone steeped in traditional publishing I’m also interested in the not-as-traditional publishing options.  Cynthia Racette is published by Soul Mate Publishing, an ebook and paperback romance and women’s fiction publisher.  

Please welcome Cynthia Racette to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

How Author Cynthia Racette Sailed Into Her Career As A Published Author

Amy: Can you tell us a little about Windswept and your journey to publication, including how you found Soul Mate Publishing (or how they found you)?

Cynthia: I really do owe the fact that I am published to RWA. I started attending local chapter meetings here in western NY about a year before I sold Windswept and I learned so much about what’s out there, how to hone your writing, etc. at those meetings. I also received support and encouragement from the ladies in the group. At one of the meetings, I found out that Soul Mate was growing and accepting new authors and subbed my mss and heard from them in two weeks that they wanted to publish it. I was astounded!

Windswept is a romantic novel of redemption and family values and fighting for what is important. Sailing Windswept has always been a family affair and many of Caroline and David Hartford’s fondest memories have taken place on Chesapeake Bay sailing in all kinds of conditions and exploring the bay.

When husband David is unfaithful and commits the ultimate betrayal by bringing his mistress aboard Windswept, Caroline’s world is shattered. He leaves her and she is forced to rely solely on herself for the first time in her life. She has to be a single parent to her daughter, Lily, and to decide if she can forgive David for tearing her family apart.

As David and Caroline work to put their marriage back together, events and other people conspire against them, over and over. As their relationship begins to heal, the couple is caught in a horrific storm and waterspout on the bay, heading straight for Windswept. They want a chance to love again but Mother Nature might have other ideas.

Amy: I have to sit by a window when I write (I’m there right now!) Do you have any writing rituals? A talisman? Do you stick to a schedule or write when the mood strikes?

Cynthia: I write when the mood strikes, which is terrible. I know I should write every day and adhere to a schedule but I can’t seem to manage it. I write on my laptop, which is situated on a laptop stand. I would like to type at a desk or table in our study but my husband took it over with his consulting business. (He makes more money than I do so he gets the desk.)

Amy: Do you outline or are you a pantser — meaning that you write by the seat of your pants?

Cynthia: I’m an outliner. I can’t just sit and write and have any of it make sense. I have character studies, a crude outline and a few partially filled out important scenes. I think the character sketch is most important because it gives me a good feel for the characters. Character is the be-all and end-all for all good fiction.

Amy: How did you come up with the idea for Windswept?

Cynthia: My husband and I have been sailboaters for years and I always wanted to write a book about sailing. I adored our 30 ft. sloop and I wanted to write something where the boat itself is nearly a character– kind of like an allegory built around the boat. People have told me I succeeded in that. Readers are the ultimate judges, when you get past the editors…

Amy: What is your definition of women’s fiction and how does it differ from romance?

Cynthia: I think of women’s fiction as romance on steroids. Many books of the genre have an element of romance in them, but women’s fiction also includes very character-driven heroines who have a lot going on in their lives but a hot man with great pecs. Not that there isn’t a lot to be said for that. Ask my daughter. W.F. heroines have families, jobs, relatives, and something happening that has set their entire universes into chaos. That’s where the character comes in. Many of my books start with dependent, sheltered women who learn to become independent and able to set their world aright at the end. The woman at the end of my books is far from the one who started out being blown by the vagaries of life.

Here’s an example from my next book, Inside Out, being subbed to publishers within a week or two. A woman whose husband is suddenly killed in a car accident must learn to deal with a life turned inside out. She’s alone with her teenage daughter who takes her grief out on her mother and a younger son who is convinced his father’s accident is his fault. Throw in a newly divorced detective, his teenage son, a hostage situation downtown, and his determination to help our heroine through her troubles when all she wants is to start doing things herself. Chaos.

Amy: What’s your best advice for burgeoning women’s fiction authors?

Cynthia: I think writing women’s fiction is the same as writing anything else except WF authors tend to be more savvy people watchers and is often the person everyone in their lives comes to with their problems. I usually tell new writers, read books about writing and attend seminars about different aspects of it; to read anything you can get your hands on in as many genres as you can, write as much as you can, and become involved with a critique group or RWA.

Cynthia and her husband are newly retired, and have moved to a suburb of Buffalo in order to be closer to their children and grandchildren. Cynthia has been writing most of her life. You can find out more about Cynthia Racette on her website.

Writers: Get Inspired And Motivated By The Classics

Look to the Books

By Karen Wojcik Berner

Sentences not flowing the way you’d like? Consult your bookshelf.

Problems with your plot? Ask “What would Shakespeare do?”

Dickens. Woolf. Austen. Thackeray. Joyce.

Shakespeare. Ibsen. Wilde. Homer.

Poe. Shelley. Keats. Milton.

Having inspired readers for hundreds of years, the classics often reveal universal truths of human nature, truths that do not change from decade to decade, from century to century. Each time I sit down with one of these beloved novels, plays or poems, I discover something else I had not noticed before. Now that is great writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love contemporary fiction, but there is just something about revisiting a classic. Maybe it harkens back to my English major days, blissfully discussing narrative voice in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, trying to keep track of all the characters in Bleak House, or focusing on dialogue in Pride and Prejudice. Back when reading was fun and not something you try to squeeze in while waiting to pick the kids up from school, or on the train to and from work if you could ever get caught up on emails.

Here is your assignment. Pick out a classic. Lovingly caress the cover and spine. Oh, wait, a minute, that’s what I always do. Just get a classic and join me at the next sentence. Pour yourself a cup of tea (or something stronger), and snuggle into your favorite comfy chair. Begin reading through writer’s eyes.

Notice the sentence structure and dialogue. Chart the plot. Revisit vocabulary you haven’t heard in awhile. Track down the allusions to Greek, Roman and other mythologies. How does your novel embody the manners of the day?

All of these can be applied to our writing. For example, Virginia Woolf is a great illustration of how beautiful the English language can be. I’m not saying to write early-twentieth-century sentences whose word counts would equate to at least two paragraphs nowadays, but rather to pay attention to how Woolf uses her words and compare it with our own styles. How can we mix our sentence structure up a bit?

Check out one of the epic tales, stories that, although large in scope, still manage to connect to us on an individual basis. Melville’s Moby Dick comes to mind here, as well as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Talk about some crazy plots! What can we learn from them? Go big—don’t hold back.

No one blends a powerhouse storyline with gorgeous prose better than William Shakespeare. One day, awhile back, I could not get my main character from Point A to Point B. As You Like It was sitting open on my desk because one of my characters has a bit part in a Shakespeare in the Park production. I started reading and became enthralled again. Witty. Hilarious. And no one can deliver an insult like the Bard!

I began fooling around with some Shakespearean-style insults, hoping the wordplay would unclog my mired mind. Very therapeutic. Afterward, I was able to write a full chapter in one sitting, free from whatever was bogging my brain down. Who knew playing around with Shakespearean insults would function as a mental plunger?

After graduating from Dominican University with degrees in English with a writing concentration and communications, Karen Wojcik Berner worked as a magazine editor, public relations coordinator and freelance writer. A two-time Folio Magazine Ozzie Award for Excellence in Magazine Editorial and Design winner, her work has appeared in countless newspapers and magazines. She is the author of The Bibliophiles series, about a fictional suburban classics book club. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her family.

To learn more about Karen, please visit her website, www.karenberner.com

So, WFW friends, which classics have inspired or assisted your writing? I’m going to think on this — and chime in with a comment of my own!  Many thanks to Karen for reminding us that something new can be driven by something not-so-new! (Being not-so-new myself, I do appreciate this very much!)

Amy xo



Author Sandra Kring Says Put Away All Your Anxieties And Write Your Story

WFW friends, prepare to be wowed. Sandra Kring is honest and inspiring and humble — even after writing and publishing five novels.  It’s my honor to share this interview with all of you. 

Amy xo

“My mother often told me, ‘You’re so bullheaded, you won’t listen to anybody!’ So I didn’t. I didn’t listen to myself, when my negativity said I’d never fulfill my writing dream because the odds were too stacked against me, and I didn’t listen to her when she said I would never amount to anything. And to think: Once I believed she’d never given me even one positive message!” ~ Sandra Kring

Author Sandra Kring Says Put Away All Your Anxieties And Write Your Story

Amy: A LIFE OF BRIGHT IDEAS is your fifth novel! Can you share with us a little (or a lot) of your personal author history? We’d love to know how you started writing novels and — and how you’ve continued to come up with your own “bright ideas”.

Sandra: I sold my first novel, Carry Me Home in ’03.  I wrote the book in six weeks, found an agent two weeks after I started looking, and got my first contract from Random House two months after that.  Sounds like a writer’s dream come true, right? Well, it was—eventually. But as you all know, over-night successes don’t happen overnight.

I grew up in a violent home and had dumb and worthless literally pounded into my head by my mentally ill mother. I had no books growing up (but wanted them), barely got through high school, and married at seventeen and hurried to have babies.  Growing up, I believed that all the good things in life were reserved for those more deserving than I, and I might never have picked up a book if my 18-year-old husband hadn’t been addicted to the news.  He’d started college and couldn’t afford to buy newspapers, so we started hiking to the library every day so he could read them.  I don’t know how many days I sat there staring into the silence before he mentioned that I was going to get awfully bored if I didn’t find something to read. So I got my first library card and started in the fiction section.  In no time at all, I was reading 4-6 novels per week.

Years later, with two of my children grown, and the third not all that far behind, I realized that my marriage was in trouble, and so was I. I’d been through years of therapy and had my PTSD under control, but my role as full-time mother and wife were coming to an end, and I felt old and worn and useless.  Also, around this time, I was watching my depressed father suffer a slow death. He had eyes just like mine, and in them, I saw my future if I didn’t find a way to make the second half of my life more joyful than the first half of my life had been. But I had no idea how to turn things around.  That is, until I came across a quote by psychologist James Hillman that turned my life around: To heal the person, we must first heal the story they imagine themselves to be in. 

So I looked at my life as if it were a novel, and I, the protagonist.  And I asked myself, If I were the author, what could I make happen in this story to give it a satisfying ending? Suddenly, the answer became clear. The protagonist would take the best of what a bad beginning had taught her—tenacity, a sense of humor, an in-depth understanding of human nature, a knack for noticing detail, a curiosity about how stories will end—and she would apply these attributes to her love of fiction, and become a novelist!  And through her writing, she would find her voice and be set free from the tragic script her mother had written for her. She would make a new role for herself, so that when her last child left home and her marriage ended, she’d have a means to support herself and a new, exciting beginning already underway.

So that’s what I set out to do.  But first, I had to learn how to write.

I used novels as my textbooks, and identified the facets of writing I needed to learn. Then I worked on those things systematically, writing pages of dialogue, description, metaphors and similes, and 3-dimensional characters.  Only when I felt I’d aptly learned the basics skills, did I attempt my first novel.  My characters were rich, the writing mediocre, and the story itself, only slightly better than pitiful.  But I was hooked!  I went back to the drawing board for more practice, and some months later, woke at 5:00 a.m. armed with a single question—I wonder what it’s like to send a loved one off to war, and have them come back broken? All I knew when I sat down at my computer, was that the story would have a mother, a father, a hero son, and his sibling as the narrator. Five minutes later, the voice of Earwig appeared to answer my question.  And one paragraph into the story, I thought, This is it—this is the book I’m going to sell! 

And I did.

For me, learning to write was the easy part. The hard part was holding onto the belief that I could make my writing dream come true.  I think that’s every writer’s challenge, no matter where we come from.  For what aspiring writer wouldn’t be willing to work as hard and long as she needed to, if only she knew for certain that in the end she’d get published?  But there are no guarantees in this business.  In my case, ignorance was bliss. I had no idea that the stats that said it was far more likely I’d fail, than succeed.  I simply decided that getting published couldn’t really be any different than setting a grueling goal like walking across the country from the east coast to the west.  Without a map to guide me, I might zigzag, walk in circles, or need to pause and rest at times, but if I kept my putting one foot in front of the other, I’d eventually have to reach my destination, wouldn’t I?

Amy: A LIFE OF BRIGHT IDEAS is a sequel to THE BOOK OF BRIGHT IDEAS. Did you know while you were writing the first book that the story wouldn’t really before with The End?

Sandra: I knew that ending The Book of Bright Ideas with little Button and Winnalee being separated would sadden readers, yet there was no other way to end the story—it’s what would have happened. But at the same time, I didn’t want readers to feel worse when they closed the book, than they did before they opened it.  So I let the story end with Button’s hope that she’d find Winnalee one day.

Amy: What about the characters made you want to get to know them in their future — and in yours?

Sandra: I knew that if I wrote a sequel, Button and Winnalee would be older. Mainly, because I’d said all I had to say about them at the tender age of nine. Yet in growing them up, I faced a challenge:  How to mature these characters, yet keep the essence of who they were as children intact.  Making them eighteen seemed like the perfect option, since at eighteen we’re still wobbling between childhood and womanhood.

As for why I finally chose to write the sequel, the answer is simple. Five years after the release of The Book of Bright Ideas, readers were still writing to ask me, Where did Freeda and Winnalee go? Did Freeda ever straighten her life out? Did the girls ever reunite? I found it endearing that they asked as though Button, Winnalee, Aunt Verdella and the others were living, breathing relatives or friends of mine, rather than fictitious characters crafted for the purpose of telling a story. Eventually, I decided it was time to fulfill my readers’ wishes for a sequel. And I’m really glad I did, because I had a blast revisiting these characters.

Amy: Obviously, with five novels notched into your desk, you have found a way of writing that works for you, your publisher(s) and your readers. Do you outline and plan or sit down and see where the wind takes your story?

Sandra: When I sat down to write Carry Me Home, the opening poured out, and with it, a clear image of the final scene—even the last line.  But I had no idea what would happen in between.  I thought I’d always write with the same freedom, but after getting my editor’s comment back on my sophomore novel, I realized that my free-writing method hadn’t worked out as well the second time around.

With Carry Me Home, history itself dictated my plot, and all I needed to do was to have my characters react to those events.  But I was on my own with The Book of Bright Ideas. My editor pointed out that all the events were crammed into the last two-thirds of the book.  She suggested I create a graph and break the story into thirds, listing the events within each.  In doing this, she claimed, I would not only see how sparse the events were in the first third, but I could more easily see how I might redistribute them. She was right.

Through trial and error, I have learned that if I dive into a book with no idea of where the story is going, I end up with a bunch of characters meandering around the first few chapters like actors waiting for a script.  Yet on the other hand, if I construct a rigid outline, I end up feeling like I’m writing out thank-you notes, using a prearranged message. So I had to find a happy medium. Today, I write out a vague synopsis that includes the key events, and then let spontaneity fill in the spaces between them.  Now my characters can move with purpose from the first page onward, yet they have enough wiggle room to create the surprises I seem to need in order to keep the writing process fun.

Amy: What have you learned about readers of women’s fiction over the course of your career? We know publishing has changed. Have readers?

Sandra: I don’t think readers of women’s fiction have changed (they still want characters they can relate to and care about, and engaging plots. They still want to be prompted to think, and more so to feel), but I do believe that their buying habits have altered.  Not only are readers busier than ever, but they also have less money than they had before. So they pick and choose what they’ll give their time and money to more carefully. And with an ever-growing array of books to choose from via e-readers (many books free, or at far lower costs than paper books), they have more reading options than ever. With so many options, and less time to browse book stores, many readers seem to be doing what publishers themselves are doing—giving their attention to the blockbusting novels.

Amy: How do you define women’s fiction?

Sandra: I define women’s fiction as stories that deal mostly with themes that are exclusive to being female. You know, the topics that, when you bring them up to men, cause their eyes to glaze over.

Amy: As someone about to embark on the whole “published author” experience, I have to ask: what is your best advice for debut authors of women’s fiction in today’s publishing and reading climate? Also, what’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

Sandra: Whether you’re an aspiring writer, a debut author, or a seasoned novelist, the publishing end of a writer’s life is stressful.  If you’re an aspiring author, you worry about creating a story and query that will wow prospective agents.  If you’re a debut novelist, you agonize over how best to promote your book, and you worry that no one past family and friends will buy it. And when you’re a seasoned writer, you fret over if you’ll be able to keep your stories new enough, yet familiar enough to appease your readers, your agent, your editor, and your publisher.  Yet at any stage of the writer’s journey, you must learn how to keep these anxieties from crawling onto your lap when you sit down to write. That is, if you want to keep your sanity intact and your creativity flowing.  If you don’t, you’ll be observing everything you write through the eyes of would-be readers, and putting a choke-hold on your writer’s voice.  How long, then, before writing feels like a daunting chore?

So deal with your anxieties the best you can during your non-writing hours. If you’re an aspiring author, work on your writing skills until you master them, and research how to write an irresistible query. If you’re a debut author, rely on seasoned authors to tell you what marketing methods worked best for them, and which ones they believe were time-wasters. If you’re a seasoned writer, listen closely to your fans so you’ll know what elements of your writing appealed to them, and find creative ways to deliver them more of what they want, but in stories that are fresh and exciting. But when you sit down to write, forget about everything but your story. See it, breathe it, believe it, and love the story you’re in, so that readers will do the same.  Yes, the choices we make on the publishing end matter, but when all is said and done, it’s the stories themselves that will matter most.

Speaking of stories, I’ll end my time here as a guest blogger for WFW with a true story for those of you still dreaming of living the published author’s life:

One January morning, after a string of miserable circumstances that had me convinced that I was a fool to believe that anything good could ever happen to me, much less my biggest dream, I woke to a blizzard raging outside. Unable to face the day, I told my husband and son to eat left-overs, and crawled back into bed with a bag of Oreo cookies, a jug of diet soda, a pack of cigarettes, and a stack of library books.  I chose to start with Tawni O’Dell’s debut novel, Back Roads, for one reason, and one reason only—I thought reading a bleaker story than the one I was living might remind me that things could be worse.

Imagine how surreal it would have been, had someone stepped into my room on that hopeless Sunday back in 2000 and told me that in two years’ time, the very author whose book I was holding in my hands would be blurbing my first novel.  I hope you’ll remember this story on your stormiest days.

My thanks to WFW for including me on your wonderful blog.  I wish you all a productive and fun writing day.  May you all write a successful publishing story for yourselves.

~ Sandra Kring

Sandra Kring lives in central Wisconsin.  Her debut novel, Carry Me Home, was a Book Sense Notable Pick and a 2005 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award nominee.  The Book of Bright Ideas was Target’s Bookmarked pick for the summer of ’06, and named to the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age list as a cross-over book in 2007. Thank You for All Things was All You magazine’s first book club selection.  How High the Moon, was a Midwest Booksellers Association’s Connections Pick, and a Target Breakout Book. Kring’s latest book, A Life of Bright Ideas, was released this past February and featured in Target’s Emerging Author’s section.

The Kitchen Daughter Author, Jael McHenry, Talks About Books, Babies, and Balancing It All To The Best Of Our Abilities

I met Jael McHenry on Backspace and she was the first author to guest post on Women’s Fiction Writers almost a year ago (find that post here)!  Now, as we are ready to celebrate the One Year Blogiversary (big party starts Tuesday), Jael is back to share with us the breadth of her experience along with her passion for writing and books.  I have found that most authors have a generous spirit, and Jael is at the front of the pack, always willing to answer questions and cheer on others.  She is the author of THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER (loved it!) now out in paperback with a gorgeous new cover. 

Please welcome back Jael McHenry!  (Maybe we can make this an annual event!!) And of course I have to say — MAZEL TOV! 

~ Amy

The Kitchen Daughter Author, Jael McHenry, Talks About Books, Babies, and Balancing It All To The Best Of Our Abilities

Amy: Welcome back to Women’s Fiction Writers, Jael, and congratulations on the paperback release of THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER! How did the paperback release differ from the hardcover release?

Jael: Thanks, I’m happy to be back! And I could go on for pages about how different the hardcover release experience and paperback release experience were. I was SO nervous about the hardcover — it was my debut! it was only happening once! — and I went crazy overpreparing and overplanning, scheduling myself to do dozens of blog appearances and guest posts, so focused on not missing my chance to touch every single reader I could get my hands on. And I have to say, that’s not a bad way to approach your debut hardcover release, because it doesn’t leave much room for regret. But by the time the paperback came around, I’d gotten to a much calmer place. Also, my paperback launch was originally scheduled in January and then got moved up to December, just a few days before Christmas and a few days after I was moving house. So I really had to pick and choose what I wanted to do at launch time, and what could wait until a little later. It was a much healthier experience, for sure.

Amy: You know that I’m editing my first novel, so that brings up a lot of thoughts about balance. How have you managed your job(s) and your family and your friends through your first year of being a published author? This applies to aspiring authors too — because getting IT ALL done can be an issue for everyone.

Jael: It’s been crazy, but all in a good way. We do all struggle with balancing writing as a craft, writing as a business, our personal lives and obligations, all those things. What has worked for me is just getting okay with the idea of ebb and flow. Around the hardcover launch, like I said, I was going absolutely nuts with promotion-type obligations, and I let some other things slide during that period — I didn’t even try to work on the next book, I didn’t cook (even though I love to cook), I just set a bunch of things aside. And then a few weeks later, I could pick them up again. The hardcover of The Kitchen Daughter came out last April, and this April will be even crazier — this year instead of having a book, I’m having a baby. My first. Eek! So that “ebb and flow” idea is really going to be central. A lot of other things will get set aside for the first few months, and then I’ll find a new balance as I add them back in. The difference is that if I intentionally say to myself “I’m just not going to write for a month”, then I’m okay with it, as opposed to telling myself every day “Well, I really should be writing” and not necessarily doing it, then beating myself up for not being able to do it all. And if I intentionally set it aside I never worry about thinking “Oh, I never write anymore.” I always know I’ll pick it up again.

Amy: When you’re writing are you a plotter or a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants)? Do you have any writing rituals or things that just work for you when you’re writing? (I need to sit by a window, for example, which means I cannot cordon myself off in my basement.)

Jael: Oh, I have tried so many times to be a plotter, and it just never works for me. I have to write the book in order to see whether it makes sense. I discover so much of it as I write, in a way I can’t just by outlining. And this means that I do a ton of revision, and I have to delete a lot of scenes — I probably took as many words out of The Kitchen Daughter as I left in — but none of that effort is wasted, because it all gets me closer to the final product. Other than that I’m pretty inconsistent on where and when I write, though there’s something I particularly love about being surrounded by other people who don’t know who I am or what I’m doing while I’m writing. Coffee shops are key. And I like to edit in hard copy while sitting at a bar with a glass of wine. (When I’m not pregnant, that is.) Too much silence doesn’t work for me.

Amy: Are you working on a new novel? Can you tell us about it?

Jael: Yes, and… a little. It’s set in 1905, so it has taken a ton of research and is going slowly because of that. Plus, as I mentioned, with a new baby on the way, I know I’m about to get pretty seriously derailed. Which is a blessing, actually, in a way. I think every book benefits from being set aside and then viewed with fresh eyes — when I’m under a tight deadline I can have other readers take a fresh look and tell me what they see, but it’s even better if I can take a month or two away from a manuscript in progress and then re-approach it, almost as if I’m appraising someone else’s writing and not my own. Which is a great way to edit. So I’ve definitely got something in the works, and I’m super-excited about the premise and the characters, but it’s going to be in the works for a while before you’ll see it on the shelves.

Amy: So much advice about reading widely has been offered here on Women’s Fiction Writers. Can you share with us a book or two (or three) that you’ve loved recently or long ago — that are NOT women’s fiction?

Jael: How about a whole series? In college I discovered Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series of detective fiction and absolutely fell in love. He has this brilliant hard-boiled voice, this hard narrative drive, that I just find compulsively readable. Whenever I’m tempted to let my sentence-level writing run away with my book, I re-read him, and it’s just so helpful. You can never let your words get in the way of your characters and plot. He makes every word count, absolutely, and that’s a real skill that writers should develop, regardless of genre. I own every book in the series, but the two I recommend most often are The Blue Hammer and The Galton Case.

Jael McHenry is the author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster, 2011), now available in hardcover, e-book & paperback, and is also a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog, http://simmerblog.com. She is a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, a member of Backspace, and a monthly pop culture columnist at Intrepid Media. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Learn more about Jael’s work at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry. She lives in New York City.