How Do You Start Writing A Novel?

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

They haven’t started writing their books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What color is your balloon?

By Amy Sue Nathan

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

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

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

“Huh?” I said.

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

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

And that’s when I saw a blue balloon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Writing Retreat That Wasn’t

Back in November, I had the best of intentions.

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

What did I really do?

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

And…it was fabulous!

I guess I needed a break.

Who knew?

The fact is, I knew.

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

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

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

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.

Books In The Drawer: Go Back Or Let Go? by Author Randy Susan Meyers

I met Randy Susan Meyers on Backspace (bksp.org) and she quickly became a friend and a mentor.  Her writing insight and advice are only rivaled by her fiction. The Murderer’s Daughters is a captivating, sweeping drama about two sisters, and how a violent event from their childhood has repercussions throughout their lives.  If you haven’t read The Murderer’s Daughters, look it up, flip through the pages, read the back cover, and decide for yourself.  In this blog post, Randy shares with us her books that did not get published…and the courage it takes to move on.  

Please welcome Randy to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Books In The Drawer: Go Back Or Let Go?

By Randy Susan Meyers

How do you know when to put a book away and when to keep on plugging? Is it an ingrained personality trait (stubbornness?) that keeps one going? Does an innate wisdom kick in and tell you to give it up? How do you know whether you’re throwing good money after bad or giving up too soon?

Arthur Golden spent ten years working on Memoirs of A Geisha ,which then spent 2 years on the NYT bestseller list and sold millions of copies. Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne passed an ultimately never-published book back and forth for years. Bestselling author Janet Evanovich admits to having three books in the drawer that will never see light.

Nichole Bernier, in Beyond The Margins, reveals that Amy Bloom yanked back a novel which was accepted for publication, admitting in an interview, “It was my warm-up … It wasn’t anything of which I had to be deeply ashamed. But it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Once I saw that, then I wanted it not in print.”

I have three books in the drawer (not counting half-hearted starts, odd-ball attempts, and a co-authored near-miss.) One of the three is from many, many years ago and I would be terrified to open it. After I finished that book, someone convinced me to show it to their ‘connected-published-cousin-in-law’, who, after he read it, told me directly that it was awful and a waste of his time. (Poor guy, huh?) His particular tough-love sent me away from the keyboard for years.

My second book-in-the drawer I think of as part of my trilogy:

Book One: The book in which I learned proper techniques for sharper writing and characterization, but forgot about incorporating sub-plots. I carry much tenderness for this book, for the characters, and am still in love with my opening paragraphs. I got an agent with this novel (not my current agent.) While this book was out on submission, I began writing my next one, which I quickly saw was a better book. This was:

Book Two: The book where I learned multiple points of view and how to weave major and minor plot-points, but where I didn’t learn that tiptoeing and/or being polite can weaken a book. I still had a reader-over-my-shoulder with this one. (I’m still attached to the story and the characters.) While this book was out on submission (former agent and I having made the decision to pull Book One in favor of Book Two,) I began working on Book Three.

In the midst of this, my agent (who was now concentrating on YA) and I amicably parted ways. Soon after I finished:

Book Three: The one where I became published: The Murderer’s Daughters. After all my downs and downs, this book sold quickly. As the long publishing process unfolded, I began my next book. Why did I choose to begin a new work and not return to my previous novels? First, I had a new story bubbling to get out. Second, I needed to be certain I could do the proper surgery needed to resurrect either novel.

Arthur Golden tore his book apart after six years: changed point of view, where the story began, and God knows what else. Obviously, he was able to approach it with the cold eyes one needs to perform a truly great revision.

I’d written Book’s One and Two quickly and without the store of knowledge, technique and voice that now comes to me more easily than it did previously. If I resuscitate either of these books, I’ll have to be laser-cold and read them as dispassionately as I would a novel picked randomly from a bookstore shelf.

Letting go of a book takes a certain kind of courage—the ability to consider those years as a self-schooling. Even if the story never sees publication, the time put in feeds one’s future work. However, putting in the years, as Golden did, to shape and craft and stay with a work takes a different kind of talent, patience and love. Perhaps it is a personality test—I know myself well. Maybe it wasn’t courage that led to my shoving my books in the proverbial drawer, but impatience with the idea of ripping apart and refashioning them.

Possibly, inner-tuning forks tell us when to move on and when to hold our cards. Despite loving Book One, I think (despite those fantastic two paragraphs and all those slick, funny lines) it will sleep with the fishes. Much as I heave a great lazy sigh of ‘not again’ at the idea of cutting and then re-stitching Book Two, it continues calling me.

Friends have gone in both directions—starting over or holding on. At least three writer-friends I know are reaping the rewards of sticking with it. Others are feeling free and hopeful because they’ve started new projects.

How did you make the decision to keep on going or start over? What brand of courage did you need to grab? My new book is done and off to my editor and I’ve already begun work on another book, but like the one who got away, those books in the drawer still linger in my mind.

Photo Credit: Jill Meyers

The dark drama of Randy Susan Meyers’ debut novel is informed by her years of work with batterers, domestic violence victims, and at-risk youth impacted by family violence.

Randy Susan Meyers’ short stories have been published in the Fog City Review, Perigee: Publication for the Arts, and the Grub Street Free Press.

In Brooklyn, where Randy was born and raised, her local library was close enough to visit daily and she walked there from the time she figured out the route. In many ways, she was raised by books, each adding to her sense of who she could be in this world. Some marked her for horror. Reading In Cold Blood at too tender an age assured that she’d never stay alone in a country house. Others, like Heidi by Johanna Spyri, made her worship her grandfather even more.

Some taught her faith in the future.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith was the only bible Randy ever owned, her personal talisman of hopefulness. Each time she read it, she was struck anew by how this author knew so much and dared to write it.

Randy now lives in Boston with her husband and is the mother of two grown daughters. She teaches writing seminars at the Grub Street Writers’ Center in Boston.

Consider Yourself The Authors’ Apprentice

For about three years about 12 years ago, I cut and pasted and journaled and used stickers and die-cuts and patterned papers. Yep, I scrapbooked. It was all fun all the time.  Yes, even the time I bought my then five year old daughter a fall dress with apple appliques because I could scrapbook it with, you guessed it, apples, apples and more apples.

When I scrapbooked I always looked for the newest gadget, the funkiest doohickey and the coolest thingamajig.  What I didn’t look for was validation. Sure, my kids and I poured over the books and the pretty pages, and I liked learning the newest technique for attaching rivets to twine to embellish my actual paper pictures, but I did not want to be the best scrapbooker.  I just wanted to have fun.  I wanted to come away with a product that I liked looking at that preserved memories I ended up spending more time saving than making.  I not only grew tired of it, I think I outgrew it.

Scrapbooking was my hobby.  I did not need feedback, validation, growth potential or a paycheck from it.  It was fun but it wasn’t who I was. Nothing against scrapbooking or scrapbookers or the entire industry related to hobbies. Hobbies are great. Hobbies are necessary. Hobbies are like a Chinese buffet where you can take what you want, leave some and go back for more.But me? I got hungry an hour later and needed more.  Is it any wonder that when I stopped scrapbooking I started writing again?  (I’ve always written, but I admit I did stop for years)

To me, whether a writer is not published or being paid, writing not a hobby.  At least not to the writers I know (and you know who you are, all of you, yes, I mean you!)

I liken a writer to an apprentice — to learning a craft from those who have achieved some level above or different from your own, for the purpose of earning a living from it or gaining recognition.  Writers strive to learn from the best.  They spend years writing books. They read, take classes, network, query, revise and then do it all over again.  Maybe hobbyists do too — maybe coin collectors and bird watchers and ship-in-a-bottle builders want to be the best in their field.  Maybe they want recognition and to be a professional.  But are hobbies at the core of who these people are?  I don’t know.  I just know that writing is NOT a hobby.

Also, with writing, I believe that you can improve and learn and build on what you know, but I do not believe that everyone can write.  And I think that hobbies are open to everyone. There, I said it. It’s not necessarily a popular viewpoint in the world of bloggers where everyone calls him or herself a writer.

Maybe there are writing hobbyists out there.  I don’t know any, but that’s because I stepped on the write-to-publish moving sidewalk in 2007 and haven’t yet come to the end of it.

Writers often feel like they have to make excuses for their taking time to write because it isn’t a hobby it’s work.  That’s kind of convoluted, don’t you think? I understand that writing is an extra activity for many people working full time jobs and typing away in the evenings and on weekends. Still, I don’t look at it as a hobby.  Maybe that’s because I understand what goes into it and because hobby sounds casual. And casual can be a good thing.

But there’s nothing casual about writing.

So if you need to justify your obsession, your story, your time, your thoughts or your ambitions — think of yourself as as apprentice.

Just remember the important person to convince, is yourself.

Inside A Writer’s Mind: Why I Blew Dry My Hair To Be On The Radio

A benefit and a drawback of writing and editing and blogging at home is the tendency — my tendency — to fall prey to The Pajama Syndrome.  TPS is common among writers, both aspiring and published, although with the advent of Skype, TPS rates have decreased somewhat with book club authors, from what I’ve heard.  It’s easy to cozy up with the laptop and write, plaid flannel pants with a thread of silver sparkle make an excellent base for a lap desk.  The quiet I need to write well — oh hell — to even write poorly — seems more likely with morning hair, even if it’s noon.

Or so I thought.

While much of my writing has been done while donning slippers and drinking coffee (pumpkin spice today, it’s finally Fall) sometimes the tranquil nature of stretchy clothes is counterproductive.  Sometimes I want to look the part of the professional even if no one is going to see me.  Granted, I can pretend I’m all spiffed up if I’m on the phone with a client, but it’s sort of like false advertising.  To myself.  I know the clients don’t care if I read and edit their work at 5am in a Snuggie (after all, it IS a leopard print Snuggie) but sometimes, I care.  And sometimes it’s better to talk the talk AND walk the walk. Even if I’m walking alone.

Back in September when I was scheduled to appear on Annmarie Lockhart’s Fifteen Minutes of Poetry on BlogTalk Radio, not to talk about poetry, but to talk about fiction, I decided it was time to look the part.  I blew dry my hair, put on jeans and a tee (I have my limits) and even *GASP* a pair of — wait for it — shoes!  What I liked most of all that when I looked in the mirror I thought that I could actually be talking to someone in person, face to face, IRL, and saying the same things the same way.  I didn’t expect that to happen — and because I have dogs I did cordon myself off in my bedroom to be on the show.  And when I was on Curtis Sliwa’s radio show in 2009, I stood in the bathroom.  There are just a few things even a coiffed do and a glossy lip can’t cure. My annoying rambunctious dogs are two of them.

I think I could have pulled off the interview even in my pj’s — because it was fun talking to Annmarie — and because I am always willing and eager to talk about writing craft and my own work to other writers and I’m thinking I’m more likely to be believable to myself when I look in the mirror and see the professional me.  It’s a good reminder that while lovely prose and snappy dialogue are not predicated on the fashion-sense of the author, those of us who work alone – at home – can also use the confidence a good hair day imbues.

So, how do you know when you’re too deep in TPS?  Perhaps when your sixteen year old daughter gets in the car after school and asks, “Why are you so dressed up?”  The fact that you happen to be wearing jeans and black long-sleeved T-shirt is not lost on you.  You ask, “Why do you say I’m dressed up?”  And she says, “You’re wearing a necklace.”

Indeed, I was.