Backstage at a bestseller

backstage

Silk’s Post #105 — When Paula wondered in her last post whether the 5/5/5 exercise of deconstructing a novel was a waste of time – didn’t it make more sense to stop with the procrastinating and diversions and just dive in to writing our own novels? – I admit I was conflicted too.

My enthusiasm for getting started on a new project was boosted by our 5/5/5 mini-retreat in Vancouver, and I couldn’t wait to shake off the demons of sloth and get back to writing again. Did I really need this deconstruction side trip? I have what I think is a strong story premise and promising characters. It felt like this was the time to step on the gas, not the brakes.

At the same time, I know that building a plot and structure that really works for this story will be an architectural challenge. And I know I haven’t mastered this fundamental skill. Do I really want to spend the next year of my life creating a novel that can’t pass book-building inspection, and is destined to fill yet another bottom drawer for eternity?

So I decided to at least try it. The possible up side (finding the magic plotting bullet) outweighed the possible down side (getting derailed from my writing). I figured the likeliest outcome would be that I’d re-read a great book and at least get inspired, at the expense of a quick start on my own story.

Well, it looks like I was wrong – in a good way. Let me explain.

The thing about learning a delicate craft – like writing – from books, or workshops, or courses, or writers conferences, is that these are a lot like elementary or high school studies. Learning from books and lectures has some major limitations. You can memorize and grasp concepts and follow step-by-step instructions all you like, and at the end you’ll probably have a book. But will it be a good book? A well-constructed book? A book that a smart agent will take a chance on? A book that compels readers to turn the page? A book they’ll actually remember a month after they read it?

I’ve read that most new writers essentially learn their craft through trial and error. That’s certainly been my path. But how much of this learning-from-your-mistakes can you do and still remain inspired? Frustratingly, finding out exactly what mistakes you’ve made is a whole challenge in itself. A critique group certainly can help here, but many unpublished writers learn that they’ve (probably) made mistakes through rejection letters – without getting the feedback needed to actually learn from those mistakes.

Another of the oft-repeated pieces of advice to writers is to read read read. Read widely, but especially read great writers and learn from them. The theory seems sound: learn by example. Somehow, by osmosis, you will absorb the literary genius of a bestseller and replicate it, with practice. Kind of a monkey-see-monkey-do thing.

While reading is an absolute essential for writers, and it’s easy (almost too easy) to mimic another writer’s style and voice, there’s one little hitch in learning to plot through exposure to good writing.

As a front-of-stage reader, the backstage mechanics of plot and structure are invisible to you, hidden behind the curtain. That’s the magic. The more skilled the writer, the more opaque are the pulleys and levers and ropes and set and lighting elements that make the whole show work seamlessly. The girl who appeared to be sawn in half emerges whole. The doves fly out of the hat. The magician disappears in a puff of smoke. You, the reader, are simply transported, disbelief suspended.

Every time I read a great book I find myself fooled once more. Even though I’ve learned much about writing, I get swept away in a good story and at the end I find myself again wondering: how did the author do that magic? (Formulaic books are another thing altogether, their plots often transparent and predictable.)

glass-rainbowBut within the first 10 page of deconstructing my chosen book, The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke – using the methodology suggested by James Scott Bell in his book Plot and Structure (see “How to Improve Your Plotting Exponentially”), I realized I had just stepped backstage.

This is where the magic gets done. Immediately, secrets began to be revealed. The pulleys and levers became exposed as I watched the master writer at work, behind the curtain, and documented what I saw.

The bizarre thing about novel deconstruction is: all you’re doing is reading, but with one difference. You don’t sit in front of the curtain in the audience and let the plot sweep you forward. You simply go backstage and stop the action at the end of every scene to examine what the writer has actually done.

Every page, every paragraph, every word in the opening of The Glass Rainbow had a job to do. By page 1, the reader had been sucked into the humid, decaying world of a marginalized and lawless society, set at the slow-simmering pace of the deep South. By page 2, the reader had seen inside the sleuth/protagonist’s heart-of-hearts and come to understand what he values, what he fears, what drives him. By page 6 the troubling circumstances of the crime that triggers the whole plot, and the challenges of achieving justice in this case, had been introduced.

All this was accomplished in 2 scenes and maybe 2,000 words. The magic? Even though the pace was as unhurried as a road gang prisoner sweating over his labour under the noonday Mississippi sun (the setting of Scene 2), the reader on the audience side of the curtain had quickly been swept deep into the plot and hooked on the story, the characters, the setting … the mystery of it all.

And now that I’ve been backstage, I have a good idea how James Lee Burke did it.

Wow.

For me, this exercise is not a diversion from writing. It’s an internship with a master.

 


Box Score

Books deconstructed: < 1% of one book

Pages of my book written: 0

Blog posts written: 1

Travel planned and booked: 1 trip (New Zealand)

What I’m reading this week: The Glass Rainbow, James Lee Burke; The Ascent of Women, Sally Armstrong; New Zealand, Lonely Planet

Health status: Miserable cold

Pies eaten: 1/3, variety: pizza

Best thing this week: Discovering deconstruction

Worst thing this week: Relentless Ebola news everywhere

Deconstructing deconstructing

Joe’s Post #114

In Paula’s most recent post, she raised a good point. Are we writing more about writing than writing? Or analyzing writing instead of writing?

The answer is simple.

http://aaronmritchey.com/2013/04/11/my-completely-unauthorized-interview-with-steampunk-goddess-gail-carriger/

aaronmritchey.com

Yes. Yes we are.

But it’s a process we’re using to get back to the job of actually writing a book. Put another way, how do you break out of a slump?

Hence, the idea of deconstructing a book. But what book?

Reading crap is the worst thing to do. It makes you wonder why your novel wasn’t published when some piece of garbage was. Oh, I know there are reasons for it, chiefly being that publishers (rightly) always consider the bottom line or, in other words, will it sell?

Reading a good novel, though, could help us get back to the idea that words and ideas matter.

GorkyParkI can’t speak for everyone, but that’s working for me. I’m looking at Gorky Park. I’m reading it slowly, seeing where he puts in his hooks, how he works his pacing and description and manages to keep a complicated plot understandable. On page 1, our hero is looking at three mutilated dead bodies and the evil KGB dude beside him says, “One day that’ll be you.”

I mean, wow. So I stopped reading and made notes on how I can do something like that in my story.

Then we see our hero try to get out of investigating the case. Now this is not normal. Not normal at all. It’s a massive ‘refusal of the call’, and yet his reasons are sound. No one messes with the KGB and this case screams KGB. If he takes it on, it could ‘lead places’, places that could get our hero in serious poo.

So, again, wow. All this in 3 pages.

I wrote more notes. I remembered that I needed to get the plot and stakes going fast. Like by page 5, fast. It’s something that’s easy to forget. Put hero in poo and make it super smelly.

arkadyI read on. Our hero’s fighting his inner self. The inner self has many questions about these murders. Despite his wise ‘self’ thinking he’s got to find a way to dump this case, he just can’t. It’s not in him. He will find the truth, no matter the cost.

Damn, I’m hooked. Aren’t you?

More notes are made. An opening scene is coming to mind. Characters are forming.

This is working.

Oh, this may not be for everyone. I get that. But for me it’s like doing a warm up before doing heavy exercise (not that I do that, but, you know, I’m, just saying.)

*****

This week, call it week 2

Watched Walking Dead. OMG good. Want to learn about great writing, take a look at that show.

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book – 0

# turkeys eaten – 0!!! Not a one. Nada. So sad.

# of new friends made on Twitter – 102

# of new friends who offered to sell me 1000 followers for $49.99 – 86

Days to SiWC – 7

Productivity is habit forming

Karalee’s Post #92

Last week I made commitments to be productive in my writing and to keep a balanced life while doing so. I’m very glad of the list as it has already helped me focus my time and energy and get some writing and outlining done even with life’s priorities shifting temporarily in an unforeseen direction. My husband had emergency eye surgery a few days ago and I’m forever grateful for our medical system here in Canada. He is healing well and I’m settling back to my new routine.

I’ve also committed to giving back to my community this year and I will be volunteering with a teacher friend in her class of refugee students, especially helping them with written and verbal English. I know I will learn as much from them as they will from me.

dick francis proofI will be deconstructing a couple of novels during my 12 Weeks to a First Draft course (so I will be very busy), but for purposes of my own writing I’ve always been drawn into Dick Francis’s novels and will deconstruct Proof as my exercise to learn how his writing hooks me. I’m looking forward to this exercise and am positive it will help pull my writing to a new level.

So, my productivity this week has been:

  • I’m half-done mind-mapping my new story. I find this process very creative and I draw the interconnections of my story on a roll of craft paper and pin it on the wall of my office. I write my characters out too with a picture I find that looks like them. The visual references are invaluable to me as I write.
  • I’ve written my novel’s back cover plus the first chapter and some of the second. Total words: 900
  • Hours in my office: 15
  • Times I journaled my progress: 2

This isn’t writing progress, but is reality:

Pies eaten: half a pumpkin and half a strawberry-cranberry pie. Hey, it was Thanksgiving!

Special dinners cooked: 2. One for my son’s 19th birthday (8 people) and one for Thanksgiving (12 people).

Episodes of Orange is the New Black watched: 2

If anyone out there is using Scrivener, there’s also a quick way to learn the software as well as learning how to format everything for an eBook including the covers.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

Conflicted… again.

Paula’s Post #84

I”m conflicted.

If you read my post from last week, Open for Debate, you’ll note that this week, I had every good intention of continuing with the topic of ‘deconstruction’ as a tool to improve our writing. As I noted last week:

Just like the title on the Meccano box says: we’re going to start with ‘parts and how to use them’. Each of us will figuratively rip a bestselling novel apart, and then examine the bits and pieces of the type of book we want to write. We’ll study each of those bits and pieces, having regard to the end product we wish to write, until we have a solid understanding of what made those novels ‘tick’.

So, determined to make good on that promise, I walked down the road of good intentions this weekend, spending hours on Amazon and Goodreads, trying to decide exactly which novel I wished to ‘deconstruct’.

It had to be a good one. It had to be an author I loved, or could fall in love with. It had to be an author who’d met with high critical acclaim in the mystery-suspense genre.

Soon, a number of excellent candidates vied for my attention:

John Grisham’s Pelican Brief – a great yarn and a strong female lead. And I’d read it. A long time ago, but I’d read it. They even made it into a movie! A pretty good movie starring Julia Roberts.

Pelican Brief

Stuart Wood’s Orchid Beach – the first in his Holly Barker series. I hadn’t really read much of Wood’s work, (he’s more known to readers for his Stone Barrington series) but poking around, I discovered he publishes about three books a year under his contract with Putnam, and something like his last 30 novels have all been hardback bestsellers on the New York Times list for fiction. Not too shabby.

Orchid Beach

Margaret Maron: The Bootlegger’s Daughter – Where the heck have I been? I haven’t read Maron’s series either. But her protagonist, Judge Deborah Knott, according to my research, has just appeared in the 19th book in this venerable, award-winning series. What else did I discover? Maron’s won the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards. A stellar achievement. (I hopped right over and ‘liked’ her page on facebook).

Bootlegger's Daughter

Hilary Davidson: – Damage Done – The debut novel in her Lily Moore series and an Anthony award winner for best first novel, not to mention finalist for the Arthur Ellis and Macavity awards. A pretty hot start, right out of the gate. But wait, I haven’t read that one either.

Damage Done

By now, I’m beginning to get a little knot in my tummy repeating this over and over again. Maybe I’ve been working too hard at my ‘other’ work’, I mutter under my breath. ‘What’s that dear’, my husband asks. ‘Nothing.’

I shake my head, startled at how far I’ve fallen behind in my reading.

Louise Penny – Still Life – Canadian author of mystery novels and winner of the Ellis and Anthony awards, for her debut novel featuring Chief Inspector Gamache of the Homicide Department of the Surete du Quebec.

Still Life

Whew! I can wipe my brow with relief. I discovered the fabulous Ms. Penny last year, and even blogged about it in my January post: Reflections on my ‘Not Writing’ Life.

Damn! I have a sneaking suspicion that is maybe what we are all doing with this whole deconstruction project. Not writing, that is. This isn’t good. Not for a writers’ group.

So that’s why I’m conflicted.

Last evening, I explained the whole deconstruction idea to my husband, always a good sounding board. He listened for awhile, mostly patiently, while I described what we hoped to achieve. He even hung in there as I read the first pages of several of the novels I was considering ‘deconstructing’ (he voted for Louise Penny, by the way).

In the end, however, he turned to me with growing impatience and said, quote:

“Success is measured by how well you tell your stories and not by whether you make the best seller list. You shouldn’t try to be an industry, some of them (the bestselling writers) are just bad writers!”

“Go back to your Hawaii novel and tell a good story.”

He thinks we 5writers are becoming way too pre-occupied with writing about writing, and have lost sight of the whole purpose: which is just to tell a good story.

I told him I would think about that, and would even include his words in my blog today.

So I am.

Food for thought: maybe I shouldn’t get bogged down in deconstructing someone else’s bestselling novel. Maybe I should just tell the story I want to tell.

I’ve told my 5writers’ colleagues that if I do ‘Deconstruct’ it likely will be either Louise Penny’s ‘Still Life‘ or ‘ Margaret Maron’sThe Bootlegger’s Daughter‘.

But I remain conflicted.

Yet, in the end, maybe we don’t need to be ‘all in’ on this. One of the best articles about ‘deconstruction’ for writers is Kathy Steffen’s ’10 Steps for Deconstructing a Novel (or How to Learn from Great Authors). Steffen prefaces her ’10 steps’ with the following advice, which I’ve excerpted in full:

The best way to learn how to write a book is to read and write. Seriously. The write part is easy (hahaha—at least in theory). Write. As much as you can—early in the morning, or at night, or at lunch, or write every day at a specific time, or, or, or…(for ideas on time to write, here are some ideas in Make Time to Write and Find Time to Write). You get the idea.

Now for the reading part. If you are a writer, you are probably a voracious reader. Read, read, read everything you can, especially in the genre you want to write. Reading other’s work will help you study story structure and analyze what works and what doesn’t so you can apply concepts of writing that resonate with you to your own writing. How to do this? Read first as a reader to enjoy the book, then go beyond the “magic” and take a look behind the curtain to discover how the writer enthralled you. Get that other part of your brain working—not the imagination part, but the analytical part. Read as a writer. Deconstruct your favorite novels.

Novel deconstruction isn’t a book report where you just tell what happened in the book. This is a method of digging beneath the surface of the book to see what makes it a can’t-put-it-down read. This can be an eye-opening experience. Give it a try!

Good advice, eh?

I’m going to think about that, but first, I’m going to catch up on my reading.

The disturbing truth about openings

disruption

Silk’s Post #104 — Change is good. Life teaches us early that the only sure thing in this world (besides death and taxes, of course) is change. So we might as well embrace it.

But how easily, and eagerly, we slide into our comfort zones. And once we’ve settled in to our comfy routines and they become the status quo, we tend to cling to them. Change can feel like a bucket of cold water in the face, or a push out the door into an unfamiliar landscape. We tend to defend ourselves against disruption, and sometimes – like sleepers who punch the snooze button and pull the covers over their heads – we even try to ignore or deny the intrusion of change.

Yet the opposite is also true. Every so often we get the urge for change and novelty (perfectly illustrated by the major lifestyle changes over the past couple of years for three-fifths of our tiny 5writers sample group). This can be a bracing, rejuvenating experience, one that can even become addictive or morph into a thrill-seeking lifestyle.

But whether change is voluntary or involuntary, it’s undeniably the impetus and lifeblood of every good story in every genre. Disruption starts plots rolling, creates character arcs, invites readers to come along for the ride … just to find out what happens next. If nothing is changing, there’s no possibility of jeopardy or challenge. In fact there’s simply nothing to write about.

End of story. Literally.

Writing guru James Scott Bell calls the static comfort zone “Happy People in Happy Land.” This is where stories go to die, often in the first few pages. This excerpt of his post on the excellent Kill Zone website (“Insider perspectives from today’s hottest thriller and mystery writers”), delivers some of the best advice I’ve seen on using creative disruption to hook readers with your opening:

You must grab [agents, editors and readers] on page one. How can you do that?

By beginning your novel with a disturbance to the lead’s ordinary world.

Why disturbance? Because readers read to worry. They want to be lost in the intense emotional anticipation over the plight of a character in trouble. Only when that connection is made does reader interest truly kick in.

But in their opening pages many writers fall into what I call the “Happy People in Happy Land” trap. They think that by showing the lead character in her normal life, being happy with her family or dog or whatever, we’ll be all riled up when something bad happens to this nice person, perhaps at the end of chapter one, or beginning of chapter two …

But that’s too long to wait. You need to stir up the waters immediately.

A disturbance is something that causes ripples in the placid lagoon of Happy Land. It can be anything, so long as it presents a change or challenge to the lead. (It’s important to note that this disturbance need not be “big” as in, say, a thriller prologue. The opening disturbance can be a jolt, however slight, that indicates to the lead that she is not having an ordinary moment here.)

And you need to have that jolt on page one, preferable paragraph one.

When you read this advice, it all seems so obvious. When you’re facing the blank white page of your opening, though, the awesome weight of getting those first few critical words perfectly right can trigger a bout of acute amnesia.

I can’t recommend James Scott Bell’s writing books highly enough, especially for their advice on critical points where writers often get stuck or take a wrong turn in the plot that takes them miles away from a good storyline. The 5Writers are looking to assemble a shortlist of great writing resources that we use and recommend, with links from this blog. In the meantime, here are two of his books I find indispensable:

plot and structurePlot & Structure – Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish (Writer’s Digest Books)

 

 

 

 

art of warThe Art of War for Writers – Fiction writing strategies, tactics and exercises (Writer’s Digest Books)

 

You are a writer. So be an author!

Helga’s Post #93: These words of encouragement appeared in an article titled ‘Don’t be afraid of Indie Publishing’ by Writer’s Digest online editor Brian Klems. Posted a year ago it’s a must read for writers of all genres. It’s informative and helps ease the decision all of us who have written a complete manuscript have to face: Go the traditional publishing route or go on your own.

As you can glean from the last few posts of our blog, the topic of indie publishing and self-publishing has been utmost in the 5 writers discussions. Admittedly, we are still in the writing phase, some of us at the start of our new novel, and nowhere near ready to face the publishing challenge. But we have pretty well decided to give self-publishing a try.

I admit, I have been a skeptic of indie and self-publishing until recently, and there are some issues that keep me from being a dyed-in-the-wool fan just yet. But the more I research the topic the closer I am drawn to the conclusion that this is the brave new world for writers. And it’s here to stay.

The benefits for writers seem obvious. Here is how the ‘Don’t be afraid’ article puts it:

More and more authors are finding the courage to self-publish or sign contracts with small presses dedicated to building niche markets. They’re proud of their work, and they’re making serious money selling it to readers around the world.

Speaking of money, how can we not get excited that we don’t have to give 80% to publishers? We get to keep the money our stories earn. And we keep control of our work. How cool is that?

On the surface, it sounds fantastic. But how many indie authors are really making serious money? As you can guess, the picture is rather murky. Stating the obvious, some authors, whether self-published and/or traditionally published, are making $15,000 a month and more, and some are making $200. And some have yet to make any money at all. Not every self-published author will collect.

But not all of us are writing to make money, American author Hugh C. Howey reminds us. Some writers will do it if it costs them money. Among the self-published are those who published a memoir to share with a few family members. Or a young student who participated in a youth NaNoWriMo program and just wanted to see their work for sale on Amazon. These are valid reasons to publish. We can’t lump everyone together in the “wanna be rich and famous” category.

So where’s the rub?

Self-publishing is big business, but there’s more to putting out a book than just printing it. When you’re working alone, without a literary agent or traditional publisher, you must be vigilant about scams. Just google ‘self-publishing scams’ and you will find 742,000 results. Horror stories abound. Writers paying 10K to get their manuscript ‘published’ without a single copy sold. Like in any other business, it’s ‘buyer beware’. Writers who are in a hurry to get their book published seem to be the most vulnerable, willing to pay top dollars for inadequate services. They may get lured by unscrupulous publishers with promises of grandeur, only to find out they were paying for ineffective marketing or excessive fees for an ISBN.

But once you take the time to dig deeper, the picture actually gets brighter. My research revealed countless success stories where writers did very well and made money without paying to get their book out. There is absolutely no need to front any costs if you are willing to spend time to educate yourself. You can format your book and you can even market it yourself. There are many resources available on how to do it.

You just have to look.

For me personally, the two most important issues are this: First, writers should get paid for their stories, rather than paying for them (therefore: no vanity presses, no ‘pay to publish’). Secondly, writers should keep control of their work in their own hands.

On balance, even with pitfalls (which we can avoid if we are vigilant), the benefits lead to the self-publishing camp. That’s the route I am willing to take together with my 5 writers group. It doesn’t mean we’ll shut the door forever on traditional publishing. According to a recent survey, about 10% of self-published authors transitioned from indie publishing into traditional publishing. Conversely, among writers who traditionally published their first book, more than a third (36%) have now also self-published.

The bottom line? The decision is entirely up to each and every writer. You want to be an author? Now you can.Publish-259x300

Writing and social media – the mysterious Twitter

Joe’s Post #113

twitterAh, Twitter. What a confusing creature you are to me.

I’ve had you explained to me a whole bunch of times, but your hashtags and retweets and quoted retweets and sorting out the good from the spam, well, it’s a lot to ask of me. To kind of quote the very wise Pooh bear, “I’m a bear of very little brain and this new tech stuff bothers me.”

But yes, I’m back to trying to understand and use Twitter. In theory, it should be a thing I love. Something quick to read. Nothing too taxing on my small brain. A few links. Even the odd picture. But no, it’s something I’m struggling with.

However, I’m taking on being a bit more active in the Twitter-verse.

Why?

I’m an idiot.

But also I want to understand it so I can increase our 5/5/5 social media presence. Even if I eventually don’t go the Twitter route, I still want to, you know, get it. I want to live in the year 2014 and not hide out in 1980 when the world was simple and rad.

So here are my challenges.

  • How to find interesting people to follow (and who’ll be interested in anything I have to say?). It’s tough to read through people’s bios and figure out if there’s a connection. Maybe that’s the wrong way to go. Maybe I need to just spam everyone.
  • brienneI don’t want this to occupy my whole time. I want this to be quick. Easy. I can’t forsake writing to be the king of Twitter. Or the court jester of Twitter. Maybe that would be my title in Game of Thrones. “Good morning, Brienne of Tarth, I am Joe of Twitter.” “Where is Twitter?” “It is nowhere and everywhere.” And then shakes her head and she stabs me with her sword.
  • I want to figure out a way to get people to read my blog via Twitter. I thought of putting ‘naked women’ in my titles but wouldn’t that just drive pervs to my feed? They’re not exactly my target audience, some of my posts to the contrary.
  • I don’t want to wake up feeling like I have to feed the beast every day. It’s a lot of work and guilt that I don’t need. But I do realize that the beast has to get fed, so I’ll kick up my game with posts.
  • I am old, and new things are tough for me to learn. Eating pie is easy. I’ve done it a ton before. But learning something new and all techie and complicated, yeah, not my favourite thing. I have to be able to overcome the inertia of doing the same-old-same-old and overcome the confusion and terror of learning something hard.

So, anyone know how to make this easier? I hear wine helps.

In other news, the journey to a new book begins, like Silk and Paula and Karalee have posted.

Here’s the new running update.

This week, call it week 1

Ordered and received a book I’m going to dissect to learn how to write my book. I won’t copy it, but I want to understand the beats and pacing better.

foylesOrdered and received Foyle’s War DVDs. I’ll be writing a story set in WW2 and I’ll be doing all kinds of research, but for me, seeing something, looking at the fine details, is the best thing I can do.

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book – 0

# of pies eaten – 1 (ok, one slice, but it was amazing)

# of new friends made on Twitter – 86

# of new friends I imagine will read my Twitter feeds – 86

# of new friends on Twitter who will likely read my posts – 3

# of times I thought about giving up writing and becoming a lion tamer – 3

Courses I’ve signed up for – 1 (wordpress)

Days to SiWC – 14

 

 

Commit to write and set your goals

Karalee’s Post #91

It’s wonderful to refocus and aim high. Yes, everyone in our writing group has agreed to each have a book written, edited and ready to self-publish within the next year.

To me our 5Writers group has expanded from being a critique group to an all-encompassing writing support group. We’ve challenged each other to write our manuscripts, continue and expand on our social networking as 5Writers, plus learn as much as we can about self-publishing and all that it entails. And, we will all support one another in all of these aspects along the way.

5 heads are better than one, right?

freytag's pyramid

I work best to deadlines and taking courses on learning about the craft of writing seems to light a fire under my butt and often kick-starts my ideas.

I can easily flip between feeling confident in my writing to wondering WTF am I doing? So, improving my writing skills definitely feeds my self-confidence to be able to write well enough to publish an awesome book!

Before our two day writing group retreat I had already started an online course by Dean Wesley Smith  called “Character Voice and Setting”. It is excellent and I enjoy how Dean uses videos to teach so it’s close to being in a classroom and taking your own notes. The assignments are in-depth too and put into practice the concepts taught.

12 weeks to draft

The other course I’m signed up for is through Writer’s Digest University called 12 Weeks to a First Draft  by Mark Spenser. This course is perfect timing for me as I’m pushed to figure out my plot-line, develop my characters and setting, and put into instant use the techniques I learned through Dean’s course.

I feel stoked and my FUN FACTOR is back to get my book written. My goal is to get the first draft outlined, researched and at least half written by Christmas. There, I said it.

To make it happen I need to commit to time and productivity goals so here goes:

  1. Spend a minimum of 3 hours in my office per day or 21 hours/week.
  2. Produce at least 500 words/day over and above research/outlining/blogging, etc. starting next week so I have this first week to do initial plotting.
  3. Keep up my regular exercise routine for my health.
  4. Meditate daily. I’ve found this has become essential to help keep my energy and mood balanced.
  5. Journal my progress daily. I haven’t done this before and I think this may open my eyes to how I work best and help my productivity for future books too.
  6. Of course, my dogs and family need some daily attention too!

dogs at beach

I feel that all 5Writers left our retreat pumped to rise to our new writing challenge. In the last year our group has become even more geographically spread apart and the feasibly of getting together more than a couple of times a year seems difficult. To help us stay connected and give us a regular venue for progress and feedback, we’ve decided to have a Monday morning group check-in via email. I love this idea and we started this week. Already it’s a great addition to our group dynamics.

Sometimes the simple ideas are the best! And who doesn’t like Monday morning coffee?

Does your writing group keep connected in-between meetings? If so, how?

Happy writing!

Open for debate

Meccano

Paula’s Post #83

Yesterday, in her post ‘Deja Vu all over Again‘, my colleague Silk kicked off our 5writer week by revealing the outcome of our ‘mini-retreat’ held last week in Vancouver. Truthfully, up until last week, we 5writers had been, well, floundering. We knew we’d lost our focus. We knew we’d lost our enthusiasm. Most of us missed the heady excitement and break neck pace of our original 5writers challenge: the challenge of each of our 5writers concocting and finishing a complete novel in just 5 months.

Still, we cannot ignore the fact that our lives have changed.

For most of us, they’ve become a lot more complicated, whether by the addition of new homes, new children, new grandchildren or other new challenges to our families and careers. But if you read Silk’s post of yesterday, you’ll know that we were dissatisfied. We needed some way to recapture the excitement of our original challenge, without a mere 5 months deadline hanging over our heads

We think we’ve found it. To quote Silk’s framing of the challenge:

As a group, we have just embraced an ambitious common goal to write and self-publish five new books.

Yikes!

We all agreed to that? Write and publish?

Where to begin?

Well, that’s where the debate begins, and we did plenty of that in our two day, closed door sessions in Vancouver last week. Sometimes, it can just make you plain crazy, when you try to decipher what comes first: the chicken or the egg. Because not only will we need to know everything about writing a novel that will sell (while staying true to our artistic selves), we’ll also need to know so much about the mysterious world of indie and online publishing.

But thanks to the power of five, I think we’ll be up to the challenge. But again I ask: where to begin?

Thanks to Silk’s voracious appetite for researching this topic, I now know far more about self-publishing than I can possibly absorb at this time. For me, call it chicken or egg (I don’t care a whit), I need to start with the book idea. Only when I know what book I’m writing will I be able to focus on how and where to get it out there to an audience.

Sounds easy, right?

Well, if we learned anything in our original 5writers5novels5months.com challenge, it is that writing a novel is harder than it first appears. Sure, you can get from beginning to the magical moment when you your fingers dance across the keyboard and, with a smile on your face you type: ‘the end’, but then what?

None of us viewed our 5months novels as brilliant, ready to publish manuscripts. So, what went wrong? What did we pinpoint as our common downfall?

I can say it on one word:

Structure.

Yes, structure. Most of us were done in by a lack of solid understanding of engineering and architecture, two essential, must-master skills for budding novelists.

So, this time, like kids sitting on the floor playing with a Meccano set – you all remember those, don’t you? – we’re going to start the process not with construction, but with ‘deconstruction’.

Just like the title on the Meccano box says: we’re going to start with ‘parts and how to use them’. Each of us will figuratively rip a bestselling novel apart, and then examine the bits and pieces of the type of book we want to write. We’ll study each of those bits and pieces, having regard to the end product we wish to write, until we have a solid understanding of what made those novels ‘tick’. We’re not all picking the same novel. Instead, we’ll each pick a novel that appeals to us in one way or another. For most of us, that may be because the novel we wish to deconstruct model the genre and style of novel we’d like to write.

Deconstruction so we can begin Construction.

Each of us has a favourite writer. A novelist we admire. I wouldn’t say we want to go so far as to emulate that author, but we do want to pull back the curtain on these wizards of words, and find the secret of their success.

So, like the question posed at the start of a debate match:

Resolved: You can’t construct a good novel until you deconstruct a good novel.

I place that question on the table, open for debate.

I’ve already started my research, I suspect I’m going to weigh in and join the ‘affirmative’ team. But if you’d like to take a deeper look at the question, I recommend you start with an excellent blog I stumbled upon when I started to delve into this topic: The Better Novel Project.

Christine’s blog is all about deconstructing best selling novels as the key to learning to write one yourself. I think it’s a brilliant idea, hopefully, you do too.

But that is, of course, open for debate.

Where do you weigh in?

Déja vu all over again

fresh-perspective

Silk’s Post #103 — I love new beginnings. For some people, the year begins on January 1. Others are in tune with Spring as a time of rebirth. I was a Halloween baby, so for me the year has always started with autumn. It’s a new cycle and we’re on the start line once again.

Our 5Writers mini-retreat in Vancouver last week was a perfectly timed re-start for me. If you’ve ever belonged to a writers group – or any kind of small-scale, informal professional circle – you’ll know how this kind of support and encouragement kindles new enthusiasm for your work and kicks your energy up a notch.

And there’s nothing like a new challenge to wake up the competitive spirit. As a group, we have just embraced an ambitious common goal to write and self-publish five new books. If “competitive” seems like an inapt word to describe our cooperative efforts, it’s used deliberately. As unpublished authors, we’re a bit like a team that’s training together. We egg each other on. Put any five people on the same track – whether they’re running or writing – and the natural competitive human spirit turns it into a race. At the same time, we have an unwritten rule, born of our mutual respect and loyalty: Leave No Writer Behind. So it’s a genteel “race” of 5 cooperative competitors designed to produce 5 winners.

Over the next months, this blog will be sharing our brave new journey. It’s less brash than our original 5Writers challenge to write 5 novels in 5 months two years ago. In 2012 we set out at a furious gallop, hell bent for leather. Yee-haw! It was a terrific exercise and we learned a lot from it – about writing, and about ourselves.

I’m one of the two who didn’t finish the novel I started for that challenge. I may finish it one day because I love the characters and I think it has potential, but it’s a book that was conceived to fit that 5Writers challenge. It’s not the book I absolutely must write – at least not right now.

This new challenge is different. I like to think we’ve matured together as writers. Life has thrown us all many changes over the past couple of years. Our nice comfy schedule of meeting once a month or so for critiques is out the window, with two of the five now spending winters in the desert, three going through house moves in the last year, and one taking up Dad duties with his wonderful new family.

We’re all very aware of life’s ticking clock. It’s time to get more serious about writing – and publishing. Even if that means doing it for ourselves. No Cinderella stories have been forthcoming – what a surprise! So we’re not waiting for someone to knock on the door with a glass slipper in hand. But I think we’ve become realists about what we can accomplish as indie writers, and how much work and time we will need to (and are able to) put into it.

Here’s the box score from our lively review last Friday of our 5 book concepts:

  • 5Writers who had completed a full synopsis for review: 1
  • 5Writers who completely switched what book they’re planning to write after review: 2
  • 5Writers who are contemplating major changes to characters after review: 1
  • 5Writers who are now at work on new synopses: 4
  • Fabulous Thai dinners consumed during retreat: 1
  • Fabulous fellow bloggers who joined us for said dinner: 2 (Alison and Don of Adventures in Wonderland, the first time most of us had met these superstars in person!)

Onward!

Helga and super supportive husband Emil

Helga and husband Emil

Don and Joe

Don and Joe

Paula and Silk

Paula and Silk

Karalee and Alison

Karalee and Alison

Alison and Don

Alison and Don