The art of course correcting


Silk’s Post #146 — The course to your writing goal is rarely a straight line (a reality writing shares with most other life goals). When you start writing a novel – especially if you’ve done all the work of outlining, or at least envisioning the story arc from start to finish, you think you know where you’re going.

But when you encounter an unexpected impasse, what do you do? Press on ahead, no matter what? Or reassess and correct course?

In other words, can you – and should you – be flexible enough to deviate from your carefully-planned roadmap? Without feeling like you’ve given up, or failed? Or should you go backwards and try to “fix” whatever narrative deficits have brought you to this troubling nexus?

For some writers, the answer is “forward-ho!” Forge on to the predetermined end, and fix whatever problems are causing a sense of discomfort or dislocation in the second draft. Nothing wrong with that strategy, especially if it keeps you on-track with your writing discipline. Mind you, you may be spending a lot more time with your second draft working out stubborn plot or character problems than you had imagined. But it’s a way forward.

And forward is where we must go.

Other writers may pull up the reins, look around at their storyworld surroundings, and realize they’re just plain lost. How did I get here? Everything’s wrong! Feeling trapped in the bog of the mushy middle is no fun, and I wonder how many books simply die right there … slowly sinking into the quicksand of confusion and lost momentum.

To be brutally honest, some unfinished and unworkable stories do need to be given a decent burial rather than continue to suck energy out of their authors, to no good end. But many others are salvageable – maybe even brilliant, eventually – if the writer is willing to let go of the original prescribed plan and let the story bloom in its own natural time and manner.

What happens when an author gets to the narrative’s mid-point, for instance, and realizes – with horror and probably a wrenching ache in his or her gut – that the protagonist should  actually be someone other than the chosen lead character? Or that, even worse, the protagonist is terminally boring, or unlikeable? Or that close third person isn’t working at all, and the story should be told in first person? Or that the whole “voice” of the book is wrong? Or that the story is actually a mystery, not a romance, and needs major structural revisions?

Ah, but these are the lucky authors. The ones who can actually see what’s wrong in the course of the first draft. Why they’re struggling, why they’re swimming against the tide. For many of us, these insights may not come until much later – although “later” is still not “too late” when it comes to a novel. Many resurrections take place in the second or third draft.

However, making a decision to correct course in the middle of a writing journey can be more than daunting. It can be debilitating. Demotivating. Discombobulating. And, seriously – do we need yet more hurdles and self-doubt in our sometimes stuttering writing practices? After all, we’re not out on the high seas in a Clipper ship, our very lives dependent on finding the right course to make a safe landfall. We can just tuck that off-track manuscript in the bottom drawer and go do something more rewarding.

Persistance can be hard, but it can have a big pay off.

Correcting course requires some potentially painful choices. And they can be humbling.

It may mean literally throwing away a lot of stuff you worked hard on, and struggling to convince yourself that it wasn’t just a waste of time. It may mean psyching yourself up to counteract the demotivating experience of having to go backward before you can go forward. It may mean admission that you over-reached, or didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t work smart enough, or picked a genre that isn’t your forté, or any number of other writing sins.

And sometimes the worst sin of all is simply neglecting your writing practice. Maybe you’ve left your manuscript untouched for so long that it has become a kind of skeleton in your closet, Exhibit #1 in the damning case against your sin of omission, a personal rebuke. Maybe you got stuck somewhere along the way, the going got tough, and you put it aside for later. Now it’s later, much later. Are you going to keep avoiding it? Or summon your courage and seek a fresh direction?

To recognize you need a course correction, you have to admit you’re on the wrong track. And who likes to be wrong?

But this is where the art of it comes in – the art of nourishing your writer’s soul. Writers all work essentially alone. Yes, you may be lucky (as I am) to have a writers/critique group, or an editor, or a mentor, or any number of wonderful, supportive people in your writing life. And that really matters. But when the words go on paper, it’s just you and the blank white page. You are an enterprise with a staff of one: yourself.

You have to look after yourself and your assets – your mind, your imagination, your health, your skills, your commitment, your creative spirit, and maybe most of all your enthusiasm.

So don’t look back. Don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself huge points for making the decision to get back on track, take a breath, then get to work with renewed hope and energy. Because although writing is hard work, it should be joyful work.

In my own experience, writing feels incredibly good when it flows, when I know my scene, or my character, or my storyworld, or my narrative arc is working well. It only feels bad when I’m grinding my gears because something’s broken down.

Course corrections are positive. They mean you’ve learned something essential. They mean you’re becoming a better writer. And, hopefully, they lead you away from the struggle of wrestling with something that isn’t working right, and back to that euphoric place all writers seek: The Zone.

And The Zone is where I hope I’m bound this week. Because I have to admit that, of late, I’ve been guilty of the sin of neglecting my writing practice. Yes, right in the middle of the 5writers5novels5months challenge. While the hardy NaNoWriMo participants gushed hundreds of thousands of words during November, my writing output barely filled a teacup.

I was stuck with a few pretty major holes in my current story. Who, exactly, is my villain? How does the story end? And what motivates one of my key characters to take the action that unlocks the whole flow of the plot arc?

Yeah. Big questions. Until I answered them, I was paralyzed. I questioned whether the whole book premise even made any sense. I wondered whether I was capable of writing it, given that it’s a story far outside my own personal experience. I felt like a fraud, taking on a complex, dark, “big idea” story as a novice writer living my idyllic life on my nice, safe little Pacific Northwest island.

So I stalled out. I found other things to do. And my underfed manuscript sat abandoned on my drive. And meanwhile, the 5/5/5 challenge clock ticked towards our deadline.

But, almost unbeknownst to me, my mind kept at the story. Wouldn’t let it go. I wasn’t even aware I was processing it until last week, when the answers to my plot and character questions suddenly popped into my consciousness while I was driving to the grocery store. All in one big epiphany!

So I’m back to the keyboard, and it feels good. Not quite Zone-like yet, but I have renewed confidence I’ll get there.

But now a new course correction is needed.

Because I know I’m not going to have this first draft finished by our 5writers deadline – artificial as it may be – of February 5th. It’s just not going to happen. So I polled the other 5writers, and it seems I’m not the only one whose productivity has fallen a bit short of where we all should be in our stories by now – if we want to be typing “The End” in exactly 60 days.

Rather than avoid the problem, deny the reality, guilt ourselves into a demotivated state of inertia, painfully wedge enough scraps of writing time into the holiday season to make up for lost time, or just give up … we are discussing a course correction, including a reset of our challenge deadline to April 5th. This would also give us more time for mutual support, including some in-progress critiquing and feedback, and virtual group meetings.

Paths to any goal in life, after all, are just plot lines. They do take twists and turns, with something to learn around every corner. And if you’re afraid to make course corrections, you may never get there.

Down, sometimes, but never out

IMG_0080Helga’s Post # 118Reading back over our posts it seems the 5 writers are in constant motion. Traveling motion that is. How on earth can we ever hope to produce a novel within the confines of our restless lifestyles?

But we try. And from what I glean checking in on my writing buddies, everyone hunkers down, making progress on our manuscripts, the due date February 5, 2016 not so far away suddenly. We have recognized some time ago that the only way to produce a decent (and hopefully marketable) manuscript is to commit publicly to a deadline. Miss it and you’ll chance being tarred and feathered in the public arena of social media. So even with all of our erratic lifestyles all of us are determined not to be the one publicly shamed come February 5 next year.

Easier said than done. Speaking strictly for myself, I have been battling a gruesome schedule, leaving no time to add pages to my draft manuscript. Life has a way to push us in a corner when we least expect it. An aging mother overseas who really needs to hug us, or a commitment that takes priority over all else in our lives, something that absolutely cannot wait because we owe it to someone special, these are the things that tend to trip a writer, even the most serious.

Just a few days after returning from a trip to Europe (almost entirely family-oriented), I embarked on a long road trip, solid three days of driving with two overnight stays, from Vancouver to Palm Springs. A close friend offered to be my escort or co-pilot, plying me with snacks and stories throughout. While no progress was made on the writing front, ideas were hatched during the long journey, ideas that may well become part of a larger story.

So now that my immediate travels are behind, my writing life will start in earnest. But wait, not so fast. Arriving at a house that stood empty for over 6 months creates its own challenges. No WiFi, no cable, no phone (other than my trusted cell phone, equipped with a US-friendly SIM card once I had crossed the border from Canada). It was, symbolically and in a real sense, arriving in a desert landscape.

My to-do list stretches across three pages. None of the issues are remotely related to writing my novel. And every single day our deadline gets nearer. Every day not writing means I will have to do much of it towards the end. Writing partner Paula talked about binge-writing not long ago. I am now officially an honorary member of the concept. Never mind writing three pages or whatever, every single day. It may well come down to writing thirty or more in a day, and let’s not forget nights. There may not be much sleep during the last crucial weeks.

Yes, I’ll get to the writing. After I have run the vacuum cleaner through the house to get rid of all the dead (and not so dead) crickets that have taken residence in the last six months in my house. And after I manage to get that dreaded service provider, Time Warner, hook up my services. It has only taken a dozen phone calls with extensive waiting periods to get it into the pipeline.

Not easy times for writers who mean it. Writers whose characters are keen to get back on stage to be heard. Characters that are bursting at the seam to do what their creator has in mind for them.

All will get their pound of flesh. After the fridge is filled with necessities, after the car is washed after driving over 2,200 km, after I’ve put my face to the sun, even for a day, to get rid of that pasty northern pallor.

After that, I will bid my characters to come on stage, to dance to the tune I will have composed for them.

A writer’s life. A writer’s privilege. Not so bad, eh?

Write for the right reasons

Karalee’s Post #124

Tammy hidingI have let my attention be diverted away from writing, hiding actually, telling myself that everyone self-publishes these days, so the chances of me “getting noticed by the big world out there” is minimal at best.

I’ve also been putting effort into my new business and enjoying getting out of the house and the seclusion of writing and being a stay-at-homebody-mom.

I have no complaints about my privileged lifestyle, yet in these last few months I’ve felt an inner pressure building. I’m full of words and ideas that I’ve let wall up inside like a dam somewhere between my stomach and my fingertips. I’ve also been feeling like I’m letting my writing group down, being constantly late responding to almost all communications.

Procrastination of the guilty kind. It’s like being stuck in the muddled middle of life.

But then our group forges ahead, determined to jump-start our writing that we all love to do, yet somehow we let it take a back seat to other things in life. I’ve made a six word commitment: 5 short stories in 5 months. Six words full stop. I haven’t written another beyond that.

So today I started writing. Deadlines are amazing motivators. I carved out three hours away from all distractions in the house and purposely sat down in new territory.

The words started flowing.

Oh, I looked out the window at Granville Island and took pictures of the spectacular view, but it didn’t distract my thoughts. I was in the groove!

What I noticed was an overwhelming feeling of being in the right place. Not only physically, but emotionally too. Excited peace overcame me. An oxymoron I know, but that’s how it felt. Reuniting with writing has shown me how much I truly enjoy creating something from nothing using the power of my mind.

Right now it doesn’t matter in the slightest if I get published or not. What matters is feeding my passion. That is what is needed to become good enough to be published whether traditionally or by oneself.

Beyond everything else, I need to write for the right reasons!

I give a huge THANKS to my fabulous group for not booting me out and for coming together once again to make personal commitments that give us direction.

And thanks to Elizabeth Lyon commenting on my blog last week. She helped put into perspective that we all have many things in our lives to distract us from writing. Our passion brings us back. You can check out her new book Crafting Titles. I’m going to use it to help me in naming my 5 short stories!

5/5/5 challenge this week:

Short story word count:   Story 1 –  500 words

Blog posts written:  1

Gratitude for: The changing colors of autumn and the beauty of the city of Vancouver.


Perspective Photos:

heron in flight









tugboat and bridge









Happy Writing!

Commit to finish

Karalee’s Post #122

Well, Paula threw down the gauntlet to challenge her group and the world at large to write a first draft in five months starting September 5th. The date was chosen three years ago to signify the five of us in our writing group with September being the month for new beginnings. For many of us September coincides with the end of summer holidays and the beginning of a new school year when we were children. As adults, September is often the beginning of new projects or a new set point after holidays.

September is for renewal.

A new commitment makes sense and is imperative really. So why not choose something you love to do? It doesn’t have to be painful like needles and a full sleeve tattoo, or piercing parts that were never meant to be pierced. Or running up hills or spinning in spin class until you throw up all in the name of getting into shape.

Choose something challenging and satisfying. Then do it!

That’s the reason I’ve titled my blog post ‘Commit to finish’ as opposed to ‘Commit to start.’


I find that myself and many of us in the western world are good to go at the starting gate. Take New Year’s Resolutions and the thousands of people that start in the gym and go whole hog for a couple of weeks only to peter off. The same can be said for diets, or keeping the house clean, gardening, sorting old photographs, purging your closets, and on and on.

And of course, writing the book you always said you would.

I can bet that most of us have many starts to many books. We have an idea of what happens in the middle and maybe a good feel for what will happen at the end or what needs to happen. The beginning though, is my nemesis.

All of my stories have taken an extraordinary amount of time to perfect the start. My beginnings have sucked up too much energy, causing an overload of angst, cursing, emotional highs and lows, and so many rewrites that it seems impossible to even get to the muddled middle, not to mention nowhere near the exciting slide to the finish.

My beginning often takes away from my end.

It can be extraordinarily difficult to reach the finish gate, so if you are like me, put blinders on and get past the first two to three chapters. Accept they are far from perfect. In all likelihood, you aren’t even starting at the right point anyway, so don’t waste time on it. Keep going.

Keep going ……… and going ……. and going ….. until ……… the …….. VERY …… end.

Siwash RockI refuse to get stuck at the beginning, so like my fellow 5Writers, I’m throwing in my gauntlet too and making a commitment to write. I’m choosing differently though. That is, I’m choosing a story type that I can manage with my new business where much of my energy is focused at the moment. I’m choosing to write short stories.

Five short stories in five months! 1writer5shortstories5months



Perspective Photos

Siwash Rock

The Nest UBC
















Happy Writing!

James Scott Bell on 7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel

JSBJoe’s Post #147 (though it shouldn’t count as a Joe’s Post) — Every so often, I take a few moments to read some of my most favourite inspirational writers. My mentors, if you like. Yesterday, I re-read something that really struck me by James Scott Bell (via Writer’s Digest.) Please check out his entire article as he tends not to be all blah-blah-blah preachy, but does what all good writers do. He entertains us. Plus, you can pick up a free download on how to write a novel). So, without further boring-Joe commentary, here’s James Scott Bell’s 7 things not to do, and my thoughts. Enjoy.

7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel (and How to Avoid Them)

By: | June 5, 2012 – Writer’s Digest

inspirationOh, my goodness, this is a hard one for me not to do. I honestly think it’s the difference between pro writers and wannabes. Pros get it done, day in and day out. Like taking fish oil every day. Or eating kale.

Simply put, they make inspiration happen by sheer force of will. Or they will find a way to get inspired. For me, that way is often by reading, but I need to readjust my thinking on the whole ‘waiting for inspiration’ thing.

2. Look over your shoulder.

Bell writes about the inner critic here and that inner critic is born from fear. Of all the things I have to overcome, this one is the most difficult. I love writing, but hate rejection. It’s like a hockey goalie loving to be a goalie but hating to get pucks in the face.

To be a writer these days, we need to be like the old school goalies, like Gump Worsley one_worsley03who never wore a mask and took a lot of pucks in the face for something he loved to do.

Insane? Maybe. But aren’t writers, by definition, insane?

So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put up his picture and look at it every time I get all ‘fraidy cat about sending out a query. I mean, he took pucks in the face and his mom had named him Gump.

3. Ignore the craft.

I don’t do this. It’s not one of my issues. I read about it, have a critique group and constantly look at other writers to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

4. Keep a chip on your shoulder.

voodooEver have one of those friends who call you on your bullsh*t? You kinda hate it at the time. You may even get mad at them and threaten to pee on their petunias or make a voodoo doll of them and stick that doll with a million needles, then light it on fire, then toss it in a tub of acid while screaming at it, “I hate you, I hate you.”

Everyone does that, right?

But Bell’s right. I have to let go of the chip on my shoulder. So what if agents don’t get back to me? Why should that stop me from getting another query out? (Hint – the answer is this is really masking fear, again.)

5. Write for the market only

I’ve only done this once. And I did it this year. For an open call from TOR. Otherwise, I’m like an anti-market writer. I don’t write to the latest trend. I’m not even sure what that would be, to be honest. I write what I write.

But Bell also talks about voice and that’s something I’ve worked hard on. But here’s the odd thing. I think I have several voices.

Ok, stop looking at me like that. We all hear different voices in our heads, right? Right?

I love my noir voice that I used for my Lou Rains novel and my WW2 mystery set in the Netherlands. I love my goofy-Joe voice that I use for blogs. I even love my YA voice, but I seem to be the only one who does.

See, for me, voice comes a lot from character and genre. Part of the fun is playing around with voices, seeing what I can do. Like trying on a different style of underwear to see what fits. Bikini briefs, not so much. Boxy boxers, nah. But a nice pair of boxer-briefs, yah, I don’t put those back after trying them on.

But of all of all my voices, the goofy-Joe blog voice may very well be my most authentic.

6. Take as many shortcuts as possible.

This really applies to self-publishing, a route we 5/5/5 may be taking soon. Read up on what Bell says. It’s gold.

7. Quit

never quitAlthough some days, the days I look at my stack of rejections and think, hey, maybe I just don’t have the skill to be a writer, I admit, I do think about quitting.

But I don’t. I’m really not sure why. Overwhelming evidence seems to suggest that I’ll never be able to make a career at this. So why continue?

I write because I need to write. It’s a part of me. Like Gump needed to be a goalie and probably would have been happy to play even if he was never picked up by the NHL. So, if I continue to write, continue to persevere, continue to improve and combat all the how-not-to-succeed things inside my head, maybe one day I’ll make it.


megan foxAnyway, that’s it from me, today. Going to take down that picture of Megan Fox fixing her car and put up Gumpers. Going to finish off my 30 pages for submission to my writing group. Going to get in the headspace of a successful writer and write me some writing.

For anyone interested, here are a few awesome links to writing guru’s you should check out. Other than Mr. Bell.

Donald Maass (on character)

Hallie Ephron (supporting characters)

Nancy Kress (writing flashbacks)

These are all short, fun articles. Easy to digest. But you can also follow-up on those writers a bit more and see what other bits of advice they have to offer.

Also, if anyone would like to post their comments on what JSB had to say, let me know.





Cheering on NaNoWriMo mojo


Silk’s Post #108 – This year, I’m just an observer. Sitting in the bleachers with my binoculars, watching the ambitious competitors run the NaNoWriMo marathon. It’s awe inspiring. And terrifying.

For those of you who are not familiar with the phenomenon called NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated – it is an annual mass writing event that takes place every November in which participants commit to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That’s 1,667 words per day. Every day. For a month.

It’s unthinkable. It’s audacious. It’s intimidating.

Why in god’s name would anyone sign up to do this? There must be a huge prize, some kind of write-it-on-my-tombstone glory involved. Big bucks! Medals! Guaranteed fame!

But no.

There is no podium. No gold, silver and bronze medals. Not even those awkward little bouquets that the victors don’t know what the hell to do with. Because this is not a hierarchical competition designed to deify the most elite of the elite after a brutal process of elimination, leaving the rest of the striving masses gasping and heartbroken on the field.

In the writing world, we leave that job to the agents and publishers.

To win NaNoWriMo, an entrant must do but one thing: make the word count. Fifty-thousand of them, or about 200 double-spaced pages of 12-point type. There is no limit to the number of NaNoWriMo winners in a given year. The entrants compete against the clock, against the calendar, against their own writer’s block, against procrastination and self-doubt, against the desire to eat and sleep and have a normal life during the month of November.

But not against each other.

And they cheer each other on along the way, tweeting encouragement, trading jokes only writers could possibly appreciate, blogging survival guides and pep talks and tactical hints.

30-days-in-the-wordminesDon’t you love it? I do. Think about it: a cooperative competition where everyone can be a winner if they put in the time and effort, and everyone supports everyone else. Writer, “Terrible Minds” blogger and irreverent icon Chuck Wendig even published 30 Days in the Word Mines, which he calls an Advent calendar for NaNoWriMo madness.

Does this not sound like the way the whole world should be run? Damn right.

I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo for several years – vaguely aware. I’m not proud of the fact that my curiosity took so long to kick in, but it wasn’t until this year that I overcame my (mostly wrong) assumptions and educated myself about this crazy writers’ race with the laughable name.

My first reaction to the whole concept was … yeah, right! I’m gonna write a whole novel in November. And in December, I think I’ll take up rocket science and fly to Mars.

Contrary to my previous impressions, I now know that NaNoWriMo: a) is not a stunt, like some crazed reality show, b) is not just for unpublished and/or amateur writers, c) is not a quixotic quest, but is achievable with good planning and preparation, d) actually leads to some high quality, publishable novels.

In fact, once I started reading about it on the NaNoWriMo website, I couldn’t stop. Talk about a page-turner. I read the non-profit organization’s entire archived history, year by year, from its beginning in San Francisco in 1999 as a kind of 21-writer “noveling binge” to the 2013 competition, which drew 310,095 participants.


Then I read the list of published “Wrimos”, as they call the happily obsessed writers who complete the mission. “Since 2006, dozens of novels first drafted during NaNoWriMo have been traditionally published,” I read. “Countless more have been self-published.” I was shocked to note that I had read, and loved, two of the “featured Wrimos” just last year – Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, both bestsellers – and I recognized many of the other titles on the very long list of published works.

Mind blowing.

This year I was unprepared to enter the competition, since I didn’t really wake up to NaNoWriMo until I attended this year’s Surrey International Writer’s Conference in late October where I became infected with the buzz. But I met some of the players and, as a Twitter fledgling, am following the #NaNoWriMo community.

And that community has some kind of mojo. Rah Rah Rah Sis Boom Bah … Go Wrimos! 

I’m rooting for all of you crazy, creative people.


Graphics courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

Interview with the protagonist – take #2


Substitute for Silk’s Post #61 — Follow-up interview conducted in National Public Radio studios, KPLU Seattle-Tacoma.

Interviewer:  Good morning on this partly-sunny Thanksgiving week Monday. Welcome once again to Book Talk: New Voices, a weekly exploration of emerging writers. And speaking of ‘sunny’, regular Book Talk listeners may remember my unusual interview last April with Sunny Laine, who is not an author at all, but a new protagonist in an upcoming mystery-suspense story by emerging writer Silk Questo. The story is set right here in Seattle, and today Sunny is back to update us on her, uh, development … Hello again Sunny.

Sunny:  Hi. Thanks for having me, but … look, I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot here, but could I just make one comment?

Interviewer:  Well, certainly. That’s why you’re here.

Sunny:  Development? That’s what you said – my development. That’s a little impersonal sounding, you know? I mean, I’m not a new mall. I’m a human being. Okay, I know I’m fictional, but I do have feelings, right? Frankly, I’m just a little sensitive on this topic.

Interviewer:  I see. Well, uh, you know I haven’t had the chance to interview many, uh, people like yourself – fictional characters, that is – so I’m curious about your unique perspective. Can you tell me a little more about this sensitivity?

Sunny:  To be honest, I’ve had a difficult time finding myself and I’m even beginning to wonder whether my story is going anywhere. I’ve been doing a lot of sitting around, waiting for Silk, and it’s making me stir crazy. No one likes to be neglected, you know? It’s nerve-wracking.

Interviewer:  Sounds like you’re frustrated.

Sunny:  Frustrated, yes. And a little scared.

Interviewer:  Scared?

Sunny:  Yeah! Wouldn’t you be? My life hangs in the balance here. I mean, will I die on the page before I even get a chance to live?

Interviewer:  Well, you have the microphone here, Sunny. What would you like to say to Silk about your feelings?

Sunny:  How about, “Get the lead out girlfriend!” I mean, I don’t want her to think I’m … difficult. It’s just that, as I said last time, it’s not easy being a protagonist in an unfinished book. Especially one that’s creeping along at the pace of a three-toed sloth. I keep telling her it only takes nine months to gestate a real, living baby – shouldn’t she be able to pop out one little book in a year?

Interviewer:  And what is the ETA for this manuscript you’re starring in?

Sunny:  (Laughs) Silk says end of the year.

Interviewer:  And what do you say?

Sunny:  I say, what year would that be?

Interviewer:  My goodness. Well, let’s move on to other subjects. How have you changed since we last chatted?

Sunny:  Well, that’s the good news. I got a big promotion to ‘first person’ status, so now I’m telling my own story in my own voice. I’m really excited about it.

Interviewer:  Wonderful! So I’m guessing you have a bit more influence on the story now?

Sunny:  You bet. The first thing I did was stop going to my law classes. I’m really not big on sitting on my backside in a lecture hall. Boring, boring, boring.

Interviewer:  But how will you get your law degree, then? I thought that was so important to you! Weren’t you on a mission to get justice for – who was it? – someone in your family.

Sunny:  My brother Wolf. But don’t worry about my academic career. I can do this. Believe me. But I’ll do it my way.

Interviewer:  You sound very determined. I just hope you know what you’re doing.

Sunny:  Me too.

Interviewer:  Now, on another front, how are your relationships with your fellow characters going? Any love interests we can look forward to?

Sunny:  There will be if I have anything to say about it. But the ‘person of interest’ I have in mind will be a real challenge. One of those hard-to-get types. Mystery man, right? Deep. With a bit of a dark side. Those bad boys always turn me on. But he’s really good-hearted inside. Or I hope so …

Interviewer:  Sounds delicious. And dare I ask about the villain? I believe we established that this is a murder mystery when we last spoke, and I assume you’ve been reassured by Silk that you’re not the victim. Do you know who your evil opponent is?

Sunny:  Sore, sore subject. The fact is I still don’t know if I’m a victim or not, and that’s very unnerving, to say the least. I mean, if I get killed, I can’t really be the protagonist, right?  This living in doubt is enough to kill me all by itself. The problem is, in a murder mystery you really can’t assume anything. Otherwise, where’s the suspense?

Interviewer:  Yes, I take your point. And the villain? Have you met him or her yet?

Sunny:  No idea whatsoever. You don’t think Silk’s going to tell me ahead of time, do you? It would ruin the surprise. She doesn’t give a sh— … a hoot whether I can sleep at night or not. In fact, I think she spends most of her time thinking up ways to make me suffer. She won’t be happy until I’m totally paranoid.

Interviewer:  That sounds … distinctly uncomfortable.

Sunny:  Now you’re getting the picture. You think it’s easy to star in this type of story? It’s torture, from start to finish! That’s the point, see? Now maybe you understand why I’m trying so hard to kick Silk into gear so we can get this thing done. I’m sick of living in fear. I’d like to know, once and for all, whether I live or die.

Interviewer:  I had no idea what a tough job you protagonists have in the mystery suspense genre. I must admire your grit. You’ve certainly given me a new appreciation of the drama that goes on behind the scenes.

Sunny:  Yeah. Welcome to my hell.

Interviewer:  Well, we’ll all be on the edges of our seats until your story is finally out, Sunny, and I wish you the very best of luck with all your challenges. Thanks for joining us this morning, but that’s all the time we have today. This is NPR’s Book Talk: New Voices, reminding you to read someone new this week!

Sunny:  Can I say one last thing?

Interviewer:  Yes, quickly please.

Sunny:  Silk, if you’re going to kill me off, at least let me have a hot affair with you-know-who first, okay? 

A delicate balance

Helga’s Post #49 – I’m the last of the 5writers to weigh in this week to share our achievements and challenges since we gave birth to our blog a year ago.

By now you’ve read how this last year has challenged, changed and rewarded four of us, namely Silk, Paula, Karalee and Joe. All have big achievements under their belt with hopes and big potential to see their work published. All have become even closer friends during that last year, giving generously of their time to help each other.

Now it’s my turn to bare my writer’s soul and share with you some personal anecdotes.

Those of you who have read my posts know that getting personal isn’t easy for me. It’s something I avoid. Of the 5writers, I think I’m the most private when it comes to sharing personal detail on the blog. Ditto for social media. Not because I’m introverted or unsociable (people who know me probably think the opposite), but because I don’t assume anyone is interested in my mundane life. I’m not a celebrity (‘not yet’, I would add when I’m feeling optimistic), but a perfectly average person. A writer struggling to get a good story out of me. So I feel reluctant to waste anyone’s time reading about ‘me’.

Fortunately we’re not all the same, or it would be a boring blog-world. I can truly appreciate anyone who has the courage to share their personal life with potentially billions of people out there in cyberspace. It’s just not my forte. But I will try to overcome my trepidation for today’s post.

So, yes, this past year has had its ups and downs. Writing-wise, on a scale of one to ten, I would rate it between a 5 and 7. As you know (see Paula’s posts), I didn’t finish my manuscript. I wrote somewhere between a third and a half of a novel. A work in progress. That’s why I gave myself the 5 on the scale, not more. But here’s the rub: Without trying to sound immodest, I chose to write a ‘big concept’ novel. A topic that requires so much research that I wondered, once I committed to it, if I would ever be able to transform all that into a story. To create a work of fiction that has a potentially wide readership. Why choose such a challenging topic? Here comes my confession:

Because for me it’s ‘all or nothing’. Go big or don’t go at all. Write a compelling story or none. Choose a topic that inspires, informs, angers, amuses, and entertains. Something with substance.

Of course that’s easier said than done. As I found out very quickly, a big story concept has huge hurdles to overcome, especially in terms of story structure. Such as, what is more important: the big concept or the main characters? Readers are generally more interested in what the characters are up to, rather than details of the ‘big concept’. So how to weave the two together without one overshadowing the other? How to actually create synergy between the big concept and the characters? A challenge that I had to face from the very start.

Add to that my aversion to detailed outlining. So I had my research about DNA, chromosomes and telomeres, all neatly filed away in StoryMill. I had filed articles upon articles about Chinese history and the struggle for power following Mao’s death. Ditto with Indian culture. Ditto with the multinational pharmaceutical industry.

I had decided on two main characters and had a pretty good idea what makes them tick. But – here comes the big confession, and I can see a collective rolling of eyes – as I continued drafting chapter after chapter – I still hadn’t made up my mind who the villain was going to be. I had three options in mind but couldn’t decide which would be the best. I figured it would organically reveal itself as the story took shape.

And so it was that by our collective 5 months deadline, February 5 this year, I submitted my partial manuscript, all of 16 chapters, to our group for review and critiquing. I left our retreat in Whistler village with the group’s gifts of wonderful, honest feedback, and many, many valuable suggestions and comments. Things that had totally escaped my attention. Character flaws too. Relationship problems. All manner of things.

I let it all settle, like steeping a good cup of tea. Put the whole thing away for at least a month. Then started ‘thinking’ about my plot before actually sitting down to pick up writing again. That meant planning and plotting during some sleepless nights, or while waiting in line at the supermarket, or while in the shower. That too is part of a writer’s process for getting a story written.

The month of August didn’t bring any progress at all. Not in the writing department, though much on a personal level. My husband and I took a magical journey to Northern Europe and Russia. Plus we spent ten days at the city of my roots, Vienna. That city always creates some serious yin and yang emotions for me. Love for the magnificent city, mixed with guilt for leaving my parents for another continent as a young woman. Love for Vienna’s unique culture and charm, which brings the occasional moment of melancholy for immigrating to the ‘new world’. Luckily, these moments are short-lived.IMG_1951

And now, September is well on its way, which also means the season for writing. I know, there shouldn’t be a ‘season’ but a continuous process of writing. But for me personally, writing at this stage of my life is second to living. Weeks and days are getting more precious as time marches on, and it means balancing and prioritizing.

Time management: that’s one area where I really want to improve. Somehow it was much easier during my working life because there was always a deadline. Now I only have one. That’s to finish my manuscript. Maybe I am taking a huge risk for declaring this: I am aiming to have it finished at the end of this year.

There. It’s out in cyberspace now.


Evening on The Baltic Sea

Name that book

Karalee’s Post #34

It’s here, the end.

Midnight tonight the Send button must be pressed and our new stories  will travel down the birth canal called email to arrive in the loving care of our fellow 5Writer’s Inboxes. It’s the birth of our books. It’s a quick and easy delivery after months of planning (no unwanted protégé here)  and development.

newbornFor those of you that have followed our process to this point you will know that these births will be at all stages of development. Some will be full-term and fat and healthy, others full-term but undernourished, and possibly others premature and in the need of special attention to prosper and grow.

But all will survive and flourish into healthy full-fledged stories. After all, we are writers and have our stories to tell.

This birth isn’t ‘The End’, rather it’s the beginning of every other beginning in this process.

To quote Seneca, the 1st century Roman philosopher who tutored the Roman emperor Nero, Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

In the context of the 5Writer’s, the next new beginning is the Beta Reading process where we will give our full attention to critiquing our group’s manuscripts over the next four weeks.

Then in the context of each individual writer, the next new beginning after the beta reading process is to complete the best draft possible in preparation for publishing.

Then, the next new beginning is preparing to query by: writing a query letter, preparing a short synopsis and a long synopsis, and making a list of a thousand agents that might be  interested in your work.

Then, the next new beginning is to send out to the agents….. etc., etc., etc.

We all know there isn’t an end. Even when a book is published, there’s still ongoing marketing, and of course, the beginning of the next book. That’s why it is called the writing process.

When I look at it, the whole process can be summed up in one word: anticipation. And who doesn’t love anticipation?

After midnight tonight our stories will be born in the privacy of our group, to be nourished and cared for in a respectful manner with their trusted caregivers. Each group member will also send out a request list with their newborns; areas that we struggled with and what we want specific feedback on.

My baby is full-term but undernourished, about 75% of its expected word count for its genre. It’s needs are multi-faceted ranging from requiring more sensory input and having a well-rounded extended family (sub-plot), to having my theme manifested in the main plot as well as in the sub-plot. Sharing is important too. Is my antagonistic shining enough, or the villain vying for the spotlight too often? Is my villain revealed in the best time/place or not hidden enough from the get-go?

I must say I’ve had great fun writing this story. For me writing is never lonely. This process stretched my experience and put me into the head of my main character far more than I’ve been before. First person writing really does that.

In other books I’ve written I had a strong sense of where to start and where to end and I wrote the first and last chapters up front, albeit they changed as the process went on. For this book I knew where I wanted to go, but didn’t have a strong picture of exactly who would be there, or how the final climax would pan out. I know what had to happen, but not how to make it happen.

I trusted my instincts. I had an outline that soon went sideways, but kept winding back to the main path. I kept writing and the pieces fell into place at the eleventh hour. Now that’s a happy hour worth celebrating.

And here I am at the birth of my undernourished baby with not a clue what to name it.

baby names

To me, I can’t wait to hear what my 5Writers come up with!

Happy beta reading.

Hat trick


Silk’s Post #35 — I am really looking forward to a change in headgear. Yes, this week I get to take off my writer’s hat and put on my critiquer’s chapeau.

Frankly, it will come as a relief.

I wish my writer’s hat had been padded. Better yet, a hardhat. It would have saved my noggin during the past few months of bashing my head against the wall. hard-hatYes, I’ve been struggling. Oddly enough, not because I have writer’s block, as such. What I really seem to have is the classic eyes-bigger-than-my-stomach syndrome whose symptoms include ridiculously long “to do” lists, which never seem to have all the items crossed off.

The truth is that I make too many commitments, and have too much optimism about how quickly I can clear my desk, and my calendar, of other obligations so I can “get back to writing.” My head-bashing incidents occur every time life reminds me that I’m actually not, in fact, Superwoman. Which happens frequently.

So now you know the ugly, brutal truth. I am far from “The End”.

Okay, okay. I hear a chorus of people protesting. A real writer would have put the writing first on the list, not last. Why have I granted priority to all this other stuff ahead of my 5writers challenge? Isn’t this just a lame excuse, or maybe an alias for writer’s block?

Maybe. But whatever you call it, I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only would-be novelist who’s had difficulty getting into the rhythm of “The Writing Life.” Difficulty making the kind of commitment that involves tough choices.

Egotistical choices.

What? I can hear some of you almost sputtering now. Just simmer down, I’ll explain.

I’m no selfless Joan of Arc, but the fact is that I have a lifetime of “training” to do the right thing. And what is that “right thing”? All that adult stuff, that’s what. Eat your vegetables before you can have dessert. Meet obligations to others before you can take time for yourself. Get your work done before you can play.

party-hatAnd there is the telling clue – the heart of my struggle. My paradigm for writing is that it’s play, not work. Why? I love to do it. No matter how hard it is, how much effort it takes, how stuck I may get, how tired I am, I love every minute of it. It isn’t work for me. It’s play, pure play. Work is what I have to do. Play is what I choose to do, strictly for myself. Selfishly. It’s what I get to do after I’ve done all my other “work” and met all my other commitments.

See the problem here? It’s about that “to do” list that never gets all checked off. And because my calcified work ethic classifies writing as “play,” I must steal time to do it. Yes, this is wrong. So wrong.

But now, it’s time to change hats and serve others – my cherished 5writers friends and colleagues, who have poured their souls into the manuscripts I’m about to read. Will I have the same trouble prioritizing my critiquing task? Absolutely not. It’s a commitment to someone else, and I’ll move heaven and earth to get the job done in time for our big retreat in June.

Too bad I haven’t been able to give my own writing the same level of priority.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this process, it’s that I have to re-train myself to see my writing in a different paradigm. It is work, even if it feels like play. That’s what it means to take yourself seriously as a writer. I don’t need a shrink to discover what’s been inhibiting my progress – whether you call it writer’s block, a terminal case of the “convenient social virtue” (as John Kenneth Galbraith called it), or whatever other head-bashing terminology you can come up with.

Since I can’t seem to put play ahead of work after a lifetime of being in harness, I have to reclassify my writing as work instead of play. Okay. Got it.

Meanwhile, I’m truly looking forward to changing hats and diving into four whole-book critiques over the next month. It may not sound like a break, but for me it will feel like one. And I have no doubt that I will emerge from this next phase re-inspired and re-invigorated.

That’s my hat trick for today.