Thursday, April 14, 2016

Resolving a Plotting Crisis

This post is all about how, or how not to, resolve a crisis with your novel's plot.

First steps are sensing the crisis in the first place and then figuring out what the exact crisis is. In this case it amounted to the following:

  1. In revising a chapter to read to my critique group at our meeting this Saturday I found the writing flat and there wasn't much happening until page 5 of the chapter.
  2. There was a supporting character causing me some trouble. First there were incidents occuring that didn't work when I checked my research contact. Second in analyzing what I needed to change I realized this character wasn't adding anything to plot or doing anything that moved the plot along.
Once I put that all together I had to figure it out. I knew the flat writing could be fixed in the rewriting process and that some of the action, or lack thereof, in the first two chapters could be condensed and the meeting of the two romantic leads could be moved up sooner in the story. Easy-peasy.

The supporting character was a bigger dilemma. My resolution? Just ditch the story and start over. That didn't seem right since I've done that several times with other books resulting in a file drawer filled with unfinished manuscripts. I even considered giving up novel writing and going back to flash fiction and poetry, but that seemed a cop out since there is a little sign on my desk that yells "WRITE YOUR NOVEL IN 2016." And since in a few days I will be on retreat with my writing buddies I will have a good opportunity to fix all of this. Not to mention the fact that I have already written 200 pages of this story.

Discouraged and ready to give up I went to sleep. I woke up the next day at 5:00 am with a solution!!!

I would change the supporting character to someone else! She would be an adult so the issues with counseling a minor would be gone. She would have a darker story for my lead character to deal with--one that would help my MC discover that she needed to trust herself before she could trust men. This new supporting character would also provide stronger impetus for my MC to set about her goal of creating a safe haven for abused women in the rural town she's moved to which has no such place to women to go for shelter.

I've been using a process that combines some plotting/outlining strategies like figuring out inciting incidents and energetic markers (as per The Plot Whisperer), and listing scenes that have to be included later on in the book or the scenes that are coming in the next chapters I am writing. That incombination with a free flowing "pantser" act of writing my first draft in longhand in a spiral notebook.

I think the crisis is averted for now. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, February 19, 2016

How I Came to Write Romance Novels

As I sit and write page after page of my romantic women's fiction novel I recall how I came to write romance at all. After all, I started my writing life with poetry and was barely writing any fiction at the time.

It had to be thirty years ago. I was teaching creative writing in adult education classes and had met a few writers who eventually came together in a weekly writing group. At the time I was writing poetry and short stories. I didn't even read romance novels, thinking they were too formulaic and simple. Instead I immersed myself in literary fiction writers like Margaret Atwood, Gail Godwin, Joyce Carol Oates and poets like Rod McKuen and Sylvia Plath. 

One night at a local library several romance writers were coming to speak and my little critique group decided we would go and see what it was all about. The talk was interesting and still I had a negative view of romance novels. Of course I had never read any so I held my opinion until I picked up a couple and gave them a try.

The writing was technically good, but still the stories seemed too cute, the turning points too pat, the characters too simple and sometimes inane. So I put aside the idea and returned to the psychological depth of my literary fiction.

Fast forward years later, like the past five years, and my outlook has changed.

First of all I leaned toward wanting to write romance because it seemed like such fun. And I wanted my writing to be be fun, for me as well as my readers. Besides, all the novels I had been writing contained some element of romance and I enjoyed the sparks between characters and the inherent happy endings. So I went to Barnes and Noble and perused and bought a few romance novels. I looked for writers I'd heard of and who were recommended to me and then further narrowed my search by finding romance series since that thought had entered my writer's mind.

I read series by Kristan Higgins, Susan Mallery, Brenda Novak and Robyn Carr. And what I discovered about the romance novels being written over the past ten years or so is that they have more depth, the events that occur between the hero and heroine seem more realistic and good and bad vibes occur out of backstory and fears rather than coincidence. I also found that these new romances carry a subplot that addresses deeper issues like spousal abuse, teen pregnancy and grieving. 

This has given me a renewed interest and a deep desire to write these kinds of books since I want my novels to include social issues and have some psychological meaning and yet I want the writing itself to be easily read and more commercial rather than literary.

It feels rather late in my life to be writing these books and to be just launching a novel writing career, but better late than never and I won't look back and stack up regrets when I can look forward and stack up pages, chapters, books and hopefully publications.

It's been a long journey but I have finally arrived.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Writing Success Breeds Writing Success

I was sitting in a Weight Watchers meeting one night when a member uttered this eye opening comment. "Success breeds more success." I clearly saw how it related to weight loss as each pound shed helped me believe I could lose more.

Two years later I am finally grasping how that mantra could lead to writing success. As I attempted once again to revive an old short story, and once again to start a new novel I intend to actually finish, I came upon that age old wall called writer's block. I never believed I had writer's block as I defined it as not having any idea what to write. My problem has always been having too many ideas and not being able to decide which to work on first.

My writing wall comes when just feel like all this writing, the time and the paper and ink involved will lead to nothing but file cabinets filled with half-finished or forgotten stories, novels and poems. I ask myself why bother? Why not just go out and have fun?

But then that little phrase nudged against my brain and I thought, well, I have numerous stories, essays and poems published so why not learn from them.

Personal essays have been published in a number of anthologies. Short stories and poems have been published in journals such as Persimmon Tree, Storyteller, Metro Moms and The Writer's Eye. That being the case my writing must be pretty decent. If I've published before then surely I can achieve some publication success again. I even once had a full novel manuscript requested based on my query letter. Though it wasn't accepted, it did make me feel somewhat successful. Well, at least I'd had a good story idea.

So whenever I feel like sitting at my desk writing is a waste of time, I remember that I have had moderate success as a writer. And that must mean there is more success to come. 

I have to keep going to my notebook and writing page after page of this novel until it is complete. Then I have to revise it. Then revise again and then submit.

Sooner or later that wave of success will return and I will be on my way. I cannot get discouraged. I must write on.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Short Story Writing

This is a difficult post to compose because as usual I have always waffled among many genres and that includes both writing and art. But I feel like I've had an epiphany and I need to voice it.

I've been reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book "Big Magic" and in it she talks about not "doing what you would do if you knew you could not fail" but "doing what you would do even if you knew you would fail." It strummed a chord for me. If I knew for sure I would never publish a novel I would never spend years writing one. If I knew I would never publish another poem or short story, or knew that my art would never see the light of day outside my little craft room, I would still write poems and short stories and make art. My career days are over and now it's time to spend my remaining years on what drives me creatively.

So I will continue to create art and I will continue to write poems and as for fiction my focus will be on writing flash fiction. 

I have two binders of flash stories that need to be sent out. I have ideas for several chapbooks of connected flash fiction stories. And since I have the attention span of a flea I suppose this is the right genre for me. 

My short story collection had moderate success and I've published individual stories in journals so I know I have some talent. I can build on past success by writing more and submitting more and settling into a writing practice that makes more sense for me. If I can write a rough draft in an hour, revise in another hour and then send out a story, I will feel more accomplished and successful and not constantly ruminate over unfinished work taking up space in my overcrowded writing/art room.

I know the advice is to read what you want to write, or write what you like to read. And it's true that I prefer to read novels. But writing them is not my style. My writing voice in novels seems flat while my voice in flash fiction seems to sing with more poetic flair. I will just have to intersperse novel reading with some anthologies of flash fiction and study the form a little more.

I just feel I'm onto something and I have to follow my voice toward a more prolific writing life.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Fiction Writing Wars

I went out yesterday and bought a new netbook to take with me when I travel or go on my writing retreat or to a writers' conference. Well, now they are all called chromebooks. I guess google has taken over the computer industry. I think there may be a learning curve coming. And the computers come with google-docs which I have never used so I will need to try that out before I have to go on the road with my writing.

So what is this war I speak of? Well, it's nothing new but I am always at war with myself about whether I should write novels or short stories. Here are my thoughts:

With a novel I have a long journey to just write a first draft. Then the hard work of several revisions comes along and then the long process of seeking a publisher or agent. Sometimes it seems too long a trip to take.

When I write a flash fiction story I can knock off a first draft of 1,000 words or less in an hour, revise the story in another hour and send it out to several literary journals by the end of the day.

The other issue is that I believe my true writing voice comes out in short fiction and poetry and the voice I hear when reading a scene from my novel sounds like someone else--too simple and lacking the polish and poetry of my other writing. Of course that could all be fixed with a meticulous rewrite.

Writing a novel is just hard work, though work I love to do. This morning I wrote ten new pages on the present novel-in-progress so it is possible for me to write a novel. I just have to value these day to day leaps of progress.

Craft Notes
My subject for today has to do with first drafts. I am a pantser, I seldom outline and if I do at all it is very sketchy, just imagining the curve of the story from start to finish. I don't outline every scene but I always know how my books will end when I begin to write.

Whatever way you choose to compose a first draft I suggest just writing straight through. Pick a time of day and span of time or number of pages. Just write. Don't over think it and don't try to make it perfect. Just get the pages down and go back for revisions when you're done. Even if it's a rough first draft the feeling of getting from chapter one to the end is a wonderful motivator for future progress.

How to Books
Jack Bickham's book, "Scene and Structure" offers some great lessons in constructing a novel that will engage readers.

He guides you step by step and scene by scene in creating great action and suspense and engaging characters. There is even a template to tell you what action goes where in the book. It may be only one possibility but it offers some great guidance.

Novel Reading
I just finished reading Hank Phillipi Ryan's latest suspense novel, "What You See."

This latest installment of her Jane Ryland series will keep you up into the wee hours reading because you just won't be able to put it down. The twists and turns and surprises are phenomenal. Ryan's writing is amazing and tight, her characters fly off the pages and into your heart. While I couldn't put this book down I wasn't so eager to see it end because I wanted to go on reading. I will anxiously await the next Jane Ryland book which can't come soon enough for me.

Today's Prompt
Your antagonist opens a box wrapped in brown paper that was left at his front door. What does he see inside?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Writing a Fiction Series

I am undertaking the long journey of writing a romantic women's fiction series with the help of Karen Wiesner's book "Writing the Fiction Series." This may seem odd to my writer friends who know that I haven't finished even the one novel I've been writing since forever. But now that I am retired there are no excuses and I came up with an idea that I am excited about.

I will begin by reading all of Karen's book and using her worksheets--which are quite helpful in the novel writing process and available to download from

I have a general idea of the story arc for the series and a solid plan for the story arc for writing the first novel in the series which will be called the Warwick House Series. I will do whatever it takes to accomplish this goal. I plan to have a first draft done by the time my writing critique group goes on retreat in April. I huge goal but I have writing time now and I have to use it to write! I am so looking forward to our retreat at Amagansett

I am also revamping the organization for this blog now that I have a template and appearance I am satisfied with. I will include snippets of the journey in writing these books, discussions of specific writing craft topics, tidbits of advice for the writing process and keeping the writing moving along, recommendations of writing craft reference books and novels. I hope in the near future to include interviews with published writers as well. I will end each blog with a writing prompt.

Here is today's prompt:

"Your main character opens her door to someone she hasn't seen in ten years--who is it?"

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Trying a New Look for My Writer Blog

I am trying out a new look for this blog and would appreciate comments or suggestions. I wanted to create something different and was reading about getting different blogger templates than what are offered on this site but it seems a bit beyond me how to upload them to this blog. I will continue to experiment until I find what I like and then see if I can figure out how to work zip files and "stuffit" programs to apply the new template to my blog. It's easier to write a novel than do this tech stuff.

I wanted a cleaner and more simple look to my writing blog as it deals with writing and I want it to appear professional. 

I am going to create a new blog for my art and poetry or attempt to add a poetry page to this blog if I can figure out how to do that. 

I'm just checking this out now and looking for feedback.'

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Talking about Your Novel-in-Progress

Persistence is a necessary quality when writing a novel. Not to mention when I want to write a series of novels. But something else helps me as well.

I've read in several places now that it's a bad idea for writers to discuss their work in progress with others. I understand the concept that in speaking about your plot or characters you may dispel all your writing energy. In verbally telling the story you may lose the impetus to write it. I disagree, for me anyway.

I find that when I am writing a novel having a brainstorming session with my critique group is immensely helpful. Different viewpoints help the process. If I am stuck the other writers can offer ideas about how to smooth out plot points. If I share a few pages they may note where something isn't working and offer ideas for fixing the problem. Just discussing the general story with two other writers who know my book and know my writing style can unearth a whole array of new scenes that will create a more engaging story.

All of this, rather than depleting my writing energy, expands it in all directions. The new ideas spur even more ideas and jettison me to my notebook. The suggestions often save pages and pages of prose that would end up getting me trapped in a corner that would require chapter after chapter to extricate myself from.

Of course you need to do what works for you. If you think you will lose the motivation to write your story by sharing it too soon, then I suggest keeping it to yourself. For me it acts as kindling to get the writing fires glowing. 

I happen to love my monthly critique group meetings and our twice yearly retreats. The collective group energy is fantastic!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Brainstorm Your Novel Ideas

Despite the frigid temps and chaotic winds we fought the elements and went to Barnes and Noble this morning. Over a hot cup of java and a new notebook I wrote ideas for my new novel and purused some novel writing books.

After spending 6 years working on a novel that was never finished I decided to put it aside and begin something new. However, when I started brainstorming ideas for the new novel it occurred to me that I could turn these 2 ideas into a fiction series of 3 to 4 novels. 

It sounds rather presumtious to plan such a thing since I never finished the last novel. But I'm retired now and have more time and hopefully more stress free focus.

I think the idea was prompted this morning by reading the second book in Robyn Carr's Virgin River series. I thought, "I could do this." I love her writing and I am captivated by her stories and the characters. Her writing very much echoes the kind of books I want to write. Women's fiction with a romance going on and some subplot related to social issues. 

It came to me that my two novel ideas are connected as they revolve around a counseling center. I want to take the characters and translate them into ongoing protagonists and add in more characters and substories as each new book opens up. I think I can do this!

Working the 2 stories into a 2 book series and then expanding it at least assures I won't completely lose the hundreds of pages I've written in the previous novel.

Now I just have to sketch out the way this will go. Some plot lines will stay the same, some will be moved and others eliminated. Not sure how to set up a series yet but I will try my best and see what happens!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Mentors and Routines: It takes a tribe

Even as I sit at my desk alone in the dawn I know that no one truly writes a novel by herself. At least not if she wants to hold onto a shred of sanity as she does so.

Of course, aside from that paper muse I showed you yesterday, I have a little tribe to gain confidence from.

First of all is Tapestries, my local writing group. We are a group of 6 women commited to writing and publishing our novels. Three of us have been meeting monthly for over ten years. Without these women I would have given up long ago. We help each other stay on task, brainstorm plot ideas and provide feedback as we each read portions of our novels.

Sometimes mentors come from outside my writing group, like the help I've gotten from Martha Alderson who is better known as the Plot Whisperer. Her books and videos provide wonderful guidance. Though I don't typically write from an outline her books provide a bit of structure to my plot planning and her prompts and direction in terms of rituals and routines help me stay at my desk.

I'm trying out her plot prompt book for the first draft of this new novel. I helps me spend my morning writing time adding pages to the novel instead of journaling about why I'm not writing.

Brainstorming is a help and I do that as I slowly wake up in the morning or fall asleep at night. Starting a new novel after not having finished the previous one creates a bit of a challenge. The main character in the first novel keeps popping into my head. Her red curly hair and her name haunt me and I have to remember that this new character has a different name, a different story, and long straight black hair.

I'll get there. This time I'm certain and I'll take you along for the circuitous and winding journey from the beginning, into the muddled middle, and on to the climax and ending of this novel.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Every Writer Needs a Muse

So here I am, 2 weeks into the new year and I am just fleshing out the plot for my new novel.  I should have written at least 30 pages of a first draft by now, but as usual I got distracted and sidetracked by art and poetry. 

It's time now to focus on writing this novel. While I have only a few sketchy ideas so far I must sit down with my spiral, one-subject, wide ruled notebook and just begin. I've written 3 novels that way so why try to change my process now. I will continue to fill in the plot points as I go but I won't wait till that's done to write a first draft. After all, writers write.

But all writers need a muse as well. Sometimes more than one. My visual muse looks like this

I created this myself on one of my many excursions back to art and even made a muse for each of the women in my writer's group.

But muses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ephemeral and only exist in ghost like form as they perch on our shoulders, hopefully whispering helpful affirmations or story suggestions in our ears. Like these, some are concrete and visual. But muses can also take on a more practical side, becoming truly helpful routines, behaviors and tools. Here are some of my favorites.

  1. cleaning up my writing space and hiding art supplies from view--at least to the extent I can since I have so many stored in such a small room
  2. putting away art and poetry books and setting out my novel writing books in plain sight
  3. reading those technique books to keep novel writing in my mind
  4. reading the kinds of novels I write meaning women's fiction, romance, or romantic women's fiction
  5. keeping in touch with my writing group in between meetings
  6. sitting at my desk every morning (before the sun rises) and journaling about my writing goals and keeping my focus on novel writing
All these little helpers gently push me in the direction I need to do. If you're writing a novel you might want to try out a few.