Writing again!

Last spring I was unstoppable. I wrote “Summer’s Circle” in a month and was well underway with a second novel when bad news came along and.. stopped me. Since then I’ve been puttering around. Editing a little. Writing a few lines here and there. I managed to string together my first short story in years. But I failed to pick up the momentum I need to get serious work done.

Sometimes writers block is just about discipline. You need to sit your ass down at the computer and force yourself to write. You need to schedule writing into your schedule. You need to plot, outline, edit. You need to make yourself do the damned work.

Sometimes it is about something else.

Creating isn’t quite like other jobs. It requires a certain energy. And it seems that sometimes trauma, drama and upheaval can suck all that energy right out of you.

I didn’t write when my daughter was sick. I didn’t write when I was pregnant. And I haven’t been able to write while I sorted out the recent changes in my life.

In the past I’ve tried to fight my way through it and the product has been a little bit of pretty crappy writing and alot of frustration and self doubt.

But I know what I can do when I’m ready. I know now that with good pacing and discipline, when the curtain lifts, I can produce really great work in a really short amount of time. So this time around I refused to let myself stress out about it.

I did the work I could. I edited. I participated in my writing crit group. I plotted and outlined and blogged and pitched and all those other good things that go along with being a writer.

And this week the storm clouds finally cleared. An older manuscript revealed to me why it was hung up and how to fix it. I have been writing a chapter a night ever since and the story, which was conceived back in 2012 is growing and unfolding before me.

Writing again feels amazing. And I’m glad I spent the down time productively as well instead of wasting my time staring at a blinking cursor.

Writing fiction is a job that requires all sorts of approaches, but beating yourself is never one of them. Sorting through your life, getting good with yourself and being open to the flow can be just as important as the hard work and discipline.

Happy New Year. Hope your 2017 is your best writing year yet.

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Goodbye Ms Fisher

The sad news is in. The great Carrie Fisher has passed away leaving a legacy of four decades of great films and iconic characters. But Fisher was more than just her roles. She was an advocate for addicts and mental health. She was an author. And she was a sharp and witty woman who spoke her mind.

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The sequence of events

Today I woke up to a trail of trash running from my kitchen, through the dining room, across the living room, down the steps, through the family room and piled in a disgusting crescent around the unlocked crate of my dog, Verdi, who was peacefully sleeping off her night of binge eating.

I latched her into her crate, took a deep breath and decided I didn’t want to start my day furious or overwhelmed.

My smaller dog, Nico, who cannot open the drawer trash can made sure to tell me he was not to blame for this mess. I, who enjoys sleeping as long as I can, only had a limited window of time to feed my son, prepare his lunch, get him ready for school and drink coffee so I swept the items in our direct path and told Nico, while I knew he didn’t get into the trash, I didn’t believe that he had refused to partake in the foul feast. He responded by slinking away to the family room.

The story doesn’t end there.

When I returned, the proof of Nico’s participation was waiting for me right inside the door on the festive Christmas welcome mat. And he he had walked through it a few times.

I got through it. I managed to feed my daughter and put on her favorite show. My house is now much cleaner than it was before, and I keep thinking about the sequence of events that allowed such a ridiculous mess to happen.

Often times as writers, we write a big event and don’t consider the little events that lead up to it. The ones that went unnoticed. The ones that wouldn’t have mattered at all if they hadn’t contributed to the huge mess our character is suddenly in.

It’s not necessarily important for me to point out that I had asked my husband to take the trash out the night before but he forgot because my son woke up asking for a glass of water. It’s rather uninteresting that my son, earlier in the day, pulled the lower latch on the dog crate, which I never use to lock it, or that I stayed up too late watching “The OA” (great show by the way) so I was too tired to notice when I put the dog in and it kept the top latch from catching properly. Or that if I hadn’t scolded Nico he wouldn’t have slunk off and I might have noticed that he was also trying to ask me to let him out. All these little details are hardly significant. They are just side notes, illustrations of typical family life in my house.

Until you realize that if just one of those things didn’t happen, when it did, the mess could have been completely avoided. And that is actually kinda cool.

Not for me. I had to clean it up.

But in terms of plotting a book, well, those of the kind of things that take a good story and make it great. (unless your story is about a giant dog mess. That’s really a pretty mundane story unless you’re the one cleaning it).

If Cammie hadn’t left the pocket watch out, Kyle wouldn’t have noticed it. If he hadn’t noticed it, he wouldn’t have gone to the antique store to look for one for himself, if he hadn’t gone to the antique store, he wouldn’t have bought the Dibbuk box. If he hadn’t bought the Dibbuk box that Selene wouldn’t have murdered the Kramers, who, as it turns out, were the ones who had sold the Dibbuk box to the antique shop in the first place.

Damn it Cammie. Couldn’t you have been just a little more careful with your shit?

How to find the right crit group

It is daunting joining a group of strangers and sharing your work. If you are an introvert writer like I am, it is completely terrifying, and the worst part is that it could end up being all for nothing. Not all crit groups are good crit groups. Not all crit groups are the right fit.

Fortunately you can get a pretty decent fix on whether you got a good group for you withing the first two or three sessions and avoid wasting your time and energy on a group that is not going to help you or your writing.

Here are five things to look for:

1. They welcome new members

By welcome I don’t just mean they allow them to sit in, I mean they are open, friendly and willing to allow new members to submit their work. Too often established groups will develop a dynamic of exclusion. It’s not intentional, but it also is nothing you need to waste your time with. If you join a group that treats you like an intruder, don’t come back.

2. They  are familiar with your kind of writing

You can be part of the greatest crit group ever, but if you are the only romance novelist in a group of journalists, you won’t get the most out of the group.

3. They are familiar with your genre

Even if the whole group consists of fiction writers, it is important that at least a few members understand the genre you write in. Style and technique can change drastically between genres and the best horror novel might be hard for someone who focuses exclusively on historical fiction to understand or critique.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a very productive group even if a few people don’t get your genre, but you need somebody to get your genre or you will end up needlessly feeling bad about your work.

4. They are focused on improvement

This seems obvious right? Except it’s not so much. Giving and receiving constructive criticism is actually really really hard. In order to spare feelings some writing groups fall into a pattern of praise. It’s lovely to have your work praised and to give it to others, but the reason you are there isn’t to stroke each others egos. It is to get better. If no one ever has any solid advice for improvement, you are not doing yourself any favors sticking around.

5. They look for the good

On the other side of the coin, sometimes crit groups can become too harsh. Especially in a group where the writers are ultra competitive or have been doing this kind of work for a while. A crit group should always look for the good in a piece, no matter what level of writing is presented. This isn’t just to be nice, a writer needs to know where their strengths lie in order to improve their work.

6. The writers in the group are of all different levels of experience

You may think you want to work with the people who have been doing this the longest. Or people who are of the same writing level as you. You are wrong. Reviewing the work of someone who is just starting out can give you a fresh perspective and allow you to clearly see your own writing flaws in their work. It also gives you the opportunity to impart your knowledge to help them improve, which, believe it or not, can lead to huge progress in your own work.

On the other hand, working with much more experienced writers sets a standard to work toward and also helps develop a discernment in you that will allow you to find weaker points in even the strongest writing. And writers on all levels will have unique perspectives to give your work.

 

Do you belong to a writing crit group? What are some things you have found to be an important part of the dynamic?

 

Portrait of the Artist as a (very) Young woman

My parents are moving out of the home I grew up in. That means that I am acquiring many childhood artifacts that I am not ready to throw away.My dollhouse, my art portfolio from high school have now been crammed into my basement and I get to pick over a stash of excellent books. I now have the entire Narnia series, The Mists of Avalon (life changing book for me) and the Foundation series (which I have never read).

It also means that we have uncovered the first evidence of my early writing. There are many more in hiding but I got a kick out of reading this and seeing that some themes have been present in my writing since the early (very very early) years.

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It’s a bit scattered and the ending is simply an atrocious let down.

It is incredibly interested to see my early preference for dialogue driven plot and ghosts. And who knew that before Google was the world’s leading search engine it was a race of pink furry animals that turn into slimy monsters?

What were you first writing stories about?

Author Derek Fell on 10 RULES FOR WRITING GREAT FICTION

Although Derek has written more than 100 books of non-fiction, about art, travel and gardens (two of his favorites are The Magic of Monet’s Garden and Van Gogh’s Women), he is currently working on a novel in the genre of historical biography, similar to Loving Frank and The Paris Wife. Here is his formula for a successful novel, in order of importance: 
1- WRITE A COMPELLING STORY. A good story usually contains suspense, drama, humor and surprise, and features a main character with a strong goal (eg: winning a girl; escaping prison; overcoming a disability; climbing an impossible mountain.) Identify your genre (eg: historical romance, science fiction, murder mystery); and read blockbuster titles in the same genre to discover why those books were successful.
2- CRAFT A GOOD BEGINNING, one that immediately hooks the reader. Try to hook the reader with your first paragraph and no later than the first page. One of Ken Follett’s best beginnings hooked the reader in his first sentence: “On the third day the camels died.”
3- CREATE MEMORABLE CHARACTERS, especially flawed or eccentric characters the reader can care about. Also characters that come into conflict with each other. Think Scarlett O’Hara, James Bond, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and the Godfather. Readers especially like to see a main character change during the course of the story; for example Michael Corleone in the Godfather where he changes from being an honest person to becoming a crime boss.
4- WRITE CONFRONTATIONAL DIALOG. Make it sound like dialog and not like a series of lectures. Also include interior monologue as distinct from dialog. When writing dialect to identify an ethnic character (for example an Irishman, Scotsman, Jamaican or Italian), don’t make the dialog too difficult for a reader to understand.
5-  CHOOSE AN ENGAGING VOICE to tell your story (read Catcher in the Rye as a good example.) When in doubt choose the first person as it is the most intimate way to tell a story. Make your characters speak differently and have them display different mannerisms. For a good example of this read the beginning to Elizabeth George’s “What Happened Before I Shot Her” about a family of poor immigrants in London and how she has every character speak in such a distinctive voice you can tell who is talking without being told.
6- MOVE YOUR STORY ALONG. Keep your chapters to 10 pages or less. Build suspense and create tension. Express lots of emotion. Try to make the end of each chapter a cliff hanger. Limit flashbacks. Don’t overwrite scenes. The habit of James Michener to write 32 pages about a volcano eruption in his book titled Hawaii or 7 pages about making a ladder-back chair in Chesapeake doesn’t impress most modern readers. Avoid telling people WHAT happens and write it so they SEE it happen. For example telling people about the Clearances in Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries when peasants were evicted from their homes to create sheep pasture, is not as interesting as having a character describe an actual Clearance taking place.
7- AVOID WORDS ENDING IN ‘ING’. Don’t say “he was swimming”; rather say “He swam” as it is more immediate. Self-edit ruthlessly to avoid redundant words and keep your text taunt.
8- IDENTIFY YOUR CORE AUDIENCE. Male? Female? Young Adult? Children of a particular age group? This is especially important when writing love scenes or violent passages as men generally prefer to read more explicit sex scenes, for example, than women; and more violence.
9- INJECT LOCAL COLOR. A big appeal of the James Bond series is exotic locations like Hong Kong and the Bahamas. Paint word pictures about places, especially travel destinations, local customs, food and drinks. Describe sights, sounds, touch and smells.
10- FINISH STRONG. Write a satisfying ending. Don’t disappoint your reader. They have invested too much valuable time to feel let down at the end. Dickens wrote two endings to Great Expectations – one where the lead character gets his girl and the other where they separate. The publisher insisted on the ending where he gets the girl because he felt the reader would feel cheated. When Arthur Conan Doyle got tired of writing about Sherlock Holmes he killed him off; but readers were so indignant he had to bring him back.
There are many other nuances, but these are the main requirements to impress an agent or publisher in my experience.
ABOUT DEREK:

 I was born and educated in the north of England. My first job was as a trainee reporter for the Shrewsbury Chronicle group of newspapers, covering news and features. After two years I moved to London to work as an account executive for a London public relations firm; and after seven years I immigrated to the US to become catalog manager for Burpee Seeds, one of

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Derek Fell in the garden of impressionist Claude Monet

the company’s clients.

I became a US citizen in 1970 and left Burpee to write a series of garden books for a Chicago book publisher; and I continued writing non-fiction about art, travel and gardens as a free-lancer. I illustrated my books with my own photography which became a major source of income, selling stock images to publishers worldwide.
Most recently I have taken an interest in writing novels and have four projects in various stages of completion: a historical romance set in the 1820’s, a historical biography set 1898, a modern murder mystery and a modern political drama. My main residence and office is historic Cedaridge Farm, Bucks County, but I have a winter residence on Sanibel Island, Florida with an acre of coconut palms and banana trees.

To check out Derek’s gardening newsletter visit avantgardener.info.

To check out some of Derek’s books, go to his Amazon Page.

Guest Bloggers coming up!

Hello All! I hope the holidays aren’t driving you crazy and your writing is going well. I am excited to announce that in the upcoming weeks I have several guest bloggers lined up with their unique perspectives on this twisty path we call writing.

Members of my super awesome wicked cool writing group will be sharing their brilliant thoughts with us on a variety of topics and some published friends might be stopping by to tell us about their books.

Stay tuned!

Are there too many aspiring writers for you to succeed?

When you start looking into the writing community, one of the first things you might think is, “Oh cool. Lots of people who get my struggle.” The second thing might be “Oh Crap, If there are this many people trying to make it, what are the odds that I will?”

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged. There are so many authors out there trying to get their book noticed that you might feel like a drop of water in the ocean. Trying to get your work noticed by overwhelmed agents and publishers who are constantly reminding us of how many people submit to them ever day seems like an impossible task.

The internet has made it easier for people to write and it has made it easier for people to submit. There is no doubt about that. Once upon a time, after I finished my first novel, I had to print out the entire manuscript and send it, by mail, to a publisher. Just that simple act deterred me from doing it more than once.

Man, the good old days.

So many people have more time than me to dedicate to this. So many people have more money than me to put into better editors and writers conferences. So many more people have more talent than me. Are better salesmen than me. Have more credentials than me. I know because I see it everywhere all the time.

I should just give up.

Well, that’s the first way to weed out the garden. But its not really the best.

The thing is, when you really get down to it, the real question you want to ask yourself is:

Can we ever actually have Too Many Books?

Now, your knee jerk answer might be “YES! Absolutely! Too many books means that even if mine gets published, it will still be a drop of water in a slightly smaller ocean!”

And I get it. But on the other hand, the saturated market has given rise to the refinement of niches. That means that a reader who loves Gothic southern horror doesn’t have to sort through psychological horror and paranormal horror to find exactly the kind of stories they want and the writers of Southern Gothic Horror have an audience who knows exactly where to find them and is waiting eagerly for their work.

Yes. Your readers are there and they are waiting for you.

Furthermore, the average reader reads 15-30 books a year. That’s the average. There are plenty of avid readers who read between 50-100 books a year. They are also waiting for your work. They are looking for something new. They are loving being the first to review a new writer.

Or they stick with their favorite and they wouldn’t want you anyway. No harm. No foul.

So, No. In my opinion there can never be too many books any more than there can be too much pasta. Like a really good bowl of Penne with Rosa Vodka sauce, readers consume books and are always looking for more.

For this reason I do not think there are too many writers trying to make it. Everyone has a unique voice. A unique take. New ideas and subjects should be celebrated, encouraged and sought out.

Keep going writing friends. I hope to see all your books on my kindle someday.

Writing Childbirth and New Mothers: You’re doing it wrong

Last night my crit group reviewed a chapter I wrote where the MC gave birth and adjusted to new motherhood.

I’ve never ever had more polarized opinions of the accuracy of my work.

What was fascinating is that when I went home and read over notes they fell into two distinct groups. Parents and Not Parents.

The parents wrote : Great depiction of childbirth and motherhood.

The non-parents questioned the accuracy of EVERYTHING. Why are people coming in her room while she’s in labor? Why is she reading and stressing out over work while she’s in labor? She doesn’t seem very maternal while she’s taking care of the newborn. All she does is complain and cry!

Now, I am not going to come in here and give the “You’re not a parent so you don’t understand” lecture. Please, don’t ever let me get away with that giving that obnoxious lecture.

But I do want to point out that our preconception of childbirth and what happens in the weeks afterwards is basically wrong and it’s a nasty little secret that most people do not learn until they go through it.

The Hollywood childbirth looks like this:

Everything is good. Glowing pregnant woman is in the middle of something and then WOOSH. Her water breaks. Contractions start immediately. She is rushed to the hospital and immediately starts pushing. She hilariously screams like a maniac and says horrible things to her partner, while griping his hand so hard he cries. Then the baby is born and she immediately goes back to her size zero and blissfully cares for the baby in complete comfort and ease.

The reality is that maybe this beautiful myth can happen, but it’s not common and for alot of new mothers, the reality is a rude awakening they start to become aware of during pregnancy, but cannot fully grasp until they are home alone with a squalling infant and their lives are completely changed. Childbirth and new motherhood is beautiful. But like most things in real life, the most beautiful earn their place with a fair amount of pain.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I guess that depends on how accurate you want to be? I, for one, am completely turned off by stories or shows that perpetuate the Hollywood delivery myth. It feels disrespectful, it undermines my experience and the experience of other mothers and parents.

On a larger scale it allows an unfair system to continue to thrive and a bent perception of what motherhood SHOULD be that puts an insane amount of pressure on new mothers.

So what are some key points that are usually wrong?

Labor takes For Ev Er!

As opposed to the “oh my water broke, lets go to the hospital and have the baby now” idea, the average labor is about 8 hours and the hospital will not admit you until the end of it. Contractions often start out painless and progressively hurt more as time goes on. That means most mothers spend a day or night or both sitting around the house, taking walks to get labor going stronger, hanging out with spouses, family, ect, eating while they still can (not allowed once you go into the hospital) and basically filling their time anyway they can. There is no standard for how this time is spent. It really is up to the mom.

Some women do have very quick labors. Some women have much longer labors. It is not unheard of for a woman to be in “passive labor” for a few days.

The pain is different for everyone

There are some gloriously gifted women who don’t feel more than some discomfort in labor and delivery. Its not even uncommon! There are some that don’t feel the pain until right before they are ready to push. There are some that hurt from the first contraction and it only gets worse. During transition, or the phase of labor right before pushing begins, typically the most intense pain is felt. Many women have opted for an epidural by this point. Many woman are able to get through it okay without one. For some women who haven’t gotten pain relief, the pain is so intense that they can black out or vomit or both.

Everyone manages pain differently

It is funny when the calm and collected character starts screaming obscenities during delivery, and it probably happens, but many women are too busy trying to manage their pain to scream at their partners. For some women it helps to shout. For some it helps to breath. For some it helps to hold their breath, pray, bite their hand, whatever. One size does not fit all and I would say MOST women do not turn into raving lunatics when the baby is coming.

The bond is instant, usually

Yes. The biological maternal instincts generally kick in right away, but so does fatigue, shock, confusion and baffled love. This beautiful little baby is here and he or she is yours and you just want to kiss them. And Sleep. And what are you supposed to do with them? And why won’t they stop crying?

Now a days, most healthcare providers do all they can to foster the bond between mother and child, but that was always the case and sometimes the bond isn’t so instant. The love, sure, but the bond that mothers thing is supposed to happen right away, sometimes it needs time to grow. Sometimes something interferes. Sometimes motherhood doesn’t come naturally. There is nothing wrong with that. It is common and shouldn’t be judged.

It is so very very hard

Labor is the equivalent of receiving major surgery while running a triatholon. Most women don’t come out unscathed. Aside from a body adjusting to pushing something that was inside of it outside of it, there is tearing, insicions, rapid hormonal fluctuations and giant sore achy boobs. If you ran a tratholon while getting surgery, you might anticipate a few days of sleep and rest to help you recover, but a new mother doesn’t get that. The baby needs attention now. And always. A new baby will cluster feed for the first few weeks, which means every hour to two hours. Sometimes with only half hour breaks in between. The result is that new parents, particularly nursing mothers, do not sleep. They don’t shower. They forget to eat.

Is there blissful gazing at the baby? Of course there is, but there is also rushing to the bathroom between nursings while the baby squalls to pee and clean spit off out of your hair. There is crying because the baby is crying and you are so very very tired. There is loneliness and isolation for women who were used to being social and independent.

In the United States there is a 30% chance of developing postpartum depression, which is frequently linked with our social standard of encouraging new mothers to suck it up and bask in the bliss of being a new mother. 30% is actually only the reported cased but most experts agree that the number is actually much higher.

New mothers are under an enormous amount of pressure and judgement at a time when they a literally more emotionally vulnerable than they have ever been in their lives.

The reward is still worth it, a hundred times over

A woman once told me that the old consensus was that veteran moms didn’t tell young women about what childbirth and new motherhood was REALLY like because it would scare them off having kids. She thought that the age of information was scaring the hell out young women. I thought that was the biggest load of crap I’d ever heard.

If its so awful that it puts women off having babies, why the hell would anyone have more than one baby? Knowledge is power and going into a situation with a solid understanding of its difficulty is not going to deter the biological and maternal drive to have and care for children.

Having children is wonderful. It is crazy hard. And still wonderful. But it isn’t for everyone. And that is okay. It is not what many new moms expected. And that is okay. It requires parents to give up things they didn’t anticipate and that is okay.

The key is information. Don’t lie to young woman about what to expect. Give them the fact and let them decide for themselves! Let them get themselves into a place where they can deal with the hard stuff.

So, how do you, as a writer want to approach this subject? Maybe as the wielders of mighty pens, we have a responsibility to present the world as it is and stop perpetuating happy myths that provoke judgments when the truth comes out?

The myth might be tidy and funny and make it easy to love your character, but the reality is so much more nuanced and, in my opinion, rewarding to the reader.