Goodbye, February

It’s twelve degrees warmer this morning in mid-Michigan than it is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In fact, we’ve had a string of unseasonably warm days. Last week we had a rapid melt of over a foot of snow, plus two days of steady rain, causing the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers to flood. There were small-scale evacuations in neighborhoods near the rivers. And then we had three days in a row that felt like early May.

We’ll be back down in the 40s for the first couple weeks of March, which is more appropriate for this time of year, and there are still some snow showers in the forecast, but not much. I understand that groundhog saw his shadow way back at the beginning of the month, but I guess marmots are not the best prognosticators of global weather patterns.

I’m always happy to see February drift away in the rear view mirror. This year I have spent most of the month on moving rooms around in my house. A small, enclosed staircase with a right angle is part of the reason it took so long. The crazy weather is another. The stairs mean large items must go in/out an exterior door on the second floor that leads out to the roof of the smoke room, and up and down a ladder propped against it. Which, of course, you can’t safely do in a foot of snow and ice, nor in a deluge.

Everything big is safe and sound in its new room. Finally. After all, I’ve been planning for this move since July of last year, drawing schematics and making lists of the order in which things would have to be moved.

Now we’re down to the little stuff:

  • our son’s old karate belts, which we’ve been meaning to get into a display case
  • a small file cabinet that is mostly filled with things that could be stored in the attic or tossed
  • the light we removed from the old office/new bedroom that we’re going to put up in the living room
  • a random assortment of items that belong somewhere in my son’s new room, but we’re not just sure where yet

I could probably get it all done in a day, but since every spare moment of February has been spent on this project, I actually need to pause and spend some concentrated time on my other big project: first edits on my debut novel, which are due to my editor in twelve days. (Psst, if you missed it because you’re not on my newsletter mailing list, the new title is We Hope for Better Things.)

Hopefully soon we’ll have the last bits of our lives put back together and I can take some pictures to share with you. I’m happy with how well it’s turning out.

And I’m thrilled that, like February, it’s almost done.

 

Radio Silence = Real-Life Insanity

Maybe insanity is a strong word.

Maybe.

But I’ve thrown my entire house into chaos at the same time I am doing my first edit on my debut novel (you know, the one that will take the most concentrated thought).

If you follow me on Instagram you probably know that I am finally working on the #roomswitcheroo, wherein we move the master bedroom downstairs into the current office, my son’s bedroom into our current master bedroom, and my current office into my son’s room.

It’s madness here.

There’s a little bit of my son’s room in my room (and also in the hallway).

There’s a little bit of my husband’s closet in my office.

There’s a little bit of my new office in our living room.

There’s a lot of my office in my son’s closet.

Oh, and I have to paint two rooms (and the woodwork in those two rooms). And a closet.

Oh, and the big furniture can’t be moved up and down the stairs inside because of a tight right turn that probably seemed like a good idea in the 1930s when furniture was smaller.

So we have to move those out onto the roof of the smoke room and up and down a ladder.

And big furniture is really heavy.

And we got a foot of snow over the weekend.

And did I mention the manuscript edits?

Yes. Insanity is the correct word. Low-grade, garden variety Erin insanity.

 

In Which the Year Hurtles to Its End and I Try to Hang On

Life of late has been a blur of copywriting, baking, eating, decorating, laundry, and editing, with some DIY church renovations thrown in for good measure. And here I find myself on the first day in December with no food in the house, nearly every room in some state of disarray, one car in the shop, and one gorgeous refinished chapel floor.

The walls and the curtained panels on either side of the cross are next on my list in our attempts to bring the room out of the 1970s-1980s, but not for a couple weeks at least. I’m taking much of the week off to focus on finishing up an edit on The Bone Garden so I can send it back to my agent. We’ll soon be prepping to go out on submission in early 2016. I’d be excited and nervous, but I haven’t the time. Christmas calls and I’ve hardly bought a thing…

An Incredible Weekend with Literary Agent Donald Maass

Phew! What a week and what a weekend. By the grace of God, the prayers of many, and the workings of modern medicine, I was able to function on Friday and Saturday for Write on the Red Cedar. I also managed to get quite caught up today at work, despite almost a week of painful delirium where I think I may have answered a dozen emails, all with a mere sentence if possible. And now I am almost at 100% again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the highlights of my weekend was driving Donald Maass from the airport to the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, chatting about my writing. Don gave a fantastic, uplifting keynote address Saturday morning before launching into two hours of instruction on Writing 21st Century Fiction. As insightful and winsome as he is in writing, he is even more so in person. I was lucky enough to sit by him at lunch while our table shared stories of family, publishing, MSU shenanigans, and Michigan’s natural beauty.

After lunch, Zach and I answered questions about traditional publishing at a “roundtable” discussion, which I think was helpful and enlightening for the participants. Then I presented a workshop I’ve done at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference called Finding Your Writing Rhythm. I felt a little rushed with only 45 minutes, but I got some good feedback from attendees and, best of all, my voice held out.

Next I attended a great workshop on character led by author Kristina Riggle. She had some wonderful insights about how to create characters that walk off the page and feel like real people.

After a quick agent/author panel, I tried my first real solid food in nearly a week and managed not to choke (huzzah). Then I settled in for four hours of Writing the Break-Out Novel with Donald Maass. Wow. Writers, if you ever, ever have a chance to sit under this man’s teaching, you need to do it. Don is engaging and funny and challenges you–commands you, even, but in the nicest of ways–to think differently about your writing, to forego the easy solution for the creative solution, to raise every aspect of your craft to the next level, to take control of your fiction and thereby take control of your reader’s emotions in order to create fiction that moves and sticks with people.

I have a notebook full of ideas that Don drew out from me through his probing questions and exercises. I’m excited to get back into my first draft of I Hold the Wind and to get The Bone Garden back out to make even more improvements.

But I think the most important thing that Don said, for me at least, was this (I’m paraphrasing): You have the time. No novel is so timely that it can’t wait a few more months or a year or more for the author to make it better, to make it as good as it can possibly be. Don’t be in such a hurry. I’m going to try to take that to heart this year and truly enjoy every minute of the process of writing rather that always wishing for the next step to be here.

There is time. There is always time.

Yes! NaNoWriMo Is Over . . . Now What?

My last guest post at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference blog today. Now that National Novel Writing Month is over, what are your next steps?

***************

Finally! It’s over. After thirty days of breakneck writing, it feels good to take a moment to breathe. But once you’ve done that, there are a few more things you should consider doing as this year wanes and a new one dawns on the horizon…

Finish your rough draft.

Unless you’re writing middle grade fiction, you’re going to find that most novels are not 50,000 words. YA is generally around 70,000. Contemporary fiction is about 80,000–100,000. Historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy can get up near 120,000. That’s not to say you can’t write just what you darn well please, but if you want to someday publish your novel, you need to take into account reader expectations and publisher needs. So if you found yourself at 50,000 and felt like things were just getting really good, keep drafting! If you had concluded your story around 50,000, go back to the beginning and rewrite and revise, adding details, subplots, dialogue, and whatever else you need to make your story full and rich.Keep Writing Quote

My advice? Don’t put your 50,000 words away and decide to finish the draft when the holidays are over or in the summer when you finally have some time. Push ahead and finish it now, before the fire is quenched by time and you begin to doubt yourself. Pound out the rest of that draft on the same writing schedule you’ve been keeping in November. Just get it down. It will be a great Christmas present to yourself to have it finished.

Click here to read the rest!

Then go write some more!

Fear, Courage, and What Makes Your Writing Stand Out

My workshop at the Breathe Writers Conference was on rewriting and revision. I had so much I wanted to cover and not enough time to do it, thus I was forced to truncate my closing remarks. I’m sharing them here in full.

**********************************************

Sometimes as we are revising, we run across something in our own writing that makes us uncomfortable. A bit of truth that slipped out when we weren’t watching. Maybe we let a character say something shockingly true. We read it later and are stunned that it came from within our minds and hearts. We think, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that, shouldn’t let my character say it.”

In the novel I’ve been working on this year, the overarching theme is the really the sovereignty of God—that everything that happens, including the tragic and awful, happens within His will and is part of His plan for our lives for a reason. That theme is played out in the stories of three women. Two of these storylines focus heavily on race, one during the Civil War, another during the Civil Rights era. In writing about the way white people in this country have viewed and treated black people over the decades, in writing about prejudice and lynching and rioting, and in writing about interracial relationships and marriage, I have had plenty of opportunities to censor myself. There have been many times I’ve thought, “People think this way, people say things like this—but will readers think that’s me? Will they think I think that way?” No one wants to be seen as racist.

And on the other hand, there was a powerful pull to remain politically correct, to treat black characters only as victims. Besides the fact that this is an incredibly demeaning label to put on an entire race, when you look at individual lives, not everyone in this world is a victim. (And victims often make the most uninteresting characters in fiction.) One of the climactic scenes is of the Detroit Riots of 1967. As a writer I could not escape from the fact that that scene included young black men destroying property, stealing, swearing, and even shooting at firemen who were trying to keep the neighborhood those same young men lived in from burning down. But a privileged white woman writing about poor, unemployed black men committing crimes? Is that allowed? Or can only African Americans comment on such an event? I was in high school and college during the 1990s, so I have to fight against near-constant “political correctness” indoctrination rearing its head, because all the PC movement ever did was bury issues under a veneer of civility where they continued to fester, ready to explode because they are never resolved.

In fact, in order say anything worth saying about the reality and experience of racism in the North, I had to avoid both extremes of piling on the white guilt and portraying black characters as victims. That’s been done to death. And in between those two extremes is where we find truth—and truth is never without tension. There’s a lot of fear in writing about explosive topics like race, war, the sanctity of human life, the sacredness of the union of husband and wife. And yet those explosive topics are important. And if we censor ourselves in the public square or the intellectual square, we allow others to set the trajectory of our culture.

In revision, sometimes the things that you feel most strongly that you should delete are the things you should keep. When you feel you should censor yourself because of what a reader (often a very specific one, like your mother or spouse or a friend) might think of you, that’s when you should stop, take a deep breath, and move on. Leave that bit in there. That’s what makes your writing interesting, original, individual, and worth keeping. Deep down, we know that the things that frighten us a little or surprise us—those are the things that actually are saying something. The moments we allow ourselves to really say what we mean—those are the things that really need to be said.

Betsy Lerner, in her excellent book The Forest for the Trees, said it this way:

“If you dream of having your work stay alive beyond your tenure on earth, if you hope to see it beside the unforgettable voices that are part of our literary diaspora, then you must be fearless in every aspect of your writing. . . . Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it. That they find it exquisite or revolting…‘Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like and cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.’ Throw off the shackles of approval. . . . if your book causes a commotion, even the negative kind, you will have made a platform for yourself, something very few writers ever attain. . . . You cannot censor yourself; successful writing never comes through half measures.”

Yes, if you run across a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter that you realize just doesn’t do anything, chop it out of there! It’s dead weight! But if you feel the pull to remove something because it’s uncomfortable or you fear the criticism of others, and yet that part of your work does further your story and does give your reader deeper insight into a character—or into the human condition—be brave. Keep it. Leave it in. That’s the thing that readers will remember. That’s the thing that will make readers sit up straight and listen—because you are someone with something important to say.

Don’t edit out of fear. Don’t edit to protect yourself. Edit to make that shocking truth, that encapsulation of reality hit home even harder. Edit to make that meaning crystal clear.

Because things that need to be said are often those things we wish to hide–about ourselves, about others, about our glorious, messed-up world.

Now Available in Paperback! The Intentional Writer

If you’ve been waiting for the paperback edition of The Intentional Writer, this is your lucky day. If you don’t even know what I’m talking about (and you’re an aspiring author) this is still your lucky day. If you’re neither of these, indulge me a moment while I explain.

Intentional Writer CVR FINAL

The Intentional Writer is some of my best advice for beginning writers who wish they had more time, space, and inspiration for their writing. It offers lots of tips and tricks for carving out time to write, courting the muse to keep your ideas flowing, and prioritizing writing so that you can stop making excuses and start finishing things.

Every piece of insight I have to offer comes from my own experience as a writer looking for a sustainable writing rhythm that would keep me creating regularly, but wouldn’t saddle me with a load of guilt if I didn’t meet a certain word count every day.

As I formatted the paperback edition, I’ve added new content and updated existing content to reflect further developments in my own writing journey. I plan to update the Kindle edition soon to reflect those changes.

It is my hope that the things I’ve learned can help many other aspiring authors. Click here to purchase!

I’ll also take this chance to let you know that I will be speaking again at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference this year. Last year I spoke on the topic of finding your writing rhythm. This year I’ll be giving out great revision tips and advice to bring your writing to the next level. I would love to see you there! Check out the schedule of speakers and register for the conference on October 10-11.

Revising Your Manuscript: Sifting through All That Good Advice

Back in March after I finished the first draft of my WIP, I talked about getting the most out of your beta readers. But what do you do with all their comments and advice? Most especially, what do you do when one person’s feedback conflicts with another?

So far, I’ve had ten lovely people give me feedback on my manuscript. Three more are reading now. With that much feedback, you’re bound to get some comments more than once (and that’s when you should perk up your ears and seriously consider their advice) and you’re bound to get a few things that don’t mesh.

My WIP is really three stories in one. Three protagonists. Three time periods. Lots of connections between the three. Inevitably when you have an ensemble cast, readers will likely gravitate to one character over another. So I’ve had champions for each of these three characters as well as critics for each of them. One reader thinks the book is really about Character A and rushes through the chapters that don’t include her. Another reader can’t stand Character A and knows that the book is really about Character B. Another adores Character C but can’t connect with Character B. And so on. And most readers have ideas about how you could improve the parts of the book they didn’t like as much.

On a smaller scale, you may have different readers mark the same little bit of prose with an underline and a smiley face, or a double strikethrough and a skull and crossbones. A member of one of my writing groups recently had that very experience with a descriptive dialogue tag and was at a loss about how to edit or if she should change it at all.

So what do you do with this conflicting advice?

First and foremost, consider your true audience. What’s your genre? Who is going to gravitate toward this book and snatch it off the shelves? Is the reader who gave you feedback someone who generally reads in your genre? If not, pause a moment to consider whether their advice on this particular problem is coming from a place of ignorance.

That doesn’t mean there’s no point in having them read and comment. After all, my book is geared toward the women’s book club crowd, but male readers (I’ve had four of them) are essential because there as many male characters as there are female. But if one of my male readers advises me to change a female character’s reaction to a situation because he doesn’t think women act that way or doesn’t understand why women act that way, I’m going to give it some serious thought, pat him on the hand, and say, “Nope, a woman really would do that, even if you don’t understand it. Women readers will understand that completely.”

But if the same male reader advises me to change something a male character says or does because he thinks that no man would act that way, then you had better bet I’m listening close and following his advice. In fact, that often makes for better conflict because the male characters aren’t behaving the way I as a female writer would like them to, and so now my characters have to deal with it.

Sometimes advice doesn’t hinge on audience. Sometimes it’s a matter of clarity versus obscurity. I tend to not like to explain things too much in my writing because I resent being talked down to in any area of life (which is why I hate getting my oil changed). I’m intelligent enough; let me figure it out. And if I can’t, let me struggle with it and discuss it with others. I’m sure this has something to do with being an English major.

But not all of my readers will have been English majors. Not everyone is on the lookout for obscure symbolism–or even overt symbolism! So when a beta reader completely misses an important plot point because I was worried about making it too obvious, it’s time to reread from the point of view of someone who hasn’t been thinking about the plot of this book for over a year. Come at it with fresh eyes. The best way to accomplish this is temporal distance–spend time away from your manuscript. Put it away for a month, then reread the notes from your beta readers, then reread your manuscript through the lens of a first-timer.

The side benefit of spending that time away is that any anger or anxiety you felt when reading over the notes that your beta readers sent to you will have dissipated. Items that seemed like a crisis at the time will suddenly seem very doable. Things you bristled at when you first read them will now seem quite sensible. And the task of revision will be at least partially divorced from the task of creation. You’ll accept that this novel you wrote is, in fact, not perfect. And that that’s okay. That it’s all part of a longer process by which you will slowly, slowly chip away the things that are not your story so that you can uncover the thing that is your story.

Above all, when you are considering conflicting advice–or any advice at all for that matter–there is a balance to be struck between being true to yourself and your vision and being faithful to your potential readers. If you’re writing to be published and read, you do need to consider your audience. But remember that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, please everyone. When you change Character A so that Reader A will like them more, Reader B will be furious.

So how do you like Character A? Does she serve the story? Does she evoke some kind of emotion in the reader? Does she struggle and change and mess up? If you’re uncomfortable with Character A, change her. If not, don’t.

Stories that get passed around and talked about are not necessarily the ones where everyone has the same opinion on every element. After all, if everyone thinks the same way on something, there’s really nothing to talk about, is there? So leave us a little complexity, a little controversy, a little mystery. We might be frustrated sometimes as readers, but it’s a sweet frustration indeed.

 

Revising Your Manuscript: Clarifying Motivation

Last week I shared the story of a shooting near our house. If you haven’t read that post, hop on back and read it first, then move on to this one.

When the dust settles after a tragedy in which the human will was involved–as opposed to a natural disaster–the very first question we ask ourselves is WhyWhat drove the villains of innumerable wars and genocides and school shootings and kidnappings and murders to commit such heinous acts? We want a reason, even if it’s an inadequate one, for the crime. And when we don’t get it, it makes the tragedy more frightening. Whatever the reason, it is so much easier to process and understand if it isn’t random.

When it comes to storytelling, motivation is key to understanding characters, accepting the plot, and fully immersing ourselves in the story. If there’s no clear reason for an action, the reader will be continually on the lookout for it. Now, if we want to make unclear motivation part of the tension for a while, that’s fine. But if we never manage to explain to a reader why a character, say, betrays his brother or cries when he sees a field of ripe wheat or sabotages his best friend, we’re betraying their trust in us as storytellers.

In high school I was in a number of plays and musicals, and beyond the very obvious difference of one having musical numbers and one not, I noticed a very pronounced difference in stage direction. In a play, if I stood up and walked to another spot in the “room” for no apparent reason, the director would call me on it. I needed to have a reason to change my position beyond me just feeling like the audience would be bored if I sat the whole time I was delivering these lines. In fact, it was so ingrained in me that it has affected my enjoyment of other productions! A common problem when memorizing lines and movements for a play is to answer the question What’s my motivation? because, of course, as an actor you are given lines and stage direction in a non-organic matter. To you, they did not arise naturally. Someone else wrote them out and you have been tasked with performing.

In contrast, the director of the musicals needed little reason for movement beyond the need to get people into the proper spots to start the next dance number. If you’re manipulating events in your manuscript just so you can get to the next scene that you planned, step back a moment and examine each character’s motivation. Would someone really act that way, say that line? Why? What would drive them to do that?

Using my example of the recent deadly shooting from the post on tension, after the shooter was taken into custody our questions changed from Who? and Where? to Why? Why the pharmacist? Was the shooter attempting to steal drugs? Was he under the influence of drugs? Why his neighbor? Had they been at odds?

The day after the shooting I was attempting to organize my desk (because deeper thought eluded me, preoccupied as I was with the events of the day before). This process involved going through a stack of items to be read and filed, including several issues of The New Yorker. I was flipping through them for articles and stories and comics I wanted to rip out and keep when I ran across an article about Adam Lanza’s father. I didn’t want to read about Sandy Hook, especially after the experience of my son’s school being on lockdown. But for some reason I began to read anyway. The article essentially attempted to explain what created a killer and a scenario like Sandy Hook. It talked about Adam Lanza’s childhood and teen years, his slow descent into a mental prison, the enabling actions of his mother, the frustration and despair of his father, everything, it seemed, except personal motivation. And that’s because that’s all we’re left with when a mass murderer kills himself and leaves no explanation. We’re left to grasp at wisps of clues and will never know the full truth.

But as writers, we must know why our characters are behaving the way they are, doing the things they’re doing, saying the things they’re saying. Read through each scene of your work in progress. Are the motivations of your characters clear? You don’t have to tell the reader outright why someone did something. You just have to make it easy enough for them to figure out on their own.

In my current manuscript, I wasn’t happy with one aspect of the ending. A young character committed a heinous act because I needed another character to suffer the consequences of their actions. The only problem was, I didn’t give this young character enough motivation. I tried adding a bit here and there, but what he did was so awful, my sprinklings of motivation were not enough, and I knew it. Rather than change the ending so that my other character didn’t suffer the consequences of her actions, I simply switched the young man’s target and made the consequences to the other character accidental. Problem solved.

Not everything needs an explanation of course. You don’t need to tell us why your protagonist rescued a dog from a shelter. It’s a pretty common thing humans do because most people like pets. However, you might have a reason for your protagonist choosing a large and imposing dog rather than a little yippy one. Or choosing a dog rather than a cat. That may factor into the plot or it may simply tell a reader something about the character that’s important.

Remember, if your character moves stage left, there had better be a reason for it or the spell you are trying to cast will be broken. Your audience will remember that they’re reading a book. And that’s exactly what we don’t want them to do.