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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: writing process, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Helping Students Live a Writer’s Life

At this point of the school year, your writing workshop is probably in full swing.  You are chugging along through your writing curriculum, and you are probably using checklists and rubrics to assess… Continue reading

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2. Fishing (For Words)

There’s a lake about two miles away from our house, and, after sitting at my desk all day, I felt the need to stretch my legs. So, I put a notebook and a few pens into a shoulder bag and went for a ramble, as they say in the UK. At the lake a small dock, maybe 20’ x 15’, with two wooden benches and railing, overlooks the water. I had in mind to sit a while on one of the benches,

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3. One Writer’s Process: Jeannine Atkins

The woods in Sterling, Massachusetts, where Jeannine Atkins grew up, stimulated her curiosity in many ways. She wondered about the things that might be hidden under rocks, and years later such wondering led her to write Girls Who Look Under Rocks, a book about girls like Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson, and others who became naturalists as adults. Wandering near the woods gave her child’s

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4. When Autumn Comes

When autumn comes, nature begins to slow down, and my brain wants to go into a deep sleep. It’s the time of year when some of us come up against a wall and can’t see beyond it. Where does the wall come from? Why does it appear? How do we deal with it until it vanishes? Maybe we should just go into hibernation and wait for it to fall down on its own. Writing—or trying to write—on

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5. On Writing PoC When You Are White

My comments on white people writing People of Colour in these two posts has created a wee bit of consternation. This post is to clarify my position.

First of all: I am not the boss of who writes what.1 This is what I have decided for myself after much trial and error and listening and thinking and like that. Do what works for you.

I have decided to stick to white povs when I write a book from a single point of view. This does not mean will I no longer write PoC characters. There are people of different races and ethnicities in all my books. I have never written an all-white book. I doubt I ever will.

I didn’t make this decision because I was called out for writing PoC. Before Razorhurst all my main characters were PoC. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.2

The decision has more to do with the way the debate about diversity in Young Adult literature plays out. Almost every time the overwhelming whiteness of YA is discussed a well-meaning white authors says, “I shall fix this. My next book will have a PoC protagonist!”

I cringe. All too often the white folks saying that don’t know many people who aren’t white. They rarely socialise with them. There’s a reason for that. As many as 75% of white people in the USA have entirely white social networks. I’m sure the numbers are similar in Australia.

That’s why I now largely recommend that white people with little experience of PoC don’t write from the point of view of PoC characters. Research will only take you so far.

Writing about PoC when none of your friends are PoC is not the same as writing about an historical period you weren’t alive for. If you perpetuate stereotypes you hurt living people. When you don’t know any PoC, even with the best research in the world, you’ll get things wrong. Stereotypes are harmful. Especially when you don’t realise you have written a stereotype.

Who are you going to get to read and critique your work if everyone in your social circle is white? Are you going to ask someone you don’t know very well? It’s a huge thing asking someone to critique your work. It takes a lot of work and if they don’t know you well how do they know that you’ll be receptive to them pointing out racism in your work?

We whites are notorious for freaking out when PoC so much as hint that something we did or said is racist. Many of us seem to think it’s worse to be called on our racism than it is for a PoC to experience racism. Even though being called racist can not kill us.

On top of all that I’m increasingly unconvinced that white people writing more people of colour solves anything. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center this year whites wrote most of the YA books with African-Americans, American Indian, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans and Latino main characters.

Representation is improving but it’s mostly whites doing the representing, which is part of the problem. We need more writers and editors and publicists and publishers and booksellers of colour. We need publishing to be more representative of the countries we live in. Right now US publishing is 89% white. Australian publishing is at least that white.

We white writers could do more to increase diversity in our industry by drawing attention to the work of writers of colour. By mentoring, introducing them to our agents, by blurbing their books, by making space for them at conventions and conferences, by listening. Check out Diversity in YA. Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon and the others involved with that organisation have lost of concrete ideas of how we can make YA more diverse and inclusive.

The other reason I’ve shifted to predominately white points of view is in response to all the critics who’ve pointed out for many, many years that too many white writers think they can only tackle race through the pov of a person of colour. The implication is that race is something white people don’t have. We just are. We’re colourless neutrals.

No, we’re not.

Expectations about our race—our whiteness—shapes our lives as much as our gender or our sexuality or our class. Yet all too many whites are unaware of it.

I wanted to write about how whiteness obscures our understandings of how we are who we are and of how the world operates. For the next few books, including Razorhurst, I’ve been pushing myself to examine whiteness in my fiction.

A recent book that does this well is All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The character written by Kiely has to confront the ways in which his whiteness makes him complicit in the racist violence inflicted on Jason Reynolds’ character and what he can do about it.

Overt racist violence is not at the centre of Razorhurst or My Sister Rosa3 or of the book I’m currently writing. I’m looking at the less overt ways in which whiteness shapes lives.

I fully expect many of the people who read these books won’t notice. That’s okay. Many readers didn’t notice that everyone in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a person of colour. Books do many different things. No one reader is going to notice them all and many readers are going to see things the writer didn’t intend. It’s how it goes.

In all my books I try to tell a story that engrosses readers and lets them forget the real world for a few hours. That my books do that for even a handful of readers is glorious.

TL;DR: I’m writing predominately white pov characters because of reasons listed above. You do as works best for you.

  1. Not going to lie I kind of which I was. I’d also like to dictate Australia’s foreign policy, response to climate change, and treatment of refugees. Also fashion.
  2. Including winning the Carl Brandon Society’s 2009 Kindred Award for Liar, which is one of the biggest honours of my career.
  3. My next book. My Sister Rosa will be out in Australia/NZ in February and in the USA/Canada in November 2016.

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6. One Writer’s Process: Fran Manushkin

Before becoming a writer, Fran Manushkin had the idea that books came to life inside an author’s head fully made and that an author simply wrote them down “lickety split.” But then she started writing and discovered that notion simply wasn’t true. "Books develop according to their own time,” she says. “You cannot dictate that a book be born; neither can you dictate to a book. Listen.

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7. When Characters Must Die…

My hubby and I have an ongoing joke. When a character is killed off or leaves a TV show, we call it a contract dispute. For example, the character of Lance Sweets from the show Bones was killed in the Season 10 opener. Boy that was a shocker! Other major characters have left or met their demise on other popular shows such as NCIS and CSI. The most recent contract dispute falls in the lap of Doctor Derek Shepherdwho went out with a bang (literally) when his car gets T-boned by a truck, and he hangs on for dear life for at least a couple more episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. A sad day indeed. Sniff.

The exit of these characters got me thinking. When is it the right time to kill or remove a character from an ongoing book series? Is it when the character stops meeting the readers’ needs and expectations? Do the characters become boring? Stop growing? Refuse to change? Perhaps. I guess the best sounding board would be the readers. Listening to them on the social media or reading the reviews they post. Are they sick of Character X? Does Character Y make them want to vomit? Or do readers even relate to Character Z? Mind you, I’m not sure killing a character off would have the same effect in sales as it does for TV ratings, but you never know until you try. Bahaha…

However, if you kill the wrong character you’ll have blood on your hands and angry readers. Case in point—when Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes by sending him over a waterfall with his arch enemy Professor Moriarty in tow, it wasn’t pretty. I mean for Sir Arthur, and the readers demanded satisfaction. Seriously? What was he thinking? Note to self: don’t piss your fans off!

In my time travel series, The Last Timekeepers, I’ve seriously thought about replacing certain characters to freshen up the series as it progresses, although nothing is written in stone yet. Readers are continually looking for new and improved characters to keep them invested in any series. That’s the reason why TV shows keep introducing new characters into a series. Even J.K. Rowling added new characters (and killed off a bunch) throughout her Harry Potter series.

So my question is: when must a character die or leave? I’m guessing there are so many answers to that question, but the reason I’d off one of my characters is when there’s no more room for character development or growth. That’s what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to do when he killed off Sherlock Holmes—he tied up all the loose ends and made sure Holmes lived a full life. Unfortunately, Doyle underestimated his readers, even though he wanted to cash out and move on to writing other books. And to this day, Sherlock Holmes has survived his creator, and duped death. Now that’s one loved character!

Thank you for reading my blog! So, what characters would you like to see killed/removed from your favorite book series? Love to hear your answers! Cheers! 

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8. On Writing: John LeCarre

The other day I picked up John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, his best-selling novel about spies and espionage during the Cold War, and started reading the introduction that he'd written in 1991 for the book, which first appeared in the United States in 1974. Two things struck me about what LeCarre had to say in retrospect about writing the book, the first in a trilogy. He had

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9. Criticism Of Representation in YA Is Essential

I have written many times over the years about people criticising our work being an inevitable part of being a writer. I also think it’s essential. We need criticism.1

Lately I’m seeing people arguing that there’s too much criticism of Young Adult literature and it’s now stopping people from writing because they’re too scared their work will be shredded. I’m bummed people feel that way because I wish there were more criticism.

While we have a broader and better conversation about intersectional representation then we’ve ever had it’s still not enough. Far too many popular books get a pass for pretty appalling representations. And far too many people who speak up to criticise those books and writers get yelled at for not being nice.2

According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center this year whites wrote most of the YA books with African-Americans, American Indian, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans and Latino main characters. So while representation is improving it’s mostly whites doing the representing.

We need more books about POC written by POC. Those books must outnumber the books by whites about POC. It matters that there’s space for everyone to tell their own story.

Until we reach that glorious future it’s essential books about other ethnicities and races written by whites are criticised by the members of those communities. Stereotypical and harmful books need to be pointed out.

Will every POC agree that a book is problematic? Of course not. None of these communities are monolithic.3 Liar has been criticised for being racist by African-American readers. It’s also been defended against those charges by African-American readers.

It is also not saying that those books that are criticised for stereotypical portrayals of POC should be burnt. No one’s calling for book burning or banning. That seems to get lost in these debates.

The problem is not criticism. The problem is there are too many books about white people and there are too many books about POC written by white people. The problem is our book culture keeps reinforcing the message that white people are more important.

If you are being stopped from writing a book about people of a different race or ethnicity by the fear of being criticised maybe you shouldn’t write that book? Write a book about white people. You will then be criticised for writing yet another book about whites. Which do you think is the bigger problem? There is no option you get to pick where you don’t get criticised.

I’ve heard many POC critics point out that most white writers only feel they can write about race from the point of view of POC. This feeds into the idea that “race” is not something that white people have. We are neutral. We are somehow outside race. Newsflash: no one is outside race.

That criticism really made me think. What is whiteness? What does it mean? How is it constituted? Why is it so harmful? Out of that I wrote Razorhurst and now My Sister Rosa. Two books with white main characters that are about race.4

I now agree that me writing from the point of view of POC characters is part of the problem. I won’t stop doing it—I have a large multi-viewpoint book I’ve been working on for many year that has many POC povs—but right now I want to keep writing about race from white points of view.

Writing for many of us is an act of courage. It was years before I showed my work to anyone. I couldn’t risk myself by letting anyone see what mattered most to me: my writing. I survived.

Having my work described as racist hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to the harm experienced by the readers who found my work racist.

Everyone who writes, no matter what their skin colour, gets criticised. We white writers need to remember that POC writers tend to get more criticism for writing about their own people than we do.

What we should do in response to criticism is not demand that the criticism go away. We should listen. We should learn. We should keep on writing.

We should keep demanding that there be more books about POC by POC. A great way to do that is to buy the ones that are already out there.

  1. Here’s where I discuss critiques of the racism and transphobia of Liar.
  2. Don’t get me started on niceness.
  3. As an Australian I find Priscilla Queen of the Desert deeply racist and sexist. It does not represent me. I hate that people think it represents Australia. Or to be more accurate I hate that it does represent some of Australia’s sexism and racism and how okay many Australians are with it.
  4. Razorhurst has two main characters. One of whom is not necessarily white but thinks she is.

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10. Our Heroes Are Fallible And So Are We

One of my favourite TV writers, Sarah Dollard, recently wrote some beautiful writing advice, which is applicable to all kinds of writing. Go read it!

I want to bring particular attention to this:

Be critical of film and TV, even the stuff you love . . . If you want to be a truly good writer, you can’t have sacred cows. If other people think an episode of your favourite show is sexist or racist or short-sighted in some way, hear them out and consider their point of view. You can enjoy a piece of media while also acknowledging its shortcomings. However, if you hold your favourite writer or producer above criticism, then you’ll likely fall into the same traps as they do, and you too may alienate or hurt people with your work. Accept that no one is perfect, not even your hero. Accept that no one’s writing is perfect, even if it’s hugely entertaining; we all have unconscious hang-ups and prejudices, and many of us write from a position of privilege. One of the best things you can do as a writer (and a person) is to listen to the way other people receive stories.

Because every word is the truth. We do not write in a vacuum. We write about the real world while living in the real world. That’s true whether we are writing about zombies or vampires or high school or genocide or butterflies or all five. Our words have effects on other people.

We need to be mindful of the history of the genre we write. For example, I’m watching Fear of the Walking Dead because I love zombies and will watch anything with even the slight possibility that a zombie might show up. Fear is a spin off from The Walking Dead. One of the biggest criticisms of that show is how few black people there are. There were hardly any black extras either, which is particularly weird given that it’s set near Atlanta which has one of the largest African-American populations in the USA. You would think that the creators and writers of Fear of the Walking Dead would be aware of that criticism. Yet the only named characters killed in the first two episodes were black. Seriously? You couldn’t kill a white named character? You couldn’t let one black character survive?

They ignored the history of their particular franchise and the broader history of US TV where black characters have always been treated as disposable. What were they thinking? They weren’t. They sat inside their blinkered world and wrote from there. Don’t do that.

Critiquing the things we love can also give us insight into the failings of our own work. As Sarah says “listen[ing] to the way other people receive stories” gives you a richer understanding of how our stories can be read and of what stories can do.

I wrote about the racism in my own work three years ago. I would write a very similar post if I were to write it today. It is essential to know as much as we can about our genre and its pitfalls when we write. Otherwise we’ll make the same mistakes.

I write YA. It’s a genre that in Australia, the UK and the US is overwhelmingly about white, straight, middle-class teenagers and overwhelmingly written by white, straight, middle-class authors. The blind spots of my beloved genre are many. This is why we have organisations like Diversity in YA founded by Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon. They have a whole section where they look at the statistics on diversity in YA. I highly recommend checking it out.

All too often white writers who create POC characters expect to be congratulated for having made the effort and do not deal well with criticism of those characters. We forget that POC writing POC get criticism too.1 Have a look at the criticism African-Americans get for not representing their community in a positive way and for not writing uplifting books.

We must also remember that diversity is not just about who is represented in the story and on the covers of those books, which, yes, is deeply important, but also about who is writing and publishing the books. Having most of the POC characters in YA written by white authors is not a huge improvement.2

Everyone gets criticised. No writer is perfect. Jane Austen couldn’t write a satisfying ending to save her life. Her books just end, people! So annoying. Georgette Heyer was a racist, anti-semite, full of horrible class prejudices. If she were alive today she’d be embarrassing the shit our of her fans on twitter every day. She and Rupert Murdoch would probably be besties.3 I still think Heyer’s one of the best comic writers of the twentieth century.4

TL;DR: Read Sarah’s wonderful writing advice. Our writing heroes are fallible so are we. We must know the history of what we write. Listen to how other people respond to stories. Just listen!

  1. Our own communities often judge us the most harshly. As an Australian the most vehement criticism I get of my books with Aussie characters and Aussie settings is that I’ve gotten them wrong. Aussies don’t talk that why! Why do you misrepresent your own people? Are you actually Australian?
  2. I speak as a white author who has written African-American, Aboriginal Australian, Hispanic American and Chinese-American main characters. I know I’m part of the problem.
  3. Although she may have been appalled by him being a vulgar colonial.
  4. I just can’t read The Grand Sophy any more.

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11. How’s the Water?

The heat in Florida is unrelenting at the this time of year, pressing down over everything like a steamy blanket and making the air so thick and humid that it feels like you’re trapped inside a never-ending steam bath. It’s not only the air that warms up but the water, too. Instead of water temperatures in the 60's or 70's, like off the mid-Atlantic coast at this time of year, the

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12. The First Sentence

A big deal is made of the first sentence of novels. There’s gazillions of pages listing good ones.1 Almost every obsessive reader can quote their favourite ones. Every Jane Austen fan can reel off:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

I mean even I know that one off by heart and I have the world’s worst memory. Tragically it’s just about the only first sentence I do know. No, not even the first sentences of my own novels. I have to look them up.

Pretty much every agent or editor or writer when giving advice will tell you that the first sentence is crucial. That you have to get it right! When they talk about what a first sentence should do they tend to say it should make you want to read on, which, well, yes, yes it should. But that’s kind of vague, isn’t it? How do you write a sentence that will make readers want to read on?

I think a more useful way of thinking about the first sentence is to think about its relationship to the rest of the novel. Many first sentences operate as a kind of shorthand for the entire novel, giving the reader a sense of what’s to come, who’s telling the story, and what kind of story it is. Or, almost the opposite, messing with the reader, getting them to think it’s one kind of book when it’s not, which perversely also gives the reader a sense of what’s to come: a novel that will mess with the reader.

But you don’t have to be all show-offy to achieve that. Here are two simple first sentences. The first from one of my favourite novels, I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948):

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

The narrator is a writer, possibly an eccentric who likes to sit in places not traditionally used for sitting, or perhaps a child who hasn’t quite figured out where it is or isn’t appropriate to sit or doesn’t care, or it could be someone with some kind of foot or ankle or lower leg disorder which means their feet need to be soaked, though why in the kitchen sink and not in a bucket? What is the “this” that she’s writing? Is is a journal? Does that mean “this” is a novel told in journal entries? Or is it a letter? Is this an epistolary novel? Or is it a novel that’s telling us it’s a novel? So many questions. Such an arresting image. And now I want to read the book all over again.

The second one is from another favourite, Courtney Milan’s marvellous The Suffragette Scandal (2014):

“Edward Clark was disgusted with himself.”

This is the opening sentence and, boy, does it sum up the whole book in which Edward Clark continues to be disgusted with himself throughout. I’d argue that a big part of the plot is him learning to do something about that disgust, to change himself into someone who doesn’t disgust himself. Though it becomes clear that the initial incident that he’s being disgusted about is not, in fact, a big deal. Nor is he that disgusted. It’s more a figure of speech.

So, how do you write a good first sentence?

Buggered if I know. But I will suggest that it helps to not think about that first sentence when writing your first, raw, zero draft. For me that’s a recipe for sitting there staring at the blank page, coming up with nothing, and developing an increasingly strong urge to tweet, or go kill zombies, or clean the kitchen, or go for a run, or anything else that isn’t writing.

If I think about writing a perfect pearl of a first sentence I cry. So instead I just type, banging out the story, characters, ideas that are pushing me into starting a new novel.

I started my next novel2 in September 2013. I didn’t write the first sentence—or indeed the first chapter—until January 2015. The previous first chapter I threw out because it wasn’t working. This has been true of most of my published novels.

That said, you might be one of those writers who has to have a perfectly formed first sentence in order to keep writing. There are such writers. Many of whom manage to write many novels. So do not despair if you turn out to be one of them. Every kind of writer has their own burdens and to keep us own our toes what those burdens can change from story to story.

For me it’s impossible to write a good first sentence until I know what the novel is about and not being an outliner I can’t know what the book is about until I’ve written the first draft. Perhaps outliners bang out the perfect opening sentence straight away? Perhaps some of them have that perfect sentence in their outline? Sometimes I am very envious of how I imagine outliners write.

Of course not all opening sentences sum up the entire book in a neat way. Or at least that’s not all they do. Consider the opening of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987):

124 was spiteful.

So many questions it raises. How is 124 a who? How has a number become a name? Who is 124? Why are they spiteful? How can a number be spiteful? I must read and find out.

Then there’s massive generalisation openings, which Jane Austen brilliantly skewers with the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. These kind of overblown aphoristic openings are a hallmark of nineteenth century literature, and though oft quoted, are way harder to get away with these days—unless you’re writing a novel set in the nineteenth century. Though that makes me want to try one of these openings with a contemporary novel. Take Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities from 1859:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

While Dickens’ opening here is overblown it’s hard to deny that period of French history was kind of intense.

Then there’s Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877):

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

I call total bullshit on this opening. There are as many different kinds of happiness as there are of misery. So, boo to you, Tolstoy. Maybe it’s less stupid in the original Russian?

There is, however, no denying the poetry of both those openings. They trip off the tongue and are very easy to remember. Though, most people only ever quote the first two clauses of the
Tale of Two Cities opening because we are lazy creatures. Maybe that’s why long, elegiac opening sentences went out of fashion?

TL;DR First sentences. They are important. But don’t sweat them unless you have to. The beauty of writing as opposed to, say, live debating, is that you can rewrite until you get it right.

  1. Though you’ll notice those lists seem to be compiled by people who mostly read books by white men. I merely observe, I do not judge.
  2. My Sister Rosa which publishes in February and November of 2016 in Australia and the US respectively.

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13. Enticing Kids to Revise, Revise, Revise

One of the biggest challenges you might face in writing workshop is this: getting kids to see the power and purpose of revision. Here are a few tips for helping kids understand how important and rewarding revision can be, organized by writing process phases.

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14. An Eraser-Free Workshop and the Language We Use for Talking About It

When I visit a classroom, one of the first things I often say to kids is, "Today, please don't erase. I want to see ALL the great work you are doing as a writer. When you erase, your work disappears!" Often, this is what kids are accustomed to and they continue working away. But sometimes, kids stare at me as if I've got two heads.

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15. Ready. Set. Go!

Twenty minutes each morning—whether I’m ready to write or not, whether I’m sleepy or awake, whether my back aches or my fingers hurt—I write. Fast. Nonstop. For twenty minutes. It’s like digging fast. Just digging. Taking a shovel. Putting it into the earth. Lifting soil. Repeat. Again and again. Twenty minutes. Each day. There’s something about getting the hand in motion, about the

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16. What’s in Your Writer’s Bag of Tricks? Putting the Writing Process in Context

Abayomi Launches in Brazil

Click cover to see the photo gallery.

I’m in the middle of a big revision of the first book of a sff trilogy and I thought I knew what to do. I’ve written several novels now and when I get to this stage, there’s one big problem. I am sick of reading the thing.

How many times do you read a novel before you send it out into the world? 5 times? 20 times? 100 times? I don’t know; I just know that it’s a lot of times and it reaches a point where I’m not re-reading what’s in front of me. My mind wanders off to anything and everything else.

One strategy I’ve used to deal with that is to retype the entire manuscript. Even if it’s 60,000 words, I just dig in and retype. This strategy forces me to see every word anew. It’s a strategy that I know works.

Except, it didn’t this time. I kept putting off the typing. When it was time to start, I’d find something some marketing to do; or I’d read on my Kindle; or I’d do research for a different project. I forced myself to type out about 25,000/60,000 words, but I was making very few changes. I wasn’t confident that this strategy was working.

Finally–with the urging of a friend–I stopped the foolishness. I started copying one chapter at a time into the fresh document and working on just that chapter till all issues were resolved.
Stuck in Revision? Pull out your writer's bag of tricks and try something different.

Wow! I’ve totally revamped a scene: it was static with no tension and needed lots of work. I found a conflict sitting there amidst the rubble, picked it up and ran with it. I cut a scene totally–worthless dialogue that went nowhere. Another scene got an overhaul for emotional impact.

In other words, my process is different for this book than for all previous books. Duh. Of course.
Each book that I write, I find a different way to work.

What doesn’t change are techniques that I have in my writer’s bag of tricks. I just need to remember that I won’t be using them in the same order for each book. Also, I may not use every technique or tip for every novel. And that there are always shiny new ways of working to explore, and that’s OK. Retyping a manuscript is a great technique that I’ll likely use again, even though it was deadly for this one. Focusing on short chapters this time helped me to see the story in a context that allowed for good decision making. That’s what you want: good decision making in your storytelling.

Stuck? Rummage around in your writer’s bag of tricks and try something different!

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17. The Writing Process

I’m about two-thirds of the way through a book I am reading to review for Library Journal. The book is called J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing by David Attwell. It is a sort of writing biography of Coetzee and is quite good. If you are a fan of the writer, this is one you will probably want to look out for.

I am also still working my way through all the lessons in the James Patterson Master Class.

Over the weekend Patterson and Coetzee provided a fascinating opportunity to glimpse and compared the writing process of two well-known writers. The writing process has always fascinated me. Everyone has one and goes about putting words on paper or computer screen in a variety of ways. Some writers fetishize certain objects —they have to write with a particular pen in a certain color on a particular kind of paper, or while pounding away at the keyboard there has to be particular piece by Mozart playing and there has to be a cup of tea/coffee in a certain mug placed just so on the desk — and claim to not be able to write without them. Some writers need to have a title first, or write the last sentence first or start in the middle or always begin a new project on the same date or sit down to write at the same exact time every day.

The actual writing part though, there are only so many ways a person can go about it, nonetheless, it remains a perennial and dreaded question at book readings, the moment someone in the audience stands up and asks, “so how did you go about writing this book?” What is wanted, of course, is the secret that only “real” writers know. The password, the handshake, the mystery revealed, the drug, the prayer, the key to it all so that said audience member can go home and write that novel they have inside them and make millions doing it. No one wants to hear an author say the truth, I sat down and wrote for six hours every day, seven days a week for four months (or more) and wrote and rewrote and wrote some more and tossed out and started over and wrote some more and rewrote over and over until it was done. What’s an author to do? Tell the truth no one wants to hear or make something up? The third option is avoiding answering the question entirely. I have heard all three answers at one time or another.

Of course in Patterson’s online writing class he has to address the question, he is the teacher and it is his job to explain how to write a novel. Patterson takes the truthful route but at the same time he makes it sound rather easy. To write a novel, one must first write an outline, do not begin writing without an outline, your book will be doomed. For Patterson, an outline is not the kind you had to do in school with the Roman numerals and the letters and headings and subheadings. He means a narrative outline. There are still numbers but the numbers correspond to chapters and basically what you are writing is a summary of the chapter. With such an outline you can work out plot and pacing before you get in too deep. You can find the slow bits and the holes and fix them before they grow out of control. That’s the idea anyway.

And it seems like a good idea that is really useful for a plot-driven James Patterson sort of novel. Heck, it is probably a good idea for a variety of novel types. It is neat and tidy. And of course once you have your outline, you know how you are going to get from point A to B to C. You know what happens in each chapter. All you have to do is fill in the details. Easy!

Coetzee’s approach is so much messier. No outline, just write. Draft after draft after draft. He makes notes as he goes. He changes character names and locations and plot and then he changes them back again and then he changes them again to something else entirely. It is organic and labyrinthine. It is a journey in which the ending is not known in advance, but is rather a sort of quest; a quest for a story, a quest for an answer to a question, a quest for understanding, a quest for any number of things. No bones about it, it is a lot of work.

And I find myself wondering, do the two approaches reflect the differences between commercial fiction and Nobel Prize winning fiction? Could an author whose process is like Patterson’s win a Nobel? Could someone whose process is like Coetzee’s be successful at commercial fiction and spend 24 weeks on top of the bestseller lists? Which comes first, the process or the desire to write a certain kind of fiction? Do people who make outlines naturally make a course for more commercial fiction? Do the messy organic writers automatically find themselves in literary fiction? And what about other kinds of writing, genre and nonfiction in all its variety? Is this a chicken or egg question?

Maybe. Probably. Likely the answer is a combination of all sorts of factors but it is interesting to consider.

Filed under: Books, In Progress, Writing Tagged: J.M. Coetzee, James Patterson, writing process

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18. Coming Up Empty-Handed

It took all day to write something that I didn’t even know I wanted to write. I sat at my desk for hours trying to think of something to write and at the end of the morning I left an unmarked sheet of paper on my desk, the same blank sheet that I'd started with when I sat down earlier. It was like diving and returning to the surface empty-handed. I hadn’t found any pearls on the sea

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19. PLUMB CRAZY Journey -- The Ugly

Hi, folks, this month I'm focusing the blog on the writing journey of PLUMB CRAZY. I'm calling this series: PLUMB CRAZY Journey -- The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and The Transcendent. I'm going to dig deep into the generation of my novel and dynamics of that creative journey. Be aware that I write as Cece Barlow for this work. It will be released at the end of this month.

I chatted last week about the BAD of writing PLUMB CRAZY, this week I'm going touch on the UGLY. No one want unpleasantness. No one. First I want to admit, writing PLUMB CRAZY was no chore. I loved it. I laughed so hard while writing it, I fell off the couch a few times. It was a joyous journey for me, but there were a few ugly moments.

First up, I love to prose on about the joys of plumbing. You may thank my critique group partners that my book is not  weighed downed with LENGTHY descriptions of how to bust out concrete with a jack hammer and the minute details of measuring lengths of pipe. Cutting my darlings was UNPLEASANT! Like any pruning experience in writing it hurts at first but then it is all good.  

Next, never start a story with a sunrise, unless that sun is about to go supernova.  You must be a seasoned writer with many awards to start with a sunrise (cough, Noman by William Nicholson) or a dark and stormy night (cough, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle). Believe me these writers got away with it; they didn't improve their stories with their choices. So, yes, PLUMB CRAZY began with a sunrise until I so got over it. Too many readers snoozing for the first five minutes. Start as close to something happen as you can.  Avoid the so-so, mundane, average start.  

Last of all, did you know readers like to know what your character is thinking? I am so close to my character Elva Presley Hicks that I feel like she may be one of my kids. So, this turned out to be some ugly stuff in early drafts of my book. Readers wanted to know what she was thinking. Um, did you know readers are NOT mind readers? It turned out that I wanted to protect Elva.  This is a human reaction but it is ugly in fiction. Making Elva vulnerable was an UNCOMFORTABLE experience.  I could NOT keep her safe. Remember that when you write: Don't do the safe thing. 

Next week I will dip into the transcendent of writing PLUMB CRAZY. I hope that you will come back. 

Here is a doodle: 

Here is a quote for your pocket: 

Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.
― Dorothy Parker

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20. After Nine Years and 120,000 Words, All It Took Was a Book: by Amy McNulty

We welcome author Amy McNulty to the blog today. She's here to share with us an inspiring post about her writing journey and how the love of a very special book helped her finish writing her own...something I can very much relate to. Thank you, Amy!

After Nine Years and 120,000 Words, All It Took Was a Book: A WOW-Wednesday Post by Amy McNulty

In 2003, I told myself I was going to get serious about writing. I’d had a dream for as long as I could remember to write a YA book and have it published, but there was that tiny detail that I hadn’t actually written the book yet. Daydreaming about holding my book in my hands and going on book tours took up a lot more of my time.

For nine years, I’d write a few thousand words at some point throughout the year, but eventually, my attention would turn to other things. No matter how many changes I made as inspiration struck, it never felt right. Plus, I never researched what it took to become an author. I didn’t know things like expected word count for genres, particularly for debut authors. By early 2012, I hadn’t touched my manuscript in a while and it sat on my computer in half a dozen separate word documents, yet only “half finished” at 120,000 words. YA novels are only supposed to be 50,000-80,000 words, perhaps upwards of 100,000 for fantasies. Yet in my aimless writing, I had surpassed that word count without even approaching the climax.

But that was the year I finally crossed that threshold from aspiring author to serious writer. What made the big difference? Falling in love with a book. I read The Hunger Games trilogy, and I got that all-consuming feeling of excitement I feel for my all-time favorite books. I wanted more than anything to write something that was even a fraction as good. Still thinking about how the books made me feel days after finishing them, I came up with the “hook” that would save my manuscript. Foolishly thinking I could save 40,000 words from my original mess (and willingly chucking the rest), I set out to work. In nine days of all-consuming writing, I got a 55,000-word first draft done that told a complete story (and kept only about 5000 words from the original manuscript). That euphoria over first loving a book someone else wrote and channeling that love into my work is what finally led me to become a published author—not those daydreams.

A First Draft Is Just a Draft

Of course, even though I’d finally written “the end,” the manuscript would go through many revisions before it became the 85,000-word book available for sale. I did a major revision for one agent that landed me another agent, and then I did another major revision for an editor that didn’t work out. After that, I did yet another major revision with my agent’s help, and after the book sold, it went through a few smaller, but nonetheless still significant, revisions again. I think if I’d have known how much work was still ahead of me when I considered myself done, I might not have had the drive to finish.

Now that I’m familiar with it, I don’t find the number of revisions as daunting, although I’ve learned not to revise while still writing a draft, as that’s part of what held me back for nine years. I’ve also learned that I write best with an outline, even if I deviate from it, as even after the 120,000-word aimless mess I wrote another manuscript without an outline that crashed to a halt at the climax when I figured out I had no idea where I was going with it. So it’s taken some practice and some backsliding, but I’ve finally figured out that writing works best for me when I:

  • Write an opening chapter or two. This is usually because “shiny new ideas” that demand to be written appear in opening images to me.
  • Outline the rest of the manuscript before proceeding so I have a guide.
  • Draft according to the outline but let myself wander off of it if I’m inspired. Don’t revise at all at this point.
  • Let the manuscript sit for a month or two, only making small changes (like adding new scenes) in the meantime.
  • Read the manuscript from beginning to end on my Kindle, looking not just for typos but for issues with flow and clarity.
  • Have a beta reader or two read it and give me input.
  • Make changes accordingly.

From there, an agent or editor might offer input, depending on the circumstances. Finally finishing that first draft was such a hurdle for me, but it turned out to be a small part of the process. But even so, even across twelve years and countless drafts and discarded words, some of those words I wrote as an aspiring author will make it into my finished book, and that makes me so grateful I never fully gave up!

About the Book:


In a village of masked men, magic compels each man to love only one woman and to follow the commands of his “goddess” without question. A woman may reject the only man who will love her if she pleases, but she will be alone forever. And a man must stay masked until his goddess returns his love—and if she can’t or won’t, he remains masked forever.

Seventeen-year-old Noll isn't in the mood to celebrate. Her childhood friends have paired off and her closest companion, Jurij, found his goddess in Noll’s own sister. Desperate to find a way to break this ancient spell, Noll instead discovers why no man has ever chosen her.

Thus begins a dangerous game between the choice of woman versus the magic of man. And the stakes are no less than freedom and happiness, life and death—and neither is willing to lose.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

About the Author:

Amy McNulty is a freelance writer and editor from Wisconsin with an honors degree in English. She was first published in a national scholarly journal (The Concord Review) while in high school and currently spends her days alternatively writing about anime and business topics and crafting stories with dastardly villains and antiheroes set in fantastical medieval settings. Nobody’s Goddess, the first book in The Never Veil Series, is her debut YA romantic fantasy. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads

-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers

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21. Prose Pointers: Stylistic Features

  There are two aspects to each story— what it is about and how it is written. Three young adult novels I’ve read over a span of two weeks excel in certain intriguing elements of style – meaning the tools used to write them. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I’ll Give You the Sun […]

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22. Follow Your Bliss

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23. Two steps forward, one step back

Sometimes writing can feel as if I’m making headway one day, only to find myself retreating the next. Two steps forward, one step back. It’s as if I’m swimming effortlessly through the water and then unexpectedly hit a strong current, and everything changes. My pace slows, my arms feel fatigued, my legs weaken, and I fear sinking to the bottom. And then, just as suddenly, the

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24. Swimming in the Dark

For years I’ve held an image in my head of a plant growing toward the light as a way of understanding the writing process. It was an image that a beloved writing teacher shared with me years ago, and the image of my work growing toward the light--drawn to the light--helped me through some dark passages in my life as I tried to sort out which direction to follow in terms of what I wanted to

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25. Trudy Ludwig: True Confessions of a Professional Writer

Trudy Ludwig is an award-winning author who specializes in writing children's books that explore the colorful and sometimes confusing world of children's social interactions. Today, we are honored to share Trudy's thoughts about the writing process.

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