Ask the Authors: A Look at the Writing Process

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When you think of a writer, what do you picture in your mind? Writers are portrayed as lazy sots who lounge around in their pajamas, clacking away on their laptops while sipping martinis by the pool, or as traveling all over creation, jotting down every impression. Emily Dickenson was a recluse, Virginia Wolfe was a depressed neurotic, and Stephen King, well, anyone would have to be at least a little nuts to come up with some of the ideas that guy does.

The truth is, very few writers live “the writer’s life”, whatever that is in your mind. Most of us are a little bit weird, maybe even eccentric, because we’re human beings, not because we’re writers, and every writer’s process is different from the next guy’s or gal’s. Some writers wouldn’t dream of beginning to write without a solid outline, while others just fly by the seat of their pants, (hence pansters), listening to their characters in their heads , and see what happens. Some binge write, while others follow a set writing schedule, getting a little done each day, or adhere to a specific word count. Some listen to music, others need quiet to write, some can write in a busy coffee shop with activity all around.

Let’s ask the authors on our panel what their writing processes look like. We may find some answers that we look at and go, “Wow! Wierd.” But you may also find some answers in which you can see traces of our own writing processes in, answers that make us say, “Wow! Somebody else does that, too!” Feel free to weigh in in the comments and share with us what your writing process is like, as well. Now, let’s take a close look at what works for our panel members and what doesn’t work, and why. Some of their answers may surprise you.

What is the biggest challenge of being a writer?

Carol Riggs: I would say getting used to sharing one’s work and allowing yourself to be put in a vulnerable position. It is risky to pour yourself onto a page and let others read what you’ve written. Growing a tough enough skin to accept feedback or criticism (constructive or otherwise) is a hard thing to do, but necessary.

Chris Barili: Actually writing. Writing is hard work, and most of us work day jobs to boot. So we get home and don’t want to sit down and do more hard work. It’s easy to be distracted by TV, video games, Facebook, and so on. Hell, I should be editing a novel right now, but I let myself do this because it’s easier and I’m tired.

DeAnna Knippling: The biggest challenge and the biggest reward of being a writer is that there’s always more to learn.  In other words, just when you think you know what you’re doing, something comes up to bite you on the ass, but at least you’re never bored.

Jordan Elizabeth: Marketing.  You love your book, but now you have to get it out there, and there are millions of books you have to compete against.  Some of the best ways to market are to purchase ads, but they cost money.  Most authors don’t see a return on their investment unless they are self-published.

Chris DiBella: For me, the biggest challenge is trying to write while everything else is going on. I’m currently pursuing another Bachelors degree (graduating this May!), and then there’s work, family life, and other activities that take up a lot of time. So, until I can get paid to write “full time”, I’ll just have to keep being a multitasking badass so that I can keep pumping out books!

Art Rosch:  My biggest challenge is finding readers.  No matter how much I market, schmooze online, etc etc, it’s terribly difficult to find readers.  When I do, they stay readers, but getting them started?  Oy, Vey!  You can use that if you want to change anything.  I think it’s much more important as a response to the question.

 

Janet Garber: Self Confidence. Feeling that you are not good enough, that you’ll be wasting your time, that you don’t have what it takes. So you avoid committing yourself to paper.  It’s a scary proposition. Most writers are masters of procrastination. I know I’d rather wash a kitchen floor or shred old bank statements than sit down and do the hard work.

Cynthia Vespia: Marketing. How to get your books to stand out in a sea of other writers all vying for the same thing. I’m not going to sugar coat it, this business is very hard. And even with the digital age making some things easier, it has made others that much harder. For instance, the market is SWAMPED with “writers” now. So as an author you have to do everything you can think of to stand out from the crowd. This goes for traditional as well as indie authors.

While attending the 2016 Write the Rockies Conference, I had the pleasure of catching the Genre Fiction Keynote, given by Robin Wayne Bailey. Mr. Bailey said something very interesting which has always stuck out in my mind. One of the most often heard pieces of advice that writers hear is “Write everyday.” In fact, one of my professors, Russell Davis’ favorite sayings is, “Ass in chair, write the damn book.” But what Mr. Bailey said was that this was bad advice, because we all have limited experiences, and we need to get out there and live life, so that we have something to write about.

I found this interesting because my writing proccess takes bits and pieces from my own life and incorporates them into my work, and all of this is part of what I call my prewriting stage. If I’m really honest, at least half of my writing process takes place in my head. I work out plot problems while I’m driving, or in the shower, or waiting to fall asleep at night. Characters have emerged from the woods during a hike, and whole chapters have been outlined while I cleaned house. So not only do we need to do things in order to create, at least for me, it’s required for the work, before my fingers ever hit the keys.

Is there anything unique or unusual about your writing process?

Carol Riggs: Not ultra unique or unusual. I never eat while at the computer, just a glass of water or tea. No music or other distractions after I check my morning email and social media. I open the document in Word and read over the last scene I wrote (the day prior), tidying it up a bit and getting myself into the flow of the story. Then I compose on the computer, aiming for 1-5 pages a day. If I need to stop and plot something out or research online, I do that. If I’m unsure of a word or phrase used, I highlight it in red to fix later so I’m not stalled too long in one place.

DeAnna Knippling: I don’t feel that it really involves a lot of brain cells most of the time.  Sometimes I have to stop and think about what the non-obvious-but-not-completely-wackdoodle next plot point should be, but mostly I just wind up the characters and let ’em go.  I don’t know that that’s unique, though.

Jordan Elizabeth: I have to be alone.  I can’t have any interruptions.  I don’t even listen to music.  Being alone is challenging when you have a broken bedroom door.

Chris DiBella: I don’t know if it could be categorized as unique, but I base all my books off real-life events. They are by no means historical fiction, but I usually stumble across a really cool history article and then I weave it into my own fictitious tale using my what-if radar. For example, I came up with the idea for my first novel, Lost voyage, after finding a book on tape in the Honolulu library. It was about a steamship that sank off the Carolina coast in 1857 with millions of dollars in gold. My what-if Spidey senses began tingling and I asked about a million what-ifs….What if there was another ship that took on the overabundance of gold from the first ship? What if the transfer of the gold was kept quiet and known only by the two captains to eliminate the threat of thievery from passengers on the second ship? What if, since the second boat was scheduled to arrive in port only a few days after the first boat, that it wouldn’t be an issue? But then, what if that second boat sank as well, but since no one knew about the transfer of the gold, no one would ever know about the cargo since there was no record of it? What if the second boat is found in the unlikeliest of places? What if there are two sides trying to get to it first? And so on… the book just keeps blossoming from there.

Art Rosch: I doubt it.  If you talk to writers you will encounter every possible variation on the process of writing.  There are improvisers and story-boarders, note hoarders and bizarre savants with eidetic memories among writers.  Why should I be unusual?  We’re all unusual.  If we’re not weird then we’re boring.

Janet Garber: Well, I tend to write in vignettes and then struggle to piece them all together and create good transitions between them.

Cynthia Vespia: I write my first draft by hand on a legal pad with a pen. It flows better for me that way. If I start on a computer it feels very final. So I save that for when I’m inputting the story from the pad. That becomes my second draft.

Is your writing process plot driven or character driven?

Carol Riggs: If I had to choose one, I’d say character, because who the character is determines how the plot will play out. But plot is very important. A story can have an awesome character, but if the plot wanders or is boring, things can fall flat.

Chris Barili: Characters drive the plot, which powers the story. So the answer is “yes.”

DeAnna Knippling: Character driven.  I struggle with plots and trying to make them more efficient.

Jordan Elizabeth:  It tends to be character driven.  I come up with a basic idea for my plot and then I start writing.  I see where the characters lead me.

Chris DiBella: I always want to have a fun plot with enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested in the outcome, but I also want to make my characters likeable. I inject a lot of humor into my books in the dialogue, and since my main character’s partner, Pat Vigil, is based off my best friend who passed away a few years back, I really get into writing his character and trying to keep his memory alive for others to enjoy. His character in the book is exactly how he was in real life – a goofy, quick-witted smart mouth who could be counted on at all costs – so it’s a lot of fun to get to remember my friend in that way.

Janet Garber: Definitely character driven. It’s what I’m drawn to when I read women’s fiction, too. I try to create interesting albeit neurotic, quirky, and funny characters.

Art Rosch: Many of us are familiar with the expression “Character is Destiny”.  In my writing, the whole point of having characters is to allow them to transform themselves. They change, evolve, grow, pit themselves against problems and survive.  So…in answer to the question, I suppose that my characters drive the plot.  It’s impossible to generalize in this way, because each of my books is completely different.  In my work-in-progress, The Shadow Storm Trilogy, I have built a world and that world is, in a sense, also a character.  The Shadow Storm’s world drives the plot: its politics, its geography, its people.

Stories often have the simplest architecture.  My hero gets trapped.  Then he escapes.  He gets trapped again, and the trap is more elaborate.  His escape requires greater concentration, more profound inner resources.  Thus the story builds itself the way an architect creates an edifice, or a composer writes a symphony. In much writing I can discern a concept of what I call “fulcrum moments”.  These are critical scenes in which heroes and villains collide and whatever happens, be it triumph or despair, is one of the defining moments of the story.  I don’t think one can separate character and plot. Our very lives are the stuff of fiction.  Do you believe the plot arc of your own life?  My experiences have been so strange, sometimes so grotesque that I can’t help but regard them as fiction.  That way, at least, I can preserve my sanity.

I am living fiction.  Sometimes this fiction really hurts. The ultimate survival tool is a sense of humor guided by a sense of serene detachment.  Easier said than done.

Cynthia Vespia: Both, but I do lean heavily on characters because I LOVE creating characters. I think every author has those characters they’ve written that stick with them long after the story is over. I have several of those and they are eager for me to revisit them.

What is the single most important element in a story?

Chris Barili: CONFLIT! Be mean to your characters. Make their lives difficult, dangerous, and yet rewarding. There’s no story without conflict.

DeAnna Knippling: The author’s perspective on life, the universe, and everything.  In the end, that perspective is why we read.

Jordan Elizabeth:  Love.  The character has to be in love.  It can be with a family member, a love interest, a hobby…the love has to be there to make the character real.

Chris DiBella: This varies from author to author and book to book. I write in the action/adventure genre, so it’s important for me that I have an element of suspense while keeping an action novel somewhat believable. Sure, my good guy can take on fifty bad guys by himself (that’s believable, right?), but I try to write those scenes in a way that doesn’t make the reader smack their head in disbelief. Everyone writes differently and everyone is hoping to achieve something different with their books. For me, the defining element is how I’m able to convey my thoughts and ideas into words that turn into a fun story to read and keep my readers coming back for the next thirty books.

Janet Garber: Whatever makes the reader care about the characters.

Cynthia Vespia: I don’t know if there is a single element, but one of the most important is pacing. Every genre has its own tempo that readers expect when they pick up a book. For me, if the book doesn’t have a genuine flow to it that moves the story along easily I get bored and put it down.

Art Rosch: Emotion.  If your readers don’t become emotionally involved they’ll stop reading. That’s why your own emotional life, especially the pain, is so important.  The great psychologist James Hillman writes repeatedly that your pathologies are your greatest teachers.  If you’re not crazy there must be something wrong with you.  Additionally, if you have no self esteem you probably don’t deserve any.

The single most important element in a story is Transformation.  That’s my opinion.  That means you have a responsibility to nurture your characters so that they learn lessons and are able to endure and survive through their tribulations.

Conflict, of course, is the entire basis of story.  Characters collide, struggle, compete and overcome obstacles.  Readers love to be born up into the battle between good and evil.  Readers love flawed characters because they are comforted with regard to their own flaws.  What’s more boring than a perfect hero?  From Ulysses onward we see flawed heroes struggling within themselves to become better human beings.

(Kaye: Hey Art, that’s three elements, but I’ll take them. They are all good answers.)

Atmosphere has a lot to do with creativity and writers are eccentric folk who can be quite ritualistic. Some more than others of course, but I guarentee that each one of us is different in the things we require in order to gear up and get creative, putting pen to page or fingers to keyboard. Let’s see what our author panel has to say about atmosphere and the writing process.

What is your favorite setting to write in?

Jordan Elizabeth: I write in my bedroom at my desk in front of the window.  The window makes me nervous, so I always have the curtain drawn.  I need my privacy.

Tim Baker: My favorite setting is in my office (at home) preferably with minimal distractions. that’s the ideal setting…however, if I don’t have that option I’ll write wherever I can. On a related note …one thing I will probably never do – unless there are no other options – is sit in a coffee shop to write. That’s one cliché I just can’t stand.

Stewart's OfficeMargareth Stewart: It’s in my office living room (lol). I have adapted a big table as a desk because I’m all surrounded by papers and books, and it’s easier to find myself in piles (piles of books to read, books to quote, students’ assignments and so on. I usually have tea by the left side – sometimes water, too. I also added some vases and plants to bring nature in, and as I don’t have any curtains, it’s usually very light. The black armchair was also a great acquisition, and it’s soft enough to hold me in for long hours! My kids are always around, and though it may sound weird, nothing disturbs me when I start typing.

Cynthia Vespia: I like to write in bookstores or libraries. I get a really juiced up, inspired feeling when I’m among the books. Also, if they have coffee it is a huge plus!

Do you write with music or do you prefer quiet?

Carol Riggs: I may listen to music to get in an initial mood or emotional state, but when I write, I prefer quiet. I shut out every noise and concentrate on the rhythm of the words, syllables, consonants, and sentences.

DeAnna Knippling: Music!  Usually this: https://tabletopaudio.com/

Jordan Elizabeth: It has to be quiet.  I get too distracted by music.  I start singing along or dancing.

Cynthia Vespia: I often write with music but it can’t have lyrics. So I only use TV/movie soundtracks. For instance, Game of Thrones has some lovely soundtracks that energize me when I’m writing. I’ve also put together some playlists for myself that have some of my favorite pieces on them.

Art Rosch: It’s funny.  I’ve been a musician for fifty plus years.  I hardly listen to music at all anymore.  I listen to my tinnitus.  It sounds like a river, sometimes like a train, or wind in the trees.  I wish I could record my tinnitus.  I wish I could record my deafness. When I need musical relief from being put on hold during a phone call and having to listen to Muzak crap, I’ll put on Coltrane’s song, “Lonnie’s Lament” or Leonard Cohen, “Darker.”

What is your favorite time of day to write? Why?

Chris Barili: I do my best writing of the day in the morning, but since I have to be at work by 6 a.m., I don’t get to do it much.

DeAnna Knippling: Before noon.  Your brain isn’t worn out by the 1001 things that are pinging for your attention.

Jordan Elizabeth:  I love writing in the morning.  I’m most awake then.  Unfortunately, I usually don’t get to write until nighttime after my son goes to bed.  That’s also when my husband wants to go to bed and my office is in a corner of the bedroom.  I like to write while I’m alone, and when he goes to bed, he likes to watch television.

Cynthia Vespia: First thing in the morning when it is still quiet outside.

Art Rosch: Favorite time of day?  It doesn’t matter. I don’t have kids around.  I have few responsibilities.  I suppose I write a burst in the morning after coffee.  Then I’ll write a burst in the early evening.  There are no hard and fast patterns to my writing.  I might write this year.  I didn’t write last year.  I expect to write a lot in 2018.  Probably in June I’ll hit my stride.

Titles are something that I often overlook until last, although some authors claim to have their title before they even start writing. Although with Delilah, I knew the title before I started writing. I’m currently working on the sequel, but I have no title as yet for it. I am  simply calling it Delilah Book 2 until I find a good one. But the right title can go a long way to creating a successful book, just as the right cover can affect sales. So how much thought should go into each title? I’m afraid there really is no right answer. The answers from our author panel are varied.

How do you decide the titles for your books? Where does the title come in the process for you?  

Jordan Elizabeth: Sometimes the title comes at the beginning, but usually I figure it out toward the middle of the manuscript.  As I’m writing away, the title will suddenly pop out at me.

Chris DiBella: I have the title of the book figured out before I even write the first word of it. That may sound odd, and there’s really no great way to explain it, but I have the next 25 books already titled. They’re all just based off ideas that I have for books, and I’ll navigate the plot around the title in one way or another.

Art Rosch: The titles of my books just come.  There’s usually no fuss about it. I will have the title before I begin writing the book.  I know the right title when I first think of it.  There’s one major exception.  For nearly fifteen years my autobiographical novel was titled The Vice Of Courage.  It seemed right for all that time. Something, however, niggled at my unconscious mental process, and that was the perception that readers may not understand my real meaning.  The word VICE can swing a couple of ways.  It’s really an unpleasant word.  It’s either a tool for squeezing things or it’s a bad habit.  Just before I was preparing to e-publish this most crucial part of my oeuvre, I had a change of heart.  I can’t explain how The Vice Of Courage became Confessions of An Honest Man.  It just did.

Janet Gaber: Usually titles just pop into my head without much effort on my part. I am though having problems deciding on a title for my next novel. It’s set in Paris and concerns a young couple, she’s American; he’s French as they adjust to 1970’s France.  I’d like Paris in the title if possible. So send me your ideas. Please!

Cynthia Vespia: More often than not they just come to me randomly. I’ll either have the title spring to mind before I even know what the book is about, or I’ll get the idea for the plot, start writing, and the title comes organically.

Another aspect  authors  differ greatly on is the amount of planning necessary to bring a book into existence. Some authors get an idea and just take off with it, waiting to see where the words lead, while others do in-depth planning, outlining and plotting to make their story come together before trying to make their story come together on the page. Some authors may even take a screenwriting approach using a whiteboard, and I know at least one author that lays out enough note cards to go at least once around the room.

Personally, I have tried both methods. With Delilah, I let my character tell me what would come next and then, of course a lot was changed during the editing process. However, with my Playground for the Gods series, which I made Book 1 my thesis project, I was required to have an outline and I was very glad I did, because my initial outline had so much backstory that my single book idea became a four book series that is still in progress.  But I think with world building for a series, you really must have some form of outline, as well as a Story Bible to keep track of all the little details.

A part of writing that most people don’t think about doesn’t take place on the page.  It takes place in our heads, before your fingers ever touch the keys to type out that first word. I call it prewriting, as I mentioned above, and it’s where most of my planning takes place. Others call it research, or plotting. Let’s see how our author panel weighs in on this aspect of the writing process.

Are you a plotter or a pantser (outline or frestyle)?

Carol Riggs: I’m basically a plotter with an outline, but a loose one. I like to map out the direction of my story, but leave plenty of room for those “happy accidents” that I never would’ve thought of at the beginning when initially plotting. Those serendipitous little happenings come about naturally, in an organic way, from the characters as they develop throughout the novel.

Chris Barili: Plotter. I use the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, made up of colored sticky notes on a white board to plot things out. This allows me to change things as I go along, move notes around or drop them entirely. And sometimes I’ll only outline a portion of the story, allowing the rest to respond to changes that occur organically as the story moves on.

DeAnna Knippling: Pantser.  I’ve talked to plotters who have accused me of lying, especially with regards to mystery-type plots.

Jordan Elizabeth: I go freestyle.  If I plot too much, it kills the joy and I find myself struggling to come up with sentences.

Chris DiBella: I’m definitely a pantser, however, I do outline a lot so that I have some point of reference for where I want to go with the book. The problem with me outlining so far ahead, is that by the time I get to certain chapters, I’ve “pantsered” my way into a completely different direction, so the outline usually doesn’t matter anymore. I use a lot of “what if” scenarios as I’m writing, so I’m always veering off from my original storyline.

Art Rosch: I’m a little of both.  I have a grand scheme, a goal.  I know what I want my long fiction to achieve.  My thinking is fairly structured, though I have never used outlines.  I write scene by scene.  As long as I know what the next scene will be, I can write it.  Generally, I am several scenes ahead of my writing.  I’m in trouble if I run out of scenes.  I continually surprise myself, devising scenes that I had not anticipated.  Oh, I think…where did that come from? The mind is like one of those miniature circus cars.  When the doors fly open, twenty squabbling midget clowns fly out, tumbling and fighting.  My scene selection is like deciding which of my midgets (uh, excuse me…Little People) I will put in charge of the steering wheel.

Janet Garber: Definitely a pantser when it comes to short stories and poetry and essays and such. Novels require a little sense of where you’re going so I usually put together some sort of general outline.

Cynthia Vespia: A bit of both. There are elements that I always like to outline in depth such as the character traits, background, etc. I’ll also write a very rough outline of the main spots in the novel just to have a guide. That doesn’t mean I always stay strict to it, but it is there to refer to.

In a story we are often asked to create images for the reader that we may not have experienced ourselves. When have you had to do that?

Carol Riggs: I do this all the time! The genres I like to write in are speculative, whether fantasy or science fiction or something else just as imaginative. So while the feelings behind these experiences are universal, the specific image or situation is not. I’ve never discovered hidden aliens like in The Lying Planet or become turned into a genie with magical powers like in Bottled. I’ve never had my mind downloaded into someone else’s body to help them lose weight as in The Body Institute. I’ve never been sucked into a portal that takes me to a dimension built by my personal dreams and nightmares (Junction 2020). I’m using my imagination—which is totally fun—but the basic emotions are something we all can relate to.

DeAnna Knippling: Every time I look up a setting on Google maps and squint at the polygon trees, then drop the little man on the blue stripe in order to zoom in.  Reality is way more random than we give it credit for.

Jordan Elizabeth: Most of my books require that because I write fantasy.  I like to imagine there is magic all around us, so that helps me in describing what the magic is like. 

Art Rosch: It’s called RESEARCH.  I do it all the time.  One of my most important literary passages involves war in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in 1982.  I’ve never been to Afghanistan.  I’ve never been in combat.  This piece is the climactic moment of character development for my protagonist, Aaron Kantro.  It is the plot fulcrum in “Confessions Of An Honest Man.”  This is supposed to be an autobiographical novel.  I decided that the REAL story of Aaron’s recovery ( that is, MY recovery) from drug addiction would not make gripping fiction.  Are you kidding?  Ten years of agonizing therapy?  It might contain a ton of drama but as fiction it would be tedious.  This passage provided Aaron with a profound motivation.  Quoting from the manuscript, “The irrelevance of his personal pain was a profound blessing.”  He sees the scale of suffering all around him and realizes that being a self-indulgent dope fiend is not enough, is unworthy of his capabilities.

My editor (at the time), a ruthless tyrant from Scott Meredith Agency, called it “authentic”.  This is not an editor who praises.  I was stunned when he consecrated this excerpt with such approval.

I read everything I could get my hands on about Afghanistan: its history, people, the Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban. I used the internet, I referred to Wikipedia.  There’s never been a greater tool for research than the internet.  Blessings be upon the INTERNET, the writer’s best friend (and sometimes worst enemy, given the distraction quotient with which we are always faced).

Cynthia Vespia: That’s what most of my writing is. I write alot of fantasy so the basis of my stories, though sometimes grounded in reality, will have a fantastical element to it that I couldn’t possibly have experienced. But that is the fun of writing. You get to create worlds and characters that bring you and your reader out of reality if only for a little while.

One thing I’ve learned on my writing journey is that authors are a tight knit bunch. They are quick to come together in crisis, and quite supportive of one another in most cases. That’s the reasoning behind the creation of my author’s blog. While I needed a place to promote my writing, I also wanted to be of assistance to my fellow authors with profiles and book reviews, hence Writing to be Read was born. It’s thinking along those lines which also prompted this next question.

What advice do you have for upcoming authors?

Carol Riggs: Never give up! If writing is something you truly enjoy, persevere. Rejection is part of the game—accept it despite the sting. Not everyone will like your work, so write for the readers who do “get” you and your stories. I spent 11 years writing twelve novels, and the thirteenth went on to become my debut novel, The Body Institute. A writer taking a longer time to break into publishing is the rule rather than the exception. Meanwhile, keep writing, and write for the sheer joy of putting your story down on the page.

DeAnna Knippling: Try your hardest.  Eventually you’ll hit a wall.  At that point, give up on “trying,” but keep writing.  “I don’t give a damn what my readers think!  This is for me!”

Jordan Elizabeth: Don’t give up.  It can be discouraging when you keep getting rejection letters. Sometimes other authors can get feisty or petty.  Write because you love writing.  Don’t write just to sell a story.

Chris DiBella: Use a damn editor. Everyone’s an author nowadays, but not everyone has the ability to tell a story. I’m not trying to sound like a jerk, but there’s a lot of garbage out there getting published every day. Some of it is contributed to bad grammar and sentence structure, but some people just don’t know how to plot out a book. A good editor can help with both of these issues. But, then again, there may be people who think my books are garbage, so who am I to say?….but my mom thinks I should already be bigger than James Patterson, so at least I have that going for me!

Also, my best advice is to fake it until you make it…plain and simple. When someone asks you what you do, tell them you’re a writer. I’m a project manager by day, but when I get asked what I do, my first response is always, “I’m an author.” I always put that out there first because it’s a great conversation starter that 99.9% of people will ask you follow-up questions to. And that is how you eventually get to the point of selling a million copies and telling people that all you do is write books.

Cynthia Vespia: Make sure you enjoy it. Writing is a difficult journey, and it is often very solitary by nature. But you have that story inside you for a reason and only YOU can tell it. Don’t put so much pressure on publishing straight away, enjoy the process first.

Art Rosch: Keep a day job.  You’ll hear this advice a lot.  Normally I don’t give advice.  If you expect to make a living as a writer you should prepare yourself by studying journalism or creative writing in college.  That way you can become a teacher and bore all your arrogant and rebellious students who think they know so much more than you do.

As anticipated, the writing process is different for each of us. And, as predicted, our author panel presents an interesting variety of individuality. It may turn out to be an interesting ride. I hope you will all join us next Monday when we will Ask the Authors about character development. Don’t miss it.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I received from panel members.

 

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Update on “Playground for the Gods” Series

Earth_from_space,_hurricane

While Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle is spending time with my alpha reader, I’ve been busy working on Book 2: In the Beginning. Now I know it seems strange name for a second book, but for this series, it’s actually quite fitting.

You see, Book 1 covers the time just before and after the Atlans arrival on Earth in prehistoric times, which result in a great battle between the Atlans and the monstrous creatures created by the angry Tiamat, Oldest of Old Ones. It is the story of how the Atlans came to be on Earth.

Book 2, on the other hand, takes place during Earth’s earliest civilizations. It explores Biblical times and even before, as well as visiting ancient Egypt and Minoan cultures. It looks at the beginning of time, hence the title, In the Beginning.

That said, I’ve finished the first draft for Book 2,  and started on revisions. I guess maybe my writing process is a little weird. At Western, while earning my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, we talked a lot  about our writing processes, and while everyone’s processes were different, I never found anyone whose process was like mine.

My first drafts are pretty rough, consisting mostly of the basic plotline. The basics of what happens in each chapter, so the way the story moves forward can be seen. Once, I have that down, I can go back and revise, adding description and action that helps the story move in each chapter, sharpening the image, hopefully, for readers. That’s where I am in the revision process now.

Before I send it off to my alpha readers, I’ll do another run through to check for repetition, spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, and eliminate unnecessary words. This is the pass that tightens up my writing to make it the best it can be before going to the alpha readers have a go at it.

Once I have it back with their comments, I may do up to three or four more passes, before I feel it’s ready to submit to publishers or agents. If all goes well, I will get Book 1 back from my alpha reader, which in this case may be a beta reader since I made revisions to the completed work after sending it out without raising any interest, about the time I have the final draft of Book 2 ready to send out for her scrutiny.

I think the main problem, possibly with both books right now, is a lack of emotion from my characters, which could result in a lack of emotional investment from readers. Identifying it as such is good, because if readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t continue reading. The challenge will be finding a way to fix it, so my readers will keep turning the pages. Fortunately, I found some great ideas for showing my characters’ emotions in a post titled Emotion vs. Feeling by David Cobett on Writer Unboxed.

The story is there. Now I just need to breathe life into it. That’s what writers do.

 

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Ah! The Writer’s Life, Right?

Writing Process 1

The life of a writer. It’s what we all aspire to, right? But what do you envision when you think of yourself living the writer’s life? What exactly is it that makes it so appealing to us? And how close is it to the reality of being a working writer?

Many aspiring writers picture working in their pajamas, sleeping in or working late, running a schedule tailored to our own personal needs. Aspiring authors may envision book tours and readings to promote their published books, maybe even autographing copies for our fans, having strangers recognize us from our book covers. Others may see themselves traveling and attending writing events and conferences, meeting others in our field and networking. All of these are beautiful visions to have and they can be a part of what is referred to as a writer’s life. They are all worthy things to aspire to, but we may not be seeing the whole picture.

A writer’s life can be all that and more, but as with anything in life, it’s not all champagne and roses. Writers often spend more time on non-writing activities such as marketing and promotion, or networking than they do on the actual act of writing. Or they are forced to spend their time not on the creative process, but on promotional writing, such as query letters and resumes.

It’s true. Freelancers spend a lot of time promoting themselves in job queries, resumes and CVs. Aspiring authors spend much of their time peddling their completed works to editors, agents and publishers. Aspiring screenwriters peddle their scripts or ideas to agents, producers, directors or anyone else who is buying scripts and is willing to listen. And published authors peddle their books online, as well as at conferences and writing events, and perhaps even, like one author I know, at the local hardware store.

As was discussed in Pros and Cons of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self-Publishing (Part 10): Conclusion, as well as in the preceding series, in today’s publishing industry, even traditionally published authors are expected to do a lot of the promotion and marketing for their books. Everybody is selling  something. Whether it’s your writing or yourself, promotional activities take a lot of time.

Networking is another necessity. It’s really another part of marketing and promotion. We can’t get our work out there to be discovered without networking. In screenwriting, the thought is that you must also live in L.A. to network advantageously. I know at least two aspiring screenwriters who recently moved there in hopes of being discovered, but it’s too soon to tell if they will reap any benefits from it.While we may dream of attending writing events and meeting others of like mind, the reality is that these activities take both time and money, and the time you invest into networking, is time that isn’t spent writing.

Then, with all of these extra-curricular activities, a writer also has clients, editors or publishers, and a screenwriter has agents, producers and directors, breathing down their necks to meet deadlines. Of course, most aspiring writers or screenwriters consider themselves lucky to have deadlines. A deadline means that you have work that involves writing, so that’s a good thing. But it can be very stressful, especially if you’re actually trying to make a living from your writing, and struggling to make ends meet.

The fact is, writing isn’t all glamour and parties. Writing is a tough way to make a living. Especially in today’s market, when everybody wants to be a writer. Self-publishing has provided the means to make that dream come true, although there are no guarantees that your book will be a huge success. And self-published authors must do all of their own promotion and marketing, too.

Writing is a lot of work, starting with the creative process and moving through the motions to promotion and marketing. You might be able to do some of it in your pajamas if you so chose. Most of what writing is, at least for those of us who are still looking for a big break, is being grateful for every writing job that comes your way, searching for that one acceptance in a mountain of rejections, and endeavoring to persevere.

Is it worth it? You bet. There’s nothing like it when you find that one acceptance and know the whole world will be able to read your work, and you may be able to put food on the table for another month, or pay your car payment, or your rent. Writing is truly a labor of love, and this blog is the proof of that. It’s Writing to be Read, and I don’t make a dime off it. My reward is in each comment that is left, each blogger that takes the time to ‘like’ a post, and each new follower or subscriber I get.

Of course, I still search for a publisher for one of my two completed novels and I submit my short fiction and poetry everywhere I can. I still want my work to be discovered, naturally. But it does my heart good to know that my writing id being read, even when it doesn’t put food on the table, even when I have to get an outside job to supplement my income. I don’t have to dream about living a writer’s life, because for better or for worse, I live it.

 


Weekly Writing Memo: All About the Setup

Weekly Writing MemoOne of the most important elements of a story for it to work is for everything to be set up properly. Your plot, your characters, and your resolution all need to be set up in such a way that your audience can believe them. If the audience doesn’t believe it, or “buy in” as it’s often called, then they won’t enjoy your story and may not even continue it. So how do you properly set up everything in your story so it works?

What does your audience need to know?

Think about your plot, your characters, and your world before you start writing. What does your audience need to know about each of these in order for them to understand your story? If needed, make a list. Add to it anything that needs to happen in order for your plot to unfold, and decide in what order those things need to happen.

The things on this list are the things you need to set up in order for your audience to get into your story. Does your character have a mental problem? Then even if you don’t reveal it right away you need to show signs of it, foreshadowing what is to be revealed so when the reveal happens the audience believes it. Does your world involve superhuman mutants? Then again, this is something that needs to be set up in your story so your audience understands the world. Even if you don’t want to reveal the mutants, you need to reveal that there is the possibility of something supernatural going on. Think of all these sorts of elements that will be in your story before you get writing so you have a clear image in mind of what you need to do. You don’t have to make the elements obvious or spell it out blatantly, but do find ways to at least hint at these details so they don’t throw off your audience when they come into play later.

When do they need to know it?

The second part of setting up a story is know WHEN to reveal things. How much do you need to set up right away, and how much can you hold onto and reveal later? You don’t want all these details to come out in a list when you’re writing. They should come out in small doses as necessary. For example, your audience needs to know right away that your character has an enormous scar if it plays into how people react to him/her throughout the story. However, your audience doesn’t need to know right away how your character got the scar. In fact, the audience may never need to know how the character got the scar unless it plays an important part in the story for some reason.

The common mistake I see when people are setting up a story is mainly not mentioning something until it is needed to move the plot forward. For example, if your character needs to know complex mathematics, but your entire story she never once uses math, it’ll seem awfully convenient if the moment she needs it she busts out some calculus. Anything such as this that is key to moving the plot forward, or key to solving a problem, should be established in advance of when the character needs it. If it is something that is constant, then it should be established right from the beginning. If it’s something minor, then it just needs to be established a few scenes or so before it becomes relevant.

How can I show it?

So how do you show these minor things in your story without them coming off as listing or uninteresting? Something like the mathematics example would be boring if the character just said “I’m good at math.” Instead, you could simply have a short moment where your character does some impressive mental math for some reason, or even have something subtle like a math diploma on the wall someplace. These kinds of small details, or small moments, can be a way to establish important elements without taking too much story time.

For anything minor, the quicker you can establish it and move on, usually the better. Anything that is a key element of the story can be established by doing continual small touches throughout the story as it unfolds. For example, if you want to establish someone has anxiety about something, you can have them behave in increasingly anxious ways until their full anxiety is revealed.

Final Notes

Ultimately, there will be three stages of setting up your story. The first is the things you’ll know right off that you need to establish before you even begin writing. The second will be the things you discover as you are writing. When you come across these things in the second stage, it’s important to remember to not just throw them in when they come up. Take a moment to sit back and think about where that detail could naturally fit into the story. If you just put it in where you think of it, will it seem like something that conveniently pops up to solve the story conflict?

The final stage of setting up your story will come after you get feedback. Whoever you use as your beta reader should be able to tell you what doesn’t make sense, and you can use that as a sounding board for what in your story needs more setting up, and what you can do less on. No matter how obvious you think something is, people will always have different viewpoints so if you can find a subtle way to set it up a tad more, it’s probably a good idea to do so.

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Weekly Writing Memo: Know Your Theme

Weekly Writing MemoEvery story, whether intentional or not, has a theme within it. A theme is not necessarily a moral or lesson, but rather it is what your story is about at its core. Finding the theme of your story can sometimes take some work, as can making the theme come through in your writing, but it’s not as hard as it might seem.

What is your theme?

To find your story’s theme, ask yourself what your story is about. Maybe you won’t be able to break it down into a neat answer, but as long as you can answer the question you have the first step to finding your theme.

For example, let’s say you’re writing Die Hard. Your story would be about a cop who travels to visit his wife out of town, and ends up having to stop a terrorist plot. So what is the theme of this story? Well, it can be broken down in a lot of ways if you think about what the general terms of the story are: good triumphing over evil (cop vs villains), one man against the world (John vs the terrorists), or even how greed can lead to your downfall (the terrorists refusing to give up even though they’re losing because they’re determined to get the money).

The key to figuring out your story’s theme is to think about the larger concepts and the plot of your story, then try to break them down into simple terms as shown above. These larger ideas are the core of your story, and they help tell your audience what type of story it is. If you’re doing this and you are having trouble deciding what the main theme from your options is, ask yourself which potential theme if removed would completely change the story. The one that can’t be removed, and the one that is the biggest overall concept of the story, is your main theme.

How to show your theme?

Showing your theme throughout your story should not be hard. In Die Hard the theme of good triumphing over evil happens consistently. John is determined to do what’s right and to stop the bad guys, and despite all the trouble and missteps that happen, he ultimately always comes through. Even when he loses, it’s just further motivation for him to come back at the bad guys with even more vehemence so he can win. So for your own story, think of what your theme is and how your main character can represent that theme in some way.

Other ways to show your theme is to use something called mirroring. This is when you show the theme through minor secondary characters throughout the story. Sticking with the Die Hard example, you can see some minor mirroring of the theme “one guy against the world” when you look at the local cop who is stuck outside the building and is trying to help John. This cop is fighting against all the others to get John help and is the lone voice in the crowd. By showing your theme through these small mirroring acts you are also adding another layer of plot to your story.

You don’t always have to have the minor characters experience the same outcome as your protagonist either. You can use minor characters to show what the other possible outcome of your theme could be for your protagonist. For example, if your theme is good triumphing over evil, you could have a minor character lose to the evil to show the consequences if your character fails.

Can you have multiple themes?

As is clear with the Die Hard example, there is always a potential for there to be multiple themes in your story. Of course there should be one main theme that is the core of your story, but there can also be some minor themes that help build up your story as well. Maybe good vs evil is your main theme, but then you have themes involving love or, like in Die Hard, greed. These kinds of minor themes can contribute to your plot, as well as help deepen your characters, and many of them will appear without you having to force them into the story. If you look at your subplots, you should be able to see some of the themes that are present in them and bring them out a bit more so they are stronger.

Final Note

In general, it’s a good idea to know what your theme is before you start your story so you can keep your writing consistent. Sometimes, however, the theme comes out and is discovered as you write the story. Alternatively, you can also start your story thinking the theme is one thing, but as you write you discover it is really something else. This is fine, and happens all the time, but if it happens this way make sure you go back once you’re finished writing and make sure everything is consistent throughout the story. The most important thing about the theme of your story is that you’re consistent, and the clearer the theme is in your mind when you start writing, the easier this will be to do.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Weekly Writing Memo: What’s in a Name

Weekly Writing MemoThrough all my conversations with other writers, I’ve learned that there seems to be two camps of people when it comes to naming characters, places, and things in stories. One group thinks that the names don’t matter, while the other spends hours finding just the right meaning for each name in their world. Personally, I think it depends on the story, as well as whatever it is you are naming. I do believe main characters should have names that mean something, or at the very  least, ‘fit’ the character’s story, but I don’t think everything in your story has to have deeper meaning. If you want to give the people, places, and things you name in your story special meaning, there are several ways you can go about it.

Origins

One of the main things I do look at when I am naming something is the origin of the name. What country is the name originally from? What language is it? Is it predominant in a specific religion, or culture? These kinds of details can help you pick names that have more history behind them to help with whatever you are naming. If you have a character that you want to have an Irish background, then a name with a touch of Irish history would be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a historical or cliché name, but it is an option. Another option is to research popular names in Ireland and pick one that way instead. You may end up with a name that isn’t classically Irish, but it will still have a connection to Ireland.

The point of this kind of research for the names you give in your stories is that it creates a built in history for what you are naming. Without telling the reader, you are hinting at where your character might come from and what their family connections are. Now of course people in real life are often given names with no connection to their roots, and you can use this in your story as well if you want, but by making a deliberate choice to either use the name or not you are making every element of your story count. So be deliberate, and if you decide to go against your characters origins, then make that part of the story as well even if it’s a minor part.

Preconceptions

Something else you can use to your advantage when naming a character, place, or thing in a novel are known preconceptions about the name you use. For example, if you use a name from a myth, many people will recognize it and have certain ideas about that character. Zeus is a mighty god with great power, who also happens to be a bit of a player, and a character named Zeus might be suspected of having some of those traits. There are all sorts of fables and legends out there from every different culture and time period, and even if you use one that doesn’t have meaning to the majority of the population it will still help deepen your character. The point is that it is another layer for a reader to find, and the ones that do will love the touch.

Beyond past myths, you can also use names from modern pop culture and such. Big names like Kanye or Justin are well known enough that they also have immediate pre-conceptions to them. Maybe in another 20 years they won’t have the same impact on your readers as pop culture changes, but for modern readers you can use names like those to paint a picture of who your character is. Big public names have personas around them, and if you’re writing a character with a similar attitude you can use those pre-existing ideas to help nudge your reader in a certain direction before they know anything else about your character.

Meanings

One of the final elements you can use when naming things in your stories is symbolism. There are all sorts of names and words that have deeper meaning beyond them besides the word itself. Most names have some alternate meaning to them when you research the original language they came from. These sorts of meanings can be used to speak to the type of person your character is going to be. If you have a surprisingly brave character, then choosing a name that secretly means bravery could be a subtle nod to readers who know that. These are the kind of details that won’t change anything in the story for the most part, but they can add another layer of meaning to your story. It can be especially useful when naming objects in fantasy worlds.

Final Notes

No matter your take on naming in stories, it’s important to consider what the minor details of naming can do for your story. The small touches can often give a story the extra boost to make it something special. As a reader, I know I enjoy the small details that I discover later on about a story, such as deeper meanings in names, and it only makes me enjoy the story more. If you do go the special naming route, however, I find it works best if you don’t go too obvious with the symbolism in the name. You want it to be a small touch, not a neon sign in your audience’s face. Ultimately, if you find a special name is something that will add to your story, then use it, if not, then don’t. It’s your story, so you have to decide what benefits it the most. Trust your instincts and you’ll be fine.


Weekly Writing Memo: Networking

Weekly Writing MemoSorry I have been missing the last few weeks. As you might have seen on  Author the World, I unexpectedly moved to Los Angeles and haven’t had a lot of time to do posts. This week’s post is all about networking. Networking is a major element of having a writing career, and it takes some practice to really learn the right and wrong ways to network.

The most important thing to remember when networking is that you shouldn’t be doing it to use people, and you shouldn’t be doing it to be selfish. Good networking is about being genuine. The best way to network is to approach each networking relationship you make with the attitude of how you can help each other, rather than focusing on how they can help you. The best kinds of networking relationships are mutually beneficial, and maintaining this kind of attitude helps these relationships stay healthy and fulfilling.

Building your Network

You can build your network literally anywhere, it’s all about meeting people and learning about them. If you know who people are, what they do, and what kinds of people they know, you can keep them in mind for later if something comes up they can help with. For writing, often times you can make networking connections in writing groups, classes, at conferences, or even in random places like coffee shops and hair salons. The important thing is to keep your eyes open for people you can help, and for people that may be able to help you. Remember, things need to go both ways, and sometimes the act of offering help to someone can lead to unexpected connections. Ultimately, all networking contacts break down into four different types that can each be beneficial in their own way.

The Introducer

The Introducer may not have any work for you, and may not be someone who is going to offer you advice, but they do know people you want to know and they will help you meet them. These kinds of contacts are always useful to maintain because they help broaden your network, and they can help introduce you to other parts of the writing world you may not be familiar with. One of the best way to meet new people is through a middle-man who can introduce you because it can cut out the awkward process of trying to force a meeting with a stranger. If you’re going to be the Introducer for someone else, remember to make sure you give each person’s name, and then try to share what they have in common or why you think they should talk so you can help jump start the conversation.

The Mentor

The mentor is someone who has been where you are and knows a lot about the business. They are the perfect sort of person who can offer you advice, and give you guidance that will make navigating the writing world easier. Maybe they won’t be able to get you a job, or introduce you to new people, but they will help you find answers to the random questions and issues you run into. Just make sure you don’t burden your mentor by asking too much of them, or wasting their time with easy questions that you could have found out anywhere. They may only have so much free time, so make sure to figure out how much help they are willing to give you and to stick within that range. If you are going to be a mentor, be clear up front what you are willing to do for the person you’re helping, but also try to remember what it was like when you were where they are.

The Helper

The Helper is someone who has an opportunity for you that could potentially help your career, whether it’s a job or an interview doesn’t matter, it’s someone that can put you in line for a job or a writing sale. These kinds of connections are incredibly valuable because they are what give your career a boost. The important thing to remember when meeting people who offer you these types of opportunities is to make the most of them, and to make sure you don’t misrepresent yourself to the person setting it up, because if you waste it or lie it could prevent the person from ever offering you another opportunity again.

The Teammate

In some ways, these are the most valuable networking connections you can make. The Teammate is someone who is going through the same stuff you are at the same time. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of, or trade writing with. They are on your side and you are mutually trying to help each other reach your goals. For writing, having people you can talk writing with is incredibly important, as is having people around who understand what you’re going through. If you are a teammate to someone, make sure the help isn’t going one way. If you find yourself asking too much and not doing anything in return, then try to find a balance.

Final Notes

Ultimately, networking is about broadening the connections you have in your industry, and maintaining those connections by trying to keep things mutually beneficial for all involved. Even if you can’t help someone the moment they help you, always try to keep them in mind and return the favor when you can. One of the most important elements of networking is that the people around you see that you are a part of the cycle of helping, and that you aren’t just a vacuum sucking up all the favors you can get without returning anything. People will quickly notice if you only ever seem to receive help, so the more you can be a part of the cycle the better.