Writing “Rules” I Now Break

Author W. Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Maybe there aren’t any rules per se, but there are quite a few suggestions given often enough that they almost seem like rules for writers. And I’ve been thinking lately about which ones I’ve learned to break.

Broken pencil

“Just vomit the words on the page.”

Many successful authors suggest that you write as quickly as possible and with wild abandon. Theories abound that you can tap into that deeper, truer subconscious when you spill your story onto the page like a rushing waterfall. Word sprints and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are dedicated to the idea that you should get out that first draft by surging forth and getting words, words, words on the page.

Yes, I’m sure this method works for many, and I encourage writers to give it a shot. (I even wrote once about my 25k week.) However, I’ve discovered my “muse” often cannot be trusted with such carte blanche. She turns out a lot of horrible drivel that way, with very few gems. I don’t like having to throw out 20,000 bad words I wrote in a hurry when I could use that time to slow down and make sure what I’m putting down is the best I can do. I simply don’t write well this way, so instead I now write at the more measured pace that works for me.

“Turn off your internal editor.”

In the same vein is this idea that you should shut off that pesky internal editor that wants you to fix errors right now. I agree, and have written about, how you shouldn’t be editing with a fine-tooth comb those pages you may very well throw out. That’s a waste of good writing time.

However, I do two editing things while writing now:

1. I start each day going back through the last scene I wrote and tweaking as I go. That gets my brain back into the story but also quiets that little voice in my head that has been wondering since yesterday if “plucked” would work better than “yanked” in that scene (or something like that).

2. When I realize I have a plot or character problem/inconsistency, I go back and fix it where it occurs. Some people just write a note in the margin or asterisk where they need to fix the plot hole or keep a running list of issues to address later. However, my brain goes too far down that wrong road if I don’t go back and fix the problem as soon as I realize it’s there.

I kind of like my internal editor. She isn’t too bossy, but she’s got a lot of helpful things to say. But hey, that’s just me.

“If you’re blocked on a scene, just writing something, anything…just write!”

Writers write and claiming writer’s block for days or weeks while you piddle and ponder is certainly no way to finish novels.

That said, this last week I just couldn’t get a particular chapter down. I finally walked away. I folded laundry, washed dishes, started dinner, and listened to music. Periodically, I contemplated what was happening in my book and why I was struggling. Finally, as I was moving linens from my clothes washer to the dryer, I realized what the kink was in my scene.

Would I have figured out that if I’d continuing plowing through the scene, trying this or that? Or even jotting down questions and answering them? I don’t think so. For myself, I find that I can resolve certain plot or character problems better when I’m nowhere near my novel — when I’m walking the neighborhood or taking a shower or petting the cat or even doing laundry. So for me, no more plugging through a scene if it isn’t working. It’s better for me to take a day off and work out the kinks than keep writing.

So how is my approach working for me? Here’s my weekly update for A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

ROW80

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. So close, I can taste it! I should be done in a day or two, then I’ll let the manuscript sit for a week before diving in for another round of edits.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. Waiting to finish #1 first.

3. Read 12 books. I’m still at 9 books for the round, having stalled out a bit this week.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Attended the conference, learned lots, and getting close to tying up the loose ends.

So what writing “rules” have you heard? Which ones do and don’t work for you? And how was your week?

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The Importance of Setting

I’ve been thinking a lot about setting lately — how certain settings in novels come alive . . . and how describing setting has sometimes been a struggle for me.

I tend toward blank room syndrome: placing characters in a seemingly blank room and calling “action.” Instead, I desire the richness of setting attached to many of my favorite novels. Sometimes a setting itself is almost a character, acting and challenging the protagonist and others or mentoring them in some way.

Different settings evoke a different tone, emotions, sensations, thoughts, tension. Consider your own immediate reaction to the following locations, all from well-known stories:

Lucy opening the wardrobe

Lucy discovers Narnia
The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

Narnia

District 13

Camp Half-Blood

Neverland

Hogwarts

Forks, Washington

Oz

(From The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, Twilight series, and The Wizard of Oz)

Just reading those names and pausing for a moment, we can imagine ourselves there. The worlds are fleshed out, seemingly real, though only imaginary.

But the same world-building occurs even in contemporary fiction. For instance, the world from Dairy Queen*, a novel about a small-town teenage girl growing up on a dairy farm, is quite different from the world of privileged teenage thief Katarina Bishop in Heist Society*. We all live in a distinct world of some sort of other, and authors bring us into a character’s world when they effectively paint that picture through description, dialogue, and a character’s perspective.

If you’ve read the following, you may also have an immediate reaction to these contemporary “worlds”:

Hazel Grace’s support group room (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

Paris boarding school (Anna and The French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins)

The town of Rosewood (Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard)

Camp Green Lake (Holes by Louis Sachar)

So why has this all come to my mind lately? Two reasons. One, because I’ve been reading through The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter, and the girls’ spy school is a rich setting that tells so much about the main character’s life. And two, because I was writing a scene last week in which my own main characters attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and I pondered how to describe the building where animals are on display. So I asked myself:

What does it look like? It’s sort of like an indoor barn.

What does it smell like? Like hay and livestock.

What does it sound like? Like a bunch of animals and crowds milling around.

What are people wearing? Everything from all-out cowboy gear to t-shirts and shorts.

Cattle at Texas State Fair

Texas State Fair, but you get the picture, photo by Andreas Praefcke, via Wikimedia Commons

Notice how all of my original answers pretty much assumed my readers had been in a barn or around livestock or seen cowboys. Because that’s a world I’ve lived in! I had to regroup and think about how to explain it all to someone who’s maybe never seen a cow milked or a rodeo event or a parking lot carnival or real (not stereotyped) cowboys. Because I want that scene to come alive, to make them feel what it’s like to attend the world’s largest livestock exhibition.

Such setting attention enhances a story, draws the reader in, and deepens the characterization. And it’s worth my effort as an author.

Now what other efforts have I put in this week regarding writing? Here’s my weekly update for A Round of Words in 80 Days:

ROW80

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. Six chapters done, which I consider good since I didn’t have as much time to work this week with registering kids for school and enjoying some last-hoorah summer activities with the family.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. Still aiming for September releases after #1 is finished.

3. Read 12 books. I read 2k to 10k: How to Write Faster, Better, and More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron and Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover and Only the Good Spy Young by Ally Carter (a wonderful series, with a unique setting of a girls’ spy school). I started a couple of other books, but sadly abandoned them. All in all, I’ve now read 9 books this round.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Waiting on feedback on my query for those who requested a manuscript at agent/editor meetings.

So what stories have impacted you with a rich setting? What locations or cultures can you easily imagine after reading about them? And how was your week?

*Dairy Queen is by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Heist Society is also by Ally Carter

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Should You Take the Ice Bucket Challenge?

I got tagged by friend and fellow author Danette Fogarty, so I did my version of the ice bucket challenge. Which meant that I had to know how this thing got started, why people are doing it, and what the results of this tag-and-donate challenge have been. And, of course, I share that all with you!

Tagged: Bonnie K., Jenny Hansen, and Jess Witkins

Whether you accept the ice bucket challenge or not (assuming you get tagged), I pray this viral sensation encourages us to look for more opportunities to be charitable.

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Must You Suffer for Your Art?

Robin Williams

Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society

This past week, there’s been an abundance of news stories and reflections on the life of a comedic genius and extraordinary actor, Robin Williams. Despite his public persona as the funny man, he clearly suffered from deep depression and suicidal thoughts. There’s been plenty of debate about his life, the causes of his suicide, and what those suffering from depression should or can do.

I’m not getting into any of that.

But several articles also suggested a link between creativity and “insanity,” or perhaps better called “instability.” After all, Seneca the Younger (an ancient Roman philosopher) said: “There is no great genius without some touch of madness.”

We have a character archetype of the mad genius or the suffering artist — the person whose creative tendencies keep him from eating or sleeping or succeeding in relationships. We certainly have many examples of brilliant, yet self-destructive, artists — from Vincent Van Gogh to Ernest Hemingway to Janis Joplin to Heath Ledger. And we rightfully pay homage to their creative contributions.

But I want to speak up and squash the myth that you must be a mess inside to produce excellent work outside. The suffering artist type is often romanticized, and I think it’s bunk.

"The suffering artist type is often romanticized, and I think it's bunk."

Yes, our difficulties in life can make us more aware of senses and emotions and underlying truths. I do believe that some become artists because of the lives they have experienced and their subsequent desire to speak to the flawed human condition. But I don’t think it’s a necessary avenue that one must have massive hardship to create well, or that you must perpetuate suffering to continue your creativity. Indeed, the human experience itself is sufficient to produce all the material needed, since no one gets through this life without some challenges.

Sometimes I hear other writers talk fondly of sacrificing so much for their art. One keynote speaker at a conference I attended even recounted the failure of his first marriage as simply the cost of pursuing his creative path. How heartbreaking! Is it not possible to create excellent art and live a happy life at the same time?

Let me assure you that many others have done exactly that. (Personally, I’ve been heartened by the successful comeback of Robert Downey, Jr., who stopped torturing himself with drugs and has produced some of his best film work since.) It’s well worth the effort to be both excellent at creativity and at life.

Yes, Robin Williams’s work will be remembered and cherished for years, but what about the heartache he endured? The family he left behind? The memory of a life gone too soon? I choose to believe that Williams’s amazing talent would have flourished with a happier life as well. Because talent can be like that — it can thrive in bad times and good.

If you’ve bought into the myth of the tortured artist and you’re accepting life pain for the sake of creativity, for heaven’s sake, I’m begging you to stop. Trust that your talent goes deeper than that. Trust that you can have, and deserve to have, a happier life. Get help if you need it. Be a creative, yet happy, soul.

Other excellent articles I read on this topic: Why I Hate the Myth of the Suffering Artist; Scientifically-Backed Reasons Why Being Creative Can Make You Happier

As a happy person myself, let’s now see how creative I was this past week. Following is my weekly update on A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

ROW80 Update

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. Seven more chapters completed. It’s going quite well, and I hope to be finished in a couple of weeks.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. I’m aiming for September releases and will tackle this goal when #1 is finished.

3. Read 12 books. This week, I read Radiant (novella) and Boundless by Cynthia Hand, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, and Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter. Not counting the novella, I’ve read 6 books this round (halfway there).

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. I polished up my query, delivered it to a critiquer, and I’m waiting for feedback.

One bit of happy news! My novel, Sharing Hunter, finaled in the young adult category for the New Jersey Romance Writers of America Put Your Heart in a Book Contest. My thanks to those who put on these chapter contests, which offer valuable feedback and opportunities to hone one’s writing.

So what do you think of the “suffering artist” stereotype? Is there truth to it?Do you believe it’s necessary to suffer in order to produce great art?

And how was your week?

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My Recent Travels and #ROW80

From July 12 through August 3, I was out of town 17 of 23 days. So it’s no wonder I’ve been a bit MIA on my blog. I’ve been catching up this last week, and I thought I’d catch y’all up too.

Here are my recent travels, summarized with photos:

Camp Staff Photo

Here I am in the front, on the staff of 89 adults who led church camp at a facility on the Medina River near Bandera, Texas. It was my ninth year to attend and my first year to teach story writing classes to kids ages 9 through 16.

Kids at camp

If 89 staff members sounds like a lot, it’s only because there were 360 campers.

DSC_1799

In addition to teaching writing classes, I also got to teach the younger kids one night. I absolutely love getting to hang out with elementary-age children.

Julie at camp

It was a fabulous experience, but admittedly, I was not looking my best by the end of the week. For instance, fashion was not forefront on my mind. (If only you could see the knee socks and tennies I actually wore with this shirt and skirt combo. Hey, it was raining!)

I returned home on a Saturday evening and hit the road again on a Tuesday morning — heading to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) National Conference in San Antonio.

Diana and Me on Riverwalk

I got to hang out with the lovely Diana Beebe (fantasy author) at the Marriott on the Riverwalk. (You wouldn’t believe how long it took for us to get this fuzzy selfie of ourselves with that view.)

Steampunk party

Diana twisted my arm (not much twisting required) to attend a Steampunk-themed party one evening, hosted by the terrific Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal chapter of RWA. [Shown in photo: Callene Rapp, Tameri Etherton, Diana, and me.]

The conference was wonderful…and huge. Texas-size huge. It’s one thing to visualize being among 2,000 writers, and another thing to experience being one among so many pursuing and enjoying a writing career. I learned so much and interacted with such encouraging people. It was an unforgettable week.

RITA Awards with Friends

The week culminated in the RITA awards ceremony, a formal event during which the highest awards for published and unpublished books are given to romance authors. [Shown in photo: Same people, opposite order.]

Laura Drake and Me

One super-special treat was being there when Laura Drake was announced as the RITA winner for best debut novel, The Sweet Spot. Congratulations, Laura! Well-deserved.

Then it was home for four days and back on the road. (I’m starting to hear Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” in my head.) Because I was meeting up with family members to enjoy a weekend in Round Top — a population-91 town in Texas that has made a name for itself with great shops, fabulous food, and interesting sites.

Royers Cafe

One place where we ate delicious food was Royers Cafe, which has been featured in numerous newspapers, magazines, TV networks, and the Food Network. Yum!

Julie with Osmonds lunchbox

We checked out several antique shops, including this one where I located an Osmonds lunchbox. Having been a huge Donny Osmond fan when I was a young girl, I had to get a picture. If it hadn’t had a $49 price tag . . .

Black Cat Choir performing

In addition to wonderful shopping, the town had a court yard area outside the Stone Cellar restaurant where bands perform in the evenings. Here’s the Black Cat Choir covering 70s rock.

Finally, by August 3, I was back home and ready for some R&R. But that’s not all I’ve been doing. Indeed, with all of my traveling, I’ve skipped a couple of check-ins for A Round of Words in 80 Days.

So here’s the scoop, and how I’m doing with my writing goals.

ROW80 Update

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. Burning it up, y’all! I’m so excited. I love how it’s coming together. I whipped through maybe nine chapters this past week of rewrite, edit, polish. If only you could see my happy dance . . .

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. I’m now aiming for September releases, but I did get some excellent feedback from fellow writers on my back cover copy. As soon as #1 above is done, I’ll be tackling this goal.

3. Read 12 books. I should have kept better track. I’ve let my Goodreads account go idle the past couple of weeks. However, I believe I’ve read the following: City of Bones (Mortal Instruments #1) by Cassandra Clare, Hallowed by Cynthia Hand, and I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter. (By the way, I met Ally Carter at RWA, and she is both a genuinely fun person to spend time with and a great author.) So that makes 3 books down, 9 to go.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Obviously, I went! Now for the follow-up. When I got home, I connected with those authors I’d met at RWA and had contact information for. Now I’m pulling together the manuscript to send it to those who made requests.

So that’s it! Now how’s your summer gone? Have you been busy, or enjoying the lazy days of summer? And if you’re doing ROW80, how are your goals coming along?

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My Writing Process: Vlog Edition

My lovely friend and author extraordinaire Christina Delay tagged me in the Writing Process Blog Hop. Christina writes fabulous young adult novels with a mythological bent. If you want to check out her writing process, click here.

Since I’d written before about my writing process, I decided to give this one a go through video. Hope you enjoy my vlog answers!

I’m tagging three writers, all of whom I recently saw at the RWA Conference in San Antonio: Diana Beebe, Callene Rapp, and Angela Quarles. As usual, if you’ve already participated or want to pass, feel free to skip.

The questions:

  1. What are you working on right now?
  2. How does your writing differ from others in your genre?
  3. Why do you write what you do?
  4. How does your writing process work?

Readers, feel free to answer any of those questions below!

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Coming to #RWA14? 6 Quick Tips from a Texan

I leave the Houston area tomorrow to travel to San Antonio for the national conference hosted by Romance Writers of America (RWA). Much to my satisfaction, we’ll be gathering on the San Antone Riverwalk — a fabulous location to get a glimpse of Texas.

Riverwalk photo

By Zereshk, via Wikimedia Commons

Since many writers, agents, and presenters will be coming from other states around the country, I thought I’d throw out a few practical things non-residents might want to know.

1. Yes, it’s blazing hot. Now I personally don’t balk at 90°-degree weather. Being a native Texan, that only strikes me as warm weather. But hey, we like to crank it up even higher, to ridiculous temps like the 97° to 100° Fahrenheit predicted for the next five days. Add in 75% humidity, and you’ve got a nice little heat wave happening in San Antonio.

So pack light — as in light clothing that will be comfortable in the heat. Remember that looser, thinner clothing, like a sundress or linen pants, will allow for air flow and comfort more than a pair of jean shorts and a cotton tee. And flip-flops are standard attire.

2. We air-condition. Don’t forget the jacket or sweater, though. Every building you enter will have air conditioning, almost always central A/C. So just because it’s hot outside doesn’t mean it’s hot inside. If you’re prone to getting cold, you’ll like want something to layer on top of your summer outfit while sitting in a workshop or standing in a book line. Grab the jacket, sweater, shrug, pashmina, or whatever, but be prepared that it could feel cool inside.

3. Tex-Mex is its own cuisine. I’ve had New-Mex and Cal-Mex and down-in-Mexico-Mex, and they are all different. If you’ve had an enchilada in New Mexico, it won’t be made the same in Texas. So if you decide to give San Antonio’s Mexican cuisine a try, go ahead and ask questions about what things are. Ask how spicy a particular sauce will be or what ingredients are put in a dish. We love our Tex-Mex, and we hope you will too, so we’re happy to answer any questions and help you order something you’ll enjoy. And we won’t even make fun if you, as one Boston friend of mine did, mispronounce jalapeño (it’s ha-la-peen-yo, not jah-lah-pen-oh).

4. The Alamo is not big. Yes, I know everything is supposed to be bigger in Texas, and it mostly is. But people often see a movie based on the Alamo and then expect to see a large Spanish mission and surrounding grounds. In fact, most of the original Alamo fort is gone. The facade and courtyard remain, but the Alamo’s land is now filled with downtown buildings. The Alamo is still worth visiting and a very interesting historical site, but know ahead of time that it isn’t big. If you want a more complete look at mission life, check out the Mission Trail, which includes Missions San José, Concepción, San Juan Capistrano, and Espada.

5. We don’t all have accents. It’s a pet peeve of mine when movies and TV shows have a Texan character, and they immediately shove a fake drawl onto the poor, unsuspecting actor. We don’t all have overly pronounced accents. Now of course you can tell that I’m from Texas by the way I speak, but I don’t talk like J.R. from Dallas. And frankly, few of us sound super-country.

So you won’t need a translator! ;) But you might want a primer on the use of the word y’all. It’s the quintessential form of the plural you. There’s youy’all (more than one), and all y’all (a crowd). You might hear when leaving a store, “Come back, y’all!” — which isn’t a call to turn around right then and there, but simply a courteous you’re-welcome-back-anytime for you and all those you’re with.

6. Buy a pair of cowboy boots while you’re here. My own confession is that I didn’t own a single pair of boots until I passed age 40. I wasn’t really a cowgirl, so I didn’t see the point. But now I’m 100% sold on the idea. If you’re interested and you’ve been waffling about making that purchasing decision, let me assure that we Texans don’t just wear boots for the look — boots are actually very comfortable and sturdy footwear, not to mention that there are many be-you-tiful choices these days.

Lucchese boots

Lucchese boots, made in Texas

Find a Western wear store while here and grab a pair of Justins for a workhorse boot, a pair of Ariats for comfort, maybe Corral for some fun looks, or go whole hog and grab some gorgeous Lucchese (pronunced loo-kay-see) boots. Don’t freak out about the $100 or up price tag: You’ll be wearing those boots for a long time to come. Boots can be resoled again and again and last many, many years. My husband has a pair of boots older than our teenage children.

2014 RWA logoThat’s not much, but it’s a few things you might not have known before — or wanted a reminder about. If you’re looking for a good packing list, see Jami Gold’s Ultimate #RWA14 Conference Packing List and for more details on San Antonio, check out the new RWA 14 App.

What tips would you give for traveling to #RWA14? What other tidbits about Texas or San Antonio do you want to share? Or what questions can I (a born-and-bred Texan) answer for you?

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