Writer Wednesday: On Overwriting

Overwriting.  Not the opposite of an insurance agent’s underwriting.  Nope.  I’m talking about the tendency in our writing to say something, then restate it.  And then, just in case the reader still wasn’t paying attention, we add in another example.

Another example of overwriting is when we start the scene too early.  But does the reader really need to see everything that happens before our heroine arrives at the heart of the story?  Same applies to the end of the scene.  That’s my classic M.O. I tend to continue the scene for too long after the important moment happens.  Summing up the feelings. Or following the main character out the door and into the night.  It’s in the draft form of every novel I’ve ever written.

Because I know this about myself, it’s an easy fix. In the revision stage I simply look at the end of each chapter and chop off that last paragraph or two.  By leaving the chapter in the midst of conflict or at that very moment when things have happened, I can really strengthen the story.  It leaves the reader thinking and feeling.  And readers will assume that your character will ruminate on what’s going on, or that the heroine will leave the scene and go out into the night.

So let the reader get involved by getting out of the way.

I could say more here. Restate my point a few other ways and give you a bunch of examples. But maybe it’s best if I just stop.

Or… I could tell you I’m walking away from my computer, down the stairs, to get a cup of coffee, and then into the night, where I’ll ponder the complexities of overwriting, and I’ll think that maybe now I’ll…

Writer Wednesday: I Can’t Seem to Start My Novel!

I can’t seem to start my novel! Yeah, that about says it all. I don’t believe in writer’s block, so let’s not call it that. But let’s just say the writing isn’t flowing the way I’d planned.

Okay, to backtrack just a bit: I have started the novel.  If by started you mean that I’ve got a full outline. Yup. Got that (though I admit I’m not much of an outliner). And I have sat down and written a number of starting scenes…which I’ve promptly discarded.  I’ve done the whole sit-in-a-coffeehouse-and-just-do-it sessions, which didn’t do it for me.

Part of the problem is a question of where to start. I’ve written funny material with my character arriving at the train station, but no, too early in the story. So CUT. Then poignant material the moment my character arrives on scene, but no, this feel like introducing back story. So CUT. Then a crazy night out loaded with humiliation, but there’s no real reason for the reader to be there either, so CUT CUT CUT!

And that, dear readers, is how it has been going all this past month. The month of August. My Write the Novel Month. Blah. I know I should do what I tell my writing students to do: just write. DON’T REVISE. DON’T SELF-EDIT.  The thing is, I don’t feel like I’m self-editing. I feel like I’m just not latching onto the characters and voices in a way that makes me feel like the words are real and I’m in the moment.  That’s how I write. That’s my own style.  I hear the character’s voice, and know that dramatic opening scene, and I just go for it.

Not this time…

If I think of this past month in terms of words on the page, I can surely panic. But no. Because I’m not on a deadline (I’ve written a novel on deadline before…that was an experience!), I can think of this as a process.  Doesn’t that sound better than, say, a mess, or a failure? A process. And I do think this is accurate. As I’ve rejected scene after scene, I have been thinking about where I would start things. How. Why.

And If I did panic, would I be daydreaming of the scenes I needed to write? Would I let myself do other stuff and put this aside without feeling like I was failing? You know the answer to that one, right?

So, as I watch August disappear, I have to take a deep breath, and trust my writing process. As I’ve NOT written, what I HAVE done is think about the characters more, and their voices. I’ve started to hear in my head dialogue, and witness scenes that definitely should be written. I’ve picked out better names, more interesting story threads.

So sometimes, not writing is a vital part of writing.

I’ve tried to relax, even as these notions have all piled up in my brain but I’ve become too busy with traveling around and settling one child at Law School, which means the words are bubbling, but I’m still NOT WRITING. But life is a process, too. We go through phases in our lives. There was the time my kids were babies and I had to accept that there were months and even years when I wasn’t going to get the intense writing time I so needed.

Right now I’m seeing that maybe September is a better writing month for me after all. My husband has started back teaching at the University. My other daughter will soon be back at school. And my poodle is pretty quiet when she isn’t yapping at the mailman. The house, which was all summer filled with people and “what’s to eat” inquiries and piles of laundry and stacks of dirty dishes, will be under control and calm. A writing space, dare I say?

So sometimes, not writing is about waiting for your life and your head to get into a better place.

And sometimes not starting your novel is the best way to start it after all. Hm. We’ll see about that one. Stay tuned…

The Ultimate Writer’s Group

Marie's article about her Rebel Writers group is in this issue of Writer's Digest Magazine

What would be your perfect writer’s group?

For me it’s all about having a small bunch of talented people who I also happen to like and respect.  The level of ability should be close to mine or better.  And we should all be working on novels.  I’m so fortunate to belong to The Rebel Writers, a group of 6 amazing people who have been meeting once a month for 10 years now!

How did I end up so fortunate? Well, sometimes you have to lend your fortune a hand.  It started out when a number of us were in a very large writing group. Folks in that group met every other week, and up to 4 submissions were read each time.  This meant a lot of short stories.  It also meant a long delay between when you would be read next.  And if you were subbing chapters for a novel, well you’d have to wait months for your next chapter to come up.  No way were people going to able to comment on things like arc or character development, etc.

So I and a few hand-picked writers from that group who were all working on novels formed a secret group (hence the name The Rebel Writers) and we met secretly for about 2 years!  The reason? Honestly, we didn’t want to hurt feelings, because we didn’t open it to everyone.  The joy of our group is that it’s limited to six, that we meet once a month, and that we cover novels. Huge chunks of novels.  We only read two authors a meeting, and sometimes only one…we can have an entire novel read in a month and discussed for a full two hours.  Beyond excellent!

If you’re interested in forming your own version of The Rebel Writers, I’ve written an article that shows how we run this and what our guidelines for critiquing are, which you can find in Writer’s Digest Magazine’s Feb. ’08 issue and in its 2009 Yearbook issue…click here to order a copy through them.

(Photo by Caitlin Doherty) Launch at Doylestown Books of Jeanne Denault's SUCKING UP YELLOW JACKETS. (front, left to right) Marie Lamba, Jeanne Denault, Chris Bauer, (back) David Jarret, Damian McNicholl, John Wirebach. (Not pictured - Russ Allen)

Our group of unpublished novelists now has four who are published!  Our most recent is Jeanne Denault, who has just launched her stunning memoir Sucking Up Yellow Jackets (O Books). It’s about what it was like to raise an Asperger’s son before Asperger’s was a known condition.  Add in her son’s obsession with explosives and mix this with Jeanne’s wry sense of humor, and you can see why this book is a winner!

We’re thrilled for Jeanne, and can’t wait to see who’s going to have the next book launch.

Other Rebs who have been published?  Well, our first one out of the gate is the wonderful literary author Damian McNicholl.

Damian’s moving novel A Son Called Gabriel (CDS Books) is a coming of age story about a boy discovering he’s gay while growing up in Catholic Ireland.  We knew Damian’s book would be a smash when we’d critiqued it, and weren’t at all surprised when Publisher’s Weekly said, “McNicholl is a graceful writer, and his is a worthy debut.”

After Damian’s success, I broke out of the gates with my YA novel What I Meant…, and I owe so much to the Rebs for their wonderful manuscript critiques and continuing support for my writing.

The next one up was Chris Bauer with his hair-raising novel Scars on the Face of God (Drollerie Press).  It involves the Devil’s Bible, some truly haunting supernatural elements, and, best of all, Chris’ amazing twist of phrase. He adds a literary feel to the most terrifying of tales.  Bestselling author Scott Nicholson says it’s “hotter than the flames of hell,” and he’s right!

So, happy 10th anniversary to The Rebel Writers!  I’m sure much more success is coming to them all soon.

So, who are you? No, really.

Cross-posted over at the Liars Club site.

One day I was talking with my editor over at Random House about the sorts of manuscripts that come flooding into her slush pile. I asked what was one of the biggest problems a manuscript can have. Her immediate response: the writer’s voice.  She knew she could use her editorial skills to adjust problems with things like pacing, structure, dialogue, plotting. But if there was something wrong with the writer’s voice, there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

Just one day later I found myself in a similar conversation with my agent.  And her answer was the same.  If the writer’s voice is off, that’s something no one can fix.

So the writer’s voice is obviously terribly important.  If the reader hates the personality behind the written words, a personality that surely comes through in the way an author expresses herself, then they are not going to want to hang out with that author throughout an entire novel.

But you gotta be who you are, don’t you?  If your style is sarcastic or playful or intense or passionate or ironic, then so be it.  The good news is that writing is a very subjective business, and surely someone will identify with you and embrace your voice in a work.  The bad news is that writing is a very subjective business, and surely someone will be turned off by your voice…and that person may be an editor or an agent.

Aside from being a voice that turns a reader off, how can a voice have “something wrong” with it?  It can be inconsistent, so that it feels like you have multiple personalities.  Or it can be so over-the-top that it overwhelms a work and gets in the way of the story – like if your voice is unduly pompous, or obnoxiously funny in that you-are-so-not-funny way. Another problem is if the voice is obviously not your own.

I started out like most young writers imitating the voices of writers I loved. T.H. White. John Steinbeck. Ann Tyler.  I couldn’t help it. I was surrounded with their works, their words filled my head, and I didn’t really get that it was more important to be me.  Truthfully, I didn’t fully know who I was yet.

I became most successful when I started seeing things through my own eyes, and when I started using my own language and my own quirky tone. I think this is tied into confidence. At least it was for me.

When an author believes they have something worth saying, and a point of view worth sharing, it comes through.  Readers join in for the ride and feel the authority behind the writer’s voice.  It makes them think, even when reading the most bizarre of tales, that there is something real about it all.

And it makes agents and editors believe they have something in their hands worth championing.

Can you write a book in a week? – Day 5

Okay, folks, we made it. Day 5, and I stuck it out all week long.  Now I realize that book in a week implies 7 days, but I have tix to a show tomorrow (which I’d purchased long before I knew about this challenge), and I NEED A BREAK.

Not whining. I promise. I’ve loved this experience, and as my wonderful stable of blog comment-folk has pointed out, I’ve learned a ton about myself, my writing and, of course, my new novel.

I learned that I can be ridiculously more productive if I make my writing a priority.  That means not cutting into my writing time with time-wasters like the Internet or solitaire (and in the future I plan to schedule my Internet checks for morning, lunch time, and a final check at the end of the day). It also means scheduling chores around my writing week.  Sure, it may feel casual and relaxed to do stuff all week long, but if writing is my full-time job (which it is), then what the heck am I doing paying bills and cleaning and other dreadful crap like that during my weekday work time?

Shifting things around takes a bit of planning and commitment. I learned that people will cooperate with you if they know you have an important goal.  Take note, fellow scribes: if you tell people in your life you aren’t available for 2 weeks for coffee or lunch or that meeting, they will deal with it and LIFE WILL GO ON.  Gotta respect the writing.

I also learned that by giving over a huge chunk of my mental space to my novel, that I became more creative with it. I was able to get into the world I’d written much faster, because I never really left it. Working to keep the worries of the real world at bay is a challenge, but definitely worthwhile.  No sense obsessing about something when you could be writing…and obsessing about it later.

I learned the glories of the dry erase board…flexible and spontaneous plotting!  I learned the true value of fresh air and brisk walks…great for blurry eye re-focusing, great for the joints, great for getting the creative juices rolling.

I also realized that the excitement of this does wear off after a while.  Each day I found I was getting to work just a little bit later. That the plotting problems were getting a little stickier.  That my internal critic was trying to rear her ugly head just a little bit more.  But that’s the beauty of this challenge. I kept telling myself: suck it up – it’s only a few days.  And so I did.

So, can you write a book in a week?  Maybe if you have sold your soul to the devil. Or if you don’t eat or sleep. Or if Redbull is in the mix.  But here’s what I think, at least from my point of view: You can write half a book in a week, and that includes the complete bones of the novel.  I started out with zero words. While I didn’t write every scene leading up to it, I did finish by drafting the book’s final page, which will be important later when I fill in the rest.  My plan is to take just a little bit of a break, and then go to it once again. Another five days on just this project.  By the end of that, I should have a completed first draft. In two weeks? I can definitely live with that.  Then the editing will begin.  But let’s not go there mentally just yet, okay?

In addition to telling my family and friends that I was doing this challenge, I made a point of telling the world! Through this blog, in my email away message, on my facebook, and in various group sites I belong to. I even told my agent.  Why? So I would be accountable.  I couldn’t go quietly into the night without shame…and believe me, there was a point I thought of trying just that.

Today’s word count: 3,459 words
Today’s page count: 14 pages
Overall word count: 25,329 words
Overall page count: 109 pages

So, gentle reader, it’s time for this writer to pack this experiment in. A successful experiment. One that will now, I hope, become part of my regular regimen when I want to devote time to just a novel and to nothing and no one else.  See? I put that thought out there.  I’m accountable to it, right? (Okay, I did slip in the word ‘hope,’ but still.)

Why don’t you try this with your own writing? You can do it. You should do it.

Happy. Satisfied. Book in a Week, baby! (Or, Nearly Half a Book in a Week, baby!)  Woot!

Over and out.

Can you write a book in a week? – Day 4

Frazzled today!  But chugging forward.  Forcing myself at times to chug forward, but doing so nonetheless. Thanks so much to everyone who has been cheering me on.  Much appreciated, and very helpful, too.

People who have been following this may be relieved to know that I did in fact do most of my laundry today.  I should have done it yesterday, which made for an interesting outfit today.  I looked a bit like the village idiot, so I opted not to go and write at a coffee shop or a library today as I’d originally planned.  Maybe tomorrow.  I need to get out!

Today I felt that I hit some more major plot points, but that I was also rambling on, idly going here and there.  I liked the scenes a lot, but where the heck am I going now?  I think tomorrow I’ll have to spend some time with a quick outline of plot so I’m at least back on track.

The problem is that my story is changing as I’m cruising along.  This one guy who was NOT going to be a major part of the story, keeps stealing the scenes.  And that’s pretty confusing structure-wise.  I also started to include a different plot thread that, as I wrote it, seemed to lose power.  Maybe I’m just starting to fade.  Maybe it’s this village idiot outfit affecting my brain.  Maybe it’ll all look better in the morning.  Anyways, I’m not deleting or editing, right folks?

One of my fellow authors, Donna Birdsell, who is also doing this challenge this week, had mentioned using a dry erase board.  So at the outset of this challenge, I swiped ours from my daughter’s room, and I’m hooked.  I use it to list known scene ideas: scenarios I’ve cooked up in my mind that I’m pretty sure I can slap onto paper. And as I complete the scene, I erase it from the board.  I also jot some brainstorm-like thoughts along the margins.

Because it’s easy to read and easy to erase, the board is perfect for this charge-ahead style of writing. Thanks, Donna!

Today I again faced the huge obstacle of outside distractions.  I knew that an important phone call was going to happen at 3 pm, and that a certain agent would be calling me to report the results, and you can bet it made it hard to focus at times. Then, after the phone call, which was the usual mix of good news bad news we writers must endure on a daily basis, I felt completely derailed for a while.

Yes, I hit rock bottom and played a few rounds of spider solitaire and even checked the Internet.  If I were an ex-smoker, well…

Isn’t this the type of stuff life hands us, though?  You get this ‘oh what’s the point?’ feeling, and have to work through it.

But it’s still book in a week, baby!  So I refused to stop at a low point, and wrote a bunch more. It might be crap. Or it might not. I’m still writing. No stopping this train now. Woot!

Today’s word count: 6,009 words
Today’s page count: 26 pages
Total word count so far: 22,870
Total page count so far: 95 pages

P.S.: My carpal tunnel is acting up… Book in a week?  Yes!!!!

Can you write a book in a week? – Day 3

Checking in with day 3!  Still standing, or rather, sitting.  Getting a little stiff, though…

It’s interesting how each day in the book in a week challenge seems to offer different, well, challenges.  Today, for instance, I had to do laundry. Yeah. I haven’t yet, so tomorrow will be very interesting.

Also, today I was very distracted.  I got some news, as we writers sometimes do, of something maybe or maybe not happening that may or may not be wonderful, and that was it!  My mind was lost in what if’s — the curse of a fiction writer who can plot out so many crazy scenarios in her mind.

So I went to the gym and worked out hard and tried to refocus on this book.  It actually worked pretty well. Even though I didn’t start actually writing until around 10 a.m. (which started to make me feel rather guilty), I definitely felt more energetic when I did get down to things.  I still do at 6:30 pm, meaning that tonight I should be able to keep working for a few more hours (last night I tried, but zoned out by 8, and even found myself almost zzzing at the computer a few times yesterday afternoon).

I also found that change of scenery seemed to refocus me a bit.  It was a beautiful day, so I brought my laptop outside and worked there for a few hours.  Looking up and seeing blue sky and green leaves offered a nice break.

As I’m working, more and more plot lines are emerging involving minor characters, but instead of going back to string them together, I sort of take note of these ideas, and include them from that point on.  This isn’t time for revision.

Again, I’m trying hard not to be critical about the words I’m typing, and that’s pretty liberating.  All fun, all forward moving.  Right now, if you ask me if I would do this whole zany challenge again, my answer would be yes!  And I’d recommend it to all my writing friends.  Just writing is a joy.

One more interesting thing to note…I’ve already written many of the major central scenes of the book, yet the book isn’t that long yet. Obviously I’ve got some fleshing out to do, but I’m getting worried that I may run out of plot before the week is up.  We’ll see how that shakes down.

Today’s word count: 5,801 words
Today’s page count: 24 pages
Total word count so far: 16,861 words
Total page count so far: 69 pages


Can you write a book in a week? – Day Two

Checking in again, feeling very blurry-eyed today.

I’m here to report that day two is definitely harder than day one.

This is because:

1. The novelty of it all has worn off.  Yes, in a day!  Family members who held day one sacred are thinking, well, get over it already!

2. After the initial rush to start yesterday, I’m now getting into the dicier parts of the book. The “I’m not sure what really happens next” parts, which, you know, is bound to slow things down.

3. I’m getting tired of the goodies I picked out to use as rewards.  Isn’t there anything else?

4. My early morning walk with the dog, which yesterday yielded such wonderful results, today only led my mind in directions that were unbooky. Things like retirement funds, and roof repair, and annoying what ifs that were all too rooted in reality.

In short, by day two life starts to intrude even more.

Nonetheless, forge ahead me hearties, yo ho!  I did all the right things. No to the Internet. No to Spider Solitaire. Yes to staying with the project and just writing ahead, and trying to scheme new angles.

I did come up with more plot twists and turns, and I also wrote scenes that might never appear in the final book. And I’ll probably change the book structure when I edit it all. But really, doesn’t this happen with every book you write?  It does with my books.

Today’s totals: 5,973 words
23  pages
Overall total for book so far: 45 pages,with 11,060 words
So, not such a bad day. It was productive. Definitely.  And I will write more tonight too.  I’m bracing myself for an even tougher day tomorrow. But I refuse to give up.

Book in a week, baby! Woot!!!

Can you write a book in a week? – Day One

Captain’s log, day one, book in a week.  (Actually, book in five days, since I have to quit on Saturday.)

Well, many lessons learned today.

Lesson 1: An early morning walk with the dog is a great way to get the creative juices rolling. Came back eager to start with plenty of schemes to put down.

Lesson 2: Shutting off the Internet should be done EVERY DAY.  I’m a chronic online checker.  Having it completely off was a great help.

Lesson 3: Don’t check the Internet at lunch time.  Hey, it was break time, right?  But guess what? A problem surfaced in my emails, and though I didn’t respond, the problem prayed on my mind for the rest of the day.  I do have an away message posted on my account.  Tomorrow, no checking until evening!

Lesson 4: I’m a spider solitaire freak!  I can’t tell you how many times, during a writing lull, I was tempted to play a round. But I didn’t.

Lesson 5: Do not be critical!  I wrote a chapter and thought, wow, that’s schmaltzy.  This idea is schmaltzy. I’m schmaltzy. I don’t deserve to breathe, never mind write.  Yeah, I shut that off, and kept going.  It’s all about putting stuff on the page.

Lesson 6: Getting up for breaks is helpful.  I stretch, refocus my eyes, and feel refreshed.

Lesson 7: Chocolate rewards are great.  Too many chocolate rewards just make me feel disgusting. Cut back on the rewards already.

Biggest Lesson of All: I could do most of these things every writing day. And I bet most high-output writers do just that.  I get side-tracked with all sorts of projects and articles and whatnot, but for novel writing, this is the way to go!

Output today?: 22 manuscript pages, 5,087 words.  I’ll try to do some more after dinner.

Book in a week maniac signing off.

Over and out!

Can you seriously write a book in a week?

It sounds like a crazy challenge: write a book in a week.  Just crazy enough for me to give it a try!

Here’s how it works: you basically write day and night for one week straight, working on a new book idea.  This isn’t the time to revise and edit something you’ve been tinkering with forever.  It’s the chance to just dump words on paper.  And at the end of the week, you’ll at least have the bones of a book, if not a whole manuscript.

The idea was brought up in my Bucks County Romance Writers group, and a bunch of us decided what the heck? We created a Yahoo group for it where we will be checking in every day with our word count and status updates, and we’ll cheer each other on.

To get ready for this challenge, I had to do a bunch of stuff to check out of everyday life.  Moved meetings around. Set up an away message on my email account.  Told people in my life that I WILL NOT be available.  And, since I’m a mom, I planned the whole week’s worth of meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some of you may do this on a regular basis, but for me it was way more organization than I’m used to.  And yesterday I cranked the tunes, and cooked. I made lasagna and meatloaf and quiche and muffins, and when I was done my family realized that we’re going to be eating way better than we usually do.

Another thing I did to prepare: I cleaned off my desk.  This took me hours, because I had stacks of papers and notes and business cards all over it that needed to be filed or tossed. Now there is a white expanse with a brand new pad of paper and a pen waiting for me next to my laptop. It’s beautiful. Seriously.

One other thing I did to prepare: I allowed myself time to daydream.  During long morning walks with my little yappy dog, I conjured up scenes and bits of dialogue and quirky characters.  A young adult novel.  A friend betrayal. A wacky telephone surveying summer job. A bunch of nerds. A crappy ex boyfriend… But I haven’t written anything. Yet.

That’s for tomorrow.

So tomorrow it all begins.  I’ll try to check in throughout this week to let you all know how it’s going. Not that I’ll be online. Or checking facebook. Or playing spider solitaire.  No!  I’ll be writing.

Have any of you ever tried this type of challenge?  Do you think this will possibly work?  Bets anyone?