I am a writer, blogger, and dog rescuer. I live in the darling town of Woodstock, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley with my husband and three rescue dogs (who rescue me on a daily basis). Find more information about my books, my dogs, and all my writing adventures at CaraWrites.com.
I buckled down and got serious about my assigned reading this week, plowing through three chapters of Story Genius. The picking apart of the story writing process prickled my nerves a bit. I’ve never been good at following directions and details bore me to tears, but I pledged to read this book so I powered on.
I found myself, nodding, duh, duh, duh at some points and at other times I underlined sections like I did in American History class, thinking, “This is the part that will be on the test.”
And then I went for a run and thought about it. I don’t have time to read to be reading. My shelves are creaking with books I’m dying to read. So, what is the point here? Why am I forcing myself to read craft books? Can’t I just write? Continue reading “Nature Vs Nurture: Am I a Story Genius?”
Reading multiple writing books at once has my head spinning. This past week, while distracted by my BIG NEWS, I had a hard time making myself sit down and follow my reading plan for becoming a better writer. I do my assigned reading in the evening, but each night I found a reason not to read. Instead, I spent a lot of time with my foster puppies…..
I’m interrupting this regularly scheduled post, to give you an exciting update (at least for me):
Unbeknownst to most of you, I’ve been agent-less for the last year, having parted ways with my previous agent who was a really delightful person, but who just wasn’t a great fit for me for a multitude of reasons that would be unfair to air here.
After sharing my disdain last week, I take it all back. Digging deeper into this book, I’m finding nugget after nugget of gold.
Maybe I was a bit sensitive after her comments about pantsers (those of us who write by the seat of our pants as opposed to careful outlining). I’ve decided that Lisa Cron actually does have room for pantsers in her heart. At least my kind of pantsing.
She’s not shoving an outline down my throat (at least at this point), but she does want me to know exactly what it is my protagonist wants and what is keeping her from it. The intersection of those points is what she terms the ‘third rail.’
While I may have no idea what’s going to happen in any story I start, I do know my protagonist inside and out and am very certain of what she wants. I even know the first obstacle which will throw her into a tailspin and start my story. After that, though, all bets are off, but inevitably obstacle after obstacle will present itself.
In my novel Girls’ Weekendthere were three protagonists (although Cron has helped me see that there is actually an ‘alpha protagonist’) and I knew what those women wanted (even though not all of them did) and what stood in their way. In reality, looking back, that could have been three books. A nice little series. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
So, yeah, enjoying Story Genius.
The other books are also inspiring me, even Donald Maass. Here’s a line I’ve been ruminating on from Fire in Fiction:
“Like a handshake, an opening and closing line can create impressions and expectations. They can set a tone.”
I’ve gone back and begun looking at each chapter and studied my opening and closing lines. It’s one way to be certain my story is bringing the reader along purposefully. He also talks about being certain there’s a purpose in every scene, not just artfully rendered sentences. I’m a serious proponent of that direction, and I chuckled at his line about the purpose not having to be obvious. There’s no need to “squat atop it like an elephant on an egg.” Totally going to steal that line at some point.
And then this from Fierce on the Page:
“This is the power of the written word. As we take in a story that affects us, we meet ourselves more deeply.”
Yes. That’s exactly it.
Natalie Goldberg echoes this sentiment:
“A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present, alive.”
Doing all this reading about craft and purpose and style and function some days makes my head spin a bit and makes me feel like not only do I not know what I’m doing, but maybe I should apply for a job at the new Burger King that just opened in town. But Jordan Rosenfeld was there to catch me when she wrote:
“Trust your gut about what resonates and what does not. Know that you’ll know what to cut and what to keep…..You will find the alive passages, and you can even choose to build on them. Those are the words you are meant to write; similarly, the life that flows is the one you’re meant to live.”
I think she might have more faith in me that I have in myself, but I’ll borrow it for now.
May the power of literature change your life this week.
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I’m one week into my Be-A-Better-Writer reading plan and I already feel like a better writer. I’m learning a few things and I feel intentional, which is my favorite kind of feeling.
Plus, I really like coloring my notes with my gel pen set. I underline and star and copy thoughts into my notebook and then go back and circle and underline even more in color. Plus, some pages of my journal have little coloring breaks—
Reading six writing books each day is a bit like having six teachers hanging out in my office with me. I like some more than others. I find myself looking forward to opening some (Writing Down the Bones, The Art of Memoir), forcing myself to read others because I know it’s good for me (Fire in Fiction, A Writer’s Guide to Persistence), and having mixed emotions about the other two because while they captivate me with their engaging style, every now and again they irritate me (Story Genius, Fierce on the Page).
Some of the writers feel like old friends I’d love to meet for a beer and commiserate with about the sad state of the publishing industry. Others feel more like the teacher I had in third grade who was really pretty and let us watch Electric Company during class, but also scared the shit out of me and rendered me mute with her wicked brilliance and condescending confidence.
Story Genius is probably pushing me the most. It’s making me question the framework of the story I wrote this fall.
Fire in Fiction is making me examine the characters in that story. Although Fire in Fiction is also the book I’m least inclined to open if I’m sleepy or unmotivated. Maass uses TONS of examples from books I haven’t read which is frustrating because my sad little brain is overwhelmed with sorting out the story he’s quoting instead of the point he’s making. It’s exhausting. Add to that my feeling of inadequacy because I haven’t read so many of his examples. If I was a real writer, I would have read them, right?
One of my biggest regrets in this life (and I say that like I have a lot of regrets in this life, which I don’t) is that I didn’t study writing in college. Both my degrees are from liberal arts institutions, so that means I did plenty of reading and writing in college, even took courses on it, but I didn’t major in it. I look back now and I’m not sure why.
As a child, I read constantly, carting home stacks of books from the bookmobile that set up shop in the bank parking lot on Tuesday nights. Each summer before we left for our two week vacation in an un-airconditioned, TV-less cottage at a beach with no boardwalk, movie theater, or mall, my mom would take us to a used book store and I’d fill a brown grocery bag with books and then spend my entire vacation reading in the sun or on the screened in porch once I’d burnt my body to a crisp after a few days.
When I was a teen, I suffered through the self-conscious, angsty, insecurity typical of most teens (although at the time I thought I was the ONLY miserable teenager who hated to look in a mirror). Reading was my escape. I lost myself in books that took me far, far away from my tiny little town where every embarrassing moment and bad hair decision followed you through school with the same kids year after year.
In high school my favorite class was the journalism elective I took repeatedly, writing for the school paper. I loved the students in that class and the obvious passion of our instructor who ran the class as if we were a world-class publication.
Freshman year in college, that first semester in English 100, my wickedly funny professor always picked my essays and stories to read to the class with her syrupy southern accent, cackling as she read. She loved my writing and told me so.
So why I didn’t turn to writing as a career, I don’t know. I suppose I didn’t believe that I could possibly write something anyone would want to pay money for. Becoming a published author was, and still is, exceedingly difficult. It takes vast swaths of confidence in yourself and your abilities, something I was decidedly missing in my youth.
Since embarking on a professional writing career about ten years ago, I’ve done everything I can to educate myself. I’ve taken online courses, attended conferences, signed up for workshops and classes locally, and accumulated a vast library of books on writing. And yet, I still feel uneducated when it comes to writing.
So this year’s resolution is to hit the books. Many of the books I’ve piled around me have barely been opened. My excuse is I’m too busy writing, to read about writing. Pretty good excuse, right?
Not this year. I’m at an impasse in my career. My third novel comes out this spring and what happens after that is anybody’s guess. I don’t have a contract or commitment for my future writing. So, I’m taking this time to avail myself of the knowledge and direction in the books I already have (and a few I bought with the cash my FIL sent for Christmas – thanks Jim!).
I’m hoping to post about what I’m learning here on this blog, offer insights on my Facebook writer page and tweet the real gems on twitter. Again, best laid plans, you know? Puppies and publishing opportunities could sidetrack me, but I’m writing it here in the hopes that you people will hold me accountable.
It used to be that if you wrote a story and it appeared in book form, then you were published.
Okay, maybe it still is like that, except now there are qualifiers. The unspoken (and sometimes spoken) question is how were published?
It feels a bit like the battles I stepped into after my second child was born when I stopped working full-time and stayed home to raise children. The working mothers vs the stay-at-home moms. The assumptions flew both ways and were equally unfair and at times, ridiculous. We were all still doing the hard work of being mothers.
The holidays aren’t just bad for my weight, they’re also not too great for my writing. At least this year I didn’t set any serious writing goals for December. The great thing about this is that any writing I get done (like this post!) is a bonus. The really hard part is that story ideas, snatches of dialogue, and essays wander aimlessly through my mind and I never have time to grab them and pin them to the page.
The other hard part is that when I’m not creating, I’m not happy. I feel anxious. Luckily, this holiday season I have puppies to distract me. Although right now they more closely resemble moles than puppies. They ‘swim’ around with their stubby useless arms flailing, their eyes shut tight, Their little spock ears are basically horns at this point for all the good they do them.
Still, they’re puppies. So, you know, who can complain?
Not me. Nope.
A big part of being an author is social media and platform. It’s not the fun, shiny, exciting part, though, it’s the stressful, time-devouring, awkward part. Of course, you can be a writer and never even go near the internet, but if publishing is on your list, platform is paramount and begging for ratings and reviews is a painful reality. Sure, I wish I could just hole up on my hillside and write. But as my mother would tell you, “If wishes were horses beggars would ride.”
So, this month, hoping that the holiday happy and the presence of puppies will counter it, I’m focusing a bit on my platform and social media efforts. These tasks require short bursts of energy – chores like tidying up the website, responding to blog comments, getting involved in passionate debates on Facebook, visiting Linked In to see what the adults are doing, experimenting with the timing of tweets, looking for connections with other authors, and even venturing into new realms like Instagram.
These are tasks that I never seem to have time to tackle, but I’m on it. I’m even making an effort to unearth the Tumblr blog I created several years ago and abandoned. I’ve been reading other blogs, commenting on posts, and last week I spent nearly forty minutes trying to figure out how to change a few things on my Amazon author page (I never did manage it). December is basically spring cleaning time for me as a writer. And who actually likes spring cleaning? Me, neither.
This week’s goal is to apply for a residency somewhere, submit a few pitches to magazines, and seek out an opportunity to guest blog. Oh, and investigate the possibilities of goodreads a bit more, experiment with my blog template, organize my pictures for social media, and finally finish reading The Fire in Fiction (which I started more than a year ago). My list is long and for the most part, boring.
Luckily, I’ve got a silly 13-foot Christmas tree that makes me giggle every time I pass by it on my way to the kitchen to make more tea.
My neighbor doesn’t believe in prunning his Christmas tree lot
And we decided to let the tree just be itself
Plus, puppies. Super cute. Always available.
So I’m slogging through. Hope your holiday season is unraveling/unfolding just as nicely!
p.s. Last week I finally put out my very first NEWSLETTER! That ones been migrating from to-do list to to-do list for over 2 years, so yeah, big accomplishment. If you didn’t recieve it, you better sign up (just in case I ever write another one!). And if you’re interested, you can read it here.
One day left. Hours really. And, are you ready for this??? I’m only about 400 words away from completing NaNoWriMo!! Yeah. I’m impressed, too. My latest novel is now 79,600 words! It’s gonna happen people!
But before I finish, I thought I’d reflect on the adventure that was NaNoWriMo for me this year.
I started it on a whim, not really all that serious about it. Yeah, maybe I’ll do it. I lined up all my excuses to explain why I wouldn’t finish it. They were good excuses. Excellent, in fact, so when the end of the month rolled around and I was still stuck somewhere around 30,000 words, I’d be able to explain.
With my safety net in place, I started writing. In the beginning the words just flowed and flowed. That was mostly because I’d been sitting on this story for months, so I had a lot to turn loose on the page. It felt good to finally write it down. And doing it in such a crazy rush, felt good, too. I was on a writing high that first week. Who cares if this isn’t my best writing. Just get it on the page, I thought. I’ll fix it later. That’s a very freeing feeling. Kind of like dancing when no one is looking. Or singing loudly while driving on back country roads. I was just flying over those hills and swinging my hips like I was still twenty and hadn’t birthed three babies.
And just when I thought I’d write the whole dang thing in a week, the election happened.
I was frozen in my tracks and waffled on how to proceed. I could let me emotions be a roadblock to my progress and just one more excellent excuse for why I didn’t finish, or….I could use that anger/sadness/horror/fear to drive my writing, just like a basketball team that lost the previous season by one point and goes into the next season FIRED UP. Instead, I went with another option.
I dove whole-hog into my story and pretended that the real world didn’t exist. I shut down social media, silenced the radio and television, nodded sagely while silenting saying “blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-I-can’t-hear-you” each time other people brought up the election results. I lived inside my story.
And you know what? With the exception of a really nasty character with a bad combover appearing in one chapter, it worked. I wrote like a madwoman, pounding out that wordcount right up until….Thanksgiving happened. Cousins and food and friends and wine and the prolonged presence of several foster puppies took over my house. I lost almost a whole week to gluttony and sloth and puppy poo. When I finally got back to my laptop I thought, No way. Ain’t gonna happen. Break out the excuses.
But I wrote anyway. Even if I was going to fall short of my 50,000 word goal. With three days left I still had over 10,000 words to write and I was stumped. I couldn’t see the ending and I was getting bored with my characters’ indecision. So much for NaNoWriMo. I couldn’t sacrifice my story just to get a winner’s badge.
And then yesterday, I sat down at the computer and I thought—just write something. Anything. Even if it’s a stupid idea, just slap it on the page and see what happens.
And you know what? The ending found me. It was nothing like I thought it would be. Once again those characters surprised me. They were much better people than I’d imagined them to be. The magic happened. This is why I write. I write for these moments when what comes out of my fingertips comes straight from my heart, completely bypassing my brain or my conscience or my grand plan. It appears on the screen and I think—wtf? Who wrote that? This is the magic I love about writing.
Remember that book, Harold and The Purple Crayon?
It was a simple little book with a purple cover. All the illustrations were line drawings. Harold starts drawing a picture and suddenly he’s in the picture and he’s creating a whole world and then he’s in that world. He encounters a forest, but doesn’t want to get lost so he draws a forest of only one tree. He’s hungry, so he draws apples on the tree to eat. But like any good story, there is peril! He almost drowns, but he draws a boat to save him. His adventures take him anywhere his mind wants to go. This is how writing works for me. I have one idea, so like Harold, I just start, and then I see where it takes me and if the story is fun/interesting/moving for me, then there’s a good chance it will be for the reader, too.
Would I have completed this story if I wasn’t doing NaNoWriMo? Probably. Just not in a month. What was so cool about doing it this way is that it forced me to keep going when I didn’t trust my characters or my crayon or the magic. And I learned that the magic will always show up. I just have to start writing.
Speaking of writing, I have 400 more words to spit out….
I don’t know if I’m going to make it. There are only five days left in the month and writing time is at a premium considering the house is overrun with kids and their messes and their friends and my need to be amongst them. Add to that a couple foster dogs/puppies and well, I’ve got a boatload of excuses for not finishing NaNoWriMo.
I’ve got just under 13,000 words to go. Doable? Sure, but will I do it? Not so sure.
I’m doing what I’ve done with pretty much all five of the novels I’ve written – stalling in the middle. Ask any writer – the beginning is the easiest part. And then for many writers, the ending is obvious, but the middle….that’s terribly tricky. It’s very easy to wander. It’s very easy to obsess over unnecessary detail. It’s very easy to play favorites with your characters and entertain an odd darling or two.
For me, though, what happens in the middle is a lot of circling and stalling and avoiding the ending. I don’t want the story to end. Once it’s over, the real work starts. The tedious, painful editing. The sorting out whether there’s really a story here or not, and after 90,000+/- words, there really better be a story here.
Hanging out in the middle is safe. It’s easy. I like it there. The tail end of the middle is the time when I get anxious. What if the ending doesn’t appear? And what if it does and it sucks? Or what if I jump the gun and force it?
Much better to just stall and await a sign.
The problem with NaNoWriMo is there is no time to stall. There’s not time to explore tangents and wiggle my way into an ending. I have to write 13,000 words. NOW.
But what’s the worse that happens? I don’t finish NaNoWriMo? (or in the NaNoWriMo lingo – I don’t win?) So what? No big deal, Easter seal. I can handle it. I don’t have to achieve my goal. I can finish in another week or two. What’s with the arbitrary deadline? There’s nothing hanging in the balance here. The only person I owe this to is me. And I’m easy. Ask my kids. I talk big, but in the end I always cave.
Will I make it? It’s so very hard to say. I wouldn’t wager any money on it, but then again, I’m a more or less reliable person. I usually do what I say. So, you know, maybe it’ll happen….let’s just wait and see.