Friday, September 18, 2015

Don't Speed Date Your Characters

I'm back! I can't believe I haven't posted since July. As you could probably tell by my mid-summer lament, I didn't meet my goal of finishing my rewrite by the end of summer. It was too difficult to concentrate on my kids and my work at the same time. When given the choice my kids will always come first. I put away my laptop for the rest of the summer, forgave myself for not meeting my deadline, and spent my time playing games and having water fights instead.

Now that school's back in session, I'm right back on schedule. I'm nearly finished rewriting 2/3 of the book. My new goal for completion is the end of October.

So, where were we?

A while back, I promised a post about getting to know your characters. That seems like a good place to start.

Sometimes when writers talk about getting to know their characters, we treat the exercise like speed dating. We sit down and knock off a list of traits in the span of a few minutes. To show you what I mean, I'm going to set a timer for two minutes and come up with a character from scratch. Ready, set, go...

Character Name: Krista Mahoney

-22 years old
-Short brown hair, bangs
-Blue eyes
-Small build, sometimes mistaken for a teen
-Crooked smile
-Wears bulky clothes she can "hide" in
-Parents are divorced, one brother
-Dropped out of college after one semester
-Likes cats
-Works at an ice cream shop
-Has no significant other
-Likes to read mysteries
-Eats a tuna sandwich every day for lunch
-Crawls under the bed during thunderstorms

Okay for two minutes work, I guess. Notice the kind of details I came up with--most of them are superficial. She's a little compelling but a bit of a stereotype. Could I write a story about her? Sure, but I don't have much to work with.

This list, dear blog reader, would not be enough information to know if you wanted to date someone in the real world, let alone spend time with them in a fictional one. A person or a character, is more than just a list of traits and likes/dislikes. Rather than just quickly sketching out the basics, getting to know your character should be more like those long, all night phone calls with a new crush; where you don't want to hang up so you ask every conceivable question that comes to mind. To truly know your character, to fall in love (which is a necessity for good writing!) you need to take some time and dig deeper. You need to know the answer to the following questions:

-What does this character want above all else?
-What is she willing to do to get it?
-What is she willing to lose?
-What does she need?
-How are her wants and needs in conflict with one another?
-What does she value most?
-What is her major weakness?
-How does she hide this weakness?
-What in her past makes her this way?
-What, internally, is getting in the way of her getting the goal?
-What, externally, is getting in the way of her getting the goal?
-What event causes her to change?
-How does she change?

Let's apply the above questions to Krista and see what happens.

-Krista wants to feel safe and secure.
-In order to feel secure, she is willing to avoid anything that involves risk.
-She is willing to sacrifice friendships and romance in order to avoid being hurt.
-What she really needs is to come out of her shell.
-Coming out of her shell will put her at risk of having her heart broken.
-Above all else, she values a peaceful, quiet life.
-Her biggest weakness is not allowing herself to trust others.
-She hides this weakness by avoiding social situations.
-She's this way because her parents divorced when she was ten. Her older brother, her closest confidant, sided with her father in the divorce and left to go live with him. Krista could never understand why her brother took her father's side. She felt betrayed. She lost both her father and her brother/best friend at the same time.
-Internally, she's unable to reach her goal of security because she's afraid to risk having her heart broken.
-Externally, she's unable to reach her goal of security because she lives alone and has a job that allows her to work in isolation (instead of an ice cream shop, maybe she's an artist?)
-The event that causes her to change is her work forces her to be in contact with a client/patron/philanthropist. If she refuses to contact this person, she will lose her livelihood. The person she is forced to deal with is unpredictable and difficult and keeps her on her toes.
-Krista changes by gaining confidence in herself. She realizes that even when she's involved in events  (or with people) she can't control, she is resourceful enough to handle the unknown and come out fine. With a little experience under her belt, she is now equipped to take bigger risks in her life.

I spent about 30 minutes on the above. Still not a huge time investment, but there's a lot more meat to work with here than on the previous list. Better questions yield better answers. The answers to these questions even suggest the outline of a story. 

You could make a list of character traits even before you start writing a story, but where this exercise becomes most powerful is when you use it on the characters in a story you've already started, especially a story that has stalled. Often when we're stuck it's because we have yet to make some crucial decisions about what our characters want. Take what you already know about your character and use it to answer the questions. Spend time thinking through their motivations. As if by magic, new plot ideas may suggest themselves and you'll be able to move forward.

Are you stuck on a story? Give this exercise a try. Let me know how it works for you.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Writing and Motherhood

My summer started with such good intentions.

The plan was to get up 1-2 hours earlier than my minions in hopes of getting a little writing done. Getting up early wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, given that I'm not a morning person. I loved watching the sun rise and finishing the most important task of the day so early. 

The problem began when the minions started getting up even earlier than usual. I, in turn, got up even earlier and went to bed earlier to make up for it. It didn't help. With all the running around from activity to activity and all the meals (why must children eat so much?) I was exhausted. And cranky. In short, sleep won out.

Now, four weeks into summer break I'm back to the haphazard approach of stealing a few moments here and there. I'm just starting to fall behind on my rewriting schedule but trying my best to keep up. I'm attempting to embrace all that summer entails--the messy house, the up-ended schedule, the spontaneous opportunities for fun. All the while, though, my novel simmers on the back burner and I wonder if I'll ever finish by my self-imposed deadline. It's really important to me, so I keep plugging away.

I once met a writer whom I greatly admire and he asked me if I had any children. I told him about my twin girls and how it was difficult for me to be fully present for them and for my writing at the same time. This particular writer had several grown children and sympathized with my situation. "Raise your children first," he said, "then when they're in college, write like crazy."

This isn't the first time I've heard this advice. Over and over again I've been told to put my work aside and focus my energy on raising my girls. The writing, they say, can wait.

I'm sure the author (and others) meant well and had the best of intentions. Perhaps he even thought he was offering me a bit of comfort in the form of permission to not be so hard on myself. I'll admit that his advice did comfort me at first, but then I couldn't help thinking that had I been a male writer, he probably wouldn't have told me to put my career on hold for the next ten years.

Must I choose one over the other? I love being a mother and having the luxury of spending lots of time with my children. I also love being a writer. If I was forced to pick one over the other, I would choose my kids. Thankfully, I don't have to make that choice. Still, there has to be a way I can have both without feeling depleted every single day. Am I asking for too much? Was that author simply stating the truth and I just don't want to hear it?

How do you juggle a writing career and motherhood?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Getting Unstuck

I've spent the last few weeks moving forward with my stuck manuscript. I'm usually a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer, but since the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results I decided to try a new approach. Instead of just diving in with the umpteenth rewrite, I took a step back and did a little planning--something I almost never do.
I can't believe how much of a difference this approach has made.

Sometimes you have to do a 180 to get a fresh perspective. Do you have a stuck manuscript? Here are a few ideas to help you get back on track. They really worked for me.

Immerse Yourself in Other People's Words.  The best way to get inspiration is to read, read, read. Read classics, read contemporary authors, read non-fiction and poetry. Learn from others. I'll truly never understand writers who don't like to read or who say they avoid reading when they're working (What? You're not working all the time?).  I know I'm reading a great book when it makes me want to run to my computer and write. I love this quote from Lisa See: "Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river." Amen.

Share Your Work With a Trusted Reader. When you don't know how to move forward with a piece, it's often a good idea to get a fresh perspective from someone who is an avid reader in your particular genre. He doesn't even have to have mad editorial skills to be helpful--the reader's reaction alone can be informative. Which scenes or characters stand out for him? What themes is he picking up? What piqued his attention? Where did it wane?

Write Out a Sketch of Each Character. How well do you know your characters? The more specific you get about each character the easier it's going to be to get to the heart of the story. Knowing your character goes far beyond superficial details. Even though I had a complete manuscript with well-developed characters I still sat down and wrote out everything I knew about them. What I discovered is that throughout the manuscript my characters' motivations and wants were a little cloudier than I thought. It's not enough to know what they're feeling--you have to know what's at stake for them and what they're willing to lose. I'll have more specifics on this in a future post.

Make an Outline. Most writers belong in one of two camps--outliners and wingers. Some need to plan out the entire plot in advance, while others--like me--follow wherever the characters  take them. I've been a longtime proponent of winging it, believing in Robert Frost's assertion "no surprises in the writer, no surprises in the reader" but I'm changing my tune a little bit. I've realized that part of the reason why my story wasn't working was that I'd failed to make some key decisions. The plot was chugging along, but since I didn't know my characters as well as I should have, their actions weren't specific enough. To remedy this problem, I went through the entire manuscript and wrote a summary of what needed to be accomplished in each scene. I also wrote summaries for scenes that appeared to be missing. As I did this, the story became much more focused. Now, as I'm rewriting, I'm able to approach each work day in a more relaxed way because I've already decided what each scene needs.

Keep the Momentum Going by Setting Goals. When you feel ready to tackle your rewrite, set a deadline and tell others about it to hold yourself accountable. I've chosen August 31st as my deadline (with you , dear blog reader, as my witness). In order to stay on track, I've divided the number of days until my deadline by the number of chapters. I need to edit a chapter every three days in order to keep on track. I have written each chapter deadline on my calendar so I know where I stand. Currently, I'm three days ahead of schedule--yay me!

Write Every Day. Until now, I've given myself weekends off. I'll probably go back to that schedule eventually, but right now I can't imagine letting a day go by without doing a little editing. It's been tough with summer break and the kids being home. I have to steal my writing time any way I can. The confidence I'm feeling right now is a brittle, fragile thing. I can't afford to let myself get stuck again.

What do you do to get unstuck?

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Tie Breaker


It's been an interesting week.

As some of you know, I've found myself in new territory this year. I finished the first draft of a novel that I love but that my agent doesn't. My original plan was to put it on the shelf for a while and move onto something else, another novel that I started a few years ago. Instead, I gave the draft to a trusted friend, a novelist who has a lot of experience in the field. He gave it a read and the verdict is in: he loved it. Maybe even a bit more than I'd hoped he would.

We met for coffee and had a long talk about agents. I learned some interesting things. My friend has had the same agent for over thirty years and they've had many disagreements. As one might expect, agents have biases. Depending on the kind of novel my friend turns in, he already has a sense if his agent will or won't like it. Agents also have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to editing. My friend listens carefully to his agent's suggestions and if he strongly disagrees, he then turns to his editor as a tie-breaker. Ultimately, my friend decides what stays and what goes.

It was empowering to be reminded that I, as the creator of the work, have the final say. I've generally approached criticism with an open mind and trust that when someone finds a problem with my work there must be an issue that ought to be addressed. I also trust in the expertise of others and think that those who ignore counsel do so at their own peril. And yet there's a time, I'm beginning to see, that maybe you need to trust yourself more.

I received a few great podcast suggestions after last week's blog post, one of them being OTHER PPL with Brad Listi (thanks to MWPA's Joshua Bodwell for the suggestion). Listi is the Marc Maron of the literary world and I've been immersing myself in his author interviews. One that stood out for me is a conversation with Stewart O'Nan. His approach is to work is to be slow and steady and to roll with the punches. Among his more traumatizing moments in the publishing business: the time his publicist left in the middle of a book launch and the time the entire staff of his publishing house was fired. Hearing these stories made my current squabble with my agent seem small. I've been writing professionally for twenty years and yet I'm still so green.

So now that I'm feeling confident, I will ride this wave and dive right in. I will spend the summer taking my friend's and my writing group's suggestions and power through another rewrite. I will "write a little every day, without hope, without despair" as prescribed by Isak Dinesen.

I am back.

Friday, May 15, 2015

7 Great Podcasts for Writers

I'm not one of those writers who can sit still for 10-12 hours. I can put in a good 3-4 hours before the quality drops off and I need to move around. With two young kids and many different obligations, I spend most of my time attending to other matters. When I'm not writing, though, I pop in my earbuds and listen to podcasts that feature books, writers, and the creative process. It makes me feel productive, even when I'm not.

Here are seven of my favorite podcasts:


Accomplished actors reading short fiction by great writers in front of a live audience--what's not to love? The mix of old and new writers gives listeners the chance to be reacquainted with revered storytellers and to discover new talent. Listening to actors read is a master class in how to perform a story.


The complete antithesis of SELECTED SHORTS, in that the stories are usually autobiographical and often told by regular people. The storytellers are not allowed to have any notes, but Moth editors help them shape the stories and emphasize certain beats before each performance. The stories are confessional, usually funny, and often heartbreaking. There's a lot to learn here about storytelling. The supportive audiences are a good reminder for all of us who have to speak in public that most audiences are on your side.


Etymology at its most entertaining. Hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett field questions from callers about the origins of phrases and words. The historical tidbits and cultural references revealed are fascinating. With a couple of puzzles thrown in, it's word nerd heaven.


The Canadian Broadcasting Company's Eleanor Wachtel is the queen of the literary interview. While the authors she interviews every week are the crème de la crème of the writing world, the real star of the podcast is Wachtel herself. Unlike many interviewers who seem to have superficial knowledge of the book they are discussing, Wachtel is a thorough, informed reader. She is not only versed in an author's current book, but his entire oeuvre. Wachtel also has a firm grasp of the author's history and makes fascinating connections between his work and his past--often to the surprise of the author himself.


Lopate interviews a range of guests, many of them writers and artists. Unlike Eleanor Wachtel, Lopate seems to have a superficial grasp of any particular topic he is covering, which allows him a layman's approach to any subject. His  intense curiosity and sophistication lead to insightful questions that he fires off at terrifying speed. Many of this guests end up being thrown a little off-kilter, which allows for refreshing moments of candor.


In depth interviews with interesting people (many of them authors) in front of a live audience. The conversation generally steers toward the creative process and the role of art in our lives. The tone is casual but insightful and reflective. It's an easy-listening podcast, yet still thought-provoking.


This is where I go when I want to find out what's shakin' in the publishing industry. In-depth reviews, reports on publishing trends, and bestseller news make me feel like I'm still in the literary loop.

What's your favorite podcast for writers?

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Good Kick in the Pants

Since my last post, I've been taking stock. I've been reading a lot, listening to podcasts for writers, talking to my friends, family, my agent. I've been working on a short story and luxuriating in the freshness of new characters and in the economy of language that short fiction affords. I've been trying to fill the proverbial well as described by Julia Cameron in THE ARTIST'S WAY by taking long walks, riding my bike, watching films, and looking at art. Most of all, I've been doing the soul-searching necessary to decide how to proceed with my stalled novel.

I've had quite a few moments of self-pity. I've felt spent, used up, obsolete. I've felt like the literary world is a grand ball and I am a wallflower, thrilled to be invited to the party but worried that I'll never really fit in. I've spent far too much time fretting over how much time has passed since my last novel. I've looked at the titles on the bestseller lists and decided that the type of books I write are a real long shot for that kind of success.

Blah, blah, blah. Funny how the universe seems to know just when to give you a good kick in the pants.

One day, while I was sulking and cleaning the house (to make myself feel worthy and useful), I was listening to an episode of The New York Public Library's podcast. It was an interview with Cheryl Strayed, the author of WILD. While they were talking about publishing and the writing process, the interviewer relayed this story told by EAT, PRAY, LOVE author Elizabeth Gilbert:
[I found the transcript of the story here.]

I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc.
Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”
I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.” 

Wow. This was exactly what I needed to hear.  I copied Herzog's quote and hung it above my desk.

I've been repeating this mantra to myself every day. It helps me remember that this life, this career is of my own choosing and by extension so are the problems that accompany it. No one has asked me to write. The world will continue on just fine if I don't. But I won't be all right--I'll be miserable. So I  must write for me and no one else. I will let go of expectations. I will stop whining and get back to work.

And you know what? Suddenly, I felt the pressure lift off my shoulders. Last night, I was minding my own business, when ideas for the novel surfaced. I grabbed a notebook and starting writing as fast as I could. The well, it seemed, had been replenished.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Back to the Drawing Board...Maybe

As you know, Dear Blog Readers, I am an optimist by nature and tend to use this platform as a place of encouragement and support. While my view of the publishing industry may seem overly sunny at times, it's because my six years of working in NYC exposed me to many of the smart, well-intentioned, passionate people who work in the industry. Everyone I've ever met who works in publishing is crazy about books and getting good manuscripts into the hands of readers. I like to mention this as often as I can because it pains me to hear these people being repeatedly maligned by those who have little understanding of what really goes on in Big Publishing.

That being said, things can and do go wrong--and I would be remiss to gloss over the bad times. If I'm here to share my experience of the writing life, then I have to be honest when things get tough. Since we writers can be competitive and a little bit protective of our reputations, I think there's a tendency for us to avoid talking about failure. Maybe we don't want to appear vulnerable. Still, we do each other a disservice when pretend we everything is rosy all the time.

As I wrote in a previous post ("The Summer of Crazy"), last May I turned in my first draft of a novel I've been working on in fits and starts since my twins were born ten years ago. At the time, it felt terrific to finally complete something after being out of the publishing world for so long. I was sure it was my strongest work to date and was thrilled to finally show it to my agent. Unfortunately, my agent didn't share my enthusiasm. I cried for two days.

When we discussed the story at length, he raved about the writing but thought the plot needed some work. His comments were insightful and on the money. I felt better--energized and ready to get back to work. I did a round of revisions, pretty sure that I fixed all his points of concern.

I was wrong.

We had another discussion and this time I felt a little fuzzier about what I was supposed to aim for. I did a second round of revisions. I took an ax to the manuscript. It still fell short.

Third round of revisions. This time I felt like I was completely in the dark. I was losing confidence and interest. I was beginning to go against my own instincts. We both knew this was bad news. In the end, my agent's verdict was the same: it wasn't coming together the way he would like. Time to put it aside. Did I have any other stories to develop?

This was really tough news to hear. How could I possibly toss away something I've spent so much time and effort on, especially when I felt this was my best work and that maybe, just maybe he was wrong? I cried--though much less than the first time around--thinking about all the time I'd lost and how the manuscript wasn't any closer to publication. I went to war with myself, considering my options:

Should I....

1) Throw in the towel? Every author has a book or two in their closet that had to be scrapped. This will be mine.

But I can't imagine giving up on this story. This is some of the best stuff I've ever written. My gut tells me that one way or another, something from this manuscript will be published.

2) Cannibalize the story? I could chop the novel up into separate short stories or use a character for something new so it wouldn't feel like a complete waste of time.

This is a realistic solution, but something I'd like to avoid having to do. 

3) Step away from it for a while? Maybe if I put it aside for at least six months I could gain a little clarity and figure out on my own what needed to be fixed.

Aside from losing more time, this is a good plan. 

4) Get a second opinion? Share it with a few trusted readers to get their take on it. If they feel the same way my agent does, then I'll have to really do some soul-searching.

Yes! Other opinions are exactly what I need right now. It can help me make an informed decision about what to do next.

5) Get a new agent? Maybe it's time to find someone else who can better articulate what the story needs or whose vision is closer to mine.

Something to consider, but not something I'm inclined to do. Aside from this hiccup, we have a good relationship and I trust him. Plus, he's a top agent. Trying to find another agent is a big risk on many levels. 

So, after thinking it over a bit, my plan was to set it aside for a while and come back to it in six months with fresh eyes. 

Then, an interesting thing happened: I met with my writing group. I had been giving them a few scenes at a time to get their opinions and the response was overwhelmingly positive. They seemed to love the characters and were very invested in the story. They couldn't wait to read the rest and wanted me to send all of it at once instead of in dribs and drabs. I couldn't believe it....and I was more confused than ever.

Suddenly, I found myself unable to put the story aside. I contacted a friend of mine who is a novelist and he offered to take a look. I'll be interested in hearing his point of view. I have a feeling he'll be a 'tiebreaker' of sorts and his feedback will give me a better sense of how to proceed.

In the meantime, I'm polishing an old short story I've been wanting to finish and hope to send it around in a few weeks. It will be nice to have something else to think about for a while.

Have you encountered a big setback in your writing career? How did you move forward?