Beating the Frustration of Great Expectations

Sometimes Life just doesn’t conform to our expectations. As John Lennon famously sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” We expect things to go one way, and they turn down a road that isn’t even on your GPS.

I’ve been having one of those “off-roading” months (which may explain the quiet but insistent voice that keeps saying, “Turn around immediately”). Life has been getting in the way of my writing. My 21-month-old demands a great deal of my attention, plus we are in the process of moving. And then there are the million other things on the To-Do list (which never gets shorter, somehow).

I made the choices that have put me in this position, of course. And although I do not regret those choices, I do sometimes regret the loss of time those choices have forced upon me. Note I said “regret” and not “resent.” Resentment is a destructive emotion, robbing you of the ability to enjoy any part of your life. But even when you love the life you have (as I do), you can still be frustrated when trying to balance your expectations with reality.

When I don’t get as much writing done as I expected, frustration grabs me and I wonder what is wrong with me that I can’t find time to write more. I mean, you hear about these moms who raise twenty kids and cook all the meals from scratch and have pristine houses and still find time to run a successful business out of their home. Why am I not one of those? Am I not efficient enough? Do I not have a strong enough work ethic? Do I sleep too much?

No matter how many times I look at my schedule, I cannot squeeze more time out of it. I am highly efficient in that I get everything done that NEEDS to be done. I have a very strong work ethic, judging by the fact that I sleep much less than I should in order to get done all I need to get done. And still I feel like I am stuck in that dream where you run as fast as you can but don’t move. I am putting out fires in my writing, but don’t feel that I am moving forward as a whole—at least, not as quickly as I would like.

So (other than cloning myself), what’s the answer? Do I need to lower my expectations? Am I expecting too much of myself? Probably—I have a habit of setting the bar pretty high. But as an unpublished writer, I am the only one who DOES expect anything from me. I do not have editors and agents pushing me for deadlines. So without my own high expectations, it would be easy to slack off to the point of stopping altogether. To do it when the baby’s older, when we are not moving, when summer craziness is not a factor.

But the truth is, there is always SOMETHING. Life will always get in the way. A friend once told me that there was no perfect time to have a child, and if you waited for that perfect time, you never would have children. Writing is like that, too. There is never going to be a perfect time to write. So I just write.

I write (and accept) my less-than-utopian daily word count knowing that someday I will have more time again. That someday we will have completed this seemingly unending moving process and be in the new house. That someday my child will go to school and I can work during the day. And that when that day comes, I will miss the hours spent with my child and being the central figure in her life.

So, I let my frustration melt into the delight of watching my daughter grow and develop—that daily miracle we so often take for granted. I listen as her vocabulary soars and her imagination opens up new worlds for both of us. Her laughter brings light, her face shines with the wonder of play, her eyes glow with the fascination of exploration. On any given day, her joy trumps my frustration, and she shows me how to truly live.

What’s your cure for your writerly frustration?

Trifecta: L.A. Banks; David Roth; and Where Ideas Come From

A bit of writing community business before we begin:

Author L.A. Banks is still fighting hard against her illness, and her fellow Liars Club members are throwing a Writers Rave bash on 8/6 at Smokey Joe’s, 40th Street in University City in Philly for her benefit! Fantastic silent auctions are in the works, including full ms. read and phone crit from lit agent Jennifer DeChiara, and two tix to Jersey Boys on Broadway plus backstage tour and signed poster. Come join this massive meetup and have a blast for a great cause!

In other news, don’t miss David Roth’s blog tour when he stops in at The Author Chronicles on Friday, July 22!

Now for the fun stuff:

Finally, I have an answer to the question writers get asked all the time: Where do you get your ideas?

My latest idea came when I was in a shower that had a glass front. I quite suddenly felt like an animal in a zoo. So then I started wondering why I would be in a zoo. What kind of zoo, and where was it located? What was the story behind my being there? Forcibly captured, or born in captivity?

By the time all the hot water was gone, I knew why I was in a zoo. Someday, if I ever have time to write that story (I have so many on my list!), you will know why I was in a zoo, too.

Where has inspiration struck for you?


I’m a Monkees fan (and using this to test how video works on this blog!).

The Art of the Collaborative Writing Process

I talked last week about collaboration agreements and creative control, but people often ask me about the process of working with a collaborator. How does it actually work? After all, writing is usually a solitary pursuit.

Truthfully, every collaboration partnership will find the process that works best for them. In non-fiction, the most common partnership is where one person provides the knowledge or expertise while the other does the actual writing. It can work this way in fiction, too, where one partner who loves research provides the details the other writer needs to make the book’s world pop.

In fiction, probably the most important consideration is voice—the novel must have a consistent voice and feel to the writing all the way through. The exception, of course, is when the writers purposely want two distinct voices or points of view in the structure of the story, such as alternating chapters from different characters’ POV. In the vast majority of cases, however, the book should feel “whole,” with no indication that multiple writers had their fingers on the keyboard.

The best way to achieve this is to have one writer be the primary writer. The primary should be the writer whose natural voice best fits the purpose and tone of the story. This will mean less revision later for reasons of voice, which is one of the harder things to edit and revise for if it is not strong from the start.

The primary writes the first draft; then the secondary takes it and makes edits, additions, suggestions, etc.; then it returns to the primary to be “polished” into the proper voice. Some may choose to have the secondary write the first draft and then the primary work it into the right voice in a rewrite, but I believe that is an inefficient process. The primary would almost certainly have to do a complete rewrite of every chapter to get the voice the collaborators want.

In my collaborative fiction project, I am working with two other writers. We each bring different strengths to the table. I am the primary writer, because my voice is the one we liked best for the project. I tend to focus on character and emotion. One of my collaborators, Jim Kempner, is excellent with plot and research. My other collaborator, Jeff Pero, is a line editor with a great nose for writing action. So our process goes something like this:

We all hash out the outline of the book. This was an enormously fun part of the project, full of synergy and enthusiasm. I then wrote the first draft. Then Jim took it and added detail and description and poked holes in the plot and logic, which he then mended. Jeff took it from there, checking for grammar but also policing the pacing and action. We all, of course, also kept an eye on character and dialogue and all the other things we writers need to juggle!

After Jeff, it came back to me, and I polished it, massaging all of Jim and Jeff’s inserts into the voice of the book. Then we all sat down together, read it out loud, and made line-by-line edits.

And that is how the three of us wrote our book, The Egyptian Enigma.

Have you ever worked with a collaborator? What was your process like?

The Collaboration Agreement: A Literary Pre-nup

Collaborative writing has always been prevalent in non-fiction, but it seems to be becoming more frequent in fiction as well. To that end, I want to talk a little bit about collaboration agreements and what they cover—and don’t.

I am not a lawyer, but I have been involved in two collaborative projects—one non-fiction, one fiction. In both cases, we made sure to sign a collaboration agreement. In the non-fiction project, we were all strangers so it made a lot of sense to protect ourselves in this way. In the fiction project, we are friends, so it was even MORE important to sign an agreement.

Why, you ask? If you’re friends, doesn’t the legal stuff strain the relationship?

Absolutely not. In fact, it is essential that friends sign an agreement in order to KEEP their friendship intact. Face it, people get nuts when money is involved. Knowing up front how money and rights will be divided takes all that pressure off and lets you just do the project and be friends.

I’m not going to cover in detail what is in a collaboration agreement. You can read a sample one from the Writers Guild of America. The National Writers Union is also a good resource for all things freelance.

Basically, a collaboration agreement lays out what the work is that you are collaborating on, how rights and money will be divided, and what happens in different eventualities, such as one partner dying or deciding to quit the project.

What I think is also important, but is not covered in this legal agreement, is creative control. By that I mean, who has the final say? If the two of you (or in my case, three) don’t quite see the vision the same way, whose wins out? In my case, we have talked it out until we reached consensus, but that can 1) be slow and 2) lead to something that no one is completely happy with. It can also lead to fantastic synergistic ideas that never would have come about on your own!

Another aspect of creative control is final editorial control. When you’re working on plot and scenes and the language and those end-stage revisions, and you disagree whether a scene should be in or out, or whether using “gorgeous” is better than “breath-taking”, who wins? In a case where one partner is a writer and the other is not, the writer should have final say. In a case of multiple writers? Well, once again my experience has been with the haggle system, which works fine but is deadly slow when you reach the line-by-line stage of revision.

My suggestion for who gets final say over the creative control is this: 1) The Writer always wins if the other partner is not one. 2) In the case of multiple writers, the one who brought the original idea should be the overseer.

While modifying the collaboration agreement to include a Creative Control person might not be legal (you’d have to ask a lawyer), it is a good idea to discuss and decide on one with your partner(s).

The Creative Control manager needs to beware of becoming a dictator. Remember why you teamed up with your collaborator in the first place—because this person(s) has valuable contributions to bring to the project. Keep an open mind, because synergy can strike when you least expect it. In my own fiction case, I know that my partners’ ideas and plotting and research and writing skills have made the book a thousand times better than what I could have done alone.

So sign that collaboration agreement and get on with the fun stuff—writing!

The Gift of Our Elders

Americans live in a society that does not value its elderly. This is a fact, and a sad one. I am heavily interested in genealogy, and even though my parents taught me early on to respect the older members of our family (and society), it was not until I got older that I began to appreciate them as real people. People with amazing stories to tell and wisdom to share. And at just about the time I began to realize what a treasure they were, they began to die.

On June 11, my family lost two gems on the same night—my great-aunt Clare (aged 93) and my great-uncle Ed (aged 90). Ed was married to Clare’s sister. Clare and her sister were my grandmother’s sisters—the last three people to carry the Warren surname in my line. Now only the youngest sister remains.

I didn’t get to know my Aunt Clare nearly as well as I would have liked. She lived on the opposite coast, in Washington, so I saw her rarely. As the eldest of the Warren sisters, we called her the Matriarch of the family. Aunt Clare lived up to that title—she took great pride in the Warren clan and all of our accomplishments. She found great joy in joining us all for rare sprawling family reunions, and loved getting cards from us even as her health declined.

The few times I met her in person, I remember her quick laugh and sparkling eyes, and the genuine interest she showed in every member of the family, no matter how young. And I remember her telling us that she always disliked her formal name of Clara, and therefore always used Clare—so much so that her younger sister had never even known that Clara was her real name! We will all miss her warm heart and bright smile.

I knew Uncle Ed slightly better. I had visited him and my great-aunt several times at their retirement community. He was a fantastic woodworker, carving birds and ducks so good they should be in a museum. He enjoyed trains, too, and cars—for years Uncle Ed had met my father, brother, nephew, and uncle for the annual Philadelphia Car Show. Uncle Ed was also a compulsive photographer. While I can’t honestly ever remember him with a camera in his hand, he had carousels of slides from when his children (and my father) were young, and he loved to show them when given the opportunity.

Uncle Ed embodied kindness—a soft voice, a welcoming smile, and gentle eyes. His love for all his family was always obvious, as was his love for his wife. Once, when my husband and I were visiting them, Uncle Ed told us that his courtship with my great-aunt had several parallels to ours. Among them was that he had lived in New Jersey, my aunt in Pennsylvania. He had to cross the river every time he wanted to see her and pay the hefty 25-cent toll. He decided he had better marry my aunt quickly, before he went broke!

The year my husband and I married was Uncle Ed and my aunt’s 60th wedding anniversary. We made sure to take a picture with them at our reception, to commemorate their achievement and in hopes that we can do as well in our marriage. Uncle Ed and his wife faced all of their lives—the good and the bad—with love, laughter, and faith, and we hope we can do the same.

Unlike Aunt Clare, Uncle Ed did get to meet my daughter at one of the monthly family get-togethers at a diner near their house. I am grateful for that, although my daughter will not remember. But I will remember.

I will remember these two warm, kind, gentle people who lived their lives with discipline, fortitude, and respect for their fellow human beings. I will remember that while the world they grew up in has vanished, their values and principles should not. I will remember how they lived and how they loved, and be forever grateful for this gift from my elders.

The 3 “C”s of Believability

Reality can be strange.

On June 11, within hours of each other, my great-uncle Ed and my great-aunt Clare passed away. Uncle Ed was married to Aunt Clare’s sister, so they were in-laws. One lived in Pennsylvania, the other in Washington state. If an author put something so odd in a book, people would say, “That could never happen in real life.”

This got me thinking about the importance of believability in our writing (rather than something profound, like, say, my own mortality). No matter what world we are writing about, whether it is contemporary or science fiction or fantasy, readers must be able to believe in it—to feel that it is real. I identified three elements that make—or fail to make—that belief happen.

The first is context. You need to situate your readers firmly in your world. You need to lay out what they need to know early on, so their expectations match what you are going to give them. They need to understand the rules of your world and then you must follow the rules you set. The events that occur in a story must be plausible—not merely possible, but probable.

The second element is consistency. By this I mean internal cohesion in both events (see above) and in character actions. Characters must always act in accordance to their personality. If you have them suddenly do something far out of character, it rattles the reader. This doesn’t mean that your characters cannot act in surprising ways. But the characters must act in accordance with the internal logic of the story and of themselves. All of us know that sometimes we act out of character—but there is always a reason, and that reason is always consistent with who we are as a person. As long as you clearly show that reason for your character, the reader will believe in him or her.

The last is confidence—a deft authorial voice. If readers feel that they are in good hands, they will follow you more willingly. They will suspend disbelief just a shade more because they have faith that it will all make sense in the end. A tentative, hesitant, or wavering voice will give readers pause and perhaps even make them more attuned to flaws in believability.

If we lack any one of those three elements, we run the risk of breaking the dream for our readers. The moment we step outside the believability box, the spell breaks and we may not get the chance to recapture the magic.

Are there other elements of writing that you think are essential to creating and maintaining believability in our writing?


I mentioned in an earlier post that I was joining a group blog called The Author Chronicles. We launched the blog the last week in May and have been thrilled with the results!

Our posts on Balticon45 and the 2011 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference (Overview, Closing Panel, and Photos) generated a ton of traffic, and we are pleased to see that a lot of those readers have stuck around. We’re keeping up with our weekly Tuesday posts, which will rotate through the five writers in the group. We’ve established our Top Picks Thursday feature, which is a roundup of links we found interesting and helpful throughout the week, and we hope to add interviews and guest bloggers to the lineup in the near future.

Although adding another blog to my already jam-packed schedule may seem insane, I believe this was a wise move. The Author Chronicles has driven traffic to my website and to this blog as well. I also love working with fellow writers Nancy Keim Comley, Gwendolyn Huber, J. Thomas Ross, and Matt Q. McGovern. Their voices are fresh and their enthusiasm is catching!

I look forward to continuing to grow The Author Chronicles readership, to bringing our readers useful and engaging content, and to applying those same lessons here at The Goose’s Quill. I also look forward to figuring out how to insert pictures properly into a blog post and how to make the number 8 followed by a ) not automatically turn into a smilie face. 8)

I am enjoying my new adventure, and invite you to come along. If you haven’t checked out today’s Top Picks Thursday, you’re missing some great links!

My Biggest Takeaway: 2011 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference

“Takeaway” is a word often used in the business world, meaning the lesson, advice, or information you got from a seminar, meeting, or conference. “What’s the takeaway?” is a common question. Oddly, I could not find that definition online on any of the big dictionary sites. They all told me it meant the same as “takeout” – as in, “Do you want fries with that?”

You have probably seen the posts I did on the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, both here and on The Author Chronicles blog. So you know there was a TON of awesome information in those workshops.

But none of that was my biggest takeaway.

My biggest takeaway came from my pitch with Sarah Yake of Frances Collin Agency.

You may know, from previous posts, that I struggle with anxiety. That I would have rather suffered another C-section than pitch face-to-face. You may also know that the Act Like A Writer Workshop in March 2011 caused an epiphany which let me approach my nemesis with an entirely different mindset.

That didn’t stop the terror when faced with a real agent, however.

I sat at Sarah Yake’s table and waited. She wasn’t there. In fact, none of the agents were in place yet. Every one of the agent tables held only a nervous writer staring into empty air, a rather bizarre tableaux repeated five times.

I wondered if I would remember to breathe while speaking. If I would remember to make eye contact. If I would remember my pitch. If I would remember my name. After a few minutes which felt like an epoch, all the agents hurried toward their tables.

Sarah was personable, enthusiastic, and interested. She was also slightly flustered because a faulty clock had made all the agents a touch late, and this show of humanity went a long way to calming my nerves. Sarah also appeared to be younger than I am, which I think kicked in some of my mommy instincts – I wanted to make her feel at ease, since she was obviously embarrassed about being a little late!

Once we began talking, the most unbelievable thing happened. All my anxiety drained away. My hands stopped shaking. My stomach stopped twitching. Not only did I remember to breathe, but I breathed easily. I sailed through my pitch confidently. Even when I missed some information, I deftly inserted it later in our conversation.

If I had not had such a nice person as the first agent I ever pitched to, I suppose my experience might have become a nightmare. As it was, it became the most profound takeaway I could have imagined.

I can pitch.

I can pitch well.

The confidence I draw from this lesson will carry far beyond my writing career.

Thanks Jonathan Maberry & Keith Strunk (Act Like A Writer teachers), Don Lafferty (I didn’t forget your pep talk just before Sarah came down), PWC, and Sarah Yake (such a sweet person!) for giving me a takeaway that will change my life in ways I can’t even imagine yet.

Confessions of a Conference Virgin: Day 3 of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference

Today was the final day of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. I started it off by getting lost on the way in, but I still made it on time.

I also found that a friend and colleague of mine, James S. Kempner, had taken 3 different prizes in the PWC contests—one a first prize! Congrats to Jim!

This morning kicked off with a 1-day workshop by author and editor Kathryn Craft, who enlightened us with 13 Tips and Tricks for better writing. I wanted to whip out my manuscript right there and start applying them—they are a sure way to improve your writing.

Then on to the final day of author Kelly Simmon’s Novel: Plot workshop. Her 7 Cs checklist gives a comprehensive yet manageable way to approach plot, particularly if you are not a natural outliner. I’m a partial outliner myself, and can easily see that incorporating her ideas will help me improve my novel before I ever write a word of it.

After lunch, author Gregory Frost wrapped up his advice on Novel: Character. After a review of simplex, complex, and multiplex characters, we created a character from scratch. While we rendered a rather hilarious persona and the ghost that haunts him, the exercise showed us the basic steps to creating a multi-dimensional character with enough room to grow throughout your novel.

In the YA workshop with author Catherine Stine, she spoke about how to find agents and editors, and shared some of her experiences with agents. We also practiced our 3-sentence elevator pitches and discussed the competing yet very similar merits of writing programs Scrivener (about $50) versus yWriter (free).

My mind was far too fried to stay for the closing panel, but I’m certain it will be as informative as the rest of the conference. I’m thinking I should book my reservations for next year!

WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien