Routines and Revisions – CoronaLife Day 187

This is my daughter’s second week of remote learning, and we are settling into a routine again. Unfortunately for me, every school-time routine means I don’t get enough sleep. No matter how hard I try, it is always later than I want it to be before I get to bed, and that alarm goes off awfully early in the morning.

However, a routine is helpful. My daughter is old enough now that she does not need constant help with her schoolwork. Unlike the spring remote learning, where we were all simply trying not to drown, her teacher is online live with her and the class for 4 straight hours (with small breaks in between lessons so the kids can move around, go to the bathroom, etc). Then a lunch break, then my daughter goes back up to her “art studio” to do her Specials work and anything she hasn’t finished in class.

Since she also makes her own breakfast and lunch, that leaves my day more open than it has been all summer. It’s still hard to concentrate, because my daughter pops down at every break to chat, but I can get some work done during the daylight hours (if I can stay awake!). As a result, I have been able to work some more on revising Veritas later in the afternoon and evenings.

As I said in a previous post, I have been using Lisa Cron’s Story Genius to revise, but I got hung up on what she calls the third rail—those competing desires that fuel the inner conflict of your protagonist. I wasn’t quite understanding it, or at least I could not clarify it enough to find one that felt “right” for Veritas, until I spoke to my friend Kathryn Craft, who is a wonderful developmental editor. She reframed the idea for me, coming at it from several other angles, and at last I “saw” what I needed.

I have spent the past week chipping away at the rest of Story Genius, laying the groundwork which will both support and propel the story. I feel like it’s finally coming together. This is a major revision of an already well-polished story, and what I am finding is that all the pieces I needed were already in the story—I just have to put them together in a different way. So, yay to my subconscious for knowing what needed to be in there, even while my conscious brain missed the point.

My plan from here on out, now that I think I grasp what I need to do, is to use Cron’s Story Cards concept to examine my existing scenes and align them with my new insights, and figure out if any more need to be added (or deleted). We shall see how it goes.

How are you settling into your fall routine? Is it much different from your summer one?

Slow Days of August – CoronaLife Day 166

This week has been slow for me, although productive. My Board of Education duties took up a great deal of time this week, with policies to review (they are good for curing insomnia).

I am also beta-reading a manuscript with my daughter. My friend Keith Strunk wrote a middle grade book and asked my 10-year-old daughter to give him her thoughts. I am reading it with her because she is always scared to read a new author alone, and it is a fun thing we can share. I was also glad to do it because I have been hearing about this book for a long time and couldn’t wait to finally see the finished story!

In my own work, I had gotten hung up with revisiting my story Vertias. Lisa Cron’s Story Genius was guiding me well, but then I ran aground on a concept I could not quite wrap my head around. I felt I was very close to crafting a compelling “third rail,” but I knew I didn’t quite have it. So I turned to my friend, author and editor Kathryn Craft, who simplified the concept and came at it from another angle so my pandemic brain could comprehend it properly. I need to re-read all that she put in her insightful and detailed email to me, but once I do I think I will be able to move forward with more confidence. I feel that if I can get this right, get the beginning right, the rest will follow more easily.

As summer comes to a close, we are preparing for a new school year. It will be unlike the beginning of any other school year ever, but we are up for the adventure and we know we will all get through it together.

How are you spending these last weeks of summer?

Moving Forward – CoronaLife Day 152

So last week was a bad week. I felt so completely stuck in so many areas of my life, I was quite down about it. This week has been better because I had a plan and I actually followed it!

I have been avoiding returning to my YA sci-fi Veritas. I did a major rework of it last year, and managed to make it worse instead of better. So back to the drawing board, but I have been struggling with the lack of energy and motivation that comes with anxiety and prolonged stress.

I have sporadically reworked the opening chapters since January, ending up with about 14,500 words done. But then I ground to a halt, because I wasn’t quite sure where to go next. So I returned to the notes given to me by my trusty developmental editor Kathryn Craft, looking for clues as to how to move forward.

Kathryn did not let me down! She suggested I use Lisa Cron’s Story Genius book and Jennie Nash’s Inside Outline to zero in on motivation and connecting all the emotional/psychological beats that would make the story compelling. I was already familiar with Story Genius, having read it and used it for another story, and knew I would find it useful for this one. After I looked at the Inside Outline, I knew I couldn’t use it at this point. I am not an outliner, and just looking at it made the enthusiasm drain right out of me. But it will definitely be a tool I will use after I complete the new draft I am working on.

I didn’t want to set myself up for failure. So I decided to set a goal of doing one step in an exercise from Story Genius a day. If I wanted to do more, fine. But one was the goal. And I have been doing that. Walking through Story Genius, I am getting a handle on the inner conflict that drives my protagonist and the misbelief that must be resolved by the end of the story. I am getting more excited as I see thing more clearly. I finally feel like I am making progress.

Granted, it’s not actual writing yet. But I think once I get all this straight in my head, the manuscript words will come more easily. And even though I haven’t added words to my manuscript with these exercises, I have written 1,500 words of exercises. Which is something.

So I am finally moving forward with my writing, and it feels good.

What have you done lately to get yourself moving forward?

The Goose’s Quill Top Posts of 2017

At the end of every year, I look back and see what posts resonated most with my readers. This year’s top posts were a nice mix of writing posts and mom/life posts.

  1. Rejection: A Mother’s Perspective
  1. Public Speaking: 4 Circles of Fear
  1. Marketing Desert
  1. In the Query Trenches
  1. Someday
  1. A Safe Place to Recharge
  1. Time Travel: Philly to Phoenix and back in 52 hours
  1. 5 Ways Writing is like Physical Therapy
  1. When You Realize What You Were Missing

And the #1 post on 2017:

  1. Thoughts Inspired by Writers Resist Philadelphia

I hope you enjoyed some of these posts, and I hope to keep serving up posts my readers love in 2018! Have a happy and safe New Year, everyone!

Character Voice: Easy to hear, hard to write

Every writer is familiar with the idea of voice. Every writer has their own author voice. Some are terse; some lyrical. Some are plot oriented; some character. It takes time to develop, but eventually every writer finds a voice that is uniquely theirs.

When writing fiction, however, authorial voice is not enough. Our characters have to have their own strong voice, particularly if the story is in first person.

Character voice is a concept I understand but don’t “get”. My brain understands character voice, and I know it when I read it:

“Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich.  We got six thousand dollars apiece—all gold.  It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up.  Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round—more than a body could tell what to do with.  The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.  I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied.  But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable.  So I went back.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

or

“I knew there was going to be trouble the minute I saw him, which was the minute that tall man carried me over to the kennel and said, ‘I bet you two will get along.’ Immediately I said at the top of my lungs, ‘WHAT? WHAT? DO YOU SEE THE SIZE OF THAT DOG? DO YOU SEE THE SIZE OF ME? How can you expect me to share space with a HIPPOPOTAMUS DISGUISED AS A CANINE? All the fur isn’t fooling ME. I am going to get SQUASHED BY GIANT PAWS and THEN where would the world be? ME-LESS, I tell you! I DEMAND A PRIVATE KENNEL! DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?’” – The Incredibly Important True Story of Me! by Tui T. Sutherland (in the anthology Lucky Dog: Twelve Tales of Rescued Dogs)

But I find it very hard to get right on the page.

My first few novels only had a single point of view character, so if there was a significant overlap between author voice and character voice, it wasn’t terribly noticeable.

My current work in progress, however, has 3 POV characters—a significant departure for me. The problem is that they all need to sound distinctly different from one another, which I am finding difficult.

Some writers have suggested maybe I do not know these characters well enough to hear their voices. Perhaps they are correct, although I feel I know these characters intimately. I have never been a writer who “hears” their characters talking to them in their head. It’s apparently not how my creative brain works.

However, in chipping away at the revisions, the three voices have become more distinct. The last to fall into place was my 16-year-old boy’s voice, but I did finally hear him loud and clear.  Now I can only hope I can get all that onto the page.

We worked on character voice in one of Kathryn Craft’s Craftwriting workshops, and I feel that I am edging closer to “getting” it. I hope someday that character voice will be an element I master so I do it more unconsciously. Then I can move on to improving another aspect of my craft.

Does character voice come easily to you? Or do you find them all sounding like mini-mes?

A Safe Place to Recharge

Anyone creative knows that stress can bring your creativity grinding to a halt. My January was an avalanche of physical and emotional stress: family illnesses pretty much every week, an arm injury that is not healing, Donald Trump’s inauguration and the chaos that followed, and the anniversary of my best friend’s death, which always knocks me sideways. My creativity bombed big time. I needed a safe place to recharge.

My tailspin seemed unshakeable. I could still churn out the non-fiction blog posts and query letters, but my fiction vanished. Something outside myself had to bring my focus back. I found that something at Kathryn Craft’s Craftwriting sessions.

My anxiety disorder niggles at me in the best of times, and this January exacerbated it to the limit. I cannot write in that frame of mind, and it is exceedingly hard to “snap out of it” when you are in the depths of the spiral. When I told Kathryn how my anxiety was acting up, she said, “You know you have a safe place here.”

Yes, the term “safe place” has been politicized of late (what hasn’t been?), but we all need some places in life where we feel physically and emotionally safe. Ideally, home is one of those places. If we are lucky, we find other places outside the home where we feel safe. Without that safety net, being creative can be too frightening.

This is especially true at Craftwriting, where we end each session practicing a craft element by writing a scene, and then share it with the group. It can be terrifying to share your first-draft word vomit with a group of people, some of whom you may never have met before that day. Yet we do it, because Kathryn has created a safe place for us to share even the rockiest of writing.

Don’t get me wrong, we do not indulge in the pats-on-the-back, participation trophy type of false praise. We are professional writers, we are there to learn, and we cannot learn without honest feedback. However, we don’t couch the feedback negatively. We talk about what is good about the writing. We offer suggestions of what might be done in future revisions to improve the technique we were studying. But because we are all equally vulnerable (we all had the same 25 minutes to write something—anything—after all), we choose to uplift rather than tear down. I have been taking Kathryn’s Craftwriting workshops for years, and I have never had a negative experience. This is a testament to the atmosphere and expectations Kathryn sets, and the character of the people who come to the workshops.

This round of Craftwriting has done more than (hopefully) improve my craft. It has shaken me out of my daze, and forced the creative flow back to the surface. I’m writing again, and the writing itself is helping me find the stability I had lost in my tumultuous January. I feel more like me again.

And it’s all because I had a safe place to recharge my battery and refocus my mind. Many thanks to Kathryn and the wonderful participants of the workshops for providing me with exactly what I needed reconnect to my writing.

Do you have a special place to recharge or to reground yourself when you lose your writing mojo?

The Dread Synopsis

I am in the process of gathering materials together to query my middle grade historical adventure The Curse of the Pharaoh’s Stone. I have a decent query, the manuscript is properly formatted, and I am working on the final piece—the dread synopsis.

The synopsis is notoriously difficult for most writers (there are some odd ducks that actually enjoy it!), and we procrastinate over it as long as possible. It is no wonder we find it hard. It’s a monumental task to take a 56,000 word novel and explain it in about 1,000 words—especially while attempting to infuse it with voice and emotion.

I took some advice from a few blogs on how to get started on the query. First, I wrote one sentence summarizing each chapter, then I turned that list into better-written paragraphs. Next, I polished it, choosing more powerful verbs, adding more emotional language. To my immense relief, the synopsis came in just at 3 double-spaced pages—my target length!

To double-check that I had not missed anything important, I used a technique taught by Kathryn Craft at a recent Philadelphia Writers Conference. By using her advice, I found that I had missed a structural element—the dark moment—and added it in. I also made sure I had enough emotional language and words that showed why this story is relevant to today’s audience.

So now I have a synopsis I am happy with. Yay! Next, however, I have to condense that to one single-spaced synopsis, and then even further to a paragraph. Can I do it? Can I synopsize my synopsis?

We will find out.

Do you have any tips for working on the dread synopsis (of any length)?

River Reads 2016

event-flyerOn Sunday, October 23rd, I participated in the inaugural River Reads author festival. The brainchild of Brandi Megan Granett, with assistance from Marie C. Collins, the 46-author event happened at Prallsville Mills in Stockton, NJ.

The venue buzzed with energy from the moment we set up. The upstairs housed the children’s authors, and we had a great deal of fun decorating and dressing up. The downstairs held the adult authors, who were a bit more sedate but enjoyed visiting us upstairs to chat and filch our candy.

Prallsville Mills

Prallsville Mills

For a first-time event, we had a good customer turnout. Traffic was steady most of the day, peaking between 2-4 in the afternoon. Because of the beautiful weather outside, we also drew in plenty of people who had been hiking or biking on the tow path that runs behind the mill.

Riverside at River Reads

My lunch spot

The Delaware River behind River Reads

The Delaware River

 

 

 

 

 

Author readings ran downstairs (we could hear the applause wafting up the staircase to us), and later in the day, when we had more children in the customer crowd, several readings happened in the upstairs reading area as well.

River Reads upstairs reading spot

Upstairs reading area

The event ran without a hitch, the weather cooperated, and I got to spend the day sharing a table with Jack Hillman, whose chain mail was quite the hit with the customers. I also got to catch up with author friends I hadn’t seen in some time: Donna Galanti, Keith Strunk, Kit Grindstaff, Al Lohn, Kathryn Craft, Phil Giunta, and Kelly Simmons.

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Kit Grindstaff & Donna Galanti at River Reads

Kit Grindstaff & Donna Galanti

 

 

 

 

 

I had a spooky enjoyable time at the first-ever River Reads festival, and I hope they make it an annual event.

Author Kerry Gans at River Reads

My next event will be November 5th at Open Book bookstore in Elkins Park, PA.

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What’s Your Observational Intelligence Quotient?

This article on the Blood-Red Pencil brought to my attention the idea of observational intelligence (OQ). We all know that most writers are pretty observant people, but did you know that there are two types (and a continuum in between)? An “innie” focuses more on the interior direction, and the “outie” focuses more on external observations. Neither is “bad” or “wrong,” but if we know which we are, we can work on strengthening our observational skills.

I took the OQ quiz confident that I would be a solid “innie.” It’s no secret that I am an introvert and prone to introspection. So my score—20—shocked me. It placed me dead in the center of the continuum. So I examined my answers to see how I had gotten that score.

I found that I had rated several of the major external observational factors quite high, while others didn’t register at all. How could that be? Then the pattern became clear.

My anxiety disorder had tipped the scale.

The anxiety disorder makes me hyper-aware of certain things, such as:

  • Where are the exits
  • What is the mood of people around me
  • Hearing even soft sounds while immersed in something else

In other words, I am highly observant of anything that will help keep me safe, help me avoid dangerous situations, and allow me to flee if needed.

Other external factors, not so much. I am rarely aware of:

  • What people are wearing
  • The color of walls in a room
  • If something subtle has changed in the room since last time I was there

So the good news is that I am more observant than I thought. And I could work to become even more observant of those factors I rarely notice now, which could improve my writing.

I think, though, I would have to have a limited observational improvement. As with most anxiety-disordered people, sensory overload happens easily for me. And when I get overloaded, I shut down and stop interacting. I feel like I’m not really there, as if I’m watching everything from outside my body. It is an uncomfortable and frustrating feeling. So while I would like to up my OQ, I think I would only “engage” the new skills at selective times and places, when I am not already feeling overwhelmed.

What’s your OQ?

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The “Black Moment” of the Writing Process

My friend Jerry Waxler likened the writing of a book to the Hero’s Journey. As most of you know, one of the stages of the Hero’s Journey is the black moment or dark moment–that moment in the story where all seems lost and hope is gone. I think Jerry is on to something with his analogy, because I have experienced a black moment in the writing process just recently.

Over the weekend, I got my YA novel back from my developmental editor, the wonderful Kathryn Craft. I knew I was in for a lot of work, but I didn’t mind because I am one of those writers who actually enjoys revision. I did not have a chance to look at Kathryn’s report over the weekend, so I waited until Monday.

Monday was a bad day to look at the report. My daughter had gotten me up before 6 AM, meaning I was running on about 4.5 hours sleep. That’s never good for morale. And I was in a bad mood for other reasons that had nothing to do with writing. So when I read Kathryn’s report, my eyes filled with tears and I said, “This rewrite is never going to happen. I can’t do this.”

The whole rest of the day I struggled with defeat. Why was I even trying? Why bother? No one really cares if I ever write another word or not. I’m not writing anything deep and meaningful. I’m not going to change anyone’s world.

I have been here before, crushed by the knowledge that my very best effort still is not anywhere near as good as it needs to be–anywhere near where I want it to be. On good days, this is what I love about writing–the knowledge that there is always more to learn, the excitement of scaling the next mountain, reaching the next plateau. On bad days, all I see is a debris pile that used to be my manuscript, and the toil involved in clearing the rubble seems beyond my strength.

I am slowly coming out of the overwhelmed funk. Time helps. Being stubborn (ahem, persistent) helps. Chocolate helps. Being addicted to writing helps. But what really helps is that Kathryn is not only a fabulous editor but an enthusiastic cheerleader, who when I emailed her in a panic told me that I could do it and it would all come clear.

Writing can be lonely, and facing a huge rewrite can be demoralizing. Like our protagonists in their blackest moment, it is our friends who help us find the strength to push through the darkness and continue the journey.

It’s not Thanksgiving yet, but I am thankful for my fellow writers-in-arms. Without them, I would not be where I am, and I certainly would not still be moving forward.

How about you? Do you hit “black moments” in your process? How do you work through them?

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