Philadelphia Writers’ Conference 2019: My Biggest Takeaway

This past weekend was the Philadelphia Writers Conference. I consider it my “home” conference, and I have been going for about 10 years.

Every year I think about what my biggest takeaway is from the conference. I learn so much every year, it’s hard to pick. This year, one thing echoed in almost every workshop: there is no one right way to write.

There are so many ways to write a book. Plotting vs. Pantsing. Linear vs. The Jigsaw Puzzle. Scientific vs. Intuition. Efficient vs. Meandering. And you know what? They are all valid. As long as you end up with a finished, polished product, it’s all good.

The thing I have found about the writing process is that it changes over time. It changes as your skills mature, and according to the needs of your book. For example, my multiple-POV, multiple-subplot YA scifi required more planning than my middle grade single-POV quest story.

Young authors often think there is only one correct way to write a book, and that the professional teaching the workshop is the holder of that Holy Grail. This is certainly not the case, and I was heartened to hear so many of the workshop leaders espouse the uniqueness of each person’s process.

A great thing about a multi-day conference is that we get to concentrate on the writing. We can dim or even turn out the lights of the outside world and immerse ourselves in the writing world. At the beginning of one of my classes, a bird got into the room. It flew around, disoriented, banging into the mirror, until one person got the smart idea to open the doors and turn out the lights in the room. As soon as we turned out the lights, the bird raced to the open doors and flew through to freedom.

Go into the light, my friends—and write your own way.

The Best of The Goose’s Quill 2015

At the beginning of a new year, we typically look forward to the year ahead. Sometimes, though, it is helpful to look back in order to see how far you have come, and evaluate how you did in the past year. I examined my top 20 posts this past year and found that readers read a good mixture of craft and marketing, as well as some of my more personal writing-life posts. In case you missed any, here are the Best of The Goose’s Quill 2015. Enjoy!

  1. When The Hero Is Not The Protagonist
  1. What Big Question Do You Write To Answer?
  1. How To Measure Growth As A Writer
  1. Our Characters’ Other Lives
  1. Adventures In The Land of Zal
  1. Marketing: Doing The Things You Don’t Want To Do
  1. Book Trailer Beginnings
  1. The Truth About Your Productivity
  1. Anticipation Angst and Announcement
  1. The New To-Do List
  1. Introverts, Extroverts, and Social Pain
  1. The Insidious Persistence of Grief
  1. My Biggest Takeaway: 2015 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference
  1. Philadelphia Writers’ Conference: My Annual Oil Change
  1. Writing Longhand: A Generational Divide
  1. Working Vacation: Yes or No?
  1. Empathy: Curse or Blessing?
  1. Revising My Writing Process
  1. Marketing Bits and Pieces

And my #1 post of 2015:

  1. THE WITCH OF ZAL Cover Reveal and Surprise!

NEW RELEASE!

Thank you for reading in 2015—I hope you continue to join me in 2016!

Revising My Writing Process

Every writer has a personal writing process. It is not one size fits all. And many writers change and refine their writing process over time.

Sometimes the change is forced on you, such as when my writing partner died or when my daughter was born and my writing time got slashed to minutes a day rather than hours. Sometimes technology makes you change, like when I stopped writing longhand and began writing on the computer to save time in grad school. And sometimes you change because you realize something isn’t working and you need to tweak the process.

I used to think my writing process was pretty solid. But lately, it’s just not working the way it used to. My writing is good, but tends to stay on a superficial level, not diving deep like I want and need it to. Then when I try to revise to get the depth, I find it hard to get past the words already on the page.

So I’ve been revising my writing process. I once read about an author who writes the whole book, and then when she revises it, she rewrites the whole thing from scratch. I thought that writer was crazy.

Except that now I’m doing the same thing.

My early drafts tend to be too “telling.” They get the story down, but the depth of character and world-building is missing. But I struggle to go back into the words already there and add the layers. I get stuck on the words on the screen.

I realized that I have done the “rewrite from scratch” thing in a limited way already. When revising The Witch of Zal, my developmental editor pointed out several chapters that she didn’t think I had made “mine.” I tried to revise what was there, but it still fell flat. So I rewrote those chapters completely. And it worked—it freed me from the tyranny of the words on the screen, yet allowed me to incorporate the phrases, images, and dialogue I liked from my original scene.

To add another layer of change to my process, I am experimenting with a return to writing longhand. Yes, with actual pen and paper. I had noticed in writing workshops that first-draft writings I write manually sound and feel much different than what I write on the computer. They feel deeper, richer, to me. So I decided to completely re-write, in longhand, a chapter from the WIP I am currently revising.

It worked. The chapter is almost 300 words longer, with more detail, richer imagery, and better world-building and character development. At least, I think it is—my critique partners haven’t read it yet. But it feels like a step in the right direction. As an added bonus, I do not have the block against changing hand-written words that I seem to have with words on the screen. My one little chapter is rife with crossing out, arrows moving words around, and little numbers referring me to longer insertions jotted in the margins.

So, for now, I am going with the hand-written, rewrite-the-whole-chapter-from scratch second-draft approach, and will see where it takes me. Because I am not a detailed outliner, I likely will still start with a typed, “telling,” first draft just to get the story and characters out, because I find so much out about both as I write—much like Martina Boone’s “discovery draft.” Then I will take that draft and do the Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook exercises, and incorporate all of that into the second draft, which I will write longhand as described above.

What about you? Have you ever had to revise your process? How did you find the right one that works for you?

Top 10 Goose’s Quill Posts of 2014

I always love seeing what posts spoke to my readers each year. It is no surprise to me that 2 of the posts were about Gavin Leong, a little boy who has changed the world without ever uttering a word. I hope you enjoy all the posts here, and check out ones you might have missed.

10.  Old Fashioned: Writing With Pen and Paper

9.   What’s Your Observational Intelligence Quotient?

8.   When a Bridge Phobia Isn’t a Bridge Phobia

7.   Why Disney’s Captain Hook is a Great Villain—and how yours can be, too

6.   Gavin’s Playground Project

5.   The World Lost a Superhero: Farewell, Gavin

4.  Kids’ Questions #1: Does Novel Writing Ever Get Boring?

3.   The Writing Process Blog Tour

2.   The Literary Toolbox: Writing Simultaneous Action

And the #1 post of 2014 was:

1.  CreateSpace vs. Ingram Spark

Thanks for reading, everyone! Happy New Year—I hope 2015 brings you peace and joy.

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Kid Questions #1: Does Writing A Novel Ever Get Boring?

My mom works as an English as a Second Language aide. One day, an author visited her school. One of my mom’s students asked my mom, “Doesn’t it get boring writing a long book?” My mom asked how I would answer this question. So here’s the answer, for my mom’s student and for anyone else who ever wondered the same thing.

Writing a book is a long process. I feel many different emotions during the writing of a book. So let’s start at the beginning, and see how it goes.

When I first get a new idea, I’m excited and happy. I’m so excited that ALL I want to do is work on the book. I don’t want to go out, I don’t want to eat, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I just want to live in my brand new story idea.

Some writers create detailed plots and character sketches and do massive amounts of research prior to actually writing the story (those writers are called plotters), and some only have the sketchiest idea of plot and character and do their research as they go along or after they finish the first draft (these are called pantsers). Me? I’m a bit in between, but closer to a pantser. I do a rough outline. At this stage, the idea is still shiny and new, and I am still excited and eager to get to the writing.

Once I start writing the first draft, the first part usually goes smoothly. The excitement of a new adventure, a new world, a new group of characters, is still heady, and it carries me along.

Somewhere in the first draft, though, things change. The excitement fades and the words don’t come as easily. Sometimes I struggle with scenes that just aren’t coming out right. Sometimes my characters start to go flat. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to take the story next (this is where plotters probably have the advantage). At this stage, I feel frustrated, because I have this great idea in my imagination, and I can’t get it right in words on the page.

When I am frustrated, that would be a really easy time to just give up. And a lot of writers do give up, which is why so few people who START writing a book actually FINISH one. If you want to be a real writer, you have to finish, period. There is no shortcut. You have to put in the work and struggle through the hard parts. So another thing I feel at the same time I get frustrated is stubbornness. I’m stubborn. I will not give up on an idea I think is worthwhile. You need that sort of stubborn perseverance if you’re going to succeed in writing—or in anything else, really.

Usually, as the end of the first draft approaches, the excitement comes back, because I know where the story is going, I know the characters, I can see the end in sight, and I want to make it an awesome ending. And when I finally reach the end, it’s a mix of feelings. Happiness, because finishing is a big achievement. Pride, because it was hard to finish. Relief, because I made it through the tough part. Sadness, because I’m done writing this story. Except that I’m not really done yet!

You’ll note I didn’t ever say that writing was boring. And there’s a good reason for that: if I am bored writing a scene, a reader will be bored reading the scene. So if I find myself bored with what I’m writing, that’s a BAD sign.

Finishing the first draft is not the end of the process. Then comes the editing and revising. I revise everything AT LEAST five times. Usually more.

I actually enjoy revising—a lot of writers don’t. But when I am reworking the story, I rearrange parts of it, delete scenes, write new scenes. I figure out my theme and find symbols that worked their way into the story. I find deeper meanings to the story than I had plotted. All of these things make me surprised and happy and excited.

But there are boring parts of editing, too. Finding all the passive verbs (like “was,” “were,” and “had been”) and making them into stronger active verbs (like “throw,” “ripped,” or “lectured”). Taking out the words ending in -ly or -ing (they tend to make your sentences weak). Formatting checks like having only one space after a period or making sure all your dashes are em-dashes. Spellcheck (always, always Spellcheck!). Those are not creative, and can be boring, but they are absolutely necessary to creating a good book.

So that’s my answer in a nutshell. During the process of writing a book, I feel many emotions—but boring is not usually a top one. And getting to the boring part is actually a good sign, because it means I’m REALLY close to having a publishing-ready manuscript!

How about my fellow authors out there? Do you ever find writing a long book boring?

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Writing Process Relativity

Last week I wrote about how time is relative. Specifically, I noted that I can accomplish about 4 times as much work in a child-free hour as a child-full hour. I’ve since noticed that the writing process itself is subject to the time-warping effects of relativity. Some parts fly past, some drag–even if they take exactly the same amount of real time.

I don’t do much in the way of outlining and prewriting (although I am trying to do a little more with my latest WIP), so that doesn’t take me too long. I think if I tried detailed outlining I would find the process tedious and draining, which I why I steer clear. While I admire the authors who can write a scene-by-scene outline, I just cannot get the passion for basically writing the book before I write the book. If I tried, that would be a part of the process that would seem to move at a snail’s pace for me.

Some writers say the first draft drags for them. For me, the first draft is fits and starts. Some days the words flow so fast I lose track of time, I am so immersed in the story. Other days the words don’t come and every time I look at the clock it seems the hands haven’t moved. But even though this is one of the physically longer time frames in the process, it does not move slowly for me. I tend to make steady progress, so I feel good about it.

The revision is where time relativity really can come into play. I find large-scale revisions such as moving scenes, deleting scenes, writing new scenes or new parts of scenes to move quickly. I have more of a big-picture brain, so I enjoy this part of the process a great deal. Probably why it seems to go quickly for me.

It’s the small-scale edits that drag for me. The typos and the grammar and the punctuation and the sentence-level structure. Grammar-type issues such as punctuation have never been my strong suit, and, although I am learning, it is still a struggle. The reading the book out loud edit always takes a long time, but it is completely necessary for me. One time I found that my global search-and-replace had failed to change my protagonist’s name in 4 different places. I never would have caught that without reading out loud. My mind, when reading silently, had inserted the correct name all the previous times I had read it–and I was on the 7th major revision at that point!

I don’t know about you, but when I get to the revision stage, I make a list of all the things I need to do. For a while, this list grows instead of shrinks, since often changing one thing will lead to more changes further downstream. Then the list seems to stall, as if I cannot check off anything no matter how hard I work. But then a miracle of relativity happens, and one day I look at my list and there’s only one or two things on it! I experienced that with the non-fiction genealogy project I am working on for my family. Just this weekend I looked at what had been a very long list, and realized I was on the second-to-last thing! What a thrilling moment to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

How about you? Which parts of the writing process fly for you, and which are like pulling teeth?

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A New Journey

I wrote several weeks ago about a new novel that came to life in my head—the first new novel in more than 3 years. Well, this week I put pen to paper on this new Work In Progress (WIP). Just a few paragraphs, nothing mind-blowing. But it felt really, really good to start on a new journey.

I’m trying something a little different with my process this time: I’m trying to think more before I write. Not necessarily plot more, but spend more time in the pre-writing stage, getting to know my characters, their motivations, their world. To have more of the subtext in place in my head before I write.

My main reason for this is because I want to try to get my characters stronger earlier in the writing process. My biggest struggle of late is to make my characters “real” to the reader. It takes a great deal of revision to layer and nuance characters who were flat in the beginning, and even then it doesn’t always work. Some things are easier if you get them on a good footing from the beginning.

Another reason for the pre-writing is so I can hopefully cut down on the number of revisions I go through before my story is ready to go out. I love the revision process, but the more depth and detail and structure I can have in place in the first draft, the less revising it will take to get it in there later. My first drafts tend to be quite underwritten. While I think that will not change too much, I am hopeful that more of what is there will be valuable, and less will be dross to be thrown away completely.

As I said in the beginning, this does not mean I intend to plot every scene, as some people do. I cannot work that way. However, I do intend to plot the high points of the action and the character arcs—from there I can play connect-the-dots as I write, and let the story figure out how to get from point A to point B. My intention is to improve my writing speed by having some idea where I am going as I write, rather than simply meandering all over the place. Some meandering is necessary to my writing, but a little more control will not hurt.

So my new journey with my new WIP has begun, and I am trying a few different approaches to try and hone my process. A long road remains ahead—and what a wonderful adventure it will be!

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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?

My Writing Process, Part 2

After Donna died, I went through a painful process of rebuilding. Aside from the emotional devastation of losing a best friend at age 32, I had to learn a new skill—writing alone. For a while, I wasn’t aware of how daunting a task that would be.

I was in grad school at the time, so all of my writing was vetted by teachers or other students. Even though it wasn’t the same process as with Donna, it wasn’t much different. Even my final Master’s thesis, a story about Donna’s death, was intensively overseen by my thesis advisor. It wasn’t until I graduated grad school that I became aware of the gaping hole in my creative life.

Suddenly, the aching aloneness of my post-Donna life smacked me in the face. Whenever I contemplated writing, I froze. I couldn’t even think of how to get started. Every writing project seemed a dark, craggy canyon, full of shadows and perils. Who would catch me if I fell off a sudden precipice? Who could guide me through the darkest gullies? Who would help me climb over the rockslides in my way?

Me. Only me. Except that I didn’t know how.

All I could do was do it. So I wrote and revised and struggled and wondered if what I was writing was any good at all. I can’t tell you how many times I almost picked up the phone, or opened my email to ask Donna’s advice. Every time the impulse to talk to her grabbed me, it was a fresh thud in the gut over her death. But I pressed on, because writing is like my heartbeat—I can’t stop it. So I finally finished my first truly solo endeavor and then thought, “Now what?”

I needed feedback. Every author does, at some point, and I didn’t have it anymore. My grad school advisor pointed me to a writing group in Doylestown, PA. The location shook me a little—Donna had lived in Doylestown. Perhaps she guided me there, because it was like coming home. Sharing my passion with other enthusiastic writers broke my isolation and revved my creativity. I have been part of the writing community in Doylestown ever since, and I look forward to many more years of feedback, encouragement and camaraderie.

Even now, six years on from losing Donna, my new writing process is evolving. I still like a lot of feedback, and I still am very comfortable in collaborative projects. The middle grade novel I am currently shopping, The Egyptian Enigma, is a collaboration with two other authors. I also know I ask people to read and give me feedback on very early drafts of my other works, probably much earlier than most writers do. I am, however, becoming more confident in my own decisions, my own instincts, and my own writing.

I have never found another writing buddy who fills Donna’s role. For a long time, that frustrated me. I searched for someone to fit into that gaping wound, and it is a futile search. I can no more find a perfect match for my writing partner than I can for the best friend I lost. But I’m okay with that now. I have grown past needing that symbiotic relationship.

I have evolved, my writing process has evolved, and my writing is miles beyond what Donna and I ever accomplished together. But sometimes, in moments of need, I find myself asking the golden question: What would Donna do?

My Writing Process, Part 1

Every writer has a writing process. Good writers take the time to figure out the process that works best for them—the one that gives them maximum creativity, maximum writing time, and maximum output. When you find that process, you are lucky. When your process breaks down, it is catastrophic.

My own process grew organically, and from a young age. I loved to write all through grade school, and when I got to high school, I found a new best friend—Donna Hanson. One of the things that drew us together was a shared passion for writing. From the age of 14 on, we churned through multiple novels, authoring some of the worst writing ever penned.

But we learned. Together, we explored what it took to tell a good story: plot, pacing, character development, and all the rest. We learned how to create new worlds, how to craft interesting, believable characters, and how to keep readers turning the pages. (One of our friends, who is not a writer, once graced us with this gem: “The way to create a page-turner is to never end a sentence at the bottom of a page.”)

As we matured, Donna and I continued our collaboration, and we worked out the kinks. She and I both hammered out the ideas, the plot, and she would “supervise” some of the main characters, and I would take the others, thus building in differing points of view. Donna rarely did the actual writing, which allowed us to have a single voice throughout the work. She did the proofreading, and (in the early days, when I wrote longhand because I had no computer), she did the typing, too. And always, she was there when I had writer’s block. I could pick up the phone and we would talk for hours until the logjam was broken, the problem solved. In later technological times, it was emails 3 or more times a day, whenever a question arose.

Having two brains is always a plus, but the advantage was also in the synergy of two people who shared a passion for the craft. Writing can be a lonely undertaking, and having someone eager to plunge into the imagination with you at a moment’s notice can be a godsend. I still recall some of her more memorable quotes:

“Wouldn’t you be afraid of you, if you were you?!” (Enthusiastically exploring a character’s fear of herself, and mangling the pronouns while doing so.)

“Ker, what planet are we on?” (Brainstorming a science fiction book that took place on several planets.)

And the ever-present, “Umm, Ker…” which always preceded her pointing out something incredibly ridiculous that I had written.

So, my process grew intertwined with Donna, and hers with me. The juices flowed, the writing came, and everything ran with a humming smoothness that became second nature—it became like breathing. Writing equaled Donna, and it worked wonderfully.

Then she died.

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