Finishing a first draft of any book is a big deal, even though every experienced author knows there is tons and tons of work to do. That is not an understatement. I’d say it’ll be one and a half to two years before this sees the light of day. But, still. I started playing with this five years ago, took two years off during the worst of the pandemic, and picked it up about a year ago.
I’ve taken a week off from writing, but will get back to it tomorrow. I’ll be doing some tweaking and minor revisions, then, in about two weeks, send it off to my agent, and a dedicated group of friends who have been helping me along the way.
And then, phase two begins. Structure? Pacing? How many needless words can I eliminate? Given where I am, I thought it’d be fun to have a conversation about the writing process with our village. Do you write? Fiction? Non-fiction? What has helped you; what’s gotten in your way?
My biggest challenge has been switching from non-fiction to fiction. It’s almost like learning a different language. The best part about fiction is that ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN and the worst part about fiction is that ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. So many choices, so many rabbit holes one could go down.
Here are some of the resources that have helped me, so far, along with way:
Reading, reading, and reading. The more I write, the more I read differently. Besides being inspired by brilliant passages, I’ve started to pay more attention to how an author paces and structures their books. I also do it now while watching a movie or TV show. It doesn’t seem to take away from my enjoyment of them, even though it takes me out of the story sometimes. I keep telling myself I’m going to go back and write out an outline of a book’s structure, something recommended by writing teachers, but haven’t done it yet. However, starting tomorrow, I’ll be reading Structuring a Novel, by K.M. Weiland. It was highly recommended by one of my new favorite fiction writers, Maggie Ginsberg, who wrote the brilliant novel, Still True. I just finished another book she mentioned, Refuse to Be Done, by Matt Bell. I love this book, and recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their writing, even if it’s just an email to a friend.
[Note: My apologies. Usually I would add links to everything I’m going to mention here, but I’m a tad under the weather today, so I’m going to forge ahead but skip the links, which can take far more time than one might imagine. Apologies again.]
Going to author’s book talks have also been a wonderful resource for me. They are often inspiring, humbling, funny, and educational. Writing is such a strange process–both private and public at different times. You write all alone, but are read by strangers. Most of your work is done alone, and yet, every good writer I know is dependent on others. If you are interested in writing something beyond what you’ve written before, I encourage you to go out to book talks, writer’s workshops, etc. Anything that helps to create a bridge between being alone and being together. It takes a village.
How to Books! Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of books on writing books. I really like what I’ve seen of the two I mentioned above. I also liked Elements of Fiction by Walter Mosley. The title, writers will note, is inspired by the classic, Element of Style, which every writer should read a couple of times a year. (I am no doubt violating some of its principles as I write–time for me to look at it again.) In Elements of Fiction, Mosley says: “Every word is important, every word. And every word is about your characters, the world they live in, and how that world transforms them while it transforms around them.” This is the part of writing that I love the best–the careful editing to match each word to the characters and the action. Mosley’s bigger book is This Year You Write Your Novel, which I haven’t read yet. Anyone else? I need to order it soon.
Other books on my shelf include How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, by James N. Frey (loved it), Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway, and How to Write a Mystery, edited by Lee Child. I also have, thanks to advice from my friend and fellow writer, Cat Warren, Police Procedure & Investigation, by Lee Lofland. My protagonist is an animal behaviorist (“write what you know”), but I know, or knew, little about the details of law enforcement. (I’ll be thanking some kick ass CSI’s and detectives in the Madison Police Department too in my acknowledgements; nothing like talking to the folks on the front lines.)
Writing Programs, Master Class, and Workshops. I got excellent coaching and advice from Susanna Daniels at Madison Writers’ Studio during my first year of getting started. I can’t imagine a better way to begin the journey and I will always be indebted to her. I have no doubt I’ll work with her again, hopefully in the near future. I also joined Master Class and listened to Margaret Atwood and James Patterson. They were both inspiring, humble, and over all, just lovely. Very, very different writers, needless to say, but each was worth it for me. I’d love to participate in some local workshops; I’ll see what comes available in the future.
Readers. What book’s acknowledgement section doesn’t thank trusted readers? By “trusted,” I mean people who will tell you that your last draft had lots going for it, BUT . . . “started lagging around Chapter X.” You need people who read a lot, and who are able and willing to tell you what’s great and what’s not, in a useful way. It doesn’t mean that you take all of their advice, but no one can predict how what they write will be received. We all live in our own heads and may know what we meant in some cherished sentences, but our readers may not. I have been lucky to have friends like Jim, Meg, Randy, and Melissa to read drafts, as well as what we are calling the Driftless Mystery Writer’s Covey; five smart and well-read friends who will be getting a copy of the entire first draft soon. (We’ve met twice so far this year and they have been incredibly helpful. And fun!) Huge thanks also go out to my friend and colleague, Cat Warren, of What the Dog Knows fame. She is also writing her first fiction novel, and we Zoom once a month and go over each other’s new chapters. She teaches writing, wrote a New York Times best seller, and so knows far more than I about what the heck I am doing. I am, and will be, eternally grateful to her–she is my rock.
Something else to keep in mind about writing: You are never done. Eventually, you just have to stop editing and send it out into the world, but what you learned from one piece will help you in another. Who knows about this book I’m working on now. Will it be good enough? I don’t want it to be just okay. I want it to be really good. But, if that’s all it is, there’s always the next book, which will profit from all I’ve learned while writing the first one, right?
What about you? Do you write? Do you want to? What has helped or inspired you? Tell us! All writers need a village, and I am so very grateful for this one.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Last week we spent two nights in Chicago, and had a truly great time. It wasn’t planned to be a celebration of the first draft’s completion, more like a Christmas present to Jim and cabin fever reliever trip, but the timing worked out nicely.
I got us a room at the Palmer House, Chicago’s iconic downtown hotel with surely the most scrumptious lobby in the country. The rooms aren’t as expensive as you might think (given that it’s downtown Chicago, so no, not cheap, but it’s all relative), and you can hang out in the lobby any time, whether you are staying there or not.
We splurged at the restaurant Acanto for dinner our first night, attempting to make up for the time, years ago, when we went there before seeing Hamilton. Back then, it took FOREVER to be served, and the food came literally FIVE minutes before we had to leave and we crammed some of the best food we’ve ever had into our mouths and then ran to the play with no minutes to spare and the tickets wouldn’t come up on my phone and for one endless period of time we thought we’d never get in. Good grief. You’d think I’d never want to go back, but I could not forget the taste of that pasta . . . the kind with flavors that make you want to moan. So we went back, and it was noisy but wonderful. The service was great, the food even better. Yum.
The next morning we wandered around Millenium Park, a huge urban and inventive park that includes the brilliance of the art sculpture, Cloud Gate. Or, the shiny cashew, or the silver jelly bean.
I could spend hours there, just people watching. Part of the joy of Cloud Gate is its reflection of the iconic architecture in Chicago. It is a gorgeous city in many ways; I love many of the older buildings. Just walking around town is a trip, especially for a country girl.
Here’s a shot from underneath it, looking up. Very, very trippy. That’s me and Jim taking the shot in the middle at the bottom.
Back at home, Skip has requested that no one shows this photo to our sheep. Or any sheep for that matter. Goofball doufas is not the look he wants to convey. And, did I mention it was his sixth birthday yesterday? We’ve had him three wonderful years now, and I am grateful every day for my kind, talented, goofy, and gorgeous friend, one of the lights of my life.
There were Snowdrops blooming in Chicago, but that’s a long way off here in Wisconsin. But, look whose blooming inside! The two Amaryllis in the back are ones I nurtured over the summer, put into the cellar in fall, and almost forgot to take back out. And look at them now!
Hopefully something is blooming at your house, whether spring or fall flowers, a piece of writing you’ve been working on, or just all the love you have for your dogs. What would we do without them?