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.
A bit of artwork scattered in the trees:
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?
PJ’s mom says
I’m actually just finishing up my first attempt, a non-fiction book covering my years as an animal-assisted therapy dog handler. The book itself was the easiest part; I had so many stories and memories to share about volunteering. The hard part, having not ever done this before, is the publishing aspect. I’m a complete novice on this venture, so know nothing about agents, publishers, etc. Do I self publish? Do I go with Kindle? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
Wow the blooms are magnificent! I stayed a weekend at the Palmer House years ago, and you are correct, it is beautiful. Cant wait to read your news book. I purchased the Education of Will when it first came out.
Mary Beth Stevens says
Writing! Well, here’s what I do, thought it may not at all pertain to you, as I write children’s picture books. I read them aloud as I’m writing. That tunes me in to the rhythm of the language (which is all important to me – a musician.) But I think it is important to all of us, as rhythm is part of our daily life. Like I said, maybe not at all important when one is writing for adults, but I maybe give it a try with a few passages? It can be an eye-opener. Good luck with the process!!!
Mary Beth, I think this is a great idea for any type of writing. I’m on it!
I can’t wait for your book to be published. I’m sure it will be brilliant!
Nana C. says
I’m not a writer, but I’ve read all your books. If your fiction writing is anything like the nonfiction, it will be fantastic! I have learned so much over the years and your books are permanent residents of my library.
Charlotte Kasner says
Congratulations – a milestone! I don’t know about you, but I find that helpful readers inevitably want to eliminate one’s favourite bits and they are usually right.
Ah, amaryllis – definitely categorised as “things that go bump in the night”: they just keel over because they get top-heavy.
I’ve written plays, short stories and have 3 non-fiction books on the go at various stages (2 dog-related). Writing is the easy bit but getting published is another matter. I have won a couple of writing competitions though, one of which was 5 day trip to Australia (4 days were spent travelling!). The second competition won me a place in a seminar by Aardman Animations so the behaviourist kicked in 🙂 I was very impressed with the level of realism in some of their animal animations, albeit couched in anthropomorphism.
I find writing therapeutic (my puppy says it’s boring – play with me!)
Wendy Katz says
Whee! I’m so excited to see the novel reaching a milestone. I have so much admiration for people with the stamina to write a whole book.
That photo of Skip made me laugh out loud. He’s adorable and I won’t tell any sheep 😉
Charlotte: Plays and short stories! Wonderful. I have always admired play writers, hard for me to even imagine how it happens. Magic to me.
Ahh, congratulations! I hope it’s been a fun process and you feel happy with your results. I’m looking forward to reading it…
Happy Barkday to Skip! And congratulations to you on penning a non-fiction book! Can’t wait to see a mystery…my favorite genre. All best wishes as you prepare for the next steps in getting it released.
Deborah Mason says
I write long(er than some want to read, I’m sure) emails, with photos. I write about our “out & about” drives in NW Montana. I write a newsletter for our dog training club. Nothing professionally published & that’s 100% OK. As long as my readers (however few) let me know once in a while they like what they read, I’m good. Oh, and Facebook posts about our dogs, our travels (after we’re back home) and whatever.
I am so looking forward to reading your mystery novel. Congratulations on the first draft being done. I know how good that feels. I just sent the working draft of my second book off to my sister. She is a retired editor and this lets her keep her hand in and I get quality editing for free so definitely a win/win. This one was an interesting challenge since my dog D’Artagnan and I wrote it together. Literally he is my co-author. Trying to get his voice right wasn’t always easy. Reading over the draft, though, he made me laugh out loud a few times.
I like writing and I’ve always written things. I didn’t venture into actual books though until the online dog school where I do courses, Canine Principles, offered a course called Write Your Dog Book in 30 Days. Taking that course was the push I needed to actually write down all the things I’d been sharing with people for a long time. And it resulted in a lovely group of people writing about dogs supporting one another and encouraging each other. Having that group is a tremendous help. They encouraged me to write the second one which grew out of the journal I was keeping about D’Artagnan learning to be a Therapy Dog. Once D’Art started chiming in on how he thought about things I realized I might have something special and I can only hope I managed to do it justice. Current title is Practicing Partnership: A Therapy Dog and His Person and if all goes according to plan I’ll self-publish it on Amazon later this year.
@PJ’s Mom self-publishing on Amazon is actually a pretty easy way to get your book out there and there’s a whole lot less rejection involved, lol. That’s a large part of why I did it that way. I had no idea how to get started with an agent or publisher or anything and Amazon was right there and fairly straightforward. Now that I know people will buy my book I’ve been wondering if I should look for an agent but I still have no idea how to start or if I’d be better off. Something to consider.
Anyway, enough of my writing here. I have a newsletter article due about taking bunch of adults to visit old-growth forest on Keta Legacy Foundation’s Rhododendron Preserve so I should get to that.
Bev Maahs says
I went from dog trainer to published author.
Dog oriented mystery
Mystery at Breezy Bay
Lori Capaccio says
I’ve enjoyed reading your nonfiction work, but I also love mystery books. I can’t wait for yours to be released!
I am working on a book too. It is a memoir about my very impulsive decision to raise a litter (3) of Miniature Pincher puppies. To say my world was turned upside down is an understatement. But it was also an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
To answer your questions: Joining a writing mentorship was the most helpful. Reading other memoirs, both dog related and not, has provided many examples of how to structure my book. Various things have gotten in the way of my writing. Dedicating time every day to writing has not been easy. I also have a habit of wanting to go back and edit again and again. It’s hard to just “be done” with a chapter.
Melanie Hawkes says
I write flash fiction daily on twitter, memoir and poetry (only occasionally). Since joining the Society of Women Writers Western Australia, I’ve been on writing retreats, joined a writer’s circle and entered more competitions. Last year a short story I wrote about a failed service dog winning a prize for the worst behaved dog at a show won a Highly Commended certificate! I don’t have enough ideas or stamina for a novel, but congratulations for finishing your first draft. Writing can be lonely and frustrating, but with the right people supporting you, you can find success and it can be rewarding.
Carole Dillane Krajeski says
Congratulations on finishing your first draft! I have missed the Susan Connant and Carol Lea Benjamin dog mysteries… I’m sure yours will be just as great. I have one published book (99% of the Time). The popular wisdom is ‘write what you know’, so my novel was about teenage boys and wonderful dogs, all loosely based on my houseful of kids and dogs. It sold mainly to friends and extended family, but I was thrilled to have it read at all. I cannot wait to read your book! And happy birthday to Skip.
Debby Gray says
Congratulations on reaching this milestone!
And greetings to Skip! He’s reached a milestone too!
Zazie Todd says
This is a big milestone and wonderful news. Congratulations!! I can’t wait til the book is published and I can read it. Thank you for being so generous in sharing all the resources that have helped you along the way. I feel like other writers are the most generous, supportive people and I learn so much simply from hearing other people talk about their writing. Wishing you all the best for the next stages and so much success with this book!
Jacci Mollard says
My dad was an engineer and wrote many, many articles and a couple books. All were technical in nature, but most a mystery to me, a Kindergarten teacher. He swore by Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’ and considered it his go-to manual for writing. When he died in 2017 I counted seven in his library collection. I took them all. Whenever I read one, I imagine my dad next to me, nodding his head in approval.
Can’t wait to read yet another Patricia McConnell book. Congratulations on your first draft. Click. 🙂
Patricia Anderson says
You have managed in this blog entry to combine three things I love–writing, training, dogs, and Chicago (okay, count if you like.)
I lived in the Chicago area for 30 years, and for us, it’s simply “The Bean.”
I write out phrases in books that smack me upside the head, as I go, wow, how did they DO that–hoping that some of their magic will creep into my fingers.
One of my favorite writing books of all time was “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. It was so much fun to read.
I agree that analysis can take you out of a story. But worth it!
Cheryl Croft says
I love the Palmer House. Stayed there a few years ago. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving and the Christmas decorations were out. High Tea was also served in the stunning lobby. Downtown Chicago is worth a visit. Cannot wait for your book. I have everything you’ve published and will read this new book the moment it’s published. Next to dogs and everything about them…I love a good mystery!
Chris from Boise says
This is a huge milestone! Congratulations!
Carolyn B Padwa says
Your bravery continues to inspire me Dr. McConnell. Excited for the book! With gratitude, Carolyn