Monday, July 21, 2014

The dumbest writing advice I've ever heard

Let's face it, some of the writing advice that floats around the internet is pretty dumb. Here's the one that really gets my knickers in a twist:

Don’t read other people’s work when you’re writing, because it will influence your voice.

Whoever thought that one up was an egomaniac, not a writer. I will concede that there are very special people out there who have wholly unique voices, are deep and dedicated thinkers, and are probably best left alone with nature and God because the rest of us are, compared to them, a bunch of ants. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he who wrote The Little Prince, is reputed to have only been interested in reading two books (Pascal’s Pensées and Plutarch’s Lives), but I bet he read them ALL THE TIME and pondered them deeply, as well as observing the world around him at a level most of us don’t achieve.

No, it’s not those people that I’m talking about. It’s the rest of us. Since I write every day, if I didn’t read while I was writing I’d never read. If I thought that meant I’d become a profound thinker, I might be prepared to make that deal—but if I’m honest with myself, if I didn’t read my thoughts would probably become increasingly repetitive and trivial and I’d start watching Fox News.

Writers need other people’s stories (and in this I include non-fiction, as good non-fiction always tells a story). It’s like a big conversation that started thousands of years ago, and that with luck will go on for another few thousand. Who are your influences? Goodreads asked me when I set up my author page, because a writer usually doesn’t become a writer out of nowhere. We are readers first, and while most books are forgettable, some make an indelible impression on us that make us want to put down the book and pick up the pen. If you’re not reading, you’re not part of the conversation—you’re talking to yourself.

My counter-advice: read all the time, and let other people’s work soak into your brain and spill over into your writing. But learn to develop a critical eye when it comes to your own writing, and observe where the fine line lies between writing that’s informed and infused by all that you’ve learned from other people, and writing that’s derivative. (And even derivative writing has its place—just as art students learn by copying the work of the great masters, a writer can learn a lot by trying to write in the style of a favorite author. Usually, what you learn is how difficult it is.)

More useless writing advice:

Write what you know.

It’s absolutely true that when a writer intimately understands a place, or time, or profession, or issue, their writing can be that much deeper and richer than it might otherwise be. Angela’s Ashes wouldn’t be as powerful a book as it is if Frank McCourt hadn’t lived that childhood. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, began the novel by writing pieces in the voice of her family’s maid. So yes, writing what you know can be an effective way to give your writing depth.

My problem with this piece of advice is that people quote it all the time as if it’s the only way to write well. It’s not. There are two great tools that can come to the writer’s aid in any situation: research and imagination. You can project your writer’s mind into just about any character’s if you take the time, do your homework and stretch that imagination till it hurts. For many of us, trying to write what we know would just result in a whole bunch of whiny trash about the hardships of suburban life*, and although there are a few people who do that well, most of us don’t.

My counter-advice: Write what appeals to you. If you don’t know much about it, research. If you can’t find facts, make bits up. If you’ve made stuff up about a real person or situation or place, be honest about this in your Author’s Note.

I’m on a roll now. Here are two more bits of dumb writing advice:

Read books about writing.


Don’t read books about writing.

Yes, I really did just contradict myself, but bear with me. I think there’s a point in most writers’ lives when a writing craft book or two can come in handy, but I’m against dogmatic pronouncements about whether you should read craft books, and especially against pronoucements as to which books you should read. Aside from owning (and using) a good dictionary, a thesaurus, and a style manual and/or punctuation/grammar reference, I believe that most writers should take their time in building up their writing advice library. The most important step toward becoming a writer is to write, edit, and put your work in front of some critical readers. If you’ve also read a lot of books (see above), you’ll soon start spotting the flaws in your own writing at the editing stage. If you’re courageous about putting your work in front of other people—and if you’re writing with a view to eventual publication, NOT putting it in front of people doesn’t make sense—you’ll get feedback that will guide you to where you need to be.

Frankly, a lot of books about writing won’t tell you what you need to know right now. Some of them (quite a few of them) really aren’t all that good. You’ll encounter a lot of examples from novels that you’ve never heard of (yes at least I TRIED with Angela’s Ashes and The Help, hey they both got made into movies) and a whole lot more neurotic navel-gazing or accounts of how much neurotic navel-gazing you’re going to be doing now that You are a Writer.

So, be cautious in picking up these tomes, read all of their reviews first, and if you feel you must validate your existence as a writer by reading craft books, try to make sure they apply to your specific circumstances. And take everything they say with a pinch of salt, because they might just be wrong.

And here’s my last piece of dumb writing advice:

Read writing advice posts like this instead of writing. 


What’s the dumbest piece of writing advice you ever received?

*Most of us have never known real hardship. And are rich beyond the dreams of a large percentage of the world's population.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Writing with an English accent

This post on the Alliance of Independent Authors blog fascinated me to the point where, instead of leaving a ridiculously long comment, I decided to blog about it instead.

And that led me to the conviction that I’ve blogged about my Englishness before. And that led me to the back end of this website where I searched for the post and failed to find it. And that led me to read a couple of my old posts and think “hey, I should reblog this”. And so on. I’ll admit to being easily distracted. All this to say, if this sounds familiar then please find the original post and hit me on the head with it.

I’m a British writer living in America, but there’s more to it than that. The 54 years of my life have been geographically located thus:

21 years in England
16 years in Belgium
17 years in the United States

From which the mathematically inclined among you will note that I’ve spent far more time out of my home country than in. And yet I still sound British! Apparently.

And it gets more nuanced than that. Most of my first 21 years were spent in the south of England, to be more precise the Home Counties (those close to London). BUT I spent four years or so in the Midlands, north of the linguistic divide, and during that time my sisters and I all switched our accents because we were children and the other children teased us for sounding posh. And then when we returned to the London area (partly, I’m convinced, because my mother couldn’t stand our Nottingham dialect) we switched back again because we were teased for talking funny. So I’d describe my accent now as London-ish, with a certain veneer from years of education but not, in English terms, a posh accent. And having lived ‘oop north’, I don’t have the southerner’s disdain for vowels originating north of Luton.

And then I went to Belgium where, in addition to speaking French on a daily basis, I hung out with and worked for Americans and Brits. In my working life I estimate that I had to use American spelling 70 percent of the time, British spelling the other 30 percent—when I was writing in English. When writing in French, ho ho, even the punctuation was different. To confuse things further, many of my British friends were long-term expats who spoke franglais fluently—I still tend to throw in French phrases when talking with Felsted, who is American but went to British schools and lived in Belgium for 33 years.

By the time I left Belgium I was accustomed to American spelling, although I didn’t entirely accept it. During my tenure as an editor in a Belgian law firm I recall writing a long and pompous memo on why we should switch from the American habit of putting a period after the abbreviations Mr. and Mrs. to the more correct British version, Mr and Mrs (because they are contractions and not abbreviations—look it up). I didn’t win that argument, and nor should I have, since we were mostly catering to American clients. But I was young and still linguistically opinionated.

And then Felsted wanted to move back to the land of his birth and we ended up in Chicagoland. Now, Chicago itself—at least the South Side—has an accent, but on the whole the suburbanites speak a sort of standard American that doesn’t mark them out as being from any particular part of the USA. At some point soon after we moved here I made a conscious decision to adopt American spelling in all written forms of communication, since obviously I was going to have to use it at work and the children were going to be taught in American, so getting into arguments about spelling would be fairly counterproductive.

But I didn’t make any effort to SPEAK in American, other than using American words when I knew them rather than the British equivalents or in situations where saying things in American was necessary. So, for example, I say truck instead of lorry, sidewalk instead of pavement, and when ordering in restaurants try to use the American pronunciation because the poor server has enough trouble hearing amid the background noise. I have been told on many occasions by my children that I can’t say certain words properly, and admit to a total inability to pronounce ‘water’ in any way that restaurant personnel can understand, so I don’t order water much. When in a certain coffee shop, an order of a TALL latte can result in the production of TWO lattes unless I’m very careful to spot the misunderstanding early.

Hanging on to a British accent is interesting in two ways when you live in the States. For one thing, it makes me stand out. If I had a buck for every time people have told me how much they love my accent…Do you remember the TV show The Nanny? The boss and the butler are both British (well, they’re doing British accents, don’t get me started) and at one point one of them says “everything we say sounds like Shakespeare” and they laugh maniacally. BUT IT’S TRUE! I’ve been told more times than I can count that when I’m talking I sound intelligent because of the accent. It’s also very handy at writer events, because people tend to remember me.

And secondly, I sound posher than I am. Remember I told you that in England my accent’s not all that posh? BWAHAHAHAHAHA it is over here. Not that I bother to go to many social calendar-type events, but let me tell you it’s social gold dust. Of course that only works until the point where you’re introduced to another Brit (they’re all over this area like a rash) and they’re posher than you, and when your mutual American friend tells you that you both sound the same you LOOK at each other…

So how does this translate into writing? Well, since my current series is set in America, the American spelling and knowledge of its idioms helps. I set up some linguistic insurance by giving my heroine an English background, and besides this is the Midwest in the 1870s when the majority of the inhabitants were not born in the region. And my American beta readers and writing buddies are quick to put me right when I write something English enough to sound jarring in the context. But I have had reviews that remark on a certain Englishness, so I’m not fooling everyone.

On the other hand, I’m also working on some ideas set in England, and that IS a problem. Since my home market is American, I feel like I need to use American spelling and some American idioms in descriptive passages, but do I want to make my characters sound American? I don’t think so. Furthermore, when these projects approach production stage, I think I’m going to have to find readers and editors based in the UK, because I’ve been away so long that I might inadvertently make my characters say American things even if I’m trying not to.

And if you read the comments on the ALLi article mentioned in the first paragraph, you’ll see that my dilemma isn’t an uncommon one. The world has gone global, but we haven’t caught up linguistically. Many writers who write in English no longer live in English-speaking countries, or live in a country where a different English is spoken from their original one. And what about, to give a very common example, countries like India where standard English is taught but local variations are common?

All these variants would be OK if we were all tolerant of them, but we’re not. Readers can get quite unbelievably hot under the collar about word usage, the more so if they’re writers themselves. Skirmishes between writers about words are rife on Facebook groups and blogs, and I’ve lost stars on reviews for using a word a reader didn’t think was quite nineteenth-century enough. ONE WORD.

You think writing is easy? It’s a bloody minefield, mate. Pardon my English.

Monday, July 7, 2014

I want to be a writer, not a crusader

Last week’s post about reciprocal reviewing got a fair amount of attention on Goodreads, which is where I get pretty much all of my blog comments. It was even picked up by IndieBRAG, who asked me if they could repost it.

I’m glad so many people felt I was representing what they thought about one of the many hot-button issues swirling around the publishing world. And it would be easy to write a few more posts defending one side or the other in one of the many debates that writers get into. Amazon vs. Hachette, self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, reviewers vs. authors, Anne Rice vs. just about everybody . . . there’s quite a list.

But when you’re a writer, there’s a career choice involved in deciding to become a crusader for a cause. A couple of days ago I received a newsletter from Hope Clark, who runs the Funds for Writers website, and with her permission I’m reproducing part of her editorial:

For some reason, fussing about the odds, the difficulties, the competition, and the processes we must endure has become commonplace - way too commonplace. 
 So stop and take note . . . the grand majority of successful authors are not making noise. They are quietly writing. And they are smiling. They enjoy their work. They enjoy their story-telling. They do not waste time talking about the journey, and instead just keep putting one foot in front of the other. 
 What if potential readers see your posts? What if someone who's considered reading your work sees a snarky remark on Facebook and changes her mind? What if you put down someone or something that the reader feels the polar opposite about? 
 Don't give in to the dark side. You're more appealing when you are all about your stories.

Hope, I totally agree with you. And here are more reasons not to become the crusading kind of writer:

It’s darkly seductive. It does work for some authors to be known for their stance on certain issues: Joe Konrath, Kris Rusch and Barry Eisler spring to mind as writers who are well known for championing self-publishing against traditional publishing in a way that seems to work to their advantage. And I’m sure there are many writers who’d like to be the next Joe, Kris or Barry, and get invited to speak at conferences all over the place. But most writers who try to use issues to hoist themselves into public visibility end up tripping themselves up in some way or the other. They sound whiny rather than strong. They end up annoying people. And they don’t see it. In their own head they’re superheroes, but to the rest of us they’re just time-wasting egomaniacs.

It sucks up creative writing time. One thing that wannabe crusaders need to note is that Joe, Kris and Barry have written and published a ton of books. They do their crusading in their spare time. I conclude that they need way less sleep than most of us, or perhaps they’ve arranged their lives so that writing’s pretty much all they do. Like many other writers, I only have so much time in the day for writing, and aside from this weekly blog post I intend to spend it writing fiction and reviewing other people’s books.

It saps creative energy. On the rare occasions I do get involved in a kerfuffle, I find it hard to write. Not only because I’m spending all my time responding to what other people are saying, but the agitation produced by the kerfuffling activity kicks me out of the mental state I need to be in to produce a good piece of writing.

You end up grandstanding. There’s an author who constantly posts links about hot-button issues on a genre-related Facebook group I belong to. She tends to become passionately involved on one side of the issue, so when (inevitably) another author challenges her views on the thread she’s started, she becomes upset and starts an argument. This not only makes our otherwise rather nice organization look like a hotbed of contention and rivalry when it’s not, but it makes her into a grandstander: someone who uses a larger platform than their own to win attention and, hopefully, applause from others. She may not even realize she’s doing this, simply believing that the causes she espouses are good and she must defend them, but I can see that this grandstanding is not only failing to win people to her causes, it’s doing her own reputation considerable damage. I observe, and I learn.

You need to be careful who you’re mixing with. Crusading isn’t a one-person activity, so as a writer who espouses causes, you’re inevitably thrown in with a bunch of other espousers. Friends are quickly made online, but who are they? What’s their agenda? Yes, everyone has an agenda. What’s their history of online activity? Are they genuine, or is who they seem to be online a shell that hides something else? Are they fair-minded, or are they the sort of person who can only see one side of the issue and tries to win by shouting down everyone else? (Hint: causes tend to attract the latter.) I’m pretty careful about whom I spend time with online, and in the course of a long life have learned to spot the toxic people and run away from them, but I know very well that if I begin waving a flag some of them are going to turn up and stick around. Some issues—the question of whether negative reviews are bullying is one—have led to some spectacularly bad behavior, often against the terms of service of host sites and sometimes even illegal. And I’m talking about both sides of that particular issue. If someone my crusading links me with decides to get dirty, do I want their dirt to stick to me? It's a possibility all wannabe crusaders should consider.

There’s always going to be another issue. Crusading never stops: as one issue fades, another pops up. Petitions fly back and forth, well-known writers get their controversial views published in the New York Times or The Guardian, people scream and howl, and it all begins again. As I said above, it’s a career choice.

So while I’ll occasionally post on matters where I feel I can come up with a rational, balanced argument, I have no intention of becoming a crusader. Writing, producing and curating fiction is a full-time job that I’m still barely beginning to get a handle on, and I love doing it. I love the title of this blog, Keep Going You Fool! because it represents what I do: I keep plugging along in an effort to learn to do an exciting job better. And I’m smiling as I do it, Hope. I never lose touch with what’s happening in the book world, but I try not to let it consume my time and energy. Thanks for the reminder.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Reciprocal reviewing is not OK, authors. Here's why.

The above is an invitation from a self-published author on Goodreads. Nice of him, huh? I’ve received many such invitations from this guy, whom I’m not going to finger specifically because he’s not the only author who uses back-scratching to make his book more visible, not by a long chalk. If you’re thinking that maybe he’s just being nice to other people, here’s one of his latest asks:

He sends these invitations to over 7,000 people, and I still get them even though I’ve unfriended AND blocked him.

Is this kind of thing wrong? I say yes. OK, he’s not technically buying reviews or ratings, which is against the terms of service of most review sites, but he’s soliciting/encouraging a practice that skews ratings and deceives many readers into thinking a book’s getting more attention than it actually is. And there’s a funny thing about a book getting attention—it encourages yet more attention, out of curiosity or a desire to keep up with what other people are reading.

This practice, dear friends, is reciprocal reviewing. Or reciprocal Facebook page likes, or Pinterest pins, or whatever form of social media floats your boat.

So wait a minute, I hear you say. If you like my Facebook page and so I go to your page and you seem interesting so I like you back, is that wrong?

No, it’s not.

But if a whole group of people get together and decide they’re all going to like each other’s pages? Now we’re getting a little squicky.

And if a website exists for the sole purpose of getting self-published authors to click Like or vote for or give a 5-star rating to each other’s books? Are you beginning to feel a bit dirty now? I actually followed such a site for a while when I was a dewy-eyed new author—I wish I could remember its name—and gave other people’s books a few clicks before my brain caught up with what I was doing. 

Self-published authors soon learn that visibility is the most important factor in influencing sales, more important—in the short term—than whether your book’s any good. Reviews, in particular, are a visible sign that someone has read your book and has cared enough to review it. Or at least, that’s how it should be. Readers assume they’re reading reviews written by other, impartial readers who have rushed to their computer because a book made a strong impression on them. 

The invitations above are one small step away from buying reviews, but they’re at the end of a long spectrum of back-scratching that infects the book world like a nasty disease. A lot of writers think such arrangements are awesome—you’re supporting the team, being a friend, it’s a fellowship of authors. As one of the 300+ people who had responded Yes to the first invite at the time of writing said, "promotion and fellowship is everything in the independent publishing game”. The responses to this author are full of appreciation for his support of self-publishing, for being a great guy in general. It’s a giant love-fest.

And this kind of thing isn’t new, and self-publishers certainly didn’t invent it. For many years writers in the same genre, with the same agency, with the same publisher, belonging to the same organizations and so on have been encouraged to help promote each other’s work. At some point some bright spark in marketing realized their promotional efforts could be printed right on the cover, and the jacket blurb was born. But the reader recognizes the jacket blurb as marketing, whereas she might not be as quick to see reciprocal reviews as promotional material.

Writing’s a lonely game, and we all crave affirmation and support. So we come together in writing groups, organizations, clubs, societies, conferences, you name it. After all, there’s nothing wrong with writers getting together to read and critique each other’s writing, discuss strategies for getting published or compare notes about their research. There’s a whole ecosystem out there of writers who make more money out of advising, mentoring, editing and even publishing other writers than they do for their own writing. Again, not wrong. 

And we go to each other’s launch parties and author events, and buy each other’s books. Sometimes we even read them. Sometimes we review them—I’ve done it, often, although I always mention the relationship in the first line or two of the review, and I only post a review if I genuinely liked the book. The declaration that the author’s a friend serves as a warning to the savvy reader that yes, I’m going to be more polite about this book than I would if there was no chance I’d ever meet the author (although, frankly, I have shaken the hand of more than one author whose book I’ve previously snarked on—I always hope they don’t pay attention to reviewers’ names).

Because you just CAN’T be completely impartial when reviewing a friend’s book. The fellowship and mutual support and professional courtesy that surround the ways authors interact with each other inevitably spill over into the review. I dream of being able to be scathing about a friend’s book and then have them laugh about it and buy me a drink, but in real life, feelings get hurt.

Some authors cope with this dilemma by refusing to review a friend’s book. I don’t want to get into that position because my own genre, historical fiction, is a relatively cozy one and if I stopped reviewing the books of people I’ve met, I’ll end up reviewing very few books and I like to review. So I try to be as honest as possible while remaining professionally polite, and I always declare the relationship. If I’m asked to review a book for the Historical Novel Society and the author’s a good friend, I decline on the basis of the relationship.

I’ve been asked to do reciprocal reviews a couple of times. The first time was when I was a new author and got to know someone on Goodreads. She reviewed my book fairly, and I . . . just found too much to criticize in her book to give it more than one star, so I kept quiet. And then there was a writer-friend in real life whose book I read, and for the same reason I declined to review it. She gives me some odd looks nowadays, and I feel bad about having her review on my pages. In all, out of the 100+ reviews I’ve got, I’d estimate I feel slightly squicky about five or so of them, and they’re all from the very early days when I didn’t really understand what I was doing.

Reciprocal reviewing/rating/liking or any kind of reciprocal promotion that hides behind a structure set up for people to give their impartial opinions is wrong. It deceives readers and chips away at a writer’s integrity. Taken as a whole, such practices discredit authors, self-published authors in particular, in the eyes of their readers and their peers. It’s very easy to pass from a fairly harmless stance of supporting others to ending up like the guy whose invites I received—for all I know, he may have started out quite innocently trying to help others, but he’s created a monster with hundreds of heads that might prove very difficult to root out.

And when readers discover that the popular author whose books they’ve been loving and discussing made himself popular by buying reviews or soliciting reviews unfairly, or engaging in any of the shady practices that exist—there are far more than I’ve described here—their reaction is one of disappointed rage. Is that how you want to be remembered? To mangle Milton, I’d rather serve in heaven than rule in hell. I did make mistakes when I first started publishing, but I’ve learned better. In fact, I’ve learned a lot from the readers themselves about how to conduct myself with integrity and become a better writer. A lot of the trouble starts when authors only listen to each other and not the readers they write for. Start listening to your readers, fellow authors, and promote your work fairly.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Is your book ready for publication?

Image credit: humusak2 on FreeImages

When, exactly, do you know a book is ready?

If you’re a traditionally published author, somebody else usually decides that for you. If you’re lucky, your wonderful agent made many suggestions to improve your book. Then your terrific editor at your publishing house held your hand as you brought your novel up to the starting line—maybe you had more than one editor, with several rounds of substantive and line edits.

Maybe. As a reader and reviewer, I can tell how much editing’s been done and at what stage of the book—a story marred by too many plot lines and extraneous characters that don’t move the plot forward, for example, has suffered from too little editing at the developmental stage, while the lack of a line editor/proofreader is betrayed by slips such as ‘dust moats floated in the air,’ ‘her interest was peaked,’ and ‘they were in the throws of passion’ as well as elementary mistakes about timelines or locations. Of course mistakes can slip through any number of good editors, but believe me when you read as many books as I do (and I'm pointing at you, traditional publishing) you can smell shoddy or absent editing a mile off.

But a defining characteristic of traditional publishing is that at some point, someone else makes the decision that the book is ready to go into production. If you’re a true self-publisher (i.e. you’re not using an assisted self-publishing company) you have to make that decision yourself. Unless you have the budget to use a really good editor (and so that you know what I’m talking about, I’d expect to spend $8,000 for really good substantive and line editing.)

So, how do you know when your book is cooked? In some ways, it never is. A book is to its author what a garden is to its gardener—there’s always one more tweak that could be made to bring about perfection, to bring it closer to the ideal creation you have in your head. And if you read something you wrote a while ago, you inevitably realize how much better you could do it now. That’s just an occupational hazard.

But at some point, you need to publish, which means that YOU need to decide the book is ready. I’ve met self-published writers who don’t do much editing at all—a quick read-through and fix a few things here and there, and then perhaps they’ll use a proofreader to spot the typos before they go into production. This can work very well for certain types of writer in certain genres—romance and thriller spring to mind—where it’s important to bring new books to market constantly. If your readers are happy with that, all well and good, and I kind of envy writers who can push books into the production phase that quickly.

And then on the other hand there are those writers who spend way TOO long at the editing stage, if they haven’t got someone else hurrying them along. The ones who just can’t let go…enough said?

There’s an art to knowing when a book’s ready, in my opinion. But that’s a very unsatisfactory answer. Like when Felsted asks me, how do I know when the vegetables are cooked? and I say, they just smell right. He doesn’t need to know that’s how I do it—he needs me to say six minutes so he can put the timer on. So let me see if I can encapsulate the stages you need to have gone through to ensure your book’s ready to go.

  • First, you need to have done at least one good solid round of substantive editing. That usually involves a reader, maybe someone from your writing group—someone who understands how the kind of writing you’re doing works. Someone you can trust to look at your book and say what DOESN’T work. And then you let that good advice macerate in your brain, and work out how you’re going to rewrite that sucker to get it right.
  • Second, you need to be sure that every character (or every chapter, for a non-fiction book) serves a purpose. If you can’t point to exactly why the character or chapter is there, you need another round of editing.
  • Third, you need to be sure that the action (for non-fiction this can be the argument of the book) moves forward in every scene, without repeating itself (unless there’s a point to the action repeating itself.) Ask yourself, if I cut that chapter, will the reader be deprived of something important? If the answer is no, you need another round of editing.
  • Fourth, have you read the book aloud to yourself? If you want a really cheap idea how to improve your book, this is it. You’d be amazed what you pick up when you read a book aloud. If you’re out of breath by the end of a sentence, the sentence is too long. Cut it, or chop it into two sentences. If you’re bored at any point, the reader will be bored. If you lose track of who’s speaking, so will the reader. Fix those things.
  • Fifth, have you had someone proofread for typos, bad grammar and punctuation mistakes? I don’t care if that’s a professional editor or your Aunt Sadie. Get some eyeballs other than yours on the text before you move on to production.

There’s a distinction between the editing phase of a book and the production phase. When you’re done editing, you have a (more or less) finalized text. I learned when producing The House of Closed Doors that you need a master text file, preferably in .rtf format in the case of fiction. This means that there’s no formatting except for italics and bold—NOT a Word document with all the extra formatting dear old Word throws in. That master file is the one on which all future changes to the text MUST be made, and it’s helpful to decide at a certain point that this file is the definitive version. Then, you’re done with the editing phase.

And then comes production. From that master file you’re going to produce your ebook versions and your print version. Plus, that master file is going to be the basis for producing the file that you send to your audiobook narrator. As print, ebook and audiobook all have their own challenges, the resulting versions may differ in very small degrees, but that’s OK. Those differences are a production issue, not an editing issue. Do you get my drift?

And for heaven’s sake, save your various files, especially that .rtf master, somewhere safe. You never know when you’ll need to use that master again.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How I became crunchy

This post is not about writing. It’s about the next best thing: FOOD. Or at least, my relationship with food. Or possibly my medical history. Basically, I’m going to talk about myself for, oh, a thousand words or so. If you don’t want to read it, here’s the bottom line: AMERICAN FOOD IS POISONING ME.

I am, as some of you may know, not a slender woman. I’ve got junk in the trunk, generous curves, excess adipose tissue…and yet it wasn’t always that way. Before I made the leap into motherhood, I was a slim woman who could eat whole pizzas in a single bound without putting on weight—yes, one of those annoying people.

Then came the years 1991 to, let’s say, 1997 which was the year we moved to the States. Pregnancy, three deaths in the family, another pregnancy, the realization that our oldest (Orangina as she is known here) had developmental issues, some waves rocking the marital boat and the not unrelated decision to leave Belgium for Felsted’s ancestral home were enough to distract me from focusing on my own health, and I assumed my sudden ability to pack on the pounds and a variety of less obvious symptoms were simply part of the aging process combined with bad eating habits. By the time we settled in Chicagoland and I got my very first American driver’s license, I had to admit to a weight which put me squarely in the Woman of Size category. (Since then, I’ve done what every good American resident does and lied about it just a little bit.)

I tried a variety of diets over the years before admitting that dieting did little for my post-kids body. I would invariably get thin legs when I dieted, then my face would go scrawny, and then my metabolism would slow down to a point guaranteed to make the rebound a thrilling YE GODS I’M HEAVIER THAN I WAS BEFORE experience. So I gave up dieting in general (although from time to time I’d try cutting out a particular type of food or low-carbing or something fairly incompatible with survival and happiness) and just tried not to overeat and to exercise as much as I could.

And yet not only was I getting heavier, I was getting sicker. I had major problems with water retention (I remember one summer spent with my feet in the air because my ankles were so painful); I had PMS of the murder-suicide variety; and increasingly, I had gastric symptoms. By about 2003, I knew where all the bathrooms were over a 50-mile radius, including the very nastiest forest preserve latrine I’ve ever had the privilege of discovering.

I found out at some point that my thyroid had switched off, probably during those pregnancies, but this was followed by the discovery that synthetic thyroid pills give me severe muscle spasms so I’ve never gotten that issue properly under control. To be honest, it was the least of my problems. The stomach thing was getting worse, and to add to the fun it was sometimes accompanied by an asthma attack. My allergist was stumped. I had a food allergy test (EXPENSIVE) and came up with nothing. I was getting to the point where going out to eat felt like Russian roulette.

I tried giving up dairy. That was quite revealing, since certain hormonal symptoms (ladies may relate to Headlights Permanently On) disappeared. I instantly started buying organic dairy products for the family, despite Felsted’s wails that they cost twice as much as the ordinary kind, but never went back to drinking milk after that.

I tried going gluten-free. Man, that’s difficult. I salute those of you who’ve successfully made that switch. I’ve never wanted to eat bread or cakes more than I did during that period, and there was no noticeable difference except for the Paleo Pancakes that had me running for the loo before I’d even finished them.

After one series of symptoms that were alarmingly like heart attacks but weren’t, my doctor theorized a gallbladder problem, and I contemplated living on flaxseed tea, raw beetroot and a green soup I tried making once but which tasted like pondwater. Then I went for some thorough testing and my gallbladder was hale and hearty, so screw the green soup.

Somewhere toward the end of the last decade, the seed was planted in my mind that there was something wrong with my food. That made me feel a bit like a crazy lady who suspects They are trying to harm her and she should wear a foil hat to stop Them reading her brainwaves, but it had some basis. For one thing, a different allergist came up with an idea about certain food additives. Then I spent a lot more time back in Europe than I had over the last few years, and noticed that my stomach problems were less severe in England and almost absent in France. Then a dish I ate at a “healthy” chain restaurant gave me a gastric/asthma attack and they were kind enough to help me find the culprit: a preservative called polysorbate 80, used to extend the life of cream and creamy sauces.

And there were other things. I realized that the weird bumps on my neck and under the hairline, that turned into zits at certain times of the month, went away when I stopped eating yoghurt, which I’d always thought of as a health food. There was only one conclusion: My food was trying to kill me.

I had gradually been buying more and more organic food, but by now I was starting to get serious. I started reading labels. I stopped eating anything creamy at social gatherings. I started checking out counter-cultural blogs and getting interested in the whole debate about food processing that’s been creeping slowly around the internet. Gradually I dropped all convenience foods and learned to love kale.

Last year I got my summer veggies, and pastured eggs, from a local organic farm. This year I went for the three-season share, a little worried that it’d be too many vegetables but that’s really not the case. I discovered my family were more resilient than I thought they’d be about being experimented on with interesting new vegetable dishes, although the moment I leave for Europe Felsted’s straight down the supermarket buying instant mashed potatoes and flavored rice.

And yet it was Felsted who prompted the very best move of all. One day, out of the blue, he said, “Let’s buy a bread maker.” So we did, and I ordered a large quantity of organic, unbromated, unbleached flour, and—

My stomach problems, which had already lessened under the combined impact of additive avoidance and organic goodies, disappeared almost immediately. I am not gluten-intolerant after all, just intolerant of the wheat used by most food manufacturers. I eat yummy home-made bread, bake my own cakes, and have even tried my hand at homemade pizza dough (after not having eaten pizza for years because let me tell you, American pizza does not like me.)

So now, I am crunchy. My body is too used to its current weight and my thyroid too lazy to make slenderness attainable, but running, cycling and walking keep it in pretty good shape, and I’ve learned to love my larger self. Every so often I’ll notice that another niggling little health symptom has improved or disappeared: this morning I realized that the white bumps around my eyes (for which the technical term is milia) have gone.

I’m not fanatical about my new awareness of what America’s standard diet does to me, but I’m finding it easier and easier to avoid processed foods. The other day I arrived STARVING at a Special Olympics event and ordered a hot dog, only to take one bite and realize it tasted so disgusting I couldn’t eat it. I gave it to Felsted. He is, after all, American.

Monday, June 9, 2014

How the 365K Challenge has energized my writing life

In November of 2013, I embarked on National Novel Writing Month for the third time. For all my whining about how difficult it is to write regularly, I had noticed that once I’d committed to NaNo I had no great difficulty in getting my daily word count done. In fact, in 2010 I seem to remember I committed to a stretch goal that involved writing 3,000 words a day AND I DID IT.

So I decided I’d have to identify what worked about NaNo and replicate it, in order to achieve my first step toward Stupendous Success: Becoming a prolific writer.

Was it the community? Well, I was definitely motivated by seeing my writing buddies add to their word counts daily. But I’m not a fiercely competitive type, so seeing that Writer A had just written 5,000 words didn’t drive me to my keyboard to write 6,000 words. I was quite happy with the daily word count I’d decided on. And I don’t participate in many of the community activities in NaNo: write-ins, writing marathons, discussion boards and the like. So I figured it wasn’t the community aspect that was motivating me.

And then…the lightbulb moment. IT WAS THE TRACKING.

When you participate in NaNo, you get a progress page that informs you how you’re doing in terms of your daily and monthly goals. You can see how far behind or ahead you are—so, for example, if you’ve written more than the 1,667 words a day you need to arrive at 50K on November 30, your page will helpfully tell you that at this rate you’ll finish on, say, November 24.

And I realized, in a blinding flash of inspiration, that I could motivate myself by tracking my work.

So I set up an Excel spreadsheet to track my post-NaNo writing through December 2013. I’m not skilled enough at Excel to get it exactly the same as the NaNo page, but as it evolved over the ensuing months it became fairly nerdy (see screenshots below).

And it worked!

I’d set myself a daily word count goal of 1,000, which can take me anything from 30 minutes to two hours depending on how inspired I’m feeling. If I have to stop and do research, it can take a lot longer. I set up the spreadsheet to track how far ahead of my goal I am, so that I can “bank” extra words for days when it’s just impossible to write. This allows me to take holidays or travel into account, although on my last trip I got words written in the airport (when Scrivener FINALLY bring out their iPad app, this will be easier).

It was a revelation how motivating keeping this spreadsheet was for me. I got a real sense of achievement out of logging my words on it. There are, by the way, apps that will do a similar job for you: I have WordTracker on my iPad and it’s pretty cool, especially if you want to track your writing speed, but the problem with WordTracker is that I kept forgetting to turn it on and besides, with all the interruptions I get my stats become skewed pretty fast. For me, apps like this reinforce the myth that I need a block of uninterrupted time for writing, and my head in some kind of order, which isn’t true—all I need is to sit down and write!

Having ascertained that tracking provided motivation, I set myself a challenge for 2014:
365,000 words. 1,000 words a day, with a monthly target of [days in month x 1,000]. Originally these were going to have to be 365,000 words of fiction, but by now I allow myself to include blog posts, book reviews and other kinds of writing.

Take a look at my progress for March:

And here's how I keep track of my overall progress with a little graph, which I designed to be as similar to NaNo's as possible:

When I took this screenshot I wasn't quite done with April, but as you can see I was already about 8 percent ahead of my 2014 goal. 

I mentioned the idea to my critique partner, Katharine Grubb, and she jumped right in there with me, so I now have both nerdy tracking AND accountability. She set up a shared spreadsheet on Google Drive, so I enter my word count twice, once on my own spreadsheet and once on the shared one. Not strictly necessary, but the additional tracking features built into my own spreadsheet are useful for analyzing, for example, how much more engaged I am when at a certain point in a novel draft.
I set up a graph on our shared spreadsheet to track our joint progress:

As you can see, Katharine’s ahead of me (she is motivated by competition!) And you can see that at the time of the screenshot (April) we were both comfortably on track to write over 365,000 words in 2014.

This does not mean that we’re both about to start publishing three novels a year (100,000 words is a good length for a novel). At the time of writing I’m between novel drafts—I’m editing Eternal Deception as well as my daily word count, and am also in the preliminary stages of plotting the third novel in the House of Closed Doors series. But take a look at the March spreadsheet again. During that month I finished up the first draft of Eternal Deception, wrote two short stories, one of which I may polish up and submit to a writing competition at some point, wrote some key scenes for the next novel, and did some concept writing for a new series. If I can refine my plotting/research methods (I’m working on it) I could conceivably write three novels a year, but I think that’s pushing it for my kind of writing.

There are so many ways you could make this challenge work for you. You could, for example, write about your travels if you happen to be traveling—and then look for a market for travel writing (a popular nonfiction category). You could develop your creative nonfiction skills by writing about a scene from real life that really struck you. Or you could just use a prompt from the many online writing prompt sources just to increase the range and depth of your writing. On the infinite monkeys principle, some of what you write over the course of a year can be turned into cash—you just have to devlop the skills to identify the good stuff and submit it at the right time, in the right place. I’m still working on that.

Do you log your words? Any tips that could improve my methods?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The two biggest stumbling blocks for writers, part two: time

Last week I talked about the two biggest internal stumbling blocks to becoming a writer. How many times have you heard (or given) these excuses?
“Some days I just don’t feel inspired to write” 
“I need to carve out a block of time for writing, and that’s so difficult!”
I dealt with the first issue, inspiration, last week. So now let's talk about finding time to write.

Our internal blocks are affected by external circumstances. At the moment of writing this post, I’m struggling with a ton of distractions. Orangina, my cognitively disabled older daughter, has to be constantly prompted to move through her day, not a huge deal but I keep having to remove my head from its writing space and put it back on its mom/caregiver shoulders so that I can go do the reminding. I’ve been getting texts from one of my sisters about a parent’s health issue of the month, and took time out to fire off a bit of a rant (a mild one) in her direction because I have ideas that perhaps she hasn’t thought of and felt like I needed to share them. Opening the mail revealed that another family member has run up some unexpected bills. AGAIN. We had a minor basement flood last night, which was partly my fault, and I’m dealing with some of the aftermath. I have emails to answer and paperwork for Orangina that must be done. That adjectival dryer is beeping again.

And I bet you can EASILY top that list of concerns. Every day I meet or hear of writers who have way more to cope with than I do. Full time job? Homeschooling the kids? At Mom and Dad’s beck and call? Disabled spouse? Pain and/or disability of your own? Juggling college and job? Yes, your external stumbling blocks are significant. But if you’re reading this, I imagine it’s because you want to pursue your writing dreams…somehow…one day…

So how about making that day TODAY?

And here’s a great place to start: you don’t need big blocks of time to write. The image of the author reclining in his (why is it always HIS?) leather chair in his paneled library, gaining inspiration from the wonderful view from his window, is so far from the reality of the writing life as to be entirely—FICTIONAL. Even the most successful writers still have external stumbling blocks in their way (imagine trying to write and do everything else while you're expected to make public appearances and give interviews...) But the successful writer has conquered that inner voice that says they don’t have time to write, and that’s a huge step toward a bona fide writing career.

Take my critique partner, Katharine Grubb. With five young children to take care of and homeschool, she didn’t really have any time to write. But she wanted to, so she figured she could write for ten minutes every day. She wrote a novel that way—it took her five years, but she did it. And in the meantime she started blogging as the 10 Minute Writer, and ended up guest blogging elsewhere. Writing in ten-minute increments became so natural to her that she found herself setting that timer more often. She’s now a professional writer with an agent, a contract, income from self-publishing and…a community of writers with similar time-crunch issues.

I met Katharine when she was still in the process of writing her first book, and I’ve seen her grow as a writer and start meeting her goals. It’s hard to chart your own growth, but when you’re close to someone else’s writing and see true progress springing from the effort of finding time to meet your goals, that’s pretty powerful.

So what’s my advice?

Figure out a daily, or weekly, or monthly goal that will work for you. It might be two thousand words a week. Or 700 words a day, my goal when I started writing my first novel (which is still unpublished because I want to rewrite it). Or ten minutes a day. Or ten hours a month. Make the goal as small as you like, but commit to it.

(I attended a productivity webinar the other day where the very astute point was made that it's better to set a weekly or monthly goal than a daily one. If, for example, you tell yourself you must write 1,000 words a day and you get one of those days and simply can't write, you feel like a failure. If you've set yourself 31,000 days for the month of May and you miss a day, you simply catch up.)

And then make an effort to track how you are achieving that goal. I’m a great believer in logging my word count each day, and this works for many people. I HATE having to put a zero against any day, so I go out of my way to find time to write even when it’s been a horrendously busy day and I haven’t had a minute. Basically, that means giving up my evening’s relaxation, and that’s tough when I feel like I deserve to relax.

And if you like, you can report your progress to me. Sometimes that little bit of accountability is all a writer needs to keep going. In the next couple of weeks I’ll tell you about the 365K Challenge, and how that’s keeping both Katharine and me on track to bust through our previous writing records!

Monday, May 19, 2014

The two biggest stumbling blocks for writers, part one

If you’ve been paying attention over the last couple of weeks, you’ll know that time has become even more of an issue for me than it was before. But also, my commitment to writing has grown. So how, exactly, do you keep writing when you feel like the Red Queen—you know, when you feel like you’re running as hard as you can just to stay in the same place?

Well, first of all, acknowledge that you’re not alone. How many times have you heard people say, “I’ve always dreamed of writing a book. I’ll do it one day, when I have time”? Are you one of those people? Or are you now actively writing, and can look back on the days when you dreamed of writing that book AND WISH YOU’D STARTED IT SOONER?

OK, maybe you’re one of those people who’ve been writing since the day your little chubby baby fist was able to grasp a pencil, can’t go a day without writing or you’d literally explode, writes 10,000 words a day in a trance and then wakes up at dinnertime, etc. etc. If you are, just go sit in your happy little corner and smile derisively at the rest of us.

Because most writers, let’s be truthful about this, have to exercise a little willpower to get the job done. There’s this thing that one writer, Steven Pressfield, in a book called The War of Art calls Resistance, and it tends to jump in between the writer and his/her good intentions on a fairly regular basis.

The two most common excuses for not writing are probably:

"I need to carve out a block of time for writing, and that’s so difficult!"
"Some days I just don’t feel inspired to write."

Just to be contrary, I’m going to tackle the second issue first. That inspiration thing. If you’re waiting for inspiration to start writing, then you’re not serious about writing. Yeah, you heard me. You’re not treating writing like a job. Do you wait for inspiration to get up and go to the office? Must the Muse knock on your door to inspire you to make dinner before you’ll head to the kitchen and actually open the fridge?

But those are obligations, I hear you whine say. If I don’t turn up at the office, I won’t get paid and I’ll end up with nowhere to live. If I don’t cook something for dinner, I’ll starve or end up ordering pizza AGAIN and I know that’s not good for me. I can’t afford not to do those things.

Serious writers (whether they earn money from their writing or not) treat their writing as a job they have to turn up to. As a meal they have to prepare or face starvation. They sit their butt down in their writing place and they write, whether the Muse shows up or not. And some days, she doesn’t turn up at all and the writing session is just agonizing, but they do it anyway. (The good days are when the Muse obliges and you write your 1,000 words or whatever in record time.)

Do you think I waited for inspiration before I sat down and started writing this post?

Nope. It was the next one on my list, and after a couple of minutes’ thought I just started writing, not really knowing quite where it was going to end up, but knowing I could edit out any absolute nonsense later. When I put up my first post after my long absence, I told you guys I now have a plan. And that plan is to just write, dagnammit. Whether I want to or not. And it appears to be working.

Another example: The other week, I sat down to my daily writing session with absolutely NO CLUE of what to write. I could have used a prompt (just google “writing prompts” and you’ll find loads of good ones online) but instead I decided to follow the image that flashed into my head of a woman running. Where was she running? Why? Who was she? I began writing, almost at random, and a story emerged. Twenty-five days and 25,000 words later, I had an incredibly cruddy draft which is going to serve as the concept story for an entirely new series, and I’m very excited about it. Because I forced myself to write about anything at all, inspiration showed up.

So don’t wait for inspiration, Dear Writer. Sit down in that chair and write till you force it to stop hiding in the corner and come sit on your shoulder!

Next week: the block of time myth.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rewriting a novel: (re)plotting and writing

Image credit: hisks at FreeImages

To recap: Back in September 2013, I decided to rewrite Eternal Deception, the sequel to The House of Closed Doors that I’d been working on for nearly a year. Having got to the stage where I knew roughly how I wanted the new version to look, I very fortunately came across an online course taught by historical novelist Stephanie Dray on using Scrivener for plotting. (She’s going to publish it eventually, she says, so hold your horses—but in the meanwhile googling “Plotting with Scrivener” will net you a whole bunch of advice, all of which I intend to read as well as the book The Plot Whisperer, lent to me by a writing buddy).

Stephanie took us through various well known plotting methods: the Snowflake Method, the Hero’s Journey, character-driven plotting, scene-based plotting, and so on. It was tough to have to keep re-plotting the story from all these different viewpoints, and I’m still not sure if I’ve found MY ideal plotting method yet, but the resulting heap of ideas gave me some insights that lent richness to First Draft #2. Once I’ve finished editing Eternal Deception I’m going to start plotting Book 3, The Shadow Palace, and this time I’m going to work at this stage even more comprehensively.

The other thing that was great about Stephanie’s method was that it made considerable use of Aeon Timeline, another app that syncs with Scrivener. Again, there are other timeline apps out there, and I’ve tried one or two others but Aeon is my favorite. One of the issues I had with First Draft #1 was that I wanted it to be set over a six-year period, which turned out to be surprisingly difficult to manage. Using Aeon Timeline intensively during the plotting process convinced me that I was going to have to reduce the timespan of the novel to four years, which is just an easier period to manage for this particular plot. For the next book, The Shadow Palace, the timeline will be much tighter, so Aeon will become a very important part of my life. I’m glad I got to know this app better!

I did most of the plotting last October, while in England (most of the time without an internet connection—very conducive to hard work!) So by the time NaNoWriMo rolled around, I was more or less ready to write.

As I said in my last post, I allowed myself to write as long as I liked. No rush to get to the end of the story meant I could indulge myself in getting to the bottom of even some of the secondary characters. And I LOVED that. One character in particular took on so much depth that I was quite surprised at him, and the extra conflict I’d decided on at the mindmapping stage was a whole lot richer for letting my imagination wander around a bit.

So I wrote my 50,000 words or so (I think it was a bit more) for NaNoWriMo, and wasn’t nearly finished. At that point I lowered my daily word count from the 1,667 I needed to “win” NaNo to a more manageable 1,000 words a day (more about that later!) And I kept going…

Until March 10, 2014, when I finally wrote The End.

Only one problem…

The manuscript is now 175,000 words long. So instead of my usual editing challenge of having to add more into scenes to make them richer, I now find myself looking for words to slash. I guess it’s a nice problem to have, but I know I’m still going to end up with a chunkster of a book. Never mind—I’ve found the story I wanted to tell. My reaction when I read it through recently (I always do a read-through before I start editing) was a pleased smile rather than the frown of doubt that darkened my brow during 2013. This is a story I’ll be happy to put in front of my readers.

Oh, and I can’t finish this tale without admitting something.

That draft I sent to my beta readers? Like all my other novels, it resided in a Scrivener file.


I suspect I overwrote it, but to this day I don’t know how I could have done that. I’ve been using a computer since 1985 and am very, very careful about file naming and replacement. The thought that I would have ignored the “do you really want to?” message and gone ahead and overwritten a file is pretty much unthinkable.

Unless, subconsciously, I wanted that story to die. I do have it as a compiled document, in both docx and pdf format, because I output it to send it to my beta readers. So it’s not strictly lost. But losing the Scrivener file meant that it would have been annoyingly difficult to re-use bits and pieces of that draft in my new draft. And yet—by the time I realized I’d lost the file, I was so far into the rewrite with barely a reference to the previous draft that I knew it didn’t matter whether that draft existed or not, because it wasn’t the right story anyway.

Do you rewrite? Or does the idea scare you?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Rewriting a novel: the commitment stage

Somewhere round about September 2013, I realized my current manuscript was going to have to be rewritten.

It wasn’t working. I struggled, in particular, with a couple of characters that needed to be vivid and weren’t. I had my doubts about whether some other characters should be included in the novel at all. Overall, I felt I’d written the novel too superficially.

This last problem arose, I think, from my decision to write the first draft of Eternal Deception in a month, during National Novel Writing Month 2011. That’s how I’d done it with The House of Closed Doors, you see, and although I’d spent a year editing The House of Closed Doors afterwards, rejigging some plotlines and rewriting a huge chunk of it to accommodate one particular change, the basic outline of the novel was still solid in my mind. I was happy with it. I felt I’d found the story.

But from the moment I finished that first draft of Eternal Deception in 2011, I wasn’t satisfied. It came in at about 62,000 words, for one thing, way short of the 85,000-100,000 words I was aiming at. It felt superficial. There was a character who really needed to have a lot of force in the story, and didn’t. Nell seemed to lack her previous fire.

What I should have done is send the whole thing to my critique partner Katharine Grubb right there. That’s one lesson I’ve learned over the last year—to treat first drafts more as concept writing than as a finished product, and to get input on them very early.

Writing advice tends to give the impression that you should spend time polishing your work before you let anyone else’s eyeballs rest on it—that’s perhaps good advice if the first person you want to see it is an agent, but not, I think, if you’re writing for self-publication. Of course you shouldn’t be letting just anyone see those first drafts, either. Your first readers should have a critical eye, a good sense of story, and the ability to say what’s wrong and what’s right with your draft in a helpful way.

And YOU have to be able to take criticism, too. If you can’t, you’re not really ready to be a published writer. Finally, you have to treat being a pre-publication reader as a reciprocal arrangement. If they read your work, you need to be available to read theirs (although we all make allowances for what’s going on in each other’s lives!)

Anyway, I went through three editing passes—and many hours just sitting in a chair and worrying—with that manuscript. And then, finally, I got it into OK shape and sent it to a few beta readers. The most useful comments came from two people—my friend and writing buddy Maureen Lang, a multi-published writer of historical romances, and my main critique partner, Katharine. Katharine totally went to town on the manuscript, covering it with orange pen so that it looked like this on just about every page:

Now THAT’s the kind of critique I look for, the merciless kind. She was telling me what I needed to know—the manuscript wasn’t nearly ready for publication. But I wasn’t quite at the stage of acknowledging that yet. First, I went through a process I’m going to use for every novel from now on—the mind map!

There are various mind-mapping apps out there, but my app of choice is Scapple from the folks at Literature and Latte. I like it because it’s completely freeform and synchronizes with Scrivener, my writing software. I went through Maureen and Katharine’s critiques (color coding them for easy identification) and threw them all on the Scapple page, connecting them as I did so into nodes focusing on a particular area, maybe a character or a setting. Guess what? Those nodes coincided with the parts of the novel that had been worrying me.

The process of mapping out comments this way basically set my brain on fire. I started coming out with all sorts of new ideas, so I threw those on the page as well, color coded turquoise. The result looked like this:

By the time I’d finished the mind-mapping, I knew not only that I SHOULD, but that I COULD rewrite the novel. And with NaNoWriMo coming up in November, I knew I could use that time to put 50,000 words into that novel in a way that worked for me. But I made another couple of decisions that were a huge help.

I decided to overwrite, and I decided not to give myself a deadline for finishing the new draft.

I figured that the shortness of the FIRST first draft (yes, it gets confusing) was due in part to the pressure I’d put on myself to finish it during NaNoWriMo, so I wasn’t going there again. No deadline, no pressure to finish during November should equal no cutting of corners. 

And that led to the overwriting thing. It helped that I spent much of 2013 listening to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series on audiobook—Diana’s an overwriter if I ever knew one, milking every emotion, thought or possible bit of action or dialogue out of a scene. And although that drives some readers buggy, it leads to a richness in her books that drags you into her world and keeps you there. I wasn’t proposing to be another Diana (as if) but I decided to abandon my previous attempts to write tight and clean, knowing I was a good enough self-editor to clean up afterwards.

But first I needed to do some plotting…


Monday, April 28, 2014

Back and ready to do battle!

Photo credit: Julos Stock on FreeImages

September 5, 2013. Yep, that was the date of my last post. And at that time, I was feeling overwhelmed.

Guess what?

I still do.

It’s been quite a year. As I said in that last post, I’ve moved into a new phase of my life, and more changes are on the way. 2013 began with my parents having serious health issues, and Orangina and I spent nearly two months in Europe, and I realized two things.

One, that I needed and wanted to play a role in helping my parents navigate through the next few years. The challenges facing them both are substantial, and although I always thought that, being 4,000 miles away, I would leave most of the work to my sisters, that’s clearly not the way it’s going to play out. So being a practical sort of person, I spent much time making it possible for me to spend more time in England and yet still work at my writing business.

Because the other thing I realized was that I wanted very much to remain committed to the writing career, and that without a huge effort said writing career was going to get swamped by all the rest of the stuff I have to do. During much of 2013, writing wasn’t my priority. There was all the other stuff—and moreover, I had this draft sequel to The House of Closed Doors that I wasn’t very happy with, and that’s a very tough position to be in when you self-publish and don’t have an editor and/or agent to give you the benefit of their experience, or a write-or-lose-your-contract deadline. Yes, self-publishing does have its drawbacks.

When I wrote my last post back in September, I had just made the commitment to rewrite the sequel, which is called Eternal Deception. I’d gone through nearly a year-long process of writing, editing more than once, and sending the manuscript to beta readers. But my doubts wouldn’t go away. I didn’t think I’d really found the story that needed to be told. I was worried that having written a novel that was getting good reviews and attracting fans to my writing, I would then let my readers down with a story that wasn’t better than the first book. A novelist’s second book is frequently a tough moment—the euphoria of having a great idea and writing it through to completion has worn off, and the vacuum it leaves allows fear and doubt to rush in. And fear and doubt are great paralyzers of creativity. I experienced that in 2013—I spent more time worrying about Eternal Deception than working on it, and until the moment when I committed to rewriting it, I felt trapped by it.

But then I made the commitment to a rewrite. Not just taking the current manuscript and rejigging it—a COMPLETE rewrite, only referring to the current MS when I absolutely needed to. I finished it on March 10, and am now in the first editing pass, but I’m really happy with the story this time so this baby is going to see publication.

Also, in the months since my last blog post, I’ve recommitted to a print edition of The House of Closed Doors (almost there!) AND I’ve partnered with a wonderful producer/narrator on an audiobook of The House of Closed Doors AND I’ve developed a daily writing habit AND set myself an impressive challenge for 2014 AND committed (mentally) to starting a second blog. That’s in addition to two very busy trips to England since September, and keeping up with my reviewing for the Historical Novel Society.

On the minus side, I lost the regular freelance work that was providing a very useful cash cushion against the fact that my fiction writing isn’t earning much yet. No big drama—just one of those things that happens (the gentleman I was working for stepped into another position, and his successor has a different strategy. Them’s the breaks.) In some ways this is good, because it forces my attention onto the business side of my fiction writing. One of my big challenges for 2014 is to find time to put in the marketing/networking/social media work that I was pretty good at pre-2013 but seemed to have dropped the ball on right now. And blogging. Oh yes, blogging.

So, let’s put it this way.

I’m still feeling overwhelmed.

But I’ve worked out, in the months since September, what my priorities are. I have a PLAN. And as far as blogging goes, I’m back and for the moment, I have things to say. While writing this post I’ve created documents for several more blog posts to cover the things I’ve learned over the last seven months. I’m planning to post on Mondays on this blog, and I now have a better framework for keeping to that schedule, so who knows? It might be a while before I disappear off the radar again. Jane’s back.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


I have five million things I should be doing RIGHT NOW.

So I'm blogging instead.

Oh wait, I can't stand the dryer beeping one more time.

One hour later...

Wait, the thing's beeping again...

Five minutes later...

And in the meantime I've done various household chores, fielded emails (some from other people who also evidently have too much on their plates and aren't being very competent as a result; trying to see the irony of getting annoyed with them...), talked through a minor job issue with Orangina, and sometimes just sat in front of my computer and worried.

Nothing's wrong, exactly. The problems in my life are decidedly of the first-world variety, and I remind myself of this constantly. Among other things we've had some improvements made to our house, with attendant comings and goings of men who drop things and make little messes and borrow household implements that are never quite the same again afterwards, and these are GOOD contractors...I think it's the absence of female supervision that's the problem.

And Wasabi is back at college after a wonderful few months in London, and Orangina has a job, and both of them are suddenly becoming much more self-sufficient and confident in their ability to interact with the adult world. I no longer have teenagers! My children are young women who make their own decisions! But they are, naturally enough, still at the stage where they solicit help and advice from the parent birds, and I'm certainly a whole lot more involved in their lives than my parents were at this stage. In Orangina's case, of course, this involvement is a lifelong business, but even here I count my blessings as we are definitely at the favored end of the intellectual/developmental disability spectrum.

And the list goes on, including the fact that I'm rewriting the sequel to The House of Closed Doors...and I'm feeling a little overloaded, by big things and small. Wrapping around all this is the undeniable fact that our lives are changing and we are starting to feel our way toward a different future. For the last twenty years our days have been dominated by the issues of raising children; schools have been a resource, a source of structure, but also a kind of benevolent dictatorship stipulating where we live, when we take a vacation and what time is bedtime. NOW we are free to make some radical changes, and I find myself itching to make them before we become too old and constrained by ill health or enforced retirement.

Somewhere around the New Year I made a 2013 checklist of things I wanted to achieve. Not, by any means, resolutions, just a reminder of what was on my mind during the quieter, more reflective post-Christmas period. I didn't anticipate a two-month-long stay in the UK at that point, nor that Orangina would get a job so quickly, so I think I can congratulate myself on having achieved six of the thirty or so items I started with. And looking at the ones I HAVEN'T achieved, and seeing which are still the most important to me, is a useful exercise.

And I need to make another list, of all the things I need to do right now, big and small. When I feel like AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGHHHH there are three things that help: writing about it (as I'm doing now), cleaning up my desk (because things get messy when I'm overloaded and then I get stressed about the mess, which makes things worse) and making a master list to guide me through what needs to be done. The way things are at the moment, the items on the list sometimes get swamped by another wave of must-dos, but just having the list calms me down and makes me feel more in control. It gets rid of that completely overwhelmed feeling that verges on a panic attack; a state of mind where I pretty much grind to a halt, and which is usually caused by having nothing I HAVE to do right now but many, many things I SHOULD be doing. Does that make sense?

And, I miss blogging. When I'm swamped, of course, I neglect social media and blogging as not being "vital", but in some ways they are. In the same way that over and above all other things, I try to exercise and eat right (training for a 20K, y'all! Ran five miles yesterday!), I should consider blogging as the essential outlet for my thoughts, a sort of public Pensieve. It's all too easy, when you have plenty of practical and urgent things to do, to neglect the business of putting your thoughts in order, and come to think of it I've spent very little time thinking lately because I've been doing in order just to get through my day without neglecting something that has a deadline attached to it.

I began this post running round like a squirrel trying to do ten things at once, didn't I? Isn't it interesting that studies now show that multitasking is not nearly as useful as we think? And now I feel slightly calmer, in a still-a-bit-frazzled kind of way.

Of course YOU don't really need to know all of this, and if you'd read this far, thanks for caring. You may have far, far worse problems than I do, and think I'm being a whiney cow. You may think that I'm doing this all wrong, and that if I just [insert solution here] I would be fine. You may think I should be caring about [insert world crisis here] instead (although, personally, I think that causes are a form of hiding for many people).

So, a question: what exactly DO you do when you're overwhelmed?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A review of Dan Brown's Inferno, with few apologies to the author*

*but copious thanks to renowned critic and journalist Michael Deacon, whose article inspired me to write a parody review, not that it isn't like shooting fish in a barrel.

Inferno (Robert Langdon, #4)Inferno by Dan Brown
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Obscure reviewer Jane Steen sat in her modest study in cozy suburban Illinois and stared with horror at the object she held in her hands. Measuring nine-and-a-half by six-and-a-quarter by one-and-a-half inches, the object was encased in a shiny substance the overweight reviewer knew to be plastic.

A book of some kind.

To the little known reader’s brilliant mind and eidetic memory, identifying the book was a simple task. The labels affixed to the spine proclaimed its origin: the library. It was adorned with the terrifying profile of a red-cheeked man in a red cap and red cloak, surmounted by a series of concentric circles.

Red . . . The color of blood. And those circle things look like a target.

The reviewer’s hands trembled as her fingers traced the bold lettering on the book’s cover. “DAN BROWN . . . INFERNO.”

I have to review this?!

The reviewer knew that Dan Brown (born June 22, 1964) is an American author of thriller fiction who is best known for the 2003 bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code. Brown's novels are treasure hunts set in a 24-hour period, and feature the recurring themes of cryptography, keys, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories. His books have been translated into 52 languages, and as of 2012, sold over 200 million copies. Two of them, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, have been adapted into films.

I copied that straight out of Wikipedia.


I am holding Inferno by Dan Brown and I have to review it, the plump, somewhat scruffily dressed, middle-aged woman recapped. Terror made her nauseous, but she bravely looked at her Goodreads updates to refresh her memory, reading the scathing comments she had left only days ago on the popular readers’ Web site.

Dan Brown is going to kill me!

The female reviewer recalled that Dan Brown is currently the twentieth highest selling author of all time and with only six books, he has achieved these sales writing fewer books than anyone above him on the list. The Robert Langdon series is currently the seventh highest selling series of all time.

Like Dan Brown, I do most of my research on the Web. Not the Internet. Dan Brown likes to talk about the Web. It sounds more . . . spidery.

The married reviewer felt an instant spark of attraction toward the sandy-haired author, who always seems to be wearing a tweed jacket in his photo shoots.

Could he be Robert Langdon in disguise?


Overreacting wildly, the obscure critic overreacted for a few minutes, then got a grip on herself and scanned her updates. She noted that renowned author Dan Brown tends to get his tenses confused, loves to put identifiers in front of his characters’ names, and is inordinately fond of ellipses and loud punctuation such as exclamation points, question marks and interrobangs.

Why is that?!

Oh yes, and he loves italics, which pop up all over the place, not always readily identifiable with one particular character.


The practically unknown reviewer picked up her copy of Inferno by Dan Brown, scanning its mysterious cover with the picture of the sage she now knew to be internationally famous poet Dante (c. 1265–1321), who was a major Italian poet of the Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy, originally called La Comedia and later called Divina by Boccaccio, is widely considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature.

Gad, I love Wikipedia.

She remembered that bestselling author Dan Brown frequently recaps the previous action near the beginning of a chapter, and that his bestselling prose is scattered with information dumps so densely constituted that they resemble the excreta of the famed Friesian horse, a creature mentioned in the bestselling novel Inferno.

The reviewer’s eidetic memory roamed over the plot. She recalled that Robert Langdon, granite-jawed Harvard professor of symbology and art historian specializing in iconography, wakes up in Florence to find that he remembers nothing, people are apparently trying to kill him, and he is carrying a suggestively shaped container that contains a mysterious object. He is helped by pretty blonde ponytailed genius-IQd Sienna Brooks, who has the hots for him. And his confused memories recall a mysterious silver-haired attractive older woman who wants him to seek and find, and who undoubtedly will have the hots for him too.

Meanwhile, on the mysterious ship The Mendacium, facilitator Knowlton has just watched a video that is more terrifying than the most terrifying thing you can possibly imagine.

Dan Brown is fond of making his characters react with terror in the hope that the reader will also be terrified?

What is this book?!


“Ah yes!” the clinically obese woman derided, not knowing that “deride” must have an object. She recalled that most of the plot of Inferno consisted of Langdon and Sienna running around famous tourist spots finding clues, while being chased by a leather-clad woman who turns out to be superfluous to the plot, a bleeding strangely dressed man who also, honestly, didn’t have much of a role except to increase dramatic tension, and some black-clad soldiers who weren’t really necessary either, except that they get to do all the dirty work like good little minions. As they pass various monuments, Langdon recalls large indigestible lumps of architectural and historical detail.

As the story lumbers to its end it picks up speed, with one quite nice bit of misdirection but otherwise the usual thriller fare of all the important stuff being packed into the last few pages so that the reader feels like a lot went on.

And then there was the ending . . .


“I was outraged,” the reviewer recalled, outraged. How could everyone suddenly decide that the Evil Plan may, in fact, be a Jolly Good Thing? Why was the Evil Villain’s Number One not banged up in jail but instead allowed to work for the good guys?

And didn’t Dan Brown think through what he was proposing as Quite A Good Thing, Really?!

The reviewer ran her hands over the shiny cover of the bestselling novel Inferno by Dan Brown. She recalled that Langdon rides off smugly into the sunset of a brand new world without any thought for the social, economic, and religious consequences of what just happened. Not to mention the fact that a small bunch of white people take it upon themselves to re-engineer the fate of mankind without consulting the rest of the world.

And that’s supposed to be OK because they’re white, rich, and brilliant.


The overweight woman gnashed her teeth dramatically and then, like renowned professor of symbology Robert Langdon, decided to settle down with a good book. Sensing it was time to wrap up her interminable review, there was one thought that still haunted her.

Dan Brown knows exactly what he’s doing.

The frequent recaps so the reader doesn’t lose his way . . . the italics that also serve as simplified reminders of what’s going on . . . the way the action takes place in tourist spots that are easily visited and quite easy to research . . . the very short chapters . . . the dropping of brand names . . .

He’s manipulating the Baby Boomers!?!

The reviewer realized that for an audience accustomed to a diet of CSI and the Discovery Channel, Dan Brown’s storytelling style is accessible and informative. Used to being given the potted version of history by talking heads as the camera zooms around in a dizzying series of filler shots, the average reader of Brown’s books will sink into a TV-induced-like stupor and, instead of thinking about the plot or the writing, will simply enjoy the experience and come back for more.

And that, thought the reviewer, is why Dan Brown is the novelist of the future.

Sensing it was time, really, to revert to a state of denial before that last thought took hold in her brain, the reviewer took one last look at the cover of the bestselling novel Inferno and sighed.

I can return it to the library and forget this ever happened . . .

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