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Fear of Writing

Edvardmunch-thescream-1163553-lWhen I was invited to speak to the Living Writer's Collective in Tennessee a couple of weeks ago, my topic was the Fear of Writing.   The subject was enthusiastically received, with several writers sheepishly admitting to me that they suffered from it (and Lord knows I've dealt with it off and on throughout my career), so I thought I'd adapt part of my talk here.

I've identified two broad arenas that your fears of writing might fall within:


This is when you fear sitting down and putting words on the page.  You might not think that you actually have this fear, because fear is a sneaky beast that masquerades as all kinds of other things.  Like suddenly needing, desperately needing, to do laundry.  Or mop the kitchen floor.  Or go grocery shopping.  Or do just about anything but get to the page in the time you've allotted to write.

The fear of the writing process can also pop up once you've actually gotten to the computer.  There you sit, facing that wonderful blank screen.  When you get tired of looking at the screen, you gaze out the window.  And then maybe you go grab yourself a cup of coffee and stare out the kitchen window for awhile.  I've got news for you--all this staring is not writing.

Or, has this ever happened to you?  You are writing along, lost in the process and suddenly your fingers come to a halt.  You've written something that's threatening to the old ego.  And now you're terrified.  All was fine one minute and then next, well, it's not.


Product fears gather around putting your work out in the world.  What if you're rejected?  What if people don't like your book when it's published?  What if you get a bad book review or your mother reads it and is shocked?  What if you wrote a thriller about a murdered and people think you have first-hand experience with crime?  The what ifs go on and on and on, and many of them are as silly as the last one I listed.  But here's the deal: fears are often silly.  But they take on enormous power despite this.

So what's a person to do?


Here's the bad news: the only way out is through.  Well, it may not be the only way out, but it's the best way out.  Yup, to get over your fear of writing, you must write.  And then put it out in the world, even when you don't want to.  In so many ways this is counter-intuitive and probably not at all what you want to hear.  Wouldn't it be just so much easier if there were an actual program you could take that conquered your fear of writing without you having to do any writing?  Well, that program is, you guessed it, writing.

Here are a couple ways to approach it that might help:

--Try freewriting.  This old favorite really does work.  If you do it correctly, it bypasses the conscious mind and taps you into something deeper, beyond fear.  The way to do it is this: pick a prompt (any prompt, it doesn't matter), set a timer for 20 minutes, and then write.  Write without stopping, even if you are writing the same word over and over again.  Keep the flow going--it is this that subverts the fear.  And don't worry about staying on topic, you probably won't.  When you're done, underline or highlight anything that you might find useful and use this as a starting point for another writing session.

--Chunk it down.  Many of us writers are big-picture people.  We look at a project and see the whole thing all at once.  This has many advantages, but a big disadvantage is that it can be overwhelming.   Remind yourself that you only need to look at your project in little bits.  Make a loose outline and take one line of it at a time and write to that.  Then take the next line, and then the next, until you have a rough draft for each item on the list.

--Take time for process time.  In a book called Around the Writer's Block, author Roseanne Barr talks about how important process time is to writers.  By this she means things like journaling, or morning pages.  It can be a conundrum: take precious writing time to journal or get right to the project at hand?  But studies have shown that taking time for process writing helps you beat writing resistance on a consistent basis.

--Approach it playfully.  Try some fun writing exercises every once in awhile.  Open a dictionary at random and fun your finger down the page.  Use the word you land on as a prompt.  Combine it with anothe word and make the start of a sentence and then use that.  Cut up old manuscripts into long strips, one line to a strip and put them in a box. Choose one and use as a prompt.

--Write something different.  I know I get stuck on thinking that I must work on my novel and only my novel.  But last fall at a workshop I tried my hand at Flash Fiction and loved it.  Writing that could be a quick warm-up to displace your fears.  So could writing Haiku.

--Remember to write and let everything else fall into place.  Because it will.  Your job is to put words on the page.  This is the best thing to remember when you feel that fear of putting your work out in the world, or of submitting it to editors or agents.  Your job is to write.  It's not to worry about what people are going to think of the final product.  At the heart of it all, you just need to write.

What about you? How do you banish your fear of writing?  Leave a comment!

**Today is the last day to get $50 off tuition for my Get Your Novel Written Now class.  Learn more here.

Photo of Munch's The Scream by Oddsock.

The Next Big Thing

My buddy, Reavis Wortham, invited me to be part of a Blog Hop, and I can't say no to Reavis, especially when he's wearing his cowboy hat, so here I am, participating.  (You really should go on over to the Rev's site and check out his award-winning mysteries--they're pretty awesome.)  The questions for the Hop pertain to my next novel, though I think a bit about Emma Jean might sneak in here and there, it's the nature of things.

Speaking of which, the nature of a Blog Hop is that once you're done, you tag other people.  I think I was supposed to come up with five, but ended up with four.  No matter, they are all great writers with fun projects.  Check out the list at the end of the questions. Then go visit them and say hi.

1: What is the working title of your book(s)?

I don't have a working title for the book, I just refer to it as Jemima B.  That's the name of the main character.  When I wrote Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, I knew the title from the very start, it came to me along with the idea for the book.  But this time I'm just not sure.  I like it when authors have books with similar titles so it might become something like Jemima B Something Something Something.  Ideas are welcome, though I realize that it might be helpful if you knew something about the book before you named it.

2: Where did the idea come from for the book?

Oh God.  I don't know.  People always ask me this, and I have a hard time answering because my novel ideas come to me as a process of accrual.   One idea combines with another and then another and then I'm writing.  But to look back and point to any one moment or specific idea is difficult.  I will say that my stories always begin with a character.  And then I see her in a situation.  And it goes from there.  In Jemima's case, I saw her sitting in a crappy motel room and I realized that she was very out of place there--that she was an elegant, wealthy woman, so I wondered why she was there.  And that's how it started.

3: What genre does your book come under?

Women's Fiction.  Though I think it's really stupid that that is a genre.  We don't refer to Men's Fiction do we?  No, of course not.  Also, I'm in the process of inventing my own genre, which is Baby Boomer Women's Fiction.  Or, it could be called Fiction for Women of a Certain Age.  You could also call it Romantic Comedy, though that makes me nervous because I don't think Jemima is as funny as Emma Jean. And, I'll stop now.

4: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Meryl Streep should play Jemima, even though Jemima has dark hair and doesn't look anything like her.  Just because she's Meryl Streep and she's amazing.  If Nathan Fillion was a bit older, he could play Frank, Jemima's ex-husband.  They don't look anything alike, but both have that same devil-may-care attitude.  And then we could choose Jennifer Lawrence for Jemima's daughter, even though that is a relatively small part.  Regardless, I'm sure she'll be chomping at the bit to take it.

5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Well-to-do Malibu matron and entrepreneur Jemima Brooks is forced to face harsh new realities when the life she knows and loves is suddenly taken away from her.  (That sounds like a bad romance novel, but I've never been good at writing elevator pitches for my books.  You should hear me try to explain Emma Jean.)

6: Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?

Don't know yet.  I sold Emma Jean to the indie publisher myself, and I've been very happy with them.  I have this idea, though, that I'd like to experience all three main modes of publishing--indie, self, and Big Six.  I'm toying with the idea of self-publishing my MFA novel, so I think I'd like to try my luck with Jemima at a big house.  I say that like it's easy.  It's not, I tried with Emma Jean.  Still and all, one of my goals for 2013 is to get a literary agent.  So let's just say, for the sake of argument, that she'll be represented by an agency.

7: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I'm still working on it, and I think I'm about 2/3 of the way through.  I made good progress on it last fall, but the Emma Jean book release has slowed me quite a bit.  Come March, I'll be ready to seriously return to it.

8: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Here's my latest point of comparison--Nick Hornby, who wrote About a Boy and High Fidelity.  One of my advance reviewers said that Emma Jean kind of reminded her of him.  I'll take it!  I think my stories tend to have that same combination of romantic comedy with a somewhat sentimental heart (even though sentimental is a dirty word these days).

9: Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See answer to #2. Though I will also say that seeing people suffer during the recession inspired (if that's the right word) me. There were so many cases of people flying high one minute and hitting rock bottom the next. That experience interests me. How do you cope? How do you move forward through your suddenly changed reality?

10: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Writers will appreciate this--this novel is coming out completely differently than any other I've written. In the past, I've always hewed to writing in strict chronological order. That felt natural to me and not constraining. But this time through, I've had far more of a tendency to write scenes out of order. And, too, much of it has been written by hand in a spiral pad and then transferred to the computer. Jemima just refuses to deal with the computer first.

Okay, that's it for me! Now I turn it over to these wonderful writers, who will publish their answers to the questions on February 6th.

Candace White  Ain't Got Enough Gravy  

Beverly Army Williams Pomo Golightly 

Leisa Hammett Leisa Hammett 

Sharon Henry-Jones Making the Best of It 

Mandy Webster Write on the World

P.S. By the way, since we're speaking of novels here, tomorrow is the last day to get $50 off my Get Your Novel Written Now class.  Check out all the details here. 

Oh, Amazon, You Trickster, You

Book-books-collection-415-lIf you enter the title of my novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, into the Amazon search engine, up my book will pop, despite the fact that its pub date is not until February 12th.  And no, there's nothing about pre-ordering it mentioned on the page.  It's just there.  For sale.

I found this out thanks to the alert eyes of my reader and online buddy Zan Marie.  Now, I'd be happy to have my book available for sale, except for a couple of things:

--This isn't the final copy.  I worked on final proofing all the way to Nashville and back.  Caught a few small errors.  No big deal, you say?  Uh-uh.  Not for me.  I'm a printer's daughter and pride myself on being able to catch typos.  (Now, of course, you'll find one or more.  That's alright.  I can take it.  Let me know, I won't be hurt.) I also tinkered with the acknowledgments (the hardest part of writing the book, I swear) a bit.  And I wanted my readers to get this corrected copy, the final, final copy.  The perfect one.

--We set the pub date for February 12th and I wanted to have the requisite hoopla around it on that date.  Not some vague earlier time.  I wanted it to be a specific date, an event.  (I'm working on ideas for how I can share this event with you, so stay tuned.)  Silly, maybe, but so be it.

So I emailed my ever-patient editor and she promptly contacted Amazon to have them take it down, at the very least until the final final copy gets to them.  (You'll still see it listed for sale if you search for it or click here.  I actually don't know what happens if you click on it to buy it.)

But here's what cracks me up: Just as Emma Jean does in the novel, I started checking my Amazon sales rank.  At one point, it was down to #717,876 or something like that.  Wow!  I was feeling pretty good about that.  I mean, it wasn't even officially on sale yet and already I was ranked below a million.  Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. 

And then my editor emailed me back yet again and said that as far as the publishers could tell only one copy of that version of the book had been sold. (Thanks, Jenni--you've got a one-of-a-kind edition.)  So, as my daughter-in-law said, thus selling one book=#717,876 rank.  Does this mean if I sell two I get put right up to #1?   Um, probably not.  Apparently the Amazon algorithm is mysterious and unknown, just like the Google's.

Thus, note to self: do NOT fuss and obsess over the Amazon sales ranking when the book comes out.  Because it doesn't mean anything.  Does it?

Do you have experience with Amazon?  I'd love to hear it.  Barring that, what do you obsess over?  That's an even better topic.  Please share in the comments.

**There's only a couple more days of early-bird pricing for my Get Your Novel Written Now class.  Check out more info here.


Guest Post: Unpack This Scene

Cover with inset

I'm pleased to introduce to you novelist Julianne McCullagh, who announces the publication of her book, The Narrow Gate, and tells a bit of the story behind it in this guest post.

Unpack This Scene

by Julianne McCullagh

About a year ago, Charlotte Rains Dixon offered a free 15-minute coaching session. Free I could afford. I sent her a number of pages from the, then, first chapter of my WIP. Three words revived me and my desire to finish my novel: “Unpack this scene.” These three words pushed a button in me that released the gate that was holding in 10,000 words. Maybe it was permission to delve deeper, maybe an assignment I wanted to ace. Since I am a slow writer, this was something else, and-- and, and, this is important--I could actually use most of these words and/or scenes that rushed that gate!

I struggled with the beast that is novel writing. My experience with writing, aside from term papers way back when, was column writing and the long essay. I had secretly hoped, in whispers, for years that I could become--ta ta ta da!!--one of them. "Them," of course, being novel writers. One of "them" that I had read so many of over the years, hungrily devouring book after book all my life, starting with fairy tales and big color books of forests and castles and princes and princesses, sitting on the cool linoleum floor of the basement in my parents home, big books opened on my small lap.

We had books in my family.

Bookcase after bookcase filled with words. There were whole sections of the greats, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, that my grandfather collected. There was a giant, I mean giant, old and yellowed dictionary that had its own pedestal and I would read word after word of it until I was called away. This writing thing had to be wonderful. My grandfather, who died before I was born, worked as an editor, a writer and a printer. He didn't go to college but he educated himself on the greats of literature. Some part of me felt it was a sacred duty to love words and story, a family tradition, passed down like a scepter, or, better yet, a lantern, the lantern of knowledge and thinking.

I discovered that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write fiction. After all, it’s just something I made up, right? Well, yeah. But, fiction is not just something a writer makes up. To be good fiction, lasting fiction, hopefully, the writing must shed light or reflection on the truths of life, the real human emotions and consequences and graces and love and struggle that the reader can believe and relate to, root for, cry with, rejoice over, and all those other prepositions we are not supposed to end sentences with.

But a novel is a beast. There are story arcs that must intersect with story arcs that makes something beautiful, that makes a reader want to keep turning pages to see what happens next, how the protagonist or antagonist deals and acts upon the events of her life.

It took me at least three years to write my novel. My novel had a humble beginning: a prompt thrown out in a writing class sparked a few words that stayed with me and led me on a journey. Three years of struggling and twisting and turning, sure. But three years where I sat amazed when words and scenes flew out of my fingertips onto the screen that I didn't know were waiting to be born.

Those moments of grace, yes, grace that as far as I know, are granted only after years of apprenticeship, years of reading and reading and reading through the night, staying up way past your bedtime to finish a scene, a chapter, a whole book. Years of study of what makes literature. Years of writing and re-writing and always learning the craft. Learning to hear like a writer, to see like a writer, to feel the words round and wonderful or sharp and bitter or oh so ordinary, but in the right hands those everyday words can be turned to music. And, of course years of being in love with words.

And now I have a book.

What do you think, guys?  Do any of you have experiences similar to Julianne's?  She'd love to hear about them in the comments.  And do check out her novel.

Freelance Writing, A New Publishing Model, and Haiku (Or, What I Learned in Nashville)

VanderbiltYesterday I wrote a post about my adventures in Nashville.  Today, I'm writing about what you really want to know more on, some of the writing activities I partook of.  Wait, that's a poorly constructed sentence, with that dangling participle.  Today, I'm writing about the writing activities about which you want to learn more.  Technically correct, but a bit high-faluting.  Well, let's just get to it.

The Writer's Loft

To refresh your memory, I travel to Nashville twice a year, in September and January, to participate in the certificate writing program sponsored by Middle Tennessee State University, the Writer's Loft.  It's a program modeled on the brief-residency MFAs that are so popular now, and in the words of the Loft's founder, Roy Burkhead, it's "MFA lite." (By the way, Roy's editing a cool literary magazine that I contribute to called 2nd and Church--check it out.)The program offers weekend orientations during which students hear lectures and workshops on all aspects of writing, and meet with their mentors after which, students go forth and do what they should be doing--write.

This year, I presented a lecture at the Loft on Scene and Structure, a variation on one of the sessions of my Get Your Novel Written Now class.  It was an information dense hour and a half, let me just say, so much so that I feared my student's heads might explode.  They graciously refrained from allowing this to happen, however.  I also sat in on a variety of other presentations, two in particular that I want to highlight here.

Freelance Writing

Writer Jennifer Chesak spoke on freelance writing and got me all inspired about it again.  She went through the basics of getting started, establishing relationships with editors, and so on.  Jennifer recommends starting with querying on small articles that would go in the news sections at the front of magazines and working your way up.  When I graduated from journalism school a gazillion years ago, I got married and had babies right away and so working at a newspaper was something that never happened for me.  But I did begin free-lancing and did it off and on for years, until I went back to school for my MFA and began doing more teaching and coaching.  But listening to Jennifer made me want to have another go at it, so I'm now on the lookout for ideas. 

A New Publishing Model

VPWebsiteBannerClassic-600x230Jennifer has also begun an innovative publishing company that intrigues me. It's called Wandering in the Words Press and here's how it works: it's submission-based, so you submit your work and go through a vetting process.  When Jennifer selects your novel or memoir for publication, you pay her for the editing process, either upfront, or through your royalties.  She not only edits, but creates you a website, and assists with marketing.  And the royalties are good--50%.  This is a very similar arrangement to my publisher, Vagabondage, though I didn't pay any fees to them for editing or anything else.  What I like about it is that you get all the benefits of indie publishing but there's still some quality control, which is often lacking in self publishing.  It's worth checking out.


Another one of the workshops which captured my attention was Aaron Shapiro's on writing Haiku.  He went through the rules of writing Haiku, gave us some visual prompts and let us have at it.  Okay, okay, if you insist, I'll share my brilliance with you:

Past his given time Absolutwade_model_wasp_255102_l

Fading days of a short life

A bee in winter.

This was my ode to the bee that appeared in my Portland bathroom at 4 AM as I was getting ready to catch my plane to Nashville.  What I liked about the Haiku writing was the idea that you could play around with it as a warm-up to writing.  Or when you're blocked, or don't know what to write but want to write something.

So that was what I learned in Nashville.  But I also want to give a shout-out to the Living Writer's Collective, this amazing group of writers in Spring Hill, about a half-hour away from Nashville (in which direction, I'm still not entirely certain).  I had the great good fortune to speak to them on Thursday night before the Loft orientation began and I loved it.  What a great group of writers--not a wanna-be in the bunch.  All of them, as far as I could tell, were actually engaged in the work of putting words on the page.  They were a friendly and welcoming group, also, and if you live in the area, check them out.  Thanks, guys, for having me!

And I think that is quite enough from me for the moment.  What have you learned of heard or read about writing lately?  Comment, please.


The top image is one I took on the Vanderbilt campus, which is serving as a stand-in for MTSU.  They are two very different beasts, but oh well.

I snitched the Vagabondage Press image for the website.

The bee is by Mordac.

To Nashville and Back

Estock_commonswiki_353383_hYou might have noticed my absence from this space over the last week.  That's because I went to Nashville on a teaching trip, which was wonderful as always and also turned out to be a bit more adventurous than usual.

To wit:

--My husband got so sick before I left I almost cancelled my trip.  I did try to delay it by one day, but the airlines charge a lot for that.  Like $1,000 a lot.  So off I went anyway, with promises by my daughter to look in on him.  Instead of him rising at the crack of dawn (4 AM) to drive me to the airport, I ordered a cab and had the dubious pleasure of riding with a taciturn Russian driver who did not say one word the entire trip.  My husband started antibiotics and soon felt much better. So did I.

--I stayed the first two days with a student I had worked with for three semesters but beyond that didn't know well.   I think we were both a little nervous about it.  I mean, what if I burped or farted in front of her and/or her husband and embarrassed all of us?  You'll be happy to know that didn't happen, and I had a great time, ending up the time feeling like I made a wonderful new, close friend. (Hi, Karen!)

--Got my debit card hacked.  Yes, really.  Somewhere in my travels across the country, the card got skimmed.  Was it the surly cab driver?  The sweet woman at the newsstand in Dallas?  Who knows?  I've got to hand it to Paypal, they took immediate action and dealt with the problem without a lot of fuss on my part.

--Almost missed my flight home to Portland from my connection in Denver.  Apparently, Frontier Airlines likes to cut things close with connecting flights.  I had 30 minutes in which to make it.  And, of course, the plane from Nashville to Denver was late.  Turned out there were 50 of us on the flight with the same insanely short connection time, so they held all the planes for us.  It still required a mad dash through the airport (wearing boots and an oversized purse, wheeling my computer bag behind me), because, wouldn't you know it, the arrival and departure gates were about as far apart as you could be and still be in the same concourse.

--Remembered about fear: that it's a sneaky beast that can masquerade as anxiety or a variety of other emotions.  And really, it all just goes back to fear.   I remind myself that the word that pressed itself upon me this year is fearless and it is that word that I have pledged to live by.  And so I shall.

So those were some of my adventures.  In my next post, I'll write about the actual writing part of the trip, including some of the highlights of the Loft orientation.

Have you had any adventures lately, in life or  your writing?  I'd love to hear about them.  Leave me a comment and share.

***By the way--you can get $50 off my next Get Your Novel Written Now class if you sign up by next Thursday, Jan. 31st.  It doesn't start until March but sign up now for early bird pricing!

5 Tips To Getting Published


The advanced proof of my novel!
So, as most of you know, my novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, debuts on February 12th.


The road to getting published was long.  Veeeeerrrrry long.  And I learned a few things along the way, like what it takes to get a book out into the world.  So today I look at 5 tips that allowed me to finally succeed at that. 

Here's the deal: you all know the basics of how to get published, right?  You research agents and publishing houses that might be a good fit for your book, write a stellar query letter, and then you send it out.  And send it out again.  And again.  That process hasn't changed, even with the advent of indie publishing (which is a whole different process), and it's not likely to any time soon. 

But what you might not know is what lies beneath the above process, the mindset that you need to develop in order to find success in the publishing marketplace. And that, my friends, is what this article is about.  This mindset is in some ways as important if not more important than anything else, because developing a strong underpinning to what you do as a writer will carry you through your career.

So, here's to a publishing mindset, which takes:

1.  Willingness.  You need to be willing to do the things you think you don't need to do--like establish an author's platform while you are writing the book.  You need to be willing to master social media, start a blog, begin connecting with your future audience.  Long gone are the days when all writers had to do was sit back, write and let their publishers do all the marketing.  You'll be expected to participate, and it's going to be a lot easier if you get a head start.  Agents and editors look at things like your blog, and your social media presence these days.

2.  Consistency.  There's nothing sadder than coming across a blog whose last post was six months ago.  Or a year ago.  Start your blog and be consistent with it.  Get on Twitter, and keep tweeting.  Polish your query, and keep sending it out, even after you've been rejected a gazillion times.  Work on your WIP regularly, as often as you possibly can. It's the writers who keep at it who eventually get the win.  I know, I'm one of them.

3.  Determination.  Are you going to quit the first time it gets hard to accomplish your daily quota of pages or word count?  Are you going to stop the second you get a rejection?  Are you going to give up when you can't figure out how to format your novel to indie publish it?  You better not, because both of those things will happen a lot.  To be a successful writer takes determination and perserverance in spades. If you don't force yourself to do whatever it takes to send the work out, your words will remain stashed in a drawer.

4. Creativity.  You can be the most lyrical writer in the world, but if you don't find ways to plant yourself in front of the computer, the words won't get written.  It all begins and ends with the writing and if you put the writing first, everything else will take care of itself.  Master techniques to get your butt planted in that chair.

5.  Craziness.  To commit yourself to a writing-centered life and vow to get published takes a bit of craziness.  It just does.  It's ever so much easier to be content at a 9-to-5 job, come home, eat dinner and turn on the TV.  Not you, because you come home, eat dinner, and turn on the computer to write, with no guarantee that anyone will ever see those words.  That's crazy, isn't it?  So be it.  I happen to believe it's also the most important thing you can do, crazy or not.

How about it?  What do you think is the most important mindset a writer needs to have?

**If you're interested in learning more about publishing, I'll cover what I've learned in the bonus session of my Get Your Novel Written Now class.  Registration is now open, with early-bird pricing in effect until the end of the month.  Register now.

Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

This is a paid book review for the BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions expressed are mine alone.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

by Jennifer Chiaverini

After seeing the movie Lincoln, now nominated for a gazillion Oscars, I've gotten curious about all things Lincoln.  (The movie is that compelling--if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.) So I jumped at the chance to review this book.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is historical fiction, based on the real historical character of Elizabeth Keckley, who was, as the novel relates, the dressmaker and confidant of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.  Keckley was a slave who bought her own freedom and consequently started her own dressmaking business in Washington City (now Washington D.C., of course).

There was a lot that I liked about this novel.  I soaked up all the historical details and loved learning about Elizabeth Keckley, who, in her later years wrote what turned out to be a scandalous memoir.  (It was scandalous because she revealed many intimate details of her friendship with Mrs. Lincoln.) To me, there's nothing like an historical novel to bring history to life.  I'll fall asleep reading a non-fiction history book, but hand me an historical novel and my bedside light stays on late.

While much of the book was well-written (and Chiaverini clearly is an adept writer, as she's had several New York Times bestsellers) and brought history to life for me, I did feel that an over-abundance of narrative summary slowed certain passages down.   During the years of the Civil War, for instance, there was much relating of the progress of various battles that were perhaps necessary to the book but not written in an engaging manner.

After we slogged through those years, the book picked up and I ended up liking it a lot.  So, I recommend it if you're interested in the Lincoln years.

Have you seen the movie Lincoln?  Are you interested in that era?  Leave me a comment!

Fundamentals of Fiction

Novel writing is much on my mind these days.  If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that my debut novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, is due out February 12.  Not only that, but next week I'll be in Nashville to talk to a local writer's group and give a workshop about Scene and Structure in fiction.  And, to top it all off, I will be once again offering my teleclass, Get Your Novel Written Now, in March (though early-bird registration is open).

So, yeah, novel writing is on my mind, big time.  And as I proof the final copy for Emma Jean, as well as continue to work on my next novel, I'm reminded of what it takes to actually write a novel.  Which, let it be known, is a lot.  Even though its about the most fun you can have, ever, it is a lot.  But the actual writing of every novel has a starting point. 

Fundamentals of Fiction

And that starting point is the fundamentals of fiction.  A writer desirous of penning a novel could do no better than to begin with the basics.

So what are the fundamentals of fiction?

You can get all kinds of answers to this question. I was in a workshop in Nashville last September  and when a fellow instructor asked this question, we got about a dozen definitions. But, and this is a big but, it is possible to winnow the fundamentals down to five main areas, and these are the areas I'm going to consider today:

A. Story

B. Character

C. Setting

D. Style

E. Theme

Let's look at them each briefly.  (Briefly because this is a blog post, not a class or an Ebook.  And one could write volumes about each fundamental.) Here goes:

Story. An editor recently told me that story is the basis of fiction. I know, a no-brainer. Except I argued that character is the basis of fiction, because I believe that all stories grow out of character.  But all this is really a chicken and egg thing.  Suffice it to say that without story, you don't have a novel.

Character. What I said above. To me, all stories start with character.  Who is your protagonist?  Your antagonist? What are your character's problems?  Their deepest desires?  What gets in the way of those deep desires?  How does one character's deep desires confict with another?  And so on.

Setting. Where do your characters live and work? What's their world? Do they live in the big city or the country?  Maybe an alternative world?  A different planet? Setting also comprises the things that surround your character, like their furnishing, their books, and so on. And don't forget that setting also includes time.

Style. This is your voice. It's the way you put words together in a sentence, the way you arrange sentences and so on.  My favorite quote about style is this, from editor Chris Roerden: "A writer's voice gets buried in ineffective writing habits." Much of this is last draft stuff, working with word choice, looking for active verbs, etc.

Theme. What's it all about? What is the thematic statement you're making? Too many would-be novelists over-think this. Start where you are and let the theme emerge as you write. Trust me, it will.  I have to admit, I'm a bit laissez-faire about this, because I've seen it emerge in the writing over and over again.

What do you think?  Do you agree with this definition of the fundamentals of fiction?  Or would you include something else?

Emma Jean Cover Image is Here!

EmmaJeanCoverFinalHere it is!  The cover image for the novel, due out on February 12th.  I'm really happy with this cover because I think the woman in the image has the verve and energy of Emma Jean herself.

A bit of background on the process of selecting the cover.  My wonderful editor sent me three trial versions and asked me what I thought.  One of them looked like a car ad to me, with the model featuring a come-hither expression that looked to me like she was trying to be sexy.  She was draped over a bed with a laptop in front of her.  Good effort, but no.

The second one showed a close-up of a blonde woman with glasses reading a book.  I was tempted by this version, mostly because of the fact she was reading, but I didn't think the model looked much like Emma Jean.  She seemed a bit dowdy to me.  As my editor said, "I think Emma Jean is more put together than that."

The third version was similar to what you see on the right, but it showed only the model with slightly different typestyle.  I asked if we could add something literary-esque and my editor suggested the books.  The first version had the stack of books a bit taller and looked like they were about ready to topple over on top of her.  But then this version was presented to me--and I loved it.  They even used my favorite color, purple!  (In the novel, Emma Jean has a thing for purple pens.)

I feel blessed to have been so involved in the cover image.  I have no idea if this is normal or not but it's great!

So I'm counting down the days until release date, mastering Facebook, lining up guest posts and reviews and feeling a bit nervous about it all to be honest.  (By the way, if you're interested in a guest post or review or know anybody who might be, drop me a line.)

Any thoughts on the process?  Any questions?  Leave me a comment.

Essential Conditions for Writing Success

Pencil_notebook_writing_237689_lWhat, exactly are the essential conditions for writing success you ask?

Here's a hint:  only you can figure them out for yourself.

Let me explain a bit about the type of conditions I'm talking about here.

Last month (I guess it's actually last year now) I took an afternoon workshop from a fabulous woman named Janet Connor.  In it she told the story of how she went from making an appointment to consult with a bankruptcy attorney to making $12,000 in one month. 

Janet figured out the secret to manifestation.  And that secret is this, from Thich Nhat Hanh: "When the conditions are sufficient, there is a manifestation."  Turns out this is also, in slightly different words, of course, wisdom from Jesus and the Buddha and probably a whole host of other wise figures as well.

Once you get the underlying conditions of your life in order, all else will follow. 

Janet's conditions are of a spiritual nature, things like saying her prayers out loud every day.  I think it's a wonderful idea to figure out what your spiritual conditions for a fabulous life might be, but our topic here is writing.  And I believe the concept of uncovering the conditions that will call forth your best writing (and thus, I also believe, your best self) can be enormously beneficial as we start this new year.

Only you know what your conditions will be, but to give you a little boost, I offer up my own as an example:

--Deep journaling every morning.  This is not the same as morning pages, at least to me.  Yes, I do them first thing every day and yes they are free-form and uncrafted.  But my morning pages tend to devolve into to-do lists and minor rants about what's wrong with my life.  My deep journaling is more exploratory, more questioning, more connected to spirit.

--Write at least one hour every day on my own projects.  As a writer and a writing teacher, I do a lot of work around writing.  I read and comment on manuscripts.  I write blog posts and newsletters and guest posts.  I create workshops and classes.  I love doing all these things, but sometimes my own writing gets pushed aside.  And so one of my conditions is to spend at least one hour every day writing, really writing, on my own projects.

--Breathe.  Sometimes I become conscious that my breathe has caught in my throat.  Yeah, not a good thing for a writer, seeing as how the communication chakra is located in the throat.  How can I hope to write freely if I'm not breathing freely?

--Ask for help.  When things aren't going well, I need to remember to ask for help.  I intended this to be about asking for help from God (or spirit, if the word God makes your nervous, or goddess, or universe, or Allah or your higher self) because that always seems to work.  But as I started writing about it, I realized that asking for help can take many forms.  Requesting that a trusted friend read a manuscript, or hiring a coach.  The idea is to be willing to be humble enough to ask.

Those are my conditions.  Now you might be wondering how to go about figuring out yours?  Mine have revealed themselves in two ways:

--Through writing.  No, duh.  For a writer, the best way to discover anything is to write about it. 

--Through meditation and prayer.  Sometimes I think that my most powerful meditation is actually through the act of writing.  But irregardless of that, I still do my best to find time to sit in silence every day.

So, how about you?  Does this idea of conditions appeal to you?  Do you know what your conditions might be?

***By the way, according to my calculations there are 42 days until my novel is released.  I'll post the cover image here as soon as I get it from my editor!

Photo by len-k-a.

Happy New Year and Welcome 2013

Firework_fireworks_night_229277_lI'm probably about the last one to say it to you, but Happy New Year. 

Here's what I'm hoping for this year (in no particular order):


--a successful book release

--health, happiness, safety and success for my loved ones

--that I continue to enjoy a deep journaling practice every morning

--that I make good on my commitment to write at least one hour a day

--that I get to spend lots of happy times with family and friends

--success and happiness for my wonderful clients and students

--shaking lose a few pounds

--expanding outlets for my writing

--continued spiritual studies

--success and happiness for my wonderful blog readers

--a literary agent

--that all of us remember to replace fear with love

That's my list.  I'll probably add more as the year goes on.  What's on your list? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

PS--If you're in the mood for some more fun reading on this lazy New Year's Day, check out my friend Doni's post here.

Image by brokenarts.