deborahjross: (Default)
For the last seven weeks, I’ve been away from home, helping to take care of my best friend and her family during the end of her life. I had no idea how hard it would be, but we did well by her and her passing was peaceful, attended by great tenderness and forgiveness. I stayed on for another ten days to organize the memorial and transition for her family.

During this entire time, one of my personal anchors was writing. I loaded up my netbook with current projects and took the folders with checklists for various Book View Café projects I was working on. In this way, I created a portable office, albeit one that lacked all the resources I had at home. For example, although I had access to the internet through my carrier’s website, I didn’t have my address book files. I learned to “work around” these limitations, focusing instead on what I could do, delegating and asking for help with things I couldn’t, and postponing other tasks. As a result, I was productive with some projects but “on hold” in others.

Now I’m back in my own office, resources at hand. I’m facing a dual challenge: coming “up to speed” and getting back into balance. What do I mean by balance? I mean reapportioning (or rather, un-deapportioning) my time and focus. Rarely have I been so aware of the many activities involved in my life as a writer. These include, to name a few, original fiction writing (drafting, revision, revision-to-editorial-request), other aspects of book production (proofreading); editing anthologies; beta-reading and editing books, often for other Book View Café members; writing blog posts like this one; keeping up with professional communications (reading and responding to email from fellow writers, fans, and editors, not to mention news of the publishing world).
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deborahjross: (Shield #1)
From the time we’re small children, it seems that someone is always urging us to hurry up, to not dawdle, to stop procrastinating, to keep “on target,” and to do things faster. We are supposed to race through our lives without paying attention to the wonders around us (except, of course, when we’re supposed to be observant and appreciative). Of course, what is wonderful to a child is all too often invisible to the harried parent or teacher who herself has deadlines and schedules to keep. Homework assignments are Important; watching snails is not.

When I began to write professionally, I found myself juggling motherhood, a day job career, and the inner-driven need to set down the stories in my head. Writing time was precious and all too scant, and I had much to learn about the craft. My initial style involved “pantsing” (writing “by the seat of your pants”) or, as I put it, “taking a flying leap off the edge of reality, ” and then revising, revising, revising. As a consequence of this and the limited, fractured time periods available to me, my stories progressed slowly. I remember meeting a certain published author at one of my first convention, who breezily talked about how he never revised, he sold his first draft novels, and he produced three or four of them every year. I cringed to think of my one or two short stories and maybe one novel draft in that same time period (keeping in mind that I needed three or four – or more! – revision drafts). Was this what professional writers did? I wondered. And how was I ever going to produce that much, that fast, and of that professional quality?
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(As a slightly smirky footnote, I have no idea what happened to that writer. I haven’t seen the byline in decades, so maybe that strategy wasn’t so successful after all. Or the name might have been changed, as so often happens. Me, I have four traditionally-published novels and an ebook short fiction collection coming out this year.)

To my great good fortune, I also encountered writers who had learned to listen to their own creative rhythms and understood that getting the story right trumped getting it fast. These were not writers who use “I listen to my inner muse” as an excuse for not writing, or who polish endlessly and never submit their work. These were professional, published authors. Some of them sold many books and others only a few. Not all were genre writers, but all prized their craft. I met writers who considered a day successful if they got a single paragraph exactly the way they wanted it; others measured their daily productivity by hours spent or pages finished. They opened my eyes to many possibilities for measuring progress besides how fast I could turn out a manuscript.

As it turns out, I found that different stages of a story call for different speeds. I work best when I draft quickly from outline and then revise slowly. I give myself permission at all stages to take a break and think about a “stuck place” (whether that is a block in the sense of “I have no idea what comes next” or just a niggling feeling that something isn’t right). I go for a walk, I clean house, or I pick up the phone and chat with a friend about something utterly unrelated to writing. When I’m willing to do this, I end up in fewer dead ends, I need fewer subsequent drafts, and I’m more in touch with the internal fabric of the story.

All this has a great deal to do with observing and accepting my own creative rhythms, but also with patience. Patience loops the topic back to my opening, which is how we find our way back being fully present with what is unfolding at the present moment and at a pace too often at odds with the regimented, overcommitted, multi-tasking, hurried expectations around us (not to mention the financial pressures for a working writer to produce so many books a year). It’s all very well to recite slogans like, “Stop And Smell The Roses,” and quite another to shield ourselves from those expectations.

I’ve been blessed with several Teachers of Patience and I’m trying to take what I have learned from them and apply it to my work. One of my most significant teachers was an elderly Quaker woman, who welcomed me when my husband and I began attending the local Meeting. She and I had many wonderful conversations before she died a few years ago, some at Meeting or the monthly potlucks, others at our lunch dates. She walked very slowly due to various medical conditions, but I quickly realized how important it was to accord her the dignity of doing what she could, of being autonomous. She did need my help from time to time, with opening doors and such, and she taught me ways of offering or responding that maintained that relationship of respect. It became a spiritual exercise to adjust my own walking speed to hers, to hold the door for as long as she needed, to move with her as if in a slow-motion dance. Adagio, not Presto. So much of the joy of writing is discovering new experiences, new points of view, stories told by characters who are not like us and who live in worlds not like our own. Here was a precious chance to experience living at a different pace.

Now I am staying with my best friend during the final weeks of her life. She, too, is moving slowly, more slowly with each passing day as her body winds down. I watch her savoring every moment, paying attention to her strength, which varies from day to day but it never what it was when she was healthy. Slow means taking the time to be as fully alive and present as possible. Slow means reordering priorities (eating dessert first, as it were, choosing only the most precious things to spend waning energy on). Slow means savoring the meadow at sunset, perhaps with a cup of hot chocolate and a dear friend.
Take your time; there’s no need to hurry.
deborahjross: (COK)
Larry explains,

"The differentiation between what is episodic and what is not is thin and in constant motion. It is made all the more complicated and obscured by the fact that, in any good story, there is indeed “stuff that happens” along the way… stuff that actually looks, smells and plays just like the very episodic context I’m preaching against.

Confusion becomes paradoxical. But there’s a rule of thumb that helps: do you have a compelling CONCEPT in play?

The ticking off of “stuff that happens along the way” (exposition) that is in support of, pursuit of, and in context to a compelling CONCEPTUAL IDEA (not premise) is, in fact, the stuff of narrative.

Episodic scenes that simply unfold without context or connection to a compelling CENTRAL DRAMATIC CORE QUESTION… ONE QUESTION, becomes that dreaded episodic approach."

For more discussion -- do read the comments -- check out his blog:

“Stay Tuned For Our Next Episode…” or Not.
deborahjross: (dolomites)
The SLF [Speculative Literature Foundation] Older Writers Grant is awarded annually to a writer who is fifty years of age or older at the time of grant application, and is intended to assist such writers who are just starting to work at a professional level. We are currently offering one $750 grant annually, to be used as the writer determines will best assist his or her work."

The Speculative Literature Foundation
deborahjross: (piano)
Today's blog is up at Book View Cafe:

Gatekeeping in the World of Ebooks | Book View Cafe Blog


What’s wrong with a situation in which anyone who’s thrown together 80K or even 50K or 150K words, formats it, puts it up as a Kindle edition, promotes it all over the social media sites, and sells a bunch of copies (or a whole big bunch of copies)? Isn’t that how the market works, by giving readers what they’re looking for?

The problem I have with this scenario, being enacted thousands of times over the various epublishing venues, is not so much the flood of unreadable or barely-readable books making it increasingly difficult to find the ones I want. It’s the disservice it does to the newer writer.

Each one of us has a unique perspective, a precious voice that is ours alone. As Edith Layton said, “No one else in the wide world, since the dawn of time, has ever seen the world as you do, or can explain it as you can. This is what you have to offer that no one else can.”
deborahjross: (Default)
Today's blog post from Kay Kenyon takes on a difficult topic: how do we maintain -- safeguard -- the integrity of our creative vision and get useful feedback on the manuscript? She points out the unconscious and perhaps unavoidable tendency of a fellow writer to re-write your story in his head as part of the critique process. Saying, "This doesn't work for me" is one thing; saying, "How about --?" or "You could --" is another.

Suggestions aren't always detrimental. Sometimes they "click" by helping get you un-stuck from a particular way of looking at the problem. I sometimes joke that whatever someone suggests is the thing I won't do. (I used to mean, because I am stubborn and ornery and insist on doing things my own way, so no matter how brilliant the suggestion, it's automatically off the table. Kay's insight adds that most suggestions are not going to work because they arise from another writer's vision of this story, not mine.)

Critiques can be invaluable in pointing out weaknesses in prose style, grammatical errors, structural problems, uses of diction, that sort of thing. They can show us where we left the reader confused or lost her interest. What they should not do is mess with the story that is struggling to be born.

When we're starting out as writers, most of us are riddled with self-doubt. At least, I was. I vacillated between thinking this was the best thing ever written to the certainty that I could not write my way out of a wet paper bag. For years, it seemed my writing never improved. I was clearly a hopeless case of zero talent and even less skill. (Actually, my rough drafts did improve, but very slowly; my ability to revise, however, increased exponentially!) This left me pathetically vulnerable in those early years to being influenced by feedback from writers group members. That stubbornness proved to be my best asset, although it wasn't easy to hold out against the authority of a critique delivered with great sincerity and certainty. I learned a lot about what to listen to -- and even more, what not to listen to.

A turning point came after a number of years of this sort of struggle. I'd written a story straight from the heart, tears streaming down my face as I finished it. It was right and true and I felt it in every fiber of my being. But because I'd been trained to not trust my assessment of my work, I ran it through my group. The most influential of the members said s/he couldn't even critique it, it was such a piece of sentimental twaddle. Instead of going home and crying, which is what I would have done as a beginner, I sent it out to the most competitive, highest-prestige market that was open. I received an almost immediate acceptance.

More thoughts on sabotage.
deborahjross: (Default)
Jennifer Laughran, an agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, offers some thoughts on new writers and series:

Lots of unpublished writers query and say something like: "This is the first book in a series. Books 2 and 3 are complete, I am working on book 4 now!"

This makes me sigh. I read that and see a person who is stuck completely on one story, who is not ready to be flexible and diversify, learn and grow. Not to rain on your parade, but... what if Book 1 is actually fundamentally flawed and you are building a house of sequels on a shoddy foundation? What if it never finds a home? Then all the energy that you spent on sequels is wasted, when you could have been off finding more stories and inventing even more awesome worlds.

The other day a very nice Twitterer inquired during #AskAgent something like (paraphrasing): "I've had book one out on submission for some time... when should I start querying agents on book 2?"

Not to be mean, really, but what's the point? Nobody can take on and sell JUST book 2 if it has to be a series. And nobody has picked up book 1. Sooo....

"Well, I'll just self-publish then!"

Jennifer Represents...: How NOT to write a series, OR, Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
deborahjross: (Default)
From Janet Reid, Literary Agent, wisdom from Elmore Leonard

"I spent 10 years writing short stories, or ten years 'getting better'."

"I started out imitating Hemingway till I found out he (Hemingway) had no sense of humor."

"If it sounds like writing, rewrite."

"Outlining means you go with an idea that could be old or outdated as the novel develops"

"Don't muck it up with -ly words"

"Watch for words that don't belong in the book because they are not natural to the characters"

There's more. Check the original article.
Which is your favorite? Mine is the one about Hemingway, but the most practical for me is the advice to rewrite.
deborahjross: (Hastur Lord)
Today (January 12), I have a Guest Blog on SF Signal about my literary apprenticeship with Marion. I hope you enjoy it.
deborahjross: (Default)
Maggie Stiefvater, a successful YA author, offers a step by step description of her own learning process. Everything she suggests may not work for you, but it's a fascinating peek into another author's creative journey.

Originally posted by [ profile] m_stiefvater at How To Turn a Novel Into a Textbook
I'm here on tour in Australia, which is amazing (and if you're Australian and would like to come see me, here's my date for Perth tonight, and my other dates for Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane), though I'm spending more time talking to Australian classrooms than seeing Australian landscape. Later, when I find my card reader, I'll share pictures (of landscape, not classrooms).

Earlier in the week, I was at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and one of the girls in line asked me how I made my novels longer, as in, not just thirty pages longer. I told her it was about description and also about engaging the five senses, but the more I thought about it, the more I considered how that was not what my failing was when I was first beginning. Like a lot of beginning writers, my first manuscripts were short, short, short, and I couldn't understand what they were lacking.

So I did tell the reader that I recommended looking at published novels and deconstructing the pages to learn how to pace her novel, but I wish I would've been able to show her what I meant. One of the finest tools in any writer's arsenal, I think, is the ability to turn a novel into a textbook. For copyright reasons, I'm going to use my own books to demonstrate how I would do it, but obviously, I recommend doing it with whichever books that you love.

Okay. Here's a page from FOREVER. The first page, actually.

You can learn a lot of things from a great first page (also from a bad first page. Not so much from anything in between). Want to know what works as a compelling beginning? Ask a reader you know well: you. When I'm stumped at starting a new project, I still go to my bookshelf and pull off a big stack of old favorites. I sit on the floor or my office and all I read is the first page. You can do the same thing.

Well, please don't do it in my office.

Ask yourself:
What do these first pages have in common?
What is hooking me into the story?
Who is introduced? The main character? a side character? setting?
Is there dialogue?
Is there action?
How does it look on the page? Long paragraphs? Short sentences?
Again: how do these work together to hook me?
I used to believe that a great way to start a story was with some cracking dialogue and some fast paced action, but often, that's totally meaningless to a reader who doesn't care whether or not this unfamiliar character lives or dies. Instead, the hook can be a quite subtle thing. Really, the hook is just an unspoken question that the reader pursues to the next page.
Is there a question on the first page?
There's one other very important aspect of a first page, and it's the first line. A great first line can hook a reader, set mood, introduce character, and start the conflict rolling all in one. Not all first lines do this. And they don't have to. But they should set the tone. So, final question for the first page:
How does the first line relate to the rest of the book?
Here are my first lines:

LAMENT: "You'll be fine once you throw up," Mom said.
BALLAD: I was used to being the hunter.
SHIVER: I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.
LINGER: This is the story of a boy who once was a wolf, and a girl who was becoming one.
FOREVER: I can be so, so quiet.
THE SCORPIO RACES: It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

So, having exhausted everything that a first page can give us, another really, really useful thing to look at is how other authors shape dialogue and description. For that, you usually need to go beyond the first page. Sometimes, when I'm stuck on a very particular problem, I will find a novel that I remember solving the problem well — pacing an action scene that takes place in a short time, for instance — and reread the passage to try to see what techniques helped.

Here's a page from LINGER.

I will confess, that in my beginning writerly years, this page would have read like this:
"I never pegged you for a fan of the obvious, Sam," Isabel said.
"I'm not," I said. "Or I would've said, Hey, shouldn't you be in school?"
"Touche," Isabel replied.
"I've been seeing wolves near my house," Isabel said.
"How close to your house?"
She shrugged. "From the third floor, I can see them in the woods. Clearly they have no sense of self preservation, or they'd avoid my father. Who is not a fan."
In its entirety. It would not have occured to me that anything was missing. I would have merely gotten to the end of an 11,000 word draft and thought: HOW IS THIS NOT AS LONG AS A NOVEL!? IT HAS A BEGINNING, MIDDLE AND END!

It wasn't until I took apart my favorite novels that I started to understand how to manipulate pacing. The thing is, there is nothing wrong with that stripped down 7-8 line page. It's just that it's missing so many opportunities to play with mood, character, setting. It's nothing but plot sitting there like that, and while plot is a crucial enough thing, it's not what keeps a reader reading. People keep the reader reading.

These are the questions I would ask myself looking at a page like this:

How varied are the dialogue tags? ("said," "replied," "shouted")
How is the writer showing a pause in dialog? By saying "she paused" or by inserting a non-dialogue paragraph?
How is setting worked in?
Is there subtext going on? Are the characters thinking something different than what they're saying?
Can I imagine myself there? Why?
If I remove a sentence, how does it change my perception?
If I remove a paragraph, how does it change my perception?

So that's how I would pull a book apart, in a nutshell. If I had a bit more space, I'd actually pull apart a scene line by line here on the blog, but this post is already epic. Let me know if you guys want something like that.

I'm off to breakfast.

Even the crows have accents here.

customizable counter
deborahjross: (Default)
Over on the Book View Cafe blog, Shannon Donnelly talks about why it's so important to not get stuck re-hashing the same old story, but to move on to fresher ideas:

We write without selling a story. We write and edit and sent off stories with great hope. We get back such stories, and instead of sounding retreat, we retrench. And rewrite and send off again.

That’s where I think the insanity comes in—at some point you need to leave a story alone. It’s not going get better. It’s like pushing mash potatoes around on a plate—they’re never going to change into a nice piece of salmon. So that’s where you need inspiration to come in and take you to something new. Another story. Some fresh characters.

We aren't born knowing when to keep working on a story or when to move on; it comes with experience and frustration and a lot of help from our friends. I've known writers who've gotten so enmeshed with their early attempts that they never have a chance to grow. They remain welded (I was about to type "wedded" but this works better) to an early, undeveloped concept.

Me, I've got so many stories yammering at me to be told, I don't want to waste a significant portion of my writing career on anything but my best. Maybe "my best" won't turn out that way, but as long as I hold to my cutting edge, "state-of-the-art" Deborah, they will get better.
deborahjross: (Default)
If you have a moment, click over to my blog post on "The Book of My Friend" from a few days ago and check out the comments, particularly the one from Chris Weuve, who has a lot of pro writer friends and wonders about asking them for critiques. Your perspective is most welcome!

(You can post Anonymously, just please sign your name or handle or something so we know you're not a 'bot, okay?)
deborahjross: (Fall of Neskaya)
Madeleine E. Robins's first novel, Althea, is now available from Book View Cafe Press. She's written a marvelous blog about how this book came to be here.

I wrote my first book because I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read. Knowing Madeleine's other work, I immediately want to check this one out!

This got me thinking about all those first stories, attempted novels, bits of stories that never went anywhere. Marion used to say that the first million words were practice, but I have never taken that literally. It's important to give ourselves time to develop as writers, to work and work and hone our craft. Sure, there are rare writers whose first efforts are so good that they sell, but for most of us--particularly those of us who began writing as children or teens--those early stories represent a sort of flopping-about, trying to figure out what makes a good story and how to tell it.

Practice does not mean worthless. Practice means trying out our dreams, shoving around story elements to see what fits and what bounces...figuring out how to take the things that delight us and bring them to life in a book. So many of us began (and continue, sometimes in private, sometimes not) to write the books we want to read, the books that thrill and comfort us, the characters we dream about meeting or wish we were, the landscapes we want to run away to.

More on my blog here.


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Deborah J. Ross

May 2017

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