Tag Archives: books

In Which a Pantser Makes and Writes from an Outline

As I mentioned a few posts back, my current work-in-progress is my most ambitious undertaking yet (and if you read my most recent post then you know that I’m actually almost done!). In order to get started with it, I was forced to make an outline, which is something I had never done before (I had never outlined an entire book, at least). For someone who usually falls into the “pantser” category of writers, this was a new challenge in and of itself.

I found the actual writing of the outline itself to be somewhat tedious – necessary though I knew it was, I just wanted to be writing the actual story and digging into the characters and relationships and dialogue. It didn’t help that the outline took much longer to finish than I’d anticipated (though given what the overall length of the book will end up as, that shouldn’t have surprised me). But then once it was done, I was ready to get writing, and embark on this strange new journey of writing from an outline.

I wondered whether writing from an outline would help me to draft faster. I’m told I write pretty quickly, but I would always like to be faster (well, as fast as is reasonable without writing a draft that is a complete and utter mess). This has most definitely been the case; I’m at about 104,000 words right now in something that I started back in March (though, full disclosure: I did have the prologue and a few chapters already written, since I originally started playing with this idea some years ago, so I probably had around 5000ish words to start). That is the fastest I have ever written a draft of this length to this point in my writing career, and I can only conclude that it is because of the outline.

Because, of course, making an outline has removed that element of pantsing wherein I sit down in front of my computer and say “Okay, what next?”. No need to try to figure it out as I sit down to write; I can just refer to the outline. It has prevented me from getting really stuck or hung up on plot elements, since I’d already mapped all that out in advance.

That’s not to say, of course, that I haven’t had difficulties and roadblocks in writing this draft. Oh, have I ever. It’s just that those difficulties have been more along the lines of character arc and development and the subtleties of the characters’ relationships with one another – which run the gamut from loving to tricky to downright dysfunctional. Getting those sorts of things right, of course, is no easy task in writing any novel, whether you’ve got an outline or not. On the flip side, though, one of my two POV characters was being a bit more elusive, and what I found as I wrote the outline is that some of her motivations and the way she thinks became clearer to me. She’s been a bit of a tough nut to crack overall, and only recently do I feel like I finally have all the keys to her as a character. And that is something else that often comes with the drafting process.

And certainly not all of the spontaneity of my pantser’s soul has been eliminated. There were a few events that I originally included in the outline that I decided to cut, both to keep the length of the book manageable and also for the overall flow/arc of the story. Then there have also been events and scenes that I added in that were not in the outline, or scenes that ended up becoming bigger and more fleshed out than I had originally anticipated while outlining. Parts of the story and characters are still revealing themselves to me as I write, which is one of the things I love about pantsing. I like to be surprised (at least a little bit) when I’m writing, and that has still happened in this book.

Along those lines, another of my concerns was that, since I already knew everything that was going to happen and had already sketched it out, would I get bored with the actual writing of the book? The answer, thankfully, has been a resounding no. Quite the contrary, actually: since mapping everything out in brief I’ve been itching to get at many of the scenes and really dig into them. I was very glad to find that!

So, overall, much as it may pain me to admit it, writing from an outline has actually been a really good experience, and I think it has helped me draft this book more successfully in many ways. Do I see myself making an outline again in the future if I don’t absolutely have to (as I did with this book)? Hmmmm…maybe, maybe not. I don’t know that I could make myself sit down and write a whole outline again if the story did not absolutely require it, as in this case. I do still like discovering and unearthing the story as I go along. So while I wouldn’t say I’ve been converted from pantser to plotter altogether, writing from an outline has been a much better experience than I thought it would be.

 

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The Howling

I have that buzz in my veins. That excited, almost anxious fizzing in my blood that comes when I am closing in on the end of a draft. The howling of words that are scratching and clawing and trying to get out and onto the page. It makes it hard to focus on other things (like work, conversations with actual people, etc.) because everything in me just wants to be writing and writing and writing until I’ve finished. I start to resent anything and everything that takes me away from writing.

It’s a good feeling. A frustrating, exciting, energizing feeling. A good one.

I’m forgetful. I leave things behind. I walk into rooms and can’t remember what I went into them for. I can’t always hear the daily thoughts I need to function over the howling of the words in my ear. It’s a miracle I show up anywhere on time, given that while my body might be here, now, in the present, my head is in Rome circa the late 1490s.

Once the draft is finished, once I get all the words out of me and onto the page, the howling will quiet. It will fade away for a time as I finish my research and start to make revision notes and get feedback from my agent and critique partners. Then it will start up again: the sound of the words, now they are on the page, clamoring to be polished, to be gilded, to be made to sing where before they only howled.

All of us writers must hear this, the calling of the words to be put down and placed in a certain order and made to shine. That must be why we write, in answer to this siren song. The urge to tell a story, even when it’s not perfect, because it’s bubbled up within us to the point where we can’t not tell it anymore. And then the clamor continues, urging us to, now that we’ve told the story, to tell it well. Because if we don’t, then haven’t we wasted our chance to tell this story? Because if we don’t, who will?

As I write this, I’m about 96,000 words into my current work-in-progress. If I had to make an estimate, I would say that this one will end up at around 120,000 at this point. (It will probably get longer in revision). That’s still a bit of a ways to go, but I’ve got that downhill momentum going. I’m in the last third, and I’ve started rolling.

It doesn’t feel like this book has gone as fast as it has. It’s been a difficult one for many reasons. And while the buzzing, the fizzing, the howling is always the same, it always happens for me at this point in every first draft of everything, this time I think it does feel a little different, because of the challenges I’ve faced. The ones I am still facing. Because of the desire to just be able to say that “It’s done”, so I can go about fixing it. So that I can begin to imagine what it may finally look like. So that I can begin to imagine what it would be like to achieve what I meant to with this book.

I can’t quite imagine it yet. But soon. Because beneath the howling is a whisper that maybe I can do what I set out to do after all. The first draft is only the first step, but perhaps the biggest one. And so the howls and whispers alike prod me on.

 


The Violinist of Venice’s One Year Anniversary

As of today, The Violinist of Venice has now been out in the world for exactly a year. It certainly doesn’t feel like that long to me! But the last year has been an incredible, and at times stressful, journey, and I have learned a lot. Having my book baby out in the world – and not something that belonged just to me – was a definite adjustment. I had a lot of anxious feelings for a while before and after the release, knowing that this thing I had created was out in the world for anyone and everyone to read, and that I was now someone with a higher profile in the world, albeit only slightly so. It’s a weird feeling that really does just take some time to adjust to, and I’m sure other authors will be able to relate.

By the same token, I’ve had the privilege to go to many different kinds of author events and meet readers and sign books. I’ve visited book clubs and discussed the novel, and I always come away from those experiences feeling like I’ve learned something new about my own work, as readers are always casting new light on the characters or plotlines or themes in ways that I hadn’t thought about before. I love when that happens! And I’ve had the honor and the joy of hearing from readers from all around the world who have connected with the book in some way. The fact that my words, that this story that I created and wrote down at first just for myself and then worked so hard on, has really meant something to others is truly the greatest gift and pleasure of being a writer.

I have also learned a lot about how to balance my life, my day job, and all the responsibilities that come with being an officially published author. Around release time I was doing a lot of promotional blog posts and interviews about the book, as well as trying to steadily post some fun Violinist-related content here on my own site. Once the book was out I had some events to work into my schedule, and I was also working on edits for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, as well as drafting a new book. It all takes some juggling, and there were definitely moments when I felt burned out. When that happens, I’ve learned to take a step back from whatever I’m working on as much as I can. As hectic as everything may feel at the time, with competing deadlines and multiple projects, I’ve gotten pretty good at planning out my time and getting everything done.

On the first anniversary of the release of The Violinist of Venice, I want to say thank you to all the readers who have reached out with their kind and thoughtful words; thank you to the booksellers who have sold and promoted the book and invited me to do events in their stores; thank you to all the bloggers who have reviewed the novel and helped spread the word; and thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who bought the book or borrowed it from the library or gave it to a friend or recommended it. I appreciate all of those things more than I can possibly say. Readers are why I can do the thing that I love!

In 2017, of course, I’ll have the release of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, and I hope that everything that I’ve learned in the last year will serve me well with the release of that book. And I know that at some point in 2017 I will have some more news to share with all of you!

Wishing everyone a very happy holiday season, and I hope you all are staying safe and warm (hopefully with a good book!) Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year!


Starting a New Project

In the last few weeks, having finished the work-in-progress that I’d spent the last year on, I did two things: 1) I took a bit of a writing break, of about a month or so (one I at times had to force myself to maintain, and 2) when that was over, I started a new writing project.

As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I was a little nervous about starting something new this time around, having just finished something that I thought was/is probably my best work yet. Would my next project measure up? Would I love the idea, and love writing it, as much as I had my previous project? With writing, though, comparison is always the thief of joy – even if you’re comparing you to yourself, and your work to other examples of your work. And that isn’t productive or helpful. So I tried to remind myself of all of that and forge ahead with a new idea, one that had been brewing for a while. Actually, this idea was originally two separate ideas that seemed to magically come together to form one whole, filling in each other’s missing pieces.

So what is my process for starting a new novel project? Sometimes I make some notes before I actually start writing: character names, dates/timelines, a few lines that may have come to me here or there. Since I’m a pantser, there’s not too much of this, if at all, though I do make lots of notes as I go: reminders for things I need to look up/research, an idea for a new scene, notes for characters that have yet to be introduced, etc. There’s no rhyme or reason to this; I just jot these things down as they come to me.

Usually, though, the first step is to start writing. With this new project in particular, the opening of the novel suddenly started flowing through my brain as I was laying on the couch one night, reading, so I jumped up and grabbed my laptop and started typing until the words stopped. It’s a great feeling when that happens; when you’re just propelled to write, to drop everything and write. That’s what I always look for as a writer, and I’d venture a guess that others do, too.

Then I keep writing for a while. I test the idea out for a bit, needing to give it time to make sure it really has legs. There’s always a certain level of excitement when you first start working on a shiny new idea, but sometimes – and for a variety of reasons, I’ve found – that excitement can peter out, causing the project to stall. So I always make sure to give it a couple weeks of work to see how it goes before fully committing to the project. Am I still excited about working on it? Am I thinking about it when I’m not working on it? Am I still coming up with new ideas for scenes and character development and plotlines? Do I actually make the time to sit down and work on it?

After a few weeks, once I’m feeling like the project is definitely something I’ll stick with, I send what I have so far – usually the first few chapters, at that point – to my agent to get her take. I do this at the beginning of every project for multiple reasons: to make sure she thinks that the project is something that makes sense for my career trajectory as a whole and specifically for this point in my career; to see if she knows of anything similar that has recently sold and which would make my project a tougher sell; to get her take on the writing and story itself; and, quite frankly, to see if she thinks the project is something that she’ll be able to sell. Of course writing is a labor of love for me, but if I want to continue to be able to publish books, I need to be thinking about the market as well. And that’s one of the many things that an author’s agent can help with.

Sometimes my agent does have reservations on one or several of the above counts, in which case we usually get on the phone and talk it out and make sure we’re on the same page. She’s been doing this a long time and has way more knowledge of the business side of publishing than I do, so I always value her advice and insights – after all, that’s one of the things I’m paying her for. Sometimes, though, she loves what I’ve sent her without reservation and tells me to go for it. Then I keep writing to my heart’s content, and she won’t see it again until I send her a finished draft, which we both prefer. I love that she trusts me to get the work done and doesn’t need to look over my shoulder or check in with me about it; I wouldn’t work well that way. I’m sure perhaps some writers do, so to each their own!

Once my agent gives her blessing, I just keep writing – I don’t usually do any revisions until I have a full draft completed for several reasons, though there have been exceptions to this in the past. There’s usually a few mental/emotional milestones that I pass along the way: when I hit 10,000 words, which is when it feels like I’m not just playing around anymore; 20,000 words, when I realize that this is a real project I’m committed to writing and that this is really happening; and 30,000 words, which is always when a project starts to feel like a real novel to me. Then, of course, after 30,000 words we get into the middle of the novel, which is always the hardest part to write, for me; it’s when I’m in the thick of the plot and need to make sure everything is set up, and when it feels like I can’t see my way out and will be writing the book forever. But having written several novels at this point, I know that feeling is coming and am ready for it. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to get through, but it’s helpful to know that I feel that way every time and always get through it.

Now, what about research, you may be asking? Shouldn’t research come before any writing gets done? My answer to that is yes, probably. I always do a little preliminary research before I start writing, to make sure the idea works in a historical setting and makes sense, etc. I have been known to do lots of research as I go, which I don’t necessarily recommend (see above note about revising in the middle of a draft) but for the most part it’s worked out for me so far. The period of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was something I had a solid background in before I started writing, so in that instance my research before and as I wrote was mostly a matter of filling in blanks.

This new idea is a bit different for me in that it’s set in a period I’ve already written about and researched extensively (though I won’t say just yet what that is). That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of this new story I’ll still need to research – there absolutely are – but again, it will be more a matter of filling in the blanks, and in this case I already know where to go to find the information I need.

Maybe this new project will see the light of day at some point, and maybe not. That’s the risk we take as authors each time we start a new project – there are no guarantees. That’s why, as long as I love the idea and am having fun writing it, I can usually block out just about everything else.


Having Fun with Research

No matter what kind of novel you’re writing (unless perhaps it’s high fantasy or extremely autobiographical) you are going to have to research some aspect of your story at some point. And obviously, when it comes to historical fiction, research is an even bigger part of the process. But research isn’t all pouring over history books or old letters or diaries – though reading all the information you can find about your time period/historical figures is, of course, something you will need to spend a lot of time doing. But reading isn’t the only research you can or should be doing. There are lots of other methods you can use to learn the historical information and details you need to make your work come alive, and some of them can be unorthodox and actually a lot of fun. Below are some things you can do – many of which I have done – to approach your research in a different way and get away from the books and the computer screen:

Look at paintings/artwork/photographs from the period you’re writing about: I’ve done this for both The Violinist of Venice and The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. Looking at artwork and especially paintings created during the period you’re writing about can tell you SO MUCH: what the clothing looked like that people actually wore; what homes/buildings/churches looked like; what personal effects people may have carried or had in their space; what hairstyles were in fashion; jewelry fashions; what religious themes were chosen/depicted and what that might say about the artist or their patron, etc. Of course, for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence artwork was especially key as many famous works of art appear in the story, so I looked at many of those online, in books, and in person. But those paintings were also helpful for the clothing, hairstyles, etc. And if photographs were around in the period you are writing about, certainly take advantage of those wherever you can find them.

-Listen to music from the period: Obviously, this was crucial for writing and researching The Violinist of Venice, a novel about music and Antonio Vivaldi’s music in particular. But even if your novel doesn’t explicitly include music, listening to music that was written or popular during that period can help you get a better feel for the atmosphere of the times.

-Look at/consult other primary sources or artifacts: For me with Violinist, this involved looking at the actual scores of some of Vivaldi’s music, specifically pieces I was describing in the novel. I also went to several museums over the course of my research and saw musical instruments from the period, some of which – like the viola d’amore – are no longer in use in modern orchestras. Look into the collections of museums in your area or places where you may be traveling and see what they have. There may be furniture, articles of clothing, pottery, household wares, etc. from your period that you can go and see (and possibly take pictures of, depending on the museum’s photography policy).

-Travel to the location where your book is set: If your novel is set in a specific city or area, try to go there for at least a few days and get a sense of it. I’ve done this with both of my two novels, and have been able to see exact locations where scenes and events in the books take place. I found those experiences to be completely invaluable and, in addition to helping with historical accuracy, greatly improved my sense of place and sensory details in my writing. Learning your way around the city or area can help with logistics in the novel as well, such as how a character would physically get from point A to point B, if it would be feasible to walk, etc. Obviously not everyone has the time or means to make such a trip, especially if your novel is set farther afield, but if you can it is absolutely worth the investment.

-Look at maps and photographs of your setting: Whether you can travel there or not, studying maps of a city or area is extremely helpful, especially maps that were drawn during the period your novel takes place so that you can see what it looked like then. Again, photographs from the period are helpful as well if they are available, but if not modern photographs can still give you a sense of a place you may not be able to travel to. And if you do travel there, take lots of photos of places important to your story. I always do this in my research travels and refer to the photographs later as I’m writing to help sharpen my descriptions or just generally give me some inspiration.

-Attend historical reenactments: I have not done this myself (yet), but I know other authors who have. Depending on what period you’re writing about, there may be a battle reenactment or something along those lines not too far from you that you can go and see. This can give you a great sense of everything from military tactics to clothing to weaponry to surgical instruments and medical care. Along the same lines, look for living history museums (something like Colonial Williamsburg) that may be relevant to your setting/time period. Such places can be an absolute wealth of information on all kinds of details.

Research can and should be about more than just reading, and these things and more can help you expand and enrich your historical fiction by presenting information in new and perhaps unexpected ways and contexts. The more period details you can include in your work, the more it will come alive for your readers and make them feel as though they are actually there, and the more they will be able to understand and relate to your characters. Always be ready to discover new information, by whatever means are available, even those that seen unorthodox. Even things you never thought you’d need can come in very handy when writing, so the more ways you can go about acquiring information, the better. Your work – and your readers – will thank you for it.


What Next?

As I’ve mentioned in my last few posts, I recently finished up a work-in-progress. It’s one that took me about a year to draft, and honestly, I loved every minute of it, even the moments where I felt certain I would be writing it FOREVER. I love it so much that I probably could work on it forever and be happy. It’s a book of my heart in many ways and also (I think) the best thing I have written so far.

So now that I am finished working on it for the time being, that begs the question: what next? As I mentioned in my update post earlier this week, I always make myself take time off between projects to rest and relax and recharge; I know that I need this time, but it isn’t long before I start to get antsy and want to start writing something again. I love writing and I love having a project to work on, so sometimes I have to make myself take a break or extend that break. (Of course, when I’m in the thick of working on a project, I look fervently forward to that time when it’s done and I can chill and come home from work and do nothing but read if I want. There’s just no pleasing me, I guess.)

So now, as I’m relaxing and recharging, I’m also trying to think of an idea for my next book. There’s no rush; I know this (again, aside from my aforementioned antsiness). And I certainly have no shortage of ideas; it’s just that nothing has so far reached out and grabbed me by the throat and said WRITE ME NOW (which is absolutely what happened with the book I just finished). I love that feeling, and that’s what carries me through the long and sometimes tough drafting process.

Better and more experienced writers than me have said it, but it bears repeating: no matter how many books you write, it never gets easier. That next book never feels like a given. If the thing I just finished is the best thing I’ve written so far, where do I go from there? How can I top that? How can I fall that in love with another idea again?

The comforting part in all this is that I’ve been here before. I had the exact same thoughts after I sold The Violinist of Venice, another book of my heart. I was feeling lost and casting around for an idea a little over a year ago, when finally that last idea hit me like a lightning bolt. So I know that these doubts come and go. I know by now that this is all part of the process. It doesn’t always serve to assuage the fears in the moment, but it gives perspective. If I’ve overcome this feeling before, then I can again. And if I ever don’t feel uncertain or scared, then that probably means that I’ve stopped caring. And I hope and believe that that will never happen.


On Making, Not Finding, the Time to Write

I’ve done quite a few author events now in the 10 months since The Violinist of Venice was published, and one question I almost always get is, “Do you have a day job?” When I answer that yes, I do (as most authors do), the question that inevitably follows is “How do you find the time to write?”

This is a fair enough question, as anyone with a full-time job and friends and family obligations can certainly attest to the fact that time always seems to be in short supply. But my answer is that I don’t find the time, I make the time. The distinction between the two, for me, is in the conscious effort behind making time. If I just waited around until I had a large, unspoken-for block of time on my hands, I would never have written anything, let alone the four total book-length manuscripts I’ve produced since I was in college. No one – or at least, not many people – in this hectic day and age ever really have blank blocks of time on their hands, waiting to be filled. Something will always come along to fill that time, be it putting in extra hours at the office or family or friends or Netflix. The list goes on.

So in order to ensure that I have enough time for my writing, I carve out that time and firmly protect it when necessary. I don’t have a set writing schedule that I follow religiously from week to week, just because my life really isn’t conducive to that at this point: sometimes my hours at my job change slightly, sometimes I have other obligations, sometimes I have plans with friends. So I take the time whenever I possibly can, which for me of late looks something like this:

-On week nights when I have a free evening, I try to write at least 1000 words. I’ll often designate at least one night in a week for this and not allow myself to make other plans.

-On weekend days I try to write at least 2000 words.

-I’ll often write on my lunch breaks at work. I only get a half hour break, so on the surface it almost seems like not enough time to bother. But boy, do those half-hour sessions start to add up. I’ve gotten to a point where I can actually write 1000 words in a half an hour sometimes, when I just completely focus in and tune out everything else and don’t let myself stop writing.

-When I’m NOT writing – and this is key – I’ll try to brainstorm new scenes or plot points, or just let my mind wander around with my characters and within the world of the story I’m working on. I also always create playlists for my works-in-progress, which I’ll often listen to while at work (when I can’t be writing) in order to keep my head in the game and possibly give me some new inspiration. I’m a pantser – I don’t do written outlines – so this is the most planning ahead I do with my work. And I’ve found that giving at least some thought to what scene will come next or to a plot or character problem before I sit down to write helps me avoid that blinking cursor of doom on the blank screen.

-Something I did recently when I finished up the first draft of my most recent work in progress is that I went on a solo writing retreat. I took a couple days off from work and booked a hotel room with a balcony and a nice view for a long weekend, and I holed up with some snacks and wine and just wrote for a few days straight. I will absolutely be doing that again in the future, because it was SO helpful to take that time and get away from my usual space and its distractions. It was honestly one of the best weekends of my life. Certainly not everyone will have the time or the means to do something like this, but if you do I highly, highly recommend it.

-I have a group of writing buddies that I meet up with most Wednesday nights, and we all write together. This is helpful because we keep each other accountable to show up and get the work done. And while writing is a solitary activity, sometimes it’s fun to have company!

You’ll notice that in the points above I used the word “try” quite a bit. And that’s because that’s what it is, an attempt: I try to stick to these patterns as much as possible, but it doesn’t always work out. Things come up. I have plans with family or friends, or I’ll come home from work and feel exhausted and just in need of a night on the couch. And that is all okay. If you are a serious writer – or artist of any kind – there will be lots of times when you will need to put your work first, and stay in on a Friday night or pass up happy hour with your coworkers. Believe me, that will need to happen a lot. But there will also be times when you won’t want to write that day, or can’t, or need a break, and that’s fine too. Don’t feel guilty when life intervenes. I used to, but I realized that it’s just as crucial to my process that I take a day off here and there.

You’ll need to make a lot of time to write, but do it in whatever way works best for you. Carve it out of your schedule wherever it fits, in fifteen minute increments here and there or chunks of a few hours (though believe me, I know those can be hard to come by). But make that conscious effort to carve out that time, because it isn’t going to happen on its own. It isn’t going to come to you. Soon making that time, even if you don’t write at the same time on the same days every week, will become second nature. You’ll start grabbing whatever moments you can to get some writing in, and that’s when you really get into a groove.

It really irritates me when people say “I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I’ve never had the time”, and I know my fellow writers will relate to that. It’s a frustrating thing to hear, for me, for two reasons: the first being the simple fact that I don’t have any more hours in the day than anyone else. As I’ve outlined above, I don’t have time sitting around unaccounted for any more than anyone else: I make that time, and that takes effort and dedication. The second reason it bothers me is that it implies that spare time is all one needs to write a book, and that is not true either. Anyone who’s written a book has spent years reading everything they can get their hands on, especially in their genre, and tinkering with sentences and characters and plotlines and story arcs and doing research and accepting criticism and trying and failing over and over again to render their story on the page in a way that is just right. Having time to write is crucial, yes, but there are a lot of other ingredients as well.

What I’ve found, though, is that the people who really love writing, who live and breathe words and beautiful sentences and imagery and metaphors, will always find a way to do all of this. They are already making the time whenever they can, because they love to write. They are already disciplining themselves and dedicating themselves to the craft and trying to learn more, trying to grow and get better. They couldn’t stop if they tried.

Sometimes I don’t even know how and when my books get written, when I think about all that I have going on in my life. But they do. They do because at the end of the day, through all the ups and downs, writing is my favorite thing to do in the world, and I will always, always make time for it.