by Kassandra Lamb
We don’t usually blog about the writing process here at misterio press, but I was recently tagged in a game of blog tag and it got me to thinking. Maybe I should share some of my hard-learned lessons with newbie writers who are first venturing into this marvelous and scary world of publishing. And perhaps our readers might find it interesting to peek behind the curtain and get a sense of what it’s like to be a writer.
So here’s to Barb Taub who tagged me. Do check out her wonderful blog. Her sense of humor is fabulous! Every one of her posts has me rolling on the floor.
Here are the questions I’m supposed to answer. I’m going to answer them in a rather round-about way, because as you will see in a moment, I’m a bit of a rebel.
1. What am I working on now?
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
3. Why do I write what I do?
4. How does my writing process work?
I’ve always been a writer–ever since I picked up my first crayon and scribbled incoherent markings on a piece of paper. (I knew they were words even if my mother thought it was a picture of a horse. Sheez!) As a kid, when I wasn’t reading, I was acting out the stories I made up in my head. Unbeknownst to my mother, our backyard was really a ranch in the Wild West and my swing set was a corral full of horses.
In college, I realized writers needed day jobs in order to eat. So I studied psychology, my other great passion (that I discovered, ironically, when I took my first sociology class, but that’s another story). I had a wonderful career as a psychologist, and I honed my writing skills authoring and editing journal articles and professional newsletters. One editor paid me the ultimate compliment of printing one of my articles without suggesting a single change!
Thus when I retired from my psychotherapy practice and seriously embarked on my long-postponed creative writing career, I did so with a rather swelled head. But like all owners of swelled heads, I had no idea I had one.
Me with a swelled head. Not a pretty sight!
I won’t bore you nor embarrass myself with those humiliating moments that brought my head back down to size. Rather I’m telling you all this as background. You see, I came into the world of creative writing with both the advantage and disadvantage of never having had any formal training in it. Because I already knew how to write. Right?
Oh, I could describe a scene, develop a character and plot a story. But I didn’t know the rules. No problem, my inner rebel said. Rules were made to be broken. Plus, I’ve always learned best by doing.
So I plunged in and did. I dug out an old manuscript, the first five chapters of the book I’d started fifteen years prior, and I started writing. Two humbling years later, beta readers, critique partners and an editor had helped me shape that book into something publishable. And my head was much more in proportion to my body.
Ah, much better!
Five years later, I have six books, a novella and a short story published and I’m still writing. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. Here are some of the most important ones.
Lesson 1 (Question 4): Plotting vs. Pantsing
I learned somewhere around year two that the way I write is referred to as pantsing. As in one writes by the seat of his/her pants. You have an idea for a story and you sit down and start writing.
I never realized there was any other way to do it. But those who had studied the craft knew that one should outline the plot, develop the characters, do the background research, etc. before one actually starts to write the story.
Glad I didn’t know that up front; I never would have gotten past the first book.
It’s ironic that I’m a pantser, because I’m highly organized in the rest of my life. But then maybe that’s why I love writing so much. It’s the one part of my life where I just let things happen.
Advice to Newbie Authors: Most writers/editors respect both styles, but there are a few plotters who want to make pantsing wrong and vice versa (because they can’t imagine writing the other way). If you’re naturally a pantser, don’t let them force you into the plotting mold. But you do need to realize that once that first draft is done, you will spend months, maybe years, taming it into a publishable work. The plotters, on the other hand, spend months plotting up front, and require far fewer rewrites of their first draft. It all evens out in the end.
Lesson 2 (Questions 2 & 3): Genre Does Matter
I really wanted to write women’s fiction, but in more recent decades I had mostly read mysteries. So that was the genre I knew best. I decided to combine the two genres by writing mysteries with a strong emphasis on the relationships between the main characters.
My first draft of my first book was 169,000 words (twice the average novel and almost three times the average mystery). I gave it a sappy, too-long title and tried to sell it to literary agents as a blend of the two genres.
Yeah, that didn’t work out so well. Now that book is less than 85,000 words and has a two-word title that screams “MYSTERY” loud and clear.
Advice to Newbie Authors: You can write a book with a foot in two different genres but you’d better decide which one you’re going to lead with and abide by the basic rules of that genre. Why? Because no one will read a Gone With The Wind-type saga that’s billed as a mystery. Not agents, not publishers, not readers.
If you don’t believe me, let me quote my editor, Marcy Kennedy, on the subject:
If you’re craving chips and someone tricks you into eating a piece of cake instead, you’re probably not going to feel satisfied. You need to know what readers expect so you can either meet (and exceed) those expectations or so you can help them adjust their expectations.
(from Marcy’s blog post, Does Genre Still Matter in 21st Century Fiction?)
Lesson 3 (leading up to Question 1): Show, Don’t Tell–Most Of The Time
I had heard this rule before, and I kinda got why it was important. But it took lots of practice to get good at showing emotions with a “sharp intake of air” or a “clogged throat,” instead of telling the reader “she was shocked (sad, angry, scared, etc.)”
This is referred to as Deep POV (Point of View) and it’s all the buzz these days in the writing world.
But I’ve also learned, with the help of my wonderful editor, Marcy Kennedy, that one can have too much of a good thing. In the mystery genre, things need to move along at a pretty good clip to keep the reader intrigued. So there are times when it’s better to just tell.
I can hear the sharp intakes of air amongst my writer friends. (Which is why I’m
blaming this on crediting this lesson to my editor.)
Advice to Newbie Authors: Check out Marcy’s book on the subject; she explains it far better than I can.
Lesson 4 (Question 1, finally!): Multiple POVs vs. Head-Hopping
Since the characters and their relationships are so important to me, I naturally showed what was going on in most of their heads by using multiple points of view, without even knowing that was what it was called.
I got positive responses to this from readers and reviewers who liked knowing how the different characters were reacting internally to whatever was going on. Then I started getting feedback from other authors that the “head-hopping” made their heads hurt.
About that time, I found Marcy. She was the third editor I had used to help polish my books. The first two were good; they did a fine job of helping me with that task. But Marcy is a fabulous teacher as well. She has helped me grow so much as an author!
And she helped me identify and begin to recover from my head-hopping addiction.
Advice to Newbie Authors: Here are a couple
rules (nope, can’t bring myself to use that word) guidelines for using multiple POVs. Stick to one POV per scene, and/or give the reader some indicator that the POV has changed, such as a blank space between paragraphs or a line or symbol of some kind. Secondly, indicate as quickly as possible whose POV that scene is in, so the reader can get themselves grounded in that character’s head.
Finally, I answer Question 1: What am I working on now? The last couple months I’ve put my other works-in-progress on hold a bit as I’ve re-written the first novel in my mystery series.
Now I’m hearing gasps from my loyal readers. Don’t worry, I did not change anything about the plot or the characters’ personalities. I just corrected the POV violations within the scenes by deciding on one character’s POV for each scene and then re-writing accordingly. I also added a bit more deep POV.
Wow, do I love the results. Of course this first-published story was already near and dear to my heart, but now it’s also some of my best writing!
One of the really cool advantages of modern electronic publishing is the ability to upload corrected text so easily. So I am re-releasing Multiple Motives (and it has a spiffy new cover as well; click here to see the blurb and buy links).
I’ve put it on sale for $0.99! So now’s a good time to tell your mystery-loving friends about this great deal.
But before you run off to do that, talk to me a bit. What lessons have you learned the hard way? Are you a rebel like me, or do you usually play by the rules?
Oh, and I’m tagging Kirsten Weiss and Vinnie Hansen to play this little game. If any other writers out there would liked to be tagged, let me know in the comments!
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