Hard-Learned Lessons

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.

Kass with distorted head

       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.

me with normal-sized head

          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!

Multiple Motives' new coverOne 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!

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    May 6, 2014 at 7:52 am

    Fab post, Kass! I’m a plotter, for sure, but I have to tell ya, it’s no guarantee that you won’t have extensive revisions in the next draft! *sigh*

    Oh, and feel free to tag me too! 😉

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 6, 2014 at 1:15 pm

      Consider yourself tagged, Kathy! Rules are simple: acknowledge who tagged you, answer the questions as you see fit and then tag others.

      And I know what you mean about no guarantees. Isn’t that true about writing in general? 🙂

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    May 6, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    All very true! I started out as a pantser but the revisions were killing me so now I plot in advance. But Stephen King is a pantser, and he’s a true master of the art, so if it works for him, who am I to criticize?

    It’s funny you mentioned the head hopping. I just finished a 2013 Nora Roberts, and she does it. I do think it irritates writers more than readers, and I suppose once you get to the Nora Roberts level, editors don’t bother screaming quite so much.

    Finally, last weekend I attended a Sisters in Crime workshop on editing. The speaker gave a very good rule, I think, for when to break rules. She said that if following the “rule” makes the sentence *sound* worse, don’t follow the rule, but ultimately it was a judgment call by the author.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 6, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      Wow, Stephen King is a pantser. I’m in good company then! For me, doing too much plotting ahead of time leaves me feeling like the story has already been told. I lose interest in actually writing it.

      I just finished a Sandra Brown novel and she used multiple POVs. She did put in a space or some other kind of break when changing. I’m thinking multiple POV is becoming more popular. And I know Nora downright head-hops in her JD Robb futuristic mystery series. She jumps back and forth between Dallas and Roark all the time.

      But as you say, who’s gonna yell at Nora!!

      And I like that advice from the SIC workshop. That’s my rule of thumb for breaking rules these days. (Instead of just breaking them to see what happens as I did in my youth. 😉 )

  • Reply
    Kristy K. James
    May 6, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Love reading about your writing process, and your journey to full-time writing, Kassandra.

    I used to consider myself a plotter, and everything came together faster when I was diligent about it. Now I’m somewhere between plotter and panster … but will hopefully revert to my old ways – keeping in mind that an outline is a guideline for the pansters who think it ruins a story. I always start out with a plan … however, my characters often change my direction (and most of the outline goes out the window).

    There’s one part of your post I take exception to. I am, by nature, someone who rebels against most rules. I do agree with the one POV per scene, and to make a clear break between POVs, but I will never, ever write to please other authors. I don’t mean that as a slight against authors, but I write for the people who love my books. They are my audience. While the occasional author will read one of my novels, they are a very small percentage of my sales. We should all write to the readers in our market, not to other authors whose styles are likely different than ours. If our readers are happy, that’s all that really matters. In my opinion anyway. 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 6, 2014 at 5:50 pm

      Isn’t it wild how characters tend to take on a life of their own, Kristy, and sometimes go places we hadn’t planned for them!

      I wholeheartedly agree that we should write for our audience, and for ourselves, which is why I tended to ignore the first few authors who complained about the head-hopping. And I’ll never give up the multiple POV. My readers love it. But Marcy helped me see the difference between that and popping in and out of heads in the same scene (which can keep readers from relating on a deeper level to the main POV character of that scene). I actually still shift occasionally within the same scene (and without marking the break), if the scene calls for it and I can make the transition not all that noticeable.

  • Reply
    Barb Taub
    May 7, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Terrific post! I think the part that struck me the most was you pointing out that in the pantser v plotter debate, you can either pay at the beginning or pay at the end. (I must confess that I always *try* to outline, and that lasts about a nanosecond until those characters take firm control. It is always worth the shits and giggles to go back at the end and look at those forlorn little outlines. They would have made great stories, if only I had written them. If only..

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 9, 2014 at 11:18 am

      Ha! I know what you mean, Barb, about those forlorn little outlines. The closest I come to outlining is a list of key scenes, more or less in the order they should happen.

      Inevitably after I have typed “The End” I look back at that list and realize I left out some really cool scene, but now it doesn’t fit the story. *sigh*

      Thanks again for the tag! This was fun.

  • Reply
    Pirkko Rytkonen
    May 7, 2014 at 11:18 am

    A great post Kassandra. Since I’m new at this it’s wonderful to read about the process of writing. Yeah, I’m at 25% mark with my first novel! I have a storyline about 50 pages long single spaced, but have not followed it much. It just gives me ideas from which to bounce off other ideas. I had no scenes planned so I’m pantsing now. I think I work best this way.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 9, 2014 at 11:25 am

      Glad you found this helpful, Pirkko. We all need to find what works best for us re: pantsing vs. plotting. I think that’s why it took so long for me to finish Multiple Motives (15+ years). I kept rewriting the outline, then I’d lose interest because I felt like I’d already told the story. When I sat down with it again after I’d retired, I just wrote. Six weeks later the first draft was done!

  • Reply
    Debra Kristi
    May 7, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Wow! What a great approach to the blog tour. Loved reading this, Kassandra. I’m getting ready to finally jump into that publishing pool and have to admit to being terrified. I believe I’ve addressed most/any POV, show vs. tell, and head-hopping issues. Lord knows I’ve taken classes up the wazoo, read 1009 blog posts, books, and sat through endless chapter meetings and conferences. Doesn’t mean I don’t need awesome checkers to point out my areas of opportunities. 🙂

    Any who…when I first started this gig I would have said I was a pantser, but truth be, I’m a hybrid. I don’t start writing until I have seriously plotted out the story. It’s just most of that plotting goes on in my head. In the last year I’ve been working on changing my methods and putting it down on paper to better organize my muse. She is in the driver’s seat, after all. I go where she takes me. 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 9, 2014 at 11:27 am

      LOL Yup, that muse can be pretty bossy!! Go ahead and take the plunge, Debra. For all the ups and downs of this process, I’ve gotta say the water’s grand. Can’t wait to read your work!

  • Reply
    Tag, Kirsten’s It! | Misterio Press
    May 8, 2014 at 4:57 am

    […] tour-style here at misterio this week. I was tagged by the wonderful Barb Taub, and I posted about my writing process on […]

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    May 8, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Sorry to arrive late Kassandra. I wasn’t feeling up to par earlier this week. And when that happens, my brain does not engage regardless if it is the WIP, blog post or comments. That’s why I didn’t blog this week. It happens when it happens. But truly, it is ironic that newbies make similar mistakes. At first we don’t want to be grouped in with everyone else. Why we’re creative individuals. We don’t write like everyone else. Sure…Yeah, right. lol. I can’t thank you enough for sharing your writing experience. It helps to know that we all go through it. And isn’t Marcy the best? I love that girl. She’s helped me a lot. I’m still a work in progress. And it’s a slowwww process. But I’m getting there! Cheers to your success! 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 9, 2014 at 11:32 am

      You’re not all that late, Karen. No later than me anyway. I was away for a couple days and am just now getting back to responding to comments.

      I agree. There’s probably some rebel in every writer; as you say, we are creative types so we don’t want to fit in. We want to be different. The trick, I found, was determining which rules could be broken or bent and which were there for a good reason.

      And aren’t we all works-in-progress!! 😀

  • Reply
    judith barrow
    May 9, 2014 at 3:30 am

    HI, Well, I think I’m an anomaly: I don’t fit into panster or plotter all the time (to be honest, until last week I’d never even heard of the word panster). It depends how I feel about what I’m embarking on writing. And, although my books are sagas, they are also historical and mysteries. (I’ve noted above you say authors should decide which genre to put in a firm foot – so I excuse myself by saying I write about life – may I use that reason – hmm?) Anyway, top and bottom of this message is to say how much I enjoyed your blog (I came across it by accident which is the way most things happen in my life) – and to say how glad I am to have found your website. Oh – and I’m now off to buy your book.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    May 17, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    Hi Judith. I apologize on the part of our naughty blog. It threw your comment into the ‘pending’ holding cell and then didn’t even tell me it was there. But I have liberated it.

    Isn’t it funny how many things in life happen by accident? So glad you found us and that you enjoyed the post.

  • Reply
    Writer’s Tag: Reblog and reminder… | Barb Taub
    May 20, 2014 at 5:11 am

    […] Hard-Learned Lessons — by Kassandra Lamb [reblog from mysterio press] […]

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