How to be a Better Writer

For Jamie: What I learned when I dipped into the excellently delicious Outliers.

Malcolm Gladwell is such an engaging writer and his subject here–extraordinary people who are markedly different, more successful, way smarter–is fascinating. Gladwell investigates the variety of circumstances that separate the super-successful from average folk like me. Along the way, he piles on the cool facts. For example, I learned that to become a world-class expert in just about any field a person needs to put in ten years of really really hard work. They need to work three times as hard as the average person.

Another way to calculate those ten years is in hours. About 10,000 hours will yield “mastery associated with anything” including writing. Which got me thinking. How many hours have I put into writing over the years? From about age 23, when I wrote my first novel, to 33, I didn’t rack up a whole lot of hours writing. I had two babies and a house to keep. Then I had a divorce to get through and a remarriage to negotiate. I also started college. I figure those 10 years yielded probably 500 hours of writing. Pretty simple to see why I was not a success at my dream career.

From 33 to 43, I did a little better. My kids were older, my marriage was settling down into a stable union, and I wrote a lot for college. After I started teaching, I also wrote a novella every summer. I’d say those ten years likely yielded 1000 hours. Still way below the “New York is calling with a contract offer” limit.

So the first 20 years of my writing life, even though I loved writing and was passionate about wanting to be a writer, I had only accumulated 1500 hours of writing time. Not enough to be called a master by any stretch. In retrospect, I realize that I was just too busy living my family life and figuring out how to be a good teacher.

Then something wonderful happened. I found a window of time, five years exactly, when I was able to write every day for three hours a day. By this time my kids were out of college and on their own. My husband has always been low maintenance. We were in a good financial position, and I felt so ready. With Al’s blessing, I took a break from teaching and totally devoted myself to writing. I wrote several novels during this time, started my blog, reviewed on average 10 books a month for Romantic Times. I treated writing like a real job and many, many days I clocked well over three hours at my computer. I’m averaging it out, because I know some days I only worked an hour or two. That five year period gave me 5500 writing hours.

Believe me, I saw my ability jump. I could actually tell that I was getting better. A lot better. Still, at 7,000 writing hours clocked, I wasn’t anywhere near the 10,000 hours I needed to become an “expert.” And a few years ago, the economy started to shift, and I went back to work. But an amazing thing happened when I returned to teaching. I kept up my three hours a day output. It was a habit I loved, and I made time for it. Again, some days I’d work eight hours straight and others I’d work one or two, but on average I added another 4500 hours, to put me at 11500 hours, well over the 10,000 mark.

When I figured this out last night I was so amazed I immediately subtracted two weeks vacation for nine years. Still at 10,000 hours. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ll get a great publishing contract or a promotion at Publishers Weekly. It doesn’t even mean anybody will want to read my blog. It just means I put in the time it takes to master my craft. Sure, it took me thirty years instead of ten, but every single hour has been a total pleasure.

*Reprinted from a 2008 blog post. Betcha I’ve got another several thousand words under my belt by now. Also a publisher!

An Idea Knocks

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This is for Sharon, a wonderful writing friend from way back in the e-zine 50-something days:) Her question was: How do you know where to start a story?

This is one of the reasons it’s easier to be a writer than a knitter. In knitting, if you miss a row, it has to be unraveled immediately. In the first draft of a novel, all you need is the slightest whiff of an idea. You write it down and, if it’s a book, ideas and words accumulate. I freewrite first drafts with no plan or plot in mind until something comes to me, like a gift. No unraveling until the first draft is complete in all it’s clumsy awkwardness.

Usually at about 30K or so, I have a real grasp of what I want the book to be, so I print it out and read over what I have. Then I make an outline, which I rarely follow to the letter. Ideas are still coming, much of the time faster than I can write them down. I take notes, reminding me of a scene I must write and the location I want to put it in. At this point I also create a collage incorporating images, patterns, and colors that remind me of the book and its characters. That collage usually goes on a corkboard above my writing desk.

As you see from the picture above, because I recently moved house after 25 years, I saved just a little bit of my last collage: the names of my characters. Since I have a series (Blue Lake) started, I am going to keep my ocean picture and the snapshot of Al & me on our honeymoon with the Pacific Ocean in the background. I plan to create my next collage on Pinterest. If I ever get this WIP finished.

In revision, my beginning is usually cut. That’s how it goes. Lots of darlings are killed in revision. But that’s another post. The short answer to your question, Sharon: I don’t decide where to start. An idea knocks and I answer the door.

JennyJennyJenny

I’m from Detroit, so not sure how local the MC5 were back in the day. (MC stands for Motor City). They had a couple of hits “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Kick out the Jams” come to mind. The chorus to “Devil in a Blue Dress” sung fast, was ‘JennyJennyJenny, won’t you come along with me?’ and I’m thinking of it because Jenny Crusie is the writer who taught me everything I know about the craft of writing. And I’m looking back at those old lessons to try to get my WIP in order.

If you want the details on Jenny’s intensive workshop, I talk about our week together here. But back to today at my writing desk. Not a writing day goes by without me taking one of my Jenny hammers, wrenches, or screwdrivers out of the toolbox. Today, I’m going with a suggestion she gave me. This is a paraphrase, but the gist is:

Me: My books are too short. They’re more like novellas. How can I make them longer?

Jenny: One way is to add a subplot. The subplot should support the main plot. They should mirror each other and be entwined in ways important to theme and plot.

Great advice. Working on my second book in the Blue Lake series, I came to the end at about 40K. So of course, I needed a subplot. This was convenient, because I really wanted to write one, but with romance, editors can be picky about subplots. Now that I’m writing “women’s fiction” a subplot and even another point of view or two is not a problem.

So at first I thought, well, I can write the whole subplot as a separate book and then add it in where necessary. I have some experience with this in reverse when I had to pluck a subplot out of another book. That was pretty easy, but the opposite is not. Because really, a book needs to feel whole. Everything needs to seem like it naturally follows from what happened before. And I can’t get the theme/plot/intertwined thing doing the subplot as a stand alone.

So I’ve got three full scenes written and three or four ideas for scenes. My plan was to write out those scenes, but today I’ve decided I’m going to read through my WIP and decide where my supporting characters need to come in and why they are in this story in the first place.

And thanks Jenny for all you do and have done for me and many many other writers.

All Is Vanity

I had an idea. I wanted to take my e-novel to the next level and make a print version. My mom always gives cash as birthday gifts, and she is generous. I said “Mom, you’re my publisher.” She said “Oh, I would give you money for both things.” Yes, she is generous to her family, but I said no, it would be my gift to myself just to have that book in a print edition.

My writing pals, Tom, Bob, and Vernie, and I sometimes get into discussions about the difference between self-publishing and vanity presses. It is a fine line, but basically a vanity press will print up a book without edits and send you a thousand copies which no bookstore or library wants and so they stay in boxes in the basement unless you sell them out of your trunk. Vanity press (in these days of self-publishing and indie novelists) is the way of the lazy writer with a lot of cash and not much ambition.

Indie novelists, writers who use their own skills or Create Space or freelancers, are different in that they care about their product and strive to make it the best possible book. They distribute, they market, they network. Such a fine, fine, line. But it makes all the difference. If you have a book that nobody has read except you, and you publish it, chances are nobody else is ever gonna read it. Indie writers embrace craft, critique, cover artists, editors, and other professionals to help polish their work and make the best book possible.

But as I said to my mom “this is just for me” and that’s vanity. One of the definitions of vanity in my Shorter Oxford (isn’t it vain of me to tell you what dictionary I use?) is “desire for admiration.” I think that applies to all people, all the time,  everywhere. Who does not want to be liked? Whatever creative thing we do, if we do it for free, then it’s all vanity and that’s okay. Blogging for ten years is vanity. Teaching is vanity. Calling oneself an artist is vanity. Tweeting is vanity. Publishing any book through any venue is vanity. So too is exhibiting art. Everything is vanity if you think about it. Putting on make up. Combing your hair! Vanity!!

This bit of  a rant has a point, which is the lines in publishing are very blurry right now. If you indie publish a great book that gives joy to others, that is a very different degree of vanity than if you type up your handwritten diary from when you were 16, which you wrote instead of paying attention in English class, and then have it printed at great expense, that’s another level of vanity altogether.