Tag: #AmWriting


Suggestion 2: Plan Your Re-write Attack

This is hard. Even writing about it is hard. I’m not going to lie. When you have eighty thousand words, give or take, and editorial pages critiquing what works and what doesn’t, making a plan can seem overwhelming. Don’t let it be.  For me, there are four basic steps to the rewriting process.  Step 1: Check the calendarCount the number of days you have until your deadline. Be honest about how many days in the week you can work. Is Sunday impossible for you? Take it out of the rotation. Is there a family wedding? Be honest about how much time you can sneak away from family obligations. There is no right answer, there is only a truthful one.  Step 2: Attack the big stuffBy “big stuff” I mean the major plot issues. In Blessed be the Wicked, my editor had wanted a minor story line to become more central. She was completely right. I ended up writing a handful of completely new chapters developing the relationship between Abish and her brother. I had always adored her brother and I knew Abish and her brother John were close, but none of that made it into the first version of the book. My editor was right to push me on it. It was natural. The writing came easily because it was what the story needed.  Step 3: Make a master list of all the small stuff.It’s easy to forget the little stuff, so I make a list of “global changes” that I literally check off as I go through the manuscript. This is something that is ongoing, but by the time you are at your deadline, every item should be checked off. This list consists of everything from language tics (I use the word “just” too much, so I search the entire document and eliminate every non-necessary “just”) to checking times and dates (if the murder happens in the late morning and your detective has spent hours working, you don’t want him to then meet someone for breakfast…unless you explain the time lapse). The main point here is to not lose track of the details. Suspense and mystery because readers are a very observant lot.  Step 4: Let everything else in your life take a back seat.This step has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with writing. You have creative energy, that’s why you write. When you are on a deadline, you need to manage that creative energy in the most exacting way. If that means shifting your exercise routine, do it. If it means ignoring the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, ignore them. Let your dear friends and family know that you are working and will be back to your normal self soon enough. After you’ve finished your revisions. Good luck on your re-writes! See you tomorrow for a discussion with my fellow Miss Demeanors about writing demons and how to make friends–or at least learn to tolerate–them.

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The next generation of writers

 Earlier today I met with a young writer. Some time ago, I was contacted by her elementary school to serve as a mentor and we meet every few months at her school. She’s in fifth grade, a time when most kids are probably trying to get out of homework assignments, much less coming up with their own. I hope I’ve helped her, I know she has helped me.  The biggest take away is look both ways. Find adult mentors for young writers, and if you are a writer and have a chance to mentor a developing writer, do it!  “O” and I don’t have lessons in grammar, and there are no assignments. Instead we talk about writing. “O” brings her stories and poems and we discuss. I mark them up with no regard to her age, there’s no grade so she can sort out the ‘tasks’ she wants to address. Then, once matters of punctuations and clarity are out of the way we discuss the creative process.  At one of our very first meetings, I mentioned that her story lines are a bit dark. “O” replied, if bad things don’t happen then the story isn’t interesting. Clearly she understands the basic concept of storyline and plot. (One story had an amazing deathbed scene. Brief, yet a tear jerker. I did a little checking with her teachers and found that “O” has a happy, no-dark-stories, life. Since then I’ve not worried when her Thanksgiving tales are stories of disaster. As she tells me, it’s fiction.)  “O’s” journey is pure joy. She writes because she can’t not write. She has multiple projects going at the same time. She takes everyday ideas like the painful wait through the last five minutes of class and creates an entire fantasy world. Similarly, she takes the idea of snow in August and builds a storyline from there.  She is the epitome of ‘write what you know’ in a bold, unrestrictive way. She takes the emotions of loss, vulnerability, friendship and wonder, and makes that the core of the story, not caring if the story is set in Japan, a place she’s never visited. I hope to be invited when she receives a national book award on her 21st birthday. But even if that doesn’t happen, being part of the early journey has been inspirational.     

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National Novel Writing Month

Well, I’m writing…. ALL month. However, I’m not officially participating in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). I’m not participating, since I’m in the midst of heavy editing/re-writing for a work in progress and word count doesn’t matter. Now if NaNoWriMo had a plotting and editing calculator I might have signed up. Plot point fixed (check), tone evened out (check, check). Wouldn’t that be fun! I do keep a weather eye on NaNoWriMo progress. Over the weekend I was reminded that Paolo Coelho wrote The Alchemist in two weeks. There’s proof that doing a made dash to write a novel in a month isn’t all that crazy. Now, he did have the idea, actually the entire story firmly in his mind, before seeing pen to paper. An important caveat to speedy creation.  I hope that anyone who has been ‘thinking’ about writing ANYTHING creative (novel, poetry, play, movie or television script) considers NaNoWriMo to get started. Collective energy and the notion that Yes, you can! is a great motivator. You don’t have to write the great American novel, a finished rough draft will do. After all, then you can join me and use the next month to revise and rewrite.  For more information on NaNoWriMo look to their website: https://nanowrimo.orgOr follow them across most social media platforms: #NaNoWriMo  

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 Like any writer, I need an occasional reminder that I can do this thing we call on Twitter “#amwriting.” It sounds so simple. You pick up a pen or pencil and apply it to paper, or you tap on a keyboard. Bingo, you’re a writer.            Not so easy, as most writers know. Somewhere in the brain, between the creation of what you plan to write and when you actually put it into words, an assortment of messages can appear. Once in a while, the message may be, “Damn, this is sweet. Get it down on paper.” More often, the message is apt to be, “No one wants to read your crap. Go watch TV.” Or “You don’t have anything to say worth reading.” Often it can be, “Remember your last rejection? That agent/editor knew what she was saying. Give it up.”            It takes resilience to be a writer, to overcome the criticisms, rejections, and self-recrimination that outnumber the tiny slivers of success by far. I’m always looking for inspiration and advice about how to buoy the human spirit after a plummeting defeat. Yesterday, I found an unexpected one.            I spend more than half the year living in Outer Cape Cod in a town bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Cape Cod Bay on the other. Life is supposed to be easy here. Cape Cod is blessed with endless breathtaking beaches for swimming and surfing, lobsters, clams and oysters for eating, and bike paths and hiking trails inspired by Thoreau.            I’m not particularly adventurous when it comes to outdoor sports, having grown up under an odd admonition about what activities are “lady-like” and constant warnings about what is not safe. I’m working on that, but while I do, I frequently watch and admire others who know no fear. Brave the elements. Fall down and get up.             Surfers on Cape Cod are my go-to inspirations. All year long, young and old, surfers brave the relentless surf. Age and gender are irrelevant. Each summer, surfers compete in the Cape Cod Oldtimers Longboard Classic.              I am as fascinated by these human creatures of the sea as I am the whales, seals and yes, sharks. I go from beach to beach, usually later in the day, to watch surfers in their wet suits tote their boards down steep sand embankments into the frothy sea. I silently send messages out to them when I think a good wave is coming, as if I were their partner, but they have minds of their own and pick their own wave. They climb up, sometimes gracefully, more often clumsily. The moment they capture that wave, ride it triumphantly, even if it is only for a few seconds, I feel their elation.             More often they fall before rising, or never even climb up. No matter, falling is irrelevant. There is always another wave, another chance. You need only to get up and try again.            Yesterday, I rode to Newcomb Hollow Beach where a young surfer died from a shark attack several weeks ago. Much has been written about the tragedy. There I photographed a memorial for twenty-six year-old, Arthur Medici, with messages of love and support. If you look in the distance beyond the memorial, you will see two specks of black in the ocean. Surfers. While you may question the wisdom of taking to the sea, you cannot question the power of resilience.

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The Art Part

I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not going to attempt some deep and thoughtful analysis about the written word. What I do know is that finding your routine–whether it’s daily word count or a certain time of day spent writing–helps. I have a word-count that I meet before I do anything else but go to the gym and brush my teeth five days a week. One day on the week-end I write a little something, but it doesn’t have to be the story I’m working on, it just has to be something.  I’m a firm believer that what works for some may not work for others.We’re all so different it would be bizarre and unnerving if there were only one right way to do anything. I’m also a big fan of trying things out, seeing what does or doesn’t feel right, and making adjustments. As my Mom (and avid mystery reader) always told me when I had a big decision to make “If it starts not working, you can always do something else.” I try to not pre-judge an idea until I give it a chance. Last summer I went to a panel at ThrillerFest with the DIY MFA Guru Gabriela Pereira. She said she kept a jar on her desk to write down anything that got in the way when she was writing. She would write down the annoying thought on a little piece of paper, fold it up and put it in the jar. Okay, I was skeptical, but the next day when I was working on my on word count and one of those nagging thoughts that had absolutely nothing to do with my story kept circling my head, I decided to give it a try. It worked . . . for me. The act of writing down my distraction, foldingit into a tiny square and setting it in a glass jar allowed me to get back to the work I wanted to be doing. (Yes, I have identical jars: one here in the city and another up in the attic room in the country. No, I’m never going to tell anybody what I write on those little pieces of paper!) I guess the point is: do whatever it is you need to that allows you to access the story. Maybe it’s a certain cup of coffee, music, time of day. You might need to light a candle or find a particularly quiet room. Whatever your thing is, do it so that when you hit your word count/page count/minute or hour goal, you look back and find at least something (even if it’s only one word) that makes your heart beat just a little faster. Do that. And then do it again.       

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The Magic of Wordsmithing

 The practice of wordsmithing is defined as making changes to a text to improve clarity and style, as opposed to content. A wordsmith is a person who works with words; especially a skillful writer. I’ve been thinking of word choice more than usual lately because my daughter is applying to college; and for those of you who do not know the joy of the common application, among other things, it requires each student to fill in a 650-word essay. Every word counts. Literally.  Writers know that every word should always count, and yet I know I’ve been guilty of ignoring that wisdom on more than one occasion. Now that I spend a lot of my life thinking about words: how to order them, how many are necessary, which ones to choose and which ones not to, I have found myself entranced with those writers who do it well. For me, a wordsmith is like a magician: they leave me dazzled, but unable to quite figure how the trick was done.  I want to be one of them; one of those magicians. At least once in a while. So, I’ve been watching for the sleight of hand, the well-timed distraction, the puff of smoke. Although I’m still far from having figured it all out, I think I’ve picked up a few tricks: (1) Read a lot and read a lot of different things. Reading quality work is inspiring, but I do think it’s worth reading books that aren’t necessarily top calibre. Martin Sheen said once that after spending a summer being a golf caddy at an exclusive country club, he learned what kind of man he did not want to be. I think the same can be said of writing. Reading things we don’t like can help us find what we aspire to write. (2) Pay attention to the unwritten word. I love music. A songwriter has very little time to convey a message, an emotion, a thought. It’s amazing how fresh and clever songwriters are. It inspires me. If you like poetry, rap or particularly well-spoken interviewing (think Terry Gross) and reporting, start listening carefully. You may pick up a trick or two. (3) Play games with words. A few years ago I signed up for–and completed–the Improv 101 class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Yes, it confirmed my longstanding belief that comedians are smarter than the rest of us, but it also taught me that those improv geniuses practice; they practice a lot. One week our teacher asked us to associate as many words and ideas as we could with an object every time we walked down the street. One morning my brain went: dog walker–fire hydrant–bladder–trying to find a bathroom–toilet paper–scented candles. You get the idea. (4) Take your craft seriously. I’m working my way through Harold Evans’ Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. You may not agree with everything he says. I don’t, but it’s beyond debate that the man is an expert at the craft of writing. If you want to become one of the magicians, you have to spend some time learning how hide the quarter. Force yourself to double check definitions, punctuation and grammar rules. It’s not hard, and it will improve your skill. (5) Try and fail; and don’t be afraid to fail spectacularly. I’m a terrible skier. Really. When I was ten, we lived in France; and in those days skiing was part of the winter physical education curriculum. Everyone but me was a good skier. I promise you, I was the only one who fell, and, boy, did I fall. I could fall with my skis pointing in directions one would think were physically impossible. After one particularly awe-inspiring fall, my teacher gracefully glided down to me, helped me to my feet and smiled. She told me that only someone who was really pushing herself to improve can fall like I did. Of course, I know she was trying to get me down the mountain, but she did teach me an important lesson. Playing it safe doesn’t teach you that much. (Please leave aside the fact that I’m still a terrible skier for the purpose of this story.) So, that’s it for me. What suggestions do you have for becoming a skilled wordsmith?    

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From Special Ops to Thrillers

Like so many writers, S.B. Woodson (Stacy) had a prior life that serves as great material for her writing. Unlike most other writers I know, though, that prior life included jumping out of helicopters. Now she juggles writing with raising two young kids, which means she’s up well before the sun (and well before me).  You’ve had a very interesting background. Can you tell us a little bit about your former careers? Stacy: The military has shaped who I am, and the careers I’ve pursued. I served ten years in the Army, mostly in the Special Operations community. Following the military, I worked in the Pentagon on the Joint Staff where I provided recommendations on policy and doctrine for the Psychological Operations community. Later, I earned my MBA and transitioned to various leadership positions in a government contract firm. After my daughter was born, I returned to the Joint Staff J39 as a federal employee. My primary focus was preparing briefs and materials for Congress. Now I write full time and memories of my military service play a role in most of my stories. Congratulations on your Daphne! You write in different genres. How do you think writing romance has influenced you as a suspense writer? Stacy: Some of my favorite thriller novels are character driven stories written by authors who started in romance. I’ve learned so much about craft and how to write compelling characters through Washington Romance Writers, an amazing chapter of Romance Writers of America. What is your writing routine? Stacy: I have two small children so I try to work my writing routine around their schedules. On weekdays, I’m usually up at 3:30am. I run three miles and then I write until I need to get them ready for school. My son goes to preschool three days a week. So I write the bulk of my time on these days. If I have a deadline or don’t meet my word count, I will go to the library on Saturday. I am grateful to have a supportive husband. Is there anything you’ve learned along the way that you wished you’d known earlier about getting an agent or getting published? Stacy: ThrillerFest was and continues to be a game changer for me. I attended my first ThrillerFest in 2015. Here I found my writing group and critique partners. We share information about writing classes, contests, and conferences. I was able to learn from the group and avoid pitfalls others have experienced. I set a goal to complete my first book and pitch it at the next conference. The following year, I signed with an agent. At ThrillerFest this year, I connected with an editor from Publishers Weekly, and I’m a contributor to the publication now. 

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Why do you write suspense?

As someone new to writing, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I’m drawn to write mysteries.  So, I thought I’d ask the experts: why do you write what you write?  Cate: I write suspense because I love the feeling of surprise when I learn something unexpected about a person, that in retrospect makes sense. I am also fascinated by the justifications people have for doing badthings. I like creating flawed characters that you feel for. Some of my favorite suspense writers are Gillian Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Ruth Ware, Stephen King, Fiona Barton, Herman Koch and Patricia Highsmith. Susan: I think I like mysteries so much because the writer has to interact with the reader. You’re always thinking: Will the reader guess this clue? Will she be surprised? Is it satisfying? There’s something about that interaction I find very appealing. I’ve heard some authors say that they write for themselves and don’t care if anyone reads it, but I’ve never felt that way. I also love the whole idea of good versus bad, even if there are lots of shades of gray. Tracee: I fell into suspense through old fashioned mysteries. I confess that I am still not ready for hard core scary (I recently saw a preview for the movie It based on Stephen King’s book and that couple of minutes was almost enough to make me leave the theater…. and this was at a matinee!). My preferred suspense writers are in the vein of Patrica Highsmith and more recently Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger. I suppose that I am driven to write in the mystery/suspense genre because that’s what I return to consistently as a reader. I like reading and writing about what people do, what they conceal and why, and how choices sometimes lead people away from their ‘ordinary’ lives.  Robin: I wrote my first ghost story at 8 years old, the cleverly titled “Haunted House on the Hill.” I don’t recall what inspired that particular story but my parents saved it because I also illustrated and hand-bound it with a cardboard-and-construction paper cover complete with spine title and back jacket copy. I think it’s somewhere in my attic now. Later in life, meaning junior high, I fell in love with Stephen King’s work but what drove me to start writing suspense myself was reading Dean Koontz’s Strangers when I was 20-something. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances seemed like a revelation. I wanted to see if I could write a novel-length page-turner. My first couple of attempts weren’t terrible but weren’t very good. They were great learning experiences, though. Something I didn’t expect was how much fun they are to write. I’ve been honing my crime-writing craft ever since.  Michele: I have always loved police procedurals, but for many of them the methodical, sometimes plodding unraveling of the mystery, is the draw. Not so for Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, which while challenging my skills at deductive reasoning, somehow rivet me. French’s lyrical writing lures me into her stories about ordinary people who find themselves tangled in awful circumstances that slowly become riveting. Without a contrived twist, French delivers a punch to the gut at the end that stays with me long after. Her writing inspires me to want to share that same kind of adventure for my own readers. “In the Woods” was her first book. Seven years later, I still wonder about what happened to – no, wait, no spoilers here. But wouldn’t I love to think I had a reader still challenged that many years later. I call that writing that stays with you and that is what I want to write. Alexia: Had to think about this one. Why crime fiction as opposed to other genres? I think because of my sense of justice. Every day I see real world examples of injustice, towards people, animals, the environment. Horrible people get away with being horrible and there’s nothing I, nor anyone else, can do about it. We can (and should) donate to causes, march in protests, sign petitions, rescue animals, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, soothe the afflicted, comfort the dying. Yet, for every good work we do, we turn around and see some gazillionaire put people trying to eke a living on minimum wage out of work so the gazillionaire can increase his profit margin and bring home a $50 million bonus instead of a $30 million bonus. Or sneak them across the border to do his laundry or pick his fruit then have them thrown back to a country they haven’t lived in for 10 or 20 years once he’s done with them. Or we see someone beaten up or shot or fired or evicted or denied the right to marry the person they love because someone else doesn’t like their skin color or religion or gender or sexual orientation. Or one puppy mill or dog fighting ring is shut down and 3 more pop up or some demonoid tortures a cat and posts the video online–and gets likes. Or school girls are kidnapped by fanatical creeps who think women shouldn’t be allowed to read– and then some newspaper reports our government has been funneling arms to that particular group of fanatics because they were more sympathetic to our agenda than the opposing group. Or some honest, hardworking person is denied health care because someone decided they weren’t worthy of not having to choose between rent and medicine or, let’s face it, that they weren’t worthy of living. And instead of sticking up for that person, narcissistic jerks take to social media to trumpet about how they’ve got theirs so they don’t give a fuck about anyone else and expect to be applauded for being cold-blooded vultures. Or someone has to travel for miles to get drinkable water because the stuff from their tap is loaded with lead or live in the shadow of a pipeline that won’t benefit them but will certainly poison them if it leaks, all because they’re too poor to buy the political clout to send the mess to someone else’s neighborhood. Or they lose the home that’s been in their family for generations because people with more money suddenly decide their neighborhood is the place to be–as long as the original residents are forced out with sky-high property taxes and restrictive ordinances. We fight and fight and fight and bleed and fight some more and help the ones we can, maybe even save a few but, at the end of the day we have to accept that some things are beyond our control. Except in crime fiction. In crime fiction, I control the world I write. I can create justice. The unrepentant bad guy will go down. The underdog will have his day. Revenge will be had on the cat-torturing, woman-hating, narcissistic, bigot. In crime fiction, the devil may think he’s gotten away with something but by the last page, the angels will have the last word. (Here ends the rant.)      

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The Creative Process

A couple weeks ago, I was on a panel of authors at my alma mater discussing The Creative Process. At first, I wasn’t sure the panelists would have anything in common. One was a screenwriter, another an expert in Russian literature, another had a bestseller about Steve Jobs and yet another wrote American literature. And then there was me: the thriller writer. But, it turned out that our creative process all involved research and a degree of musing about the world–although we did it in different ways. I am pretty sure I was the only panelist that regularly uses excel spreadsheets to plot out the action in my story, the character arcs, and play-by-plays of integral scenes before I start writing.  So, I asked my fellow MissDemeanors. What is an integral part of your creative process. Here’s what they said: “I love brainstorming. In fact, part of why I’ve enjoyed nanowrimo so much the last few years is because it feels like a month of br ainstorming. I write down notes about characters, themes, words they might like, scenes that might be good. I don’t edit myself. Then, when I’ve filled an entire notebook, which usually takes about a month, I have enough material to begin writing.” –Susan “I hate to admit this but, as a life-long insomniac, an integral part of my creative process is to use the long sleepless hours in the middle of the night to think about plot lines and characters and how they might react to twists. Those hours between 2:00  and 4:00 are when reality stares me right in the eye. Sometimes I exhaust myself into a deep sleep and very often I come up with new ideas that would never occur to me during my waking hours.”Michele “For me the creative process has to be a balance between planning (what do I need for the story in specific terms, what does the story arc need) and free form thinking. That means time at the desk and time doing something else which lets my mind roam (yard work is a help here). Creative does mean just that…. at the same time process, well, means steps, piece by piece something coming together. It’s the blend that matters!” –Tracee “Before I begin actually writing each story I draw a mind map with my protagonist at the center. Then I add villains, sidekicks and secondary characters with descriptions of what each one wants and where desires intersect to trip each other up. It’s an exercise that lets me visualize logical expectations of both characters and readers, remove cliches or turn them on their heads, and explore opportunities for twists. The final map becomes a touchstone but I don’t let it lock me in as I write. I find that my characters sometimes surprise me so I stay open to that possibility and have as much fun with it as possible.”–Robin “For me, it’s a combination of daydreaming and research. My research I mostly mean reading. So it doesn’t really seem like research. This is the fun part–daydreaming and reading and thinking about characters. I often have an idea for an opening scene, at least what will be the opening scene of the working draft, and I write that just to get it down, as a way into the story. I make nonsensical notes in a big sketchbook and when I filled that, I sit down with that material and jot down notes for scenes on index cards. When I have about 60 index cards, I start writing in earnest.” –Paula

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Editing, or the pretense that it will ever be perfect.

 Every writer has different editing moments. There are the early edits, adding plot points or taking out backstory to keep things moving. Later in the process we continue to check the plot points but start to fine tune the dialogue, the action, the beginning and end of chapters, the punctuation. Then, finally, and for a moment it feels like a reward, the editing of the complete manuscript to turn in to the publisher. This is where what felt like victory turns to ‘I need a drink’. At least for me. Because it feels final (actually, it is final) I begin to re-question everything. Usually my Beta readers haul me back from the edge and I get back to the real work at hand. The final edits. Overwhelming in some ways. Check everything. That’s all. I think every writer has a list of what to do as part of the hedge against insanity. Plus, checking things off a list is universally satisfying. My list is along these lines: character arc (names consistent and are their emotions developing in a consistent path)chapter breaks/lengthfine tune the dialoguecheck description (accuracy, consistency, and things like time of day/length of day)eliminate my personal writing ticks (most writers have specific words they overuse and word search is helpful here)read the entire manuscript aloud in as close to one go as possible. The number of typos, trip-ups in dialogue and other problems uncovered by reading aloud is astounding.  Right now I’m getting close to this point. Actually I am already working through parts of this list, and it is exciting. I’m curious about other final edit check lists. What gets you across the finish line?  

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