Summertime. The days are long and lovely, and the grill is fired up.
But what’s that? You say the time has come, at last, to write your novel. You’ve got a story. You want to tell it. You just have one question: how, in the name of all that’s sane and just, do you begin?
Good question. And you’re in luck. Best-selling novelist Michelle Richmond addresses this very thing in a recent blog post. I’m always happy to plug Michelle, because she runs the small press that published my debut a few years back, and because she’s a super helpful and compassionate human being. She’s also a true friend to writers, whatever their career stage.
A snippet from Michelle on diving into the novel waters:
“Get past thinking, ‘I’m writing a novel.’ Instead, tell yourself, ‘I’m writing a few words today’ or ‘I’m writing a piece of my novel today.’ Writing a novel is a daunting challenge and a major, time-consuming endeavor. Looking from the starting line to the finish line, miles away, can be mentally paralyzing. The only way to start your novel without psyching yourself out is to break it up into small, daily tasks. Approach each day as a mini-project, not a major project. The mini-project is your scene, your chapter, or your page for that day.” Read the rest.
Good luck, friends, and be gentle with yourself. You’re embarking on a courageous journey.
I’ve been a journalist and a fiction writer. But essays? Not since school, and that was more, well, academic in nature.
I don’t know exactly what possessed me when I learned the Collegeville Institute was looking to build up its stable of freelance essay writers. I love the Collegeville Institute and its mission, and I think my heart just leapt at the prospect of being a part of it.
I’m thrilled to have published my latest this month. Take a look. I think the photo they chose way overshadows my essay, but in a good way.
Essay writing has been such a gift. It’s an unexpected platform, one whose benefits and challenges I am just beginning to understand. I feel lucky, blessed, to have stumbled upon this opportunity to write—in a different way—about the things that move, and resonate with, me.
The “me” part is a big leap. Writing as yourself—for fiction writers—can be a bit unnerving. But it can also be liberating and empowering. One of the reasons we write in the first place, I think, is to have the sheer pleasure, to experience the power, of matching our thoughts with just the right words. The pleasure of saying what you mean.
Essays are challenging in different ways than fiction. But some of the benefits are similar. They help me think through issues and sharpen and organize my understanding. In a nutshell, they help me make sense of it all. Isn’t that what writing is for?
Anyone else out there dabbling in a new different genre? Let us know.
I came across the loveliest quote today that I want to share with all my writer friends who are toiling away over manuscripts, many of them in some form of lock-down. Ironies abound there, but we’ll set them aside.
I know my gift is limited. I know I cannot stand toe-to-toe with philosophers or theologians and solve for myself or anyone else the problem of evil, either natural or moral. But we who are writers can tell a story or write a poem, and where rational argument will always fail, somehow, miraculously, in metaphor and simile and image and simple narrative, there is both healing and illumination.
Take heart, friends. Keep writing to and for each other. It’s a great thing we do, even if it doesn’t always seem so.
Karen and I did a check-in with each other yesterday. An honest-to-god phone call. Not email. And it was lovely hearing her voice – and having a full-on bitch session about all that’s happening right now. Believe me when I tell you: Karen and I perfected marathon bitch sessions. We practiced lots when we were roommates in college.
Sailors would cover their ears. Just saying.
Anyway, are you doing the same? Taking care of yourselves physically and mentally, and do you have a support system to reach out to?
You do. If you’re reading this, you do.
Please let us know how you’re coping during this far-fetched alternate universe we find ourselves in now.
Are you writing?
Personally, when it comes to writing fiction, I can’t even. Maybe because:
Reality seems so fictionalized right now that I’m unable to dream up anything on my own, or
I can’t imagine the characters I’ve been developing so long living in the particular world we’re in right now, or
Tyler’s given numerous interviews about the book, and of course the COVID question pops up, and here’s what she had to say about writing at this time:
“For the first few days, I seemed to keep writing the same three pages over and over again. I just had a general feeling of distractedness. Eventually, though, I did sink back into my work. I happened to be writing about an Easter dinner with a lot of people attending, some of them behaving a bit snarkily with each other. I thought, Oh, now I remember why I write. I write because it makes me happy.”
I guess that’s the key. Write if you can, because it makes you happy. And, in a blessed stroke of luck, what you write will hopefully make others happy too when it makes its way into the world.
Speaking of which, since I’m unable to write, I’ve been focusing on submitting. And I’m happy to say my story “Gently Used” is now up on Wordrunner’s Onward anthology. Yay.
So, if you’re like me and you can’t write, read. Or submit. Or call a friend, zoom with your mom, walk the dog. Do what makes you happy.
Please know we’re pulling for you, and sending you all the positive vibes you need to write despite—all of it. We wish you good health and enough peace and comfort in your lives to keep writing, always.
The first 10 pages make or break your novel manuscript. Why? Well, as we’ve all been told (and in truth have probably experienced), no one reads beyond them if they’re not great.
And that goes double for agents and editors, who are wondering how they’re going to sell the thing.
In other words, your opening has to rock. I’m overhauling mine for the umpteenth time right now, and it’s moving along. Something is happening. It’s kicking and wiggling and strutting a bit. But rocking? I dunno.
I come now seeking advice. What hooks you in a novel’s opening pages? What makes you keep reading? What turns you off? Please share in our “comments” section.
Cathy has already weighed in, of course, and her advice—as usual—was spot on. Cathy has a new publication of her own, just out this week. The opening of her novel-in-progress is featured in Embark: A Literary Journal for Novelists. This nifty journal is dedicated to novel openings, and it’s becoming a go-to for agents seeking new clients. Congrats, Cath! Check out her piece. It’s going to grow into one helluva book.
Well, we’re super late with this post, but for those of you who are still shopping (and yes, count us in), we decided to list 10 books we dearly love and frequently give to friends and family. So, if you’re still looking for ideas, you’re welcome. And happy holidays, everyone!!!!
These are all books I’ve given, some over and over again, in no particular order.
Turtle Moon (Alice Hoffman) – My first experience with Alice Hoffman, and the one I still think about all the time. Love her!
The Humans (Matt Haig) – Read this with my book group and I’ve given it to my son and others to enjoy. Wish they’d make a movie of this curious alien who comes to earth and just can’t figure out the human race.
Where I’m Calling From (Raymond Carver) – My go-to, rarely leave home without it, collection of stories by the master! If you’ve never read “Fat” or “A Small, Good Thing,” you’re truly missing out.
So, I took a different route. I decided to focus on children’s books that I loved when I was in elementary school. I’ve given some as gifts, and encouraged other parents to check them out. These books are all for, I’d say, fourth grade and up. As you can see, I was a child obsessed with animals. Now, I’m an adult obsessed with animals.
Hurry Home Candy, by Meindert DeJong – Probably my all-time favorite. A sweet little dog lost in a world of cruel people!!! This is an outstanding children’s story, sophisticated, compassionate, evocative. I bought a new copy and I’m reading it with my son.
The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlins – I read this Pulitzer-Prize winning novel too young, but it made a major impression on me, with the beautifully detailed relationship between the boy and his fawn, and the descriptions of the natural world. Plus [SPOLER!] the deer dies at the end, which killed me.
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington – Okay, this is a weird pick. I discoveredit on a bookshelf in my parents’ house and read it alone at night in bed. I don’t know why I was drawn to it. I think I think it was the vivid descriptions and well- drawn characters. The larger themes of this novel sailed well above my head!
Along Came a Dog by Meindert DeJong – Yep, Meindert was my go-to guy. Loved his books.
The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong – Even read a book about people, just because Meindert wrote it. The illustrations by Maurice Sendak helped, too. What a team, they were.
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry – Who wouldn’t want to tame a wild pony and get her foal as a bonus?
Big Red, by Jim Kjelgaard – A dog in trouble? I’m there.
Snow Dog, Jim Kjelgaard – I’ve always had a soft spot for Huskies. Must be the wolf-thing.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell – A horse who suffers nobly and needs saving! Like crack to my kiddie brain.
Cathy and I have had a busy fall, writing and…drumroll…publishing. Every author knows that digital self-promotion is just part of the process today, like it or not. We don’t especially like it, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
In that spirit, we share our latest triumphs. We love the triumphs, don’t get me wrong. We just feel a tad squirrelly, tooting our own horns. So this time, I’m tooting Cathy’s, and she’s tooting mine.
Please join us in celebrating. It’s always a gift to find your way into print!
Cathy’s had a few publishing ups and downs lately. Her first novel, A Hundred Weddings, went out of print when her publisher folded. But she’s had two stories published in the last couple of months, and has another coming out in the spring. Check out “The Hunt” in Appalachian Heritage magazine, and “Dreaming about the Bouviers” in Pithead Chapel’s online journal. Look for “Gently Used” to appear in Wordrunner eChapbook’s April 2020 anthology.
Cathy’s strategy these days: “I use mostly use Submittable to send in stories (don’t we all?) and currently my list includes: six stories that are “Active,” exactly two that are “Accepted,” and a whopping 50 “Declined.” I also keep a submission folder in my inbox full of emails from publications that don’t use Submittable. Nearly all are rejections, of course. Some people would find this discouraging. I don’t. I always see it like playing the lottery. There’s that initial moment of disappointment when I first find out, and then the shrug, and the self-reminder that it’s all a big crap shoot anyway, and then the self-nudge of ‘Hey, you need to get that piece out again.’ And on it goes. Bottom line: ABS: Always Be Submitting!”
Karen has been up to her eyeballs in her novel rewrite, but she is psyched to have just placed an essay with the Collegeville Institute’s awesome online magazine, Bearings Online.
Karen explains: “I’ve been a follower of the Collegeville Institute for a few years. I love the way they examine spiritual and literary issues, encouraging exploration that unites the two.
Last year, I was brainstorming ideas that I could pitch as essays for their Bearings Online magazine. The work is so eclectic and thoughtful. I love scrolling through. I had an idea about the spiritual implications of feeding wild bird that just seemed to fit.
Everyone who knows me knows I love wild birds. They seem to wing their way into all my work. But when I pushed the concept of feeding them a little deeper, asking why we do it today on such scale, I realized that scattering seed is not a small act, but a large and symbolic one that resonates deeply for the feeder, as well as for the fed.
I queried the Institute with a few essay ideas, and their lovely digital team member author Stina Kielsmeier-Cook liked this one. (It was also my favorite!) But it had to wait, while I finished a novel draft rewrite. After I delivered the rewrite to Cathy a few weeks back, I turned to the birds. The essay flowed naturally from there, with one section leading to the next, and the Bible quotes serving as lovely introductions.
I am thrilled to be published on the Collegeville Institute’s platforms. They do a terrific job sharing their authors’ works, and encouraging participation. And I am in very good (and talented) company. Every time I go to the site, I learn something new and come away just a little bit better for it. You can’t ask more than that.”
Keep it short. Cut to the chase. Spit it out. Just the facts, ma’am.
I’ve long been a long-winded writer, and have adhered to exactly none of these suggestions. Until I tried writing flash fiction.
It started with a workshop run by Kathy Fish (known widely, especially on Twitter, as The Great Kathy Fish), which was a game changer. Her workshops offer one inspiring prompt to write from, every day, for 10 days, and they introduce you to a whole group of writers who give support and encouragement. Pieces can be no more than 1,000 words. Sometimes less. You may have to choose from a list of words to include, or an object or image.
I went into this class utterly baffled by how to write such short pieces, but dove in and felt my way through. And I’ve gotten a few decent stories from it. And hey, here’s one of them that was just pubbed on Pithead Chapel this month!
Have you tried flash? If not, and you’re as puzzled by it as I was, or even if you’re a seasoned pro, here’s one of the best articles I’ve found for how it works:
So, there’s a lot of writing advice available today. Just ask Google. We’ve mentioned various books and blogs on Write Despite, from time to time. But you know what they say about advice…
There is good stuff out there, plenty of it. Not all of it will speak to you, of course, and you’ve got to be careful who you listen to. But I came across this in my online travels and figured that candid tips from winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature can only shed light on the intricacies of the difficult process we all undertake when we write fiction. Whether you’re a newbie or the winner of many a hallowed award. Thanks to fine folks at nownovel.com
Okay, truth in advertising: My publisher sponsors the Possibilities Publishing Conference, held each year at the lovely historic Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia. So yeah, I’m not unbiased. I attended the kickoff conference last year and was super impressed with the sessions, the media room, the photographer and video offerings, and so much more.
This year I honestly went expecting it not to live up to the previous one. I mean, seriously, I felt like there was no way this little event—focused less on writing itself and more on getting your writing seen and read—could pack such power again.
I was SO wrong. Starting with the first session, Maggy Sterner, part branding maven, part life coach, part therapist, all business-savvy bulldog, handed participants a shovel (you know, metaphorically) and taught them to dig deep to find out what they and their writing are truly about. They dug, and unearthed what they didn’t even know they had, or needed, to build a distinct brand. There were tears, people. I mean it was that powerful and that effective.
Do you know the difference between an Instagram post, story, or highlight? Do you know how to best use Pinterest to promote your book—how to get the most from Facebook and Twitter, and how LinkedIn fits into it all? Children’s book author Lindsay Barry knows, and she has nearly 25,000 Instagram followers to prove it. Now Poss Pub’s biggest-selling author, Lindsay led attendees on an edge-of-their seats journey into all things social media. And man does she know how to sell. Her session ran long. Because questions. So many. And discussions, and aha moments, and all of it in breathless huffs because people were so fired up about this topic they couldn’t get enough. It could have gone on for days.
“The Truth Behind the Media” offered another deep dive into an author’s work and how it can be promoted through television, magazines, newspapers, and radio. Media booker Katie Riess took participants into the minds of journalists who can either choose to spotlight a writer’s work or not give it a second glance. What an author is thinking vs. what a media person is thinking are worlds apart, and she was able to map out the differences to help attendees pinpoint best practices for pitching their stories.
And more besides, including author Laura Di Franco, who led an inspiring workshop on building your author platform through blogging, and writer and publisher Keith Shovlin, who helped attendees learn to share their work with the world through podcasting.
The “Author Marketing Mastermind” session gave authors the chance to brainstorm marketing ideas with several of the above experts in a lively, yet intimate group setting. Participants received one-on-one attention and support to meet their goals, and were even provided with a second video meeting a month later to check in on their progress and receive additional feedback.
Between sessions, authors were encouraged to take selfies of themselves and their books in the Instagram Inspiration Room, which offered a lightbox and an abundance of props and decorations. And new this year was a podcast offering, where authors were interviewed about themselves and their work and walked away with professional podcasts for their own use.
Oh, and here are a couple of new resources I learned about while I was there. And you’re very welcome:
HARO, a.k.a., Help a Reporter Out, is a massive database that connects journalists with media sources and helps them pitch their stories.
Autocrit is an editing tool that helps you fine-tune your manuscript by analyzing your words and pointing out flaws, like poor dialogue, use of adverbs, repetitive words and phrases, and clichés. At only $10 for one month’s use, I can’t wait to try this one out.
At the day’s end, I heard so many people commenting on how much they’d gotten from this event, and every one of them said something to the effect of :
“You have GOT to tell more people about this.”
So—you’ve been told. Mark it down for next year (likely in early May), and tell your fellow writers. You won’t be disappointed!