Five Favorite Books

There’s a five-favorite books meme making the rounds on the interwebs. I couldn’t limit myself to five, but here’s mine:

Non-romance fiction




The novella has a title now: Brave in Heart. It’s a phrase from the poem “From Newport to Rome,” which first appeared in Julia Ward Howe’s collection Passion-flowers (1854). I need one more good week of writing to get it done. With dissertation demands, and a number of contest announcements approaching, I’m jittery and distracted and not at all productive. Nailing down a title felt good, however, so here’s hoping that the third act follows soon.

Gone Feral

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about the inner voices that plague her as she works on first drafts:

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained. (26)

Right now, I’m struggling with two works-in-progress that have gone feral. I haven’t written in a serious or sustain way in nearly two weeks and the dogs have escaped.

One draft — the historical novella — is a mess. I’m working on the third act. The end is in sight. But I have plotting problems. Somehow, the opening is both too fast and too slow and at the end, I’m having trouble giving the resolution time to breathe because I’m really not good at writing subplots, which is what I need to fix my problems.

The other manuscript — a contemporary single title — is progressing nicely but I’m afraid of screwing it up. There are no major plotting problems. The male protagonist has a nice, complicated backstory. (If anything, the heroine is too perfect.) They don’t get together too quickly. And as I move into the second act, I’m afraid I’m going to destroy everything I like about the manuscript so far.

So I’m procrastinating by blogging, which is logical and reasonable, right?

Mood Music, Part 2

This is for the Washington contemporary which is at 25,000 words and now has a complete outline. A victory plan if you will.

I have realized that I have a tendency to write complex heroines and too perfect heroes. I’m annoyed that my heroines always have these “issues” that need to be fixed and that the conflict in the hero’s trajectory is always external. I need to fix that.

Continue reading “Mood Music, Part 2”

Show Business

For the past two weeks, I have found myself writing the first drafts of scenes entirely in dialogue without any narrative, exposition, description, or even tags to indicate who is speaking. Then I go back and fill in the details in a second pass through the scene.

I think I developed this habit because I was trying to do a better job of show don’t tell, but it’s helped me learn about how I imagine scenes in my head. First, I hear them and then I see them. While it takes several passes, I feel like I get to layer this way, like adding more and more paint to the canvas. It’s made me feel that perhaps the dialogue is the key element for me as a writer. But know that I need to get over my fear of writing narrative and description, because they can be part of active, show-y writing as much as dialogue.

Do you write scenes start to finish in one pass or do you write them over several sittings, focusing on different elements each time?

How Historical?

I read a lot of historical romance. Much more than I read contemporary.

In part, I think this is a hold-over from my childhood, when I rarely read anything written (or set) after 1920. In part, it’s the fantasy: the dances, the beautiful clothes, and the exoticism of the past. In part, I found a group of really wonderful writers who I like to read and that’s what they write. But I struggle as a reader, and now as a writer, with trying to understand whether historical novels are merely set in the past or whether they take something else — narrative structure, style, tone, etc. — from their setting.

Nineteenth-century novels differ from twentieth-century ones in many ways, including their use of description, dialogue, and exposition. If you’re writing a novel that you want to feel as if it could have been written in 1820, the plotting is likely to be slow, it’s going to be long, and there will be a lot less dialogue and a lot more description, all by contemporary standards, of course. I’m also not sure that anyone will like it.

Continue reading “How Historical?”

Mood Music, Part 1

After a few weeks away from it, I’m back to the historical novella. I don’t like the first three chapters, but then I think it finds itself. I’m not sure what to do about that problem. Cut those chapters and work the vital material in elsewhere? Switch POVs? It’s fairly obvious that I need to find a critique group if this is going to be a project I continue to pursue.

In the meantime, here’s my mood music.

Continue reading “Mood Music, Part 1”

Plan, Plan, Plan

I’ve been traveling and dissertation writing and haven’t worked on fiction in a week. But I have been reading K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel and I think I know why I tend to hit 20,000 words and then have the well run dry.

When I’m thinking about a new project, I do commit some notes to the page. Usually this plan is less than one page single-spaced. It identifies the characters then briefly summarizes the plot. I generally have some ideas for major scenes: how the heroine/hero meet; the first kiss; maybe a subplot. There’s a lot of unanswered questions. A lot of “and then something happens and they fight” or “somehow, that subplot that I haven’t defined resolves the conflict.” It’s not a plan at all, really, it’s a sketch. And I’ve discovered that I sketch in 20,000 – 30,000 word chunks.

What I need to do is not to let myself jump into the writing until I can write a fuller sketch — something more like a plan or an outline — so that all the writing can be as good as the first two frenzied weeks tend to be. I feel like I could write a novel in about 6 weeks, but only if I have a solid detailed plan.

To focus on the good for a minute, I’ve written 40,000+ words in the past month, plus revisions for Together is Enough and dissertation reading/writing. It’s not enough to “win” NaNoWriMo, but it’s much more than I could produce when I started writing fiction last November. I still like both projects and want to continue working on them. But I think I need to pause and work through an outline or plan before I can finish drafting.

What are some of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer? How are you approaching them?

We Have a Problem

I have a problem with my writing. Namely, the 20,000 word threshold. My problem isn’t getting there. It’s wanting to keep writing once I do.

When I started writing a historical novella about three weeks ago, I was so excited about it. Why had I ever written a contemporary? Clearly I was born to write historicals! I love my characters! I love the conflict between them! I had learned so much from the first manuscript so I wasn’t making the same mistakes!

Then, about a week ago, I stated approaching 20,000 words and my enthusiasm just leeched out. I knew what I needed to do next. I just couldn’t get myself to do it. The entire manuscript began to feel blah.

So I wrote the scene that I had had in my head for about a month. Then I wrote the chapter that I needed to set it up. Then I started plotting. And suddenly … it’s so easy to write a contemporary! You don’t have to stop to do research! It’s so much easier to write fresh, sexy dialogue when you’re not worried about anachronism! I was born to write contemporaries!

The next thing I knew, I had 10,000 words.

But I’m worried. I’m worried that I’m going to hit a wall where I know what comes next and I can’t get myself to write it. I’m worried that I’m a dilettantish writer. That I only like the beginnings of things.

What do you find the most difficult part about writing? The beginning? The middle? The end? How do you get through it?