Friday, November 26, 2010


What makes a character live on the page? The same things that make real people live.

Beliefs (philosophy, religion, politics).
Economic status.
Emotional stability.
Energy level.
Family background.
Fate, destiny.
Friends and enemies.
Gender and sexual preference.
Honesty or dishonesty.
Hopes and dreams.
Mental ability.
Obsessions, compulsions, fears, regrets.
Past experiences.
Physical appearance and self image.
Speech patterns.

The story, plot, and perhaps your intuition, will tell you which elements to emphasize or dwell on. I'm a strong believer that character drives plot. If you know your characters inside and out, they'll tell you what to write.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Whether to finish what we've already written or to start something new?

If you're like me, you're always wanting to go on to something new to write about--a new story or novel or poem. The question becomes should you, or should you polish what you've already written and start trying to get it published before going on to something new?

Obviously, it's not an easy question to answer flatly 'yes' or 'no.' The excitement we feel in starting something new can't be denied. It's one of the reasons we write. We always think this new story is 'my best ever.' And it may be. And it may be a delusion. I've been writing a long time, and that's the way I did it for years and years. I have written perhaps ten or more first drafts of novels. It's only in the past ten years or so that I've begun to polish, polish, polish. It's definitely not as much fun. But it is rewarding in its own way. Besides seeing the folly of some of what I originally wrote, I've become more professional in my approach. I've learned the value of patience and tenacity. And my chances of getting published are increasing. (I feel sure very few people have written a one- or two- draft novel that became published without more work.) Rewriting gives us the best chance to learn how to write. Seeing our mistakes, inaccuracies, poor word choice, poor dialogue, poor description, poor plotting, poor choices between telling and showing, and on and on, teaches us better than any other method. Just going on to the next novel or story, then the next and the next, without completing anything, teaches you very little.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Literary Agents

Don't you love getting rejections from literary agents? I've come to see them (the rejections) as a forgone conclusion. Agents are inundated with queries. I can imagine how difficult it is to read them and decide whether there's a best seller lurking between the lines, especially when they know that strong query letters are in some ways harder to write than novels. I feel sorry a bit for agents. They might be the most powerful brokers in the literary world, yet they are just guessing. I suppose, taking on an unpublished writer is like walking out on a limb; perhaps their reputations are at stake. They don't want to make a mistake.

Perhaps my query letters should begin "I know you don't want to read this letter, and you don't want to look at my manuscript. Please forgive me for wasting your time. Just stamp on it in big red letters REJECTED  and send it back." Or, maybe, I shouldn't send query letters at all.

I wonder how many outstanding novels were rejected because of poor query letters. How many times have agents taken a look at a manuscript because of a great query letter but the novel turned out to be poorly writen? I have struggled to write good query letters, but none has ever landed me a further look. I am not angry or bitter or even disgusted, just baffled about how to make the letters better. I've read many articles on how to write a query letter that will grab an agent's attention. I've yet to get it right. Or, maybe, my story line just isn't interesting enough. I can't make my historical novel sound like a mystery or adventure or vampire/romance. My books are what they are. I keep trying to make them sound great in a few sentences. Someday, I'll get it right. And, if my novel is not professionally written, it'll get rejected still. Some people do get it right, both ways--query and manuscript--and that gives me hope.


I'm tempted to self-publish my novels. However, I know the chances of them being widely read are minimal at best. If they're not good enough to get published through the agent-editor method, then they probably aren't ready for publication for any number of reasons. They just might not even be interesting. (I've entered some of my novels in contests, and the reviewers said their opening chapters weren't interesting enough to make them want to read on.) They might have structural problems. My grammar and spelling are mostly correct. But it does seem that, as my writing groups read my novels, they almost always find little things that can be improved. They find redundancies, mixing up of characters' names, inaccuracies of historical facts, some grammar/spelling issues, metaphors that don't work, images that really don't convey what I'm trying to convey. The list goes on. If I self-publish, I'm putting it all out there for my embarrassment. Perfection is impossible, but excellence isn't, and excellence (a difficult quality to define, it's different things to different people ) should be one of the aims of a writer. I'm sure there have been less than excellently written books that have been published through traditional methods and even hit the best-seller list. To a certain extent, it's a matter of pride in your work. I don't want to be ridiculed even as I laugh all the way to the bank.

But self-publishing is tempting. A book is a physical object we can show our family and friends, perhaps even ourselves, that we've done something, that, at least, we tried. (This is not meant to imply that all self-published books are poorly written, or even that the majority of them are. It just means that you can put a poorly written book out there if you want to. It's your money. The writter and editor, if there is one, of a self-published book, should have the same commitment to excellence as those of traditionally published books.) For now, I'm passing on self-publishing. I view it as a last option. But I'm always open to change.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Writers and Suicide

Do we take our work as writers too seriously? Do we mistake the forest for the trees? Do we invest too much of ourselves in our writing? Or, when writers and other artists commit suicide, is it something they would have done anyway? Why did Hemingway kill himself? Or Sylvia Plath? Or Hart Crane? What was the hopelessness that caused them to  want to die? Of course, we can only speculate. Hemingway was well respected as a writer. His work had been a success--at least to the outside world. Plath and Crane were young when they died. It's a little easier to see the connection between their writing and their deaths. Yet, they all had problems that had nothing to do with writing--alcoholism, depression, perhaps for Crane a sense of failure. And, back in their days, there weren't the drugs we have today to fight depression, and I have no doubt that depression played a part in the deaths of all three. Had Hemingway failed as a writer, and Plath and Crane succeeded wildly as writers, they all may still have committed suicide. Which begs the question, Is there a connection between depression and writing? Do depressed people tend to take their writing more seriously than the non-depressed?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Great Writers

Sometimes, I wonder how the great writers like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Cervantes, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy, and all the others managed to write at such a high level without being in writing groups. How did they do it--write beautifully, grammatically correct, excellently in all phases? How did they learn it? How did they figure it out? It just came natuarally to them, I guess. Perhaps, being educated at an early age in the classics is a huge advantage. It seems that, besides being genuises, the quality of their education had something to do with it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writing As a Lonely Occupation

Yes, writing is a lonely occupation. But, as a fiction writer, I'm involved in my characters' lives, which can be sort of like having company. Of course, they are not real people, but sometimes it seems like they are. I care about their lives, their dreams, their relationships. I can have a hard time when one of them dies. Usually, when I start a story, I don't know much about my characters, but after a while I know them really well. I like character-driven stories. Plot is important. But the characters are more important. One of the ways writing is less lonely is by participating in writing groups or workshops.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Writing Groups

I belong to two writing groups, both of which have helped me enormously. One group is reading the first half of a novel I've written, the other group is reading the second half. Even at this pace, it'll probably take until next summer to finish reading it. However, this isn't the first time it's been read by a group, so this is more like fine tuning. In the mean time, I'm attempting to find an agent.

Writing groups are a big help to me. Besides sharing our writings, we have a lot of fun too. Both of my groups are excellent at critiquing, very professional in approach. Part of the key is the leader. John is more like a moderator. He doesn't present any of his own work. He strickly makes critiques and makes sure we're on track. Of course, he's paid. The rest of us do the paying. But it's worth it.

It's very important that no one in the group take anyone's critiques personally. Occasionally, it happens, and that person ends up dropping out. But it's their own fault for taking it personally. I appreciate all the feedback I get. I accept probably 95-98% of all suggestions made, because they're correct and it makes my work better.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


This morning, before everyone else in the house got up, I managed to revise the chapter my writing group critiqued last night. Gotta work when you can.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Writers' Websites

Two websites I like are and Both offer a wealth of information for writers.

Writing Time.

I'm up early today. The rest of the family is still sleeping. Maybe I'll be able to do a little writing. They say writing is a lonely occupation. It is--in more ways than one.