In The Beginning, Take Three

Our lunch was winding down but our beginning writer friend had several more questions. What, she asked, is the one habit that most effectively supports your writing career?

My answer came relatively quickly but I couldn’t limit it to one habit; I had two: writing every day and finishing what I start. Those two habits are the backbone of my writing career.

While I’ve blogged before about the importance of a daily writing practice, I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing the importance of finishing what I start. To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have a few half-baked ideas waiting for me in the drawer. I was going to call them partially finished manuscripts but they aren’t even that. They’re embryonic ideas in paragraph form. A couple of them go on for maybe two or three pages. They’ll be there when I’m ready for them.

Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are waiting for us to give them life. That they hang out in the ether somewhere until a creator comes along, picks them up and breathes them into being. I don’t know if it’s true, though I love her idea. What I do know is that once I start a story or a novel, I can’t not finish it. Even when I suspect the story isn’t hanging together or the character’s motivations aren’t working or I don’t like what I’m producing, I can’t stop. Finishing it becomes a compulsion. To leave it undone would be akin to gathering the ingredients for a cake, preparing the pans, mixing the batter and failing to put the whole thing into the oven. Finishing what I start and writing every day have taken me from unpublished to published. It’s as easy (and as hard!) as that.

For Lea Tassie, her most effective daily habit is self-discipline and making writing part of her routine. “It’s not easy,” she says, “but it’s necessary.”

The last question our beginning writer asked was also the hardest for me to answer. What has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

There were milestones for sure: my first sale, my first foreign edition, my first award. And while those certainly were accomplishments, with the exception of my first sale which I definitely had something to do with, many of my other career milestones came about because others worked to make them happen, or because of serendipity. Claiming them as my accomplishment didn’t feel right. And the more I thought about it, while getting books published was an accomplishment I was proud of, it wasn’t the true reward. The real reward came later when readers wrote to say how much they loved my story. Touching readers through my books is, and always will be, my most rewarding accomplishment.

Lea Tassie shares the sentiment. In her futuristic Green Blood Rising series, trees fight back against development and begin to take over the world. One of her most rewarding moments came when someone read the novel and afterwards commented that they were “driving home one night and these young trees were growing up out of the ditch and I got scared.”

Writing a book that lives on in the hearts and minds of readers is the most gratifying achievement. In the end, I think it’s the only accomplishment that truly matters.

In the Beginning, Take Two

It’s time for more questions from our new writer and answers from more seasoned ones. This week: what lessons did I learn the hard way, and what did I wish I knew starting out?

Let’s take the last question first. What did I wish I knew at the very beginning of my writing career? As I told our beginning writer friend, I wish I’d understood at a visceral level that this whole business is a long game, a marathon really, and nothing even close to a sprint. After my first book came out and I was contracted for my second, I figured I was on my way, or launched so to speak. Not that there wouldn’t be plenty of hard work ahead – I had no illusions about that – but I didn’t envision so many hills and valleys, so many meandering paths taking unexpected turns.  I hadn’t yet learned the importance of fluidity, of pacing myself, and of being open to adjusting for the unexpected. Like a marathoner pays attention to training, to footwear, to staying healthy and hydrated, and bases their success on a slow, steady pace, I’ve learned how important it is for me to pay attention to craft, to my health, and to a balance of work and play.

Lea Tassie, author of the Green Blood Rising Series, wishes she’d had more patience back in the beginning, and that she wasn’t so naïve about the publishing industry. Her comment about naivete is the perfect segue into question two: what lessons did you learn the hard way? “I learned that money flows first – or it should flow first – to the writer, not to people like editors or agents who are providing services,” Tassie says. Never go with an agent or publisher who demands money up front, she adds.

My hard lesson was learning and coming to accept that publishing is a business, that decisions are often made with the bottom line in mind, and not always on the merits of a particular manuscript. A ‘no’ on a manuscript doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with the story in question. It could be that the publisher has something similar due for release next season, or that their marketing department feels, for whatever reason, that the marketing hook isn’t strong enough to generate a good sell through on your particular story. Of course, this is all based on dealing with traditional publishers. Going the indie publishing route means you’re in control of if, when and how to publish. But that option, as lovely as it sounds, also comes with added responsibilities.

Next week, what is the most effective habit you possess to support your success as a writer . . . and what has been your most rewarding accomplishment?


In The Beginning

Not long ago, I was asked by a woman just starting out on her writing journey if I’d be willing to answer a few general questions about the industry, and some specific questions about my path to publishing. Our conversation really made me think. Over the next few weeks I’ll bring you some of her questions and my answers, along with answers from other authors as well.

This week, question one: what does your writing day look like?

That one was easy. I write every day, or at least every weekday. I don’t strive for a set word or page count, nor do I put in a minimum number of hours, but I usually work from 9 or 9:30 until 4 in the afternoon, with a short break for lunch. Mornings are reserved for whatever novel I’m writing, and if I have an article to write or an editing job to do, I usually tackle those in the afternoon. Unless I’m on a deadline, I don’t write on weekends. Perhaps it’s a throwback to when my kids were young and I wrote when they were in school, or perhaps it’s a holdover from my days working a five-day-a-week job, but I usually take a break on weekends. I might ponder my work-in-progress or attend a writing workshop or do some kind of research, but I try to avoid sitting at my desk and staring at a screen.

Author Stephen King has been quoted as saying that when he works, he ‘works every day, three or four hours, and aims for six clean pages.’  Working daily for two months, he ends up with a 360-page manuscript. And if his books and interviews are to be believed, he also doesn’t outline. He starts with a basic ‘what if’ premise and sees where it takes him. I like the idea of deep daily immersion in a story, and I LOVE the idea of producing a 360-page manuscript in two months. But without an outline? It’s unlikely to work for me. For one thing, I don’t have King’s experience. He’s written close to 90 books; I’ve written about 25.

Ernest Hemingway wrote every morning, without fail. Susan Sontag wrote every morning too, and always by hand. Another Susan – Susan Wiggs – also writes her first drafts by hand, in a spiral bound notebook and always with a peacock blue fountain pen. Michael Connelly writes daily and wherever he finds himself, but if he’s at home and in any kind of routine he prefers morning since he ‘likes to get a lot done before the city wakes up.’  Stephenie Meyer is the exact opposite: she can’t focus on writing anything fresh when the sun is out. Only when her kids are in bed for the night can she concentrate on writing her books.

Which just goes to show you that a writing day can also be a writing night.

Next week, what lessons did you learn the hard way, and what do you wish you knew starting out?

A Creative Pause

Today is National Creativity Day. With that in mind, I reached back into my memory bank for a TED talk on creativity that I found particularly inspiring. Here’s one from Elizabeth Gilbert. It puts in perspective any doubts, rejections, or bumps in the road we encounter on the creative path.

On an unrelated note, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about GDPR over the last few weeks. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of the new regulations (GDPR stands for the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation) but given the changes, I thought it was a good time to thank you for subscribing to this blog, and to reassure you that if you’re happy receiving my posts, there’s nothing you need to do. If at any time you wish to unsubscribe, you’ll find the link to do so at the bottom of the email notifications, before you click through to my post.

Even though most of my blog and newsletter subscribers reside in Canada and the US, I have upgraded my privacy policy to comply with the GDPR. Word is amongst those in the know that the new regulations will soon spread to North America, so I thought it was prudent to make the changes now.

Writerly Inspiration

I don’t need an excuse to check out author or writing-related sites and you probably don’t either. But if you want to add a new blog stop to your regular roster or you simply want a few minutes away from your WIP, check out any one of the following links. All of these blogs offer up great content; some are inspirational, others are educational and occasionally they’re both.

C.S. Lakin’s Live Write Thrive is a favorite of mine. Lakin covers everything from scene structure and character development to boosting productivity, growing your audience and the power of positive thinking.

Prolific mystery author Elizabeth Spann Craig  is quickly becoming a favorite too. She addresses all things relevant to the writing life: how to make a living at this crazy gig; why she’s gone indie over traditional; top time savers and tips on public speaking to name only a few. She also provides a weekly roundup of the best writing links on the web.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Inky Girl  is the place to go if you write or illustrate children’s books. She shares her original comics (reason enough to pop by, in my opinion), provides information on new releases, sometimes interviews industry experts and is always good for a smile.

A feel good stop high on motivation is Lucy Flint’s Lionhearted Writing Life.  If you’ve ever felt stuck, been derailed or struggled to find a balance between work and play this is the place to check out.

To help give your characters psychological depth, to understand what readers really want, or to find out how to deal with writing fears, check out Tamar Sloan’s PsychWriter. And be prepared to stay a while. There’s a lot of terrific content here.

A book within easy reach in my office is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I refer to it often and I also like to stop in at their blog Writers Helping Writers where the focus is on helping writers become better storytellers. You’ll find some great resources here.

Who doesn’t love Writer Unboxed and the rotating daily column by a variety of writers? It’s delivered to my in box daily and I’ve come to recognize who posts when and I look forward to the different styles and viewpoints. It’s a fairly interactive community with lots of comments on each post and that’s fun too!

And last but definitely not least is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s  Kris Writes  I love her down-to-earth take and I appreciate the fact that she’s in the trenches trying to make sense of this crazy business. I don’t find her site all that easy to navigate so I subscribe to her blog instead. If you’re unfamiliar, visit her site and scroll back through her posts to find her take on how U.S. election years impact book sales. They should be required reading for indie authors.


Originality is . . .

editing . . . simply a pair of fresh eyes. So said American writer Thomas Higginson. I’m not sure I’d go that far but I do think a pair of fresh eyes is essential when it comes to refining a manuscript.

As a professional writer, I rely on editors at various times in the publishing journey. If I’m working with a traditional publisher, developmental editors are the first to see my work. They provide feedback on my story and characters, the pacing and the structure. Copy editors check my continuity, my logic and occasionally comment on my sentence structure or grammar. Proofreaders catch any last minute mistakes. In the traditional publishing world, the publisher hires the editors to take care of those things. All I have to do (after writing the book!) is get my work to that editor on time and address any issues based on the feedback I receive. It’s pretty straightforward.

When it comes to self-publishing my books, I decide whether or not to hire an independent editor to help me polish my novels. And it’s an easy decision: I always do. I’m a good editor, and I probably could do it myself, but it’s not easy to edit your own work. In fact, it’s damned hard. There’ve been times when I’ve traded editing favors with other writers (and that works well) but it’s not always possible to find another writer willing and able to do the trade when you need it to happen. So paying for a professional editor is an expense I’m happy to incur.

Editing is fun. In a lot of ways it’s my favorite part of writing. It’s gratifying to take a novel that’s almost there and polish the rough edges, transforming it into an attention-grabbing, unputdownable read. Given my thrill with that whole tweaking process, a few months ago I began doing some freelance editing for other writers. So as well as creating my own fictional worlds, I’m spending a little time immersing myself in fictional worlds created by others. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it. You can find out more about my editing services by clicking here:


And So the Story Grows

plottingimageI have no shortage of ideas for novels. In fact, I have files of story ideas going back two decades. They’re filled with random scraps of paper, detailed notes, newspaper clippings and magazine articles, even transcriptions of interviews I did as a journalist for the CBC.

Ideas are cheap, easy, and beautifully compelling, like that picture of an impressive 9-layer chocolate ganache cake you might see on Pinterest. Make me! the cake says. I’m impressive and delicious and everyone will love me. Book ideas may not come cloaked in ganache (a serious flaw, in my opinion) but they have the same shiny draw as a gorgeous cake.

Only you can knock off a cake, even a complicated one, in a day or two. It’s impossible (for me at least) to do that with a novel.

I looked through my files the other day. Mostly what I have are plot points – ideas for situations and events – and stories are so much more. I thought about that after coming home from the Red Door last month where the five of us brainstormed a new Laura Tobias book (thanks, ladies!). I came away with the skeleton of a situation and the sparks of two characters.

Those sparks are key because most of my stories are character driven. Before I even start to write I need to know how my character will change over the course of the book. How will he or she be different when the story ends than they are when the story opens? The plot matters of course – it determines what will happen along the way – but the character is the one making the journey. The character is who I care about and who I want my readers to care about too. So I’m spending some time getting to know my new characters. I’m not so much plotting as I am gestating. It takes time, space, silence. And the occasional slice of a decadent chocolate cake doesn’t hurt either.




This Writing Gig . . . It’s Complicated

complicatedThere was a visual posted on Facebook last week. You know the kind – some of them are funny, others are motivational, a few are designed to drag you out of your writing cave to comment. This was one of the latter. It was a quote by Kurt Vonnegut and it read:

“Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next. When they’re done, they’re done.”

People commented, declaring themselves in one camp or another, either a swooper or a basher. I came to the party a day or so late, and without much time to spare, but I quickly popped in to declare myself a swoopsher.   Tongue in cheek? Not really.

Honestly, I’m a hybrid. I pretty much write both ways.

I wrote Exit Point and Hot New Thing in one quick spurt, not really stopping until I had that first draft done.  Only then did I go back to revise.  I swooped out the first three or four chapters of The Art of getting Stared At too and I was on a real roll, only to slow down and bash out a good part of the middle before I did a little swoop-bashing at the end.

For me, it varies book by book. Deadline by deadline.  And by what’s going on in my life at the time.   My writing process is exceptionally fluid. That’s not a good thing or bad thing. It’s simply my thing. It is the way it is. More important than my actual process, is my acceptance of it. Though it would be nice to fall firmly in one camp or another, if I get down on myself because I don’t, or if I try to force myself into taking an approach that doesn’t feel right, I am doomed.

My  name is Laura. I’m a swoopsher. And I’m okay with that.


In the Middle of a Muddle

frontgarden30I’m half way through the first draft of my next YA novel, One Good Deed.

It’s a lot like my garden. Crowded, colorful, and slightly out of control. Words and plot threads are popping up where I don’t necessarily expect them, much like the weeds and flower seedlings randomly sprouting in the garden.

Years ago, when I first started gardening, a friend who was a professional gardener told me I shouldn’t plant so heavily, that I would regret it, that it would lead to disaster as the strong, vigorous plants would crowd out the more fragile specimens.  I listened, I considered, and I planted. I planted heavily because while I admire the clean lines and austerity of, say, Japanese gardens (and I’m passionate about Bonsai) I gravitate to the lush, riotous color of a blousy and overplanted cottage-style garden.

In the garden, my mantra is ‘Look here. And here. And here.’

When I write, my mantra is: ‘Then this. And this. And this.’

My books tend to overflow with people and events and details, especially in the first draft stage. Though I always start with an outline or loose synopsis, at the same time I also like to follow my instincts and the plot threads that come from that.    One Good Deed has multiple plot threads. Some I conceived before I started and some are occurring to me as I write.  It’s exciting, but also somewhat nerve-wracking.

In the garden, I plant what I want where I think it will work. I put some thought into it, but I don’t overanalyze. Self-indulgent as it may sound, I’m creating the space for me. I know there’ll come a time – maybe in mid-summer when the rush of the garden season is over or in fall when I’m putting things to bed for the winter –when I’ll thin things out or reposition plants or dig up volunteers to share with friends.  If I don’t get to it, well there’s always next year.

I don’t feel that same sort of luxurious abandonment when I write. For one thing, writing comes with deadlines. For another, it’s not about self-indulgence, it’s about telling a story readers will love. So, even after 18 published books I fret about the tangents I’m creating, the various plot threads that may or may not weave together nicely. I’ll revise, I always do, but it’s not time effective to write so much that you need to dump a third of the manuscript in the rewriting process.

Writing a novel is a delicate balancing act. At times it’s a bit of a muddle. And I’m in the middle of it.  Wish me luck.

Character Motivation: What Were You Thinking?

you-did-what- I’ve been stunned lately over the actions of some people I know. They’ve done things and made decisions that were dumb less than inspired.  More than once I’ve turned to Mr. Petrol Head and asked, “What was she thinking?”  In the time it takes him to shrug, I’ve mentally crafted up a list of possible motivations because, for me, trying to figure out why people act the way they do is as natural as breathing.

In fact, we don’t usually know what motivates friends and family. We don’t always understand our own motives either. But when it comes to creating characters in our books, we’d better know the why of their actions.

Dwight Swain, in his terrific book Creating Characters, says the thing we all seek, at our core, is happiness.  Once our physical needs are satisfied, he believes happiness comes from a sense of self-worth or self-importance. To that I would add a sense of safety, and for some people that means maintaining the status quo and avoiding change at any cost. So figure out what makes your character happy, what gives their life meaning, what’s important to them. Then introduce a threat to their sense of self or their life circumstances, or dangle something they want in front of them.  Give them a reason – a motive – for wanting to either seize the opportunity or avoid the threat. Make that motive deeply personal and unique to them. Add in conflict (something to prevent them from reaching their goal) and you have a page turner.

Easy right?

Well, it sounds easy but it’s actually a brain bender that can take days to figure out. For me, the gold standard in working through these issues is outlined in Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.  Tightly focusing on what a character wants, why they want it, and what’s preventing them from having it, gives any story shape, form and urgency. And those are all things we need in fiction.

One last suggestion – if you’re looking to real life for inspiration, be warned. Yes, people do crazy things and make bad decisions.  Often those actions seem unmotivated. Or the motives are so deeply hidden you’d need an excavator to uncover them.  But when it comes to fiction, make sure you understand why your characters are taking (or not taking) action, even if they remain blind to their own motives. And make sure your reader understands too.

Because fiction needs to make sense. Even if life doesn’t.