The Pitch

Last year I took some time off writing this blog to concentrate on finishing my novel. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-written the first few chapters, but I know I’ve done at least five revisions of the entire book. I’m preparing for what I hope will be the last. Do authors ever finish revision?

If I ever get this book published, I’m sure I’ll find places where I would change words or phrases even when it’s in print. Maybe that’s the nature of writing or any other art form. But at some point you have to let it go. That’s what I’m preparing to do with my book baby.

Elsa Let it Go

Most of my writing life is spent in solitude, sitting at my desk surrounded by the world and people of my imagination. Although it seems real to me, I often think the fact that I’m a writer doesn’t seem real to other people because I don’t have a tangible product–a painting or a sculpture or a photograph–to share with them, showing what I do. I hope that’s about to change.

Last week my writing life was exciting. I took part (virtually) in a pitch event with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, a fantastic group of writers who support me and my writing on a daily basis. If you write women’s fiction, you should join right now. As soon as you finish reading this post! Joining this group is the best thing I’ve done for my writing since I took a class to write my first novel at UW Madison Continuing Studies with Christine DeSmet, novelist and writing teacher extraordinaire. At last year’s WFWA pitch event, I found my  critique partner Natalia. She and the other two women in our group have helped me shape my book into something I can be very proud of. I hope I’ve given them half as good advise as they’ve given me.

Crit Group

During this year’s pitch event, which took place last week, I wrote a new 50 word pitch for my book. Eighty other writers and I posted our pitches along with the first 250 words of our manuscripts for agents to read. Then, wonder of wonders, an agent who likes Civil War era stories requested to see more of my story! I sent it out two days later aftergoing through the pages one more time using Natural Reader to check for errors and rhythm. My writer friend Kristin Oakley gave me that tip!

Civil war

I’ve learned so much in the course of writing this book, mostly about writing, but also about myself.  About seven years ago, I started writing  Faith Can Move Mountains without a clue how to write fiction. I muddled through and took classes to learn the craft. In the process I discovered that few things are as satisfying as when the writing comes, when the muse visits and gifts me with words I don’t recognize as mine when I reread. I’ve found what I love to do.

My novel is a work of historical women’s fiction  called Faith Can Move Mountains and is complete at 104,000 words. It represents seven years of work, mostly summers and weekends, while I was teaching and one one year when I was out of work and finished the first draft.

Here’s the pitch:  In 1869 Charleston South Carolina, unkempt, free-spirited Faith Gentry reluctantly marries former Confederate soldier Josiah Hamilton to save her beloved plantation from a vindictive banker with ties to her past. Her decision triggers events which uncover secrets that threaten her identity, her marriage, and those she loves.

What do you think of my pitch and my title. Would you read my book?

 

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Perspective: On the Inside Looking Out

Image result for revisionAt the end of June I began work on another revision of my novel to incorporate what I learned at UW Madison’s Write-by-the-Lake in Laurie Scheer’s class, Mastering Your Genre. I highly recommend this class for everyone working on a novel or screenplay, but you could also read Laurie’s book The Writer’s Advantage: a Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre. I highly recommend it. The research you do will open your eyes to what has been done before and how you can offer something new in your genre. My research led to my learning a number of lessons not only in writing but also about life. One of those lessons involves perspective.

I’m a slow writer. Mostly when I revise, I weigh the words and images I put on the page, but even when I’m composing my first draft I struggle with a number of problems, chiefly point of view. Christine DeSmet, best-selling author and writing teacher extraordinaire, read and critiqued my entire first draft, God bless her. I don’t know how she could stand it! I can’t tell you how often she put in her notes, “You’ve switched point of view here.”  It must have been vexing. I was slow to see the difference, I think, because I was in l love with the writing process, rather than trying to see from a character’s point of view and only that character’s point of view. Now I understand whose point of view carries a scene and why and how not to switch point of view even as I write my first drafts.

The work I’ve been doing lately has to do with point of view, but it goes deeper than I thought before. It involves seeing the world of my story from the perspective of each character, and it is slow going. Since I delved more deeply into the genre of my book, I realized that my main character wasn’t strong enough. She needed to carry the story much more than she had before. That meant I had to understand her world as she did, to understand and love and hate the people and places she does. I had to feel what her home means to her, what falling in love for the first time feels like, what feeling betrayed feels like, all those things from her point of view, her perspective. I’ve had to imagine what life would have been like when being unmarried at 19 dubbed you a spinster, when wearing trousers rather than a corset and dress made you provocative and unladylike, when the only prospects of survival for a young lady were marriage or inheriting a large amount of money.

I’ve also imagined what living at a time when the world as you  knew it had collapsed and the societal structure was either non-existent or changed so as to be unrecognizable. You see my book is set in 1869 Charleston, South Carolina, so I try to delve into what society might have been like then, what relationships between women might have been like, both between white women and between white and African American women. To  see from Josiah’s perspective, I’ve tried to understand PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and the struggle to live life normally after witnessing the unspeakable horrors of war. Back then PTSD was called “soldier’s heart” or “nostalgia.” I’ve tried to inhabit that world as much as possible, but not until I took Laurie’s class did I feel I could crawl beneath my characters’ skins and see their world from their perspectives.

Often I don’t take the time to look at life from a new perspective. I drive the same route to work each day. I travel the same path when I go for my morning runs with Stella. I drink the same basic smoothie recipe on a daily basis. To change that, something must jar me out of my routine. That’s what this class did for me. Today when I was out for my run, I decided to try something different. In my book my main character Faith has a special oak tree which she has considered hers since she was a child. It is a live oak, a big one that I imagine looks like the Angel Oak  on John’s Island in South Carolina. She goes there when she needs to think or be alone. I don’t have a special tree where I go to think, but a very old white oak tree stands in front of my house. At one time I imagine it might have been someone’s special tree because it survived standing in the middle of a farm field rather than being chopped down for fire wood.

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Today when I was walking back home after my run, I decided to include a picture of this tree in this post. That is it to the left. Since I’ve been thinking of perspective, however, I wanted to do something else, too.  I wanted to climb this tree to get Faith’s perspective from inside a tree. As a child I climbed trees,  but that was a long time ago. I climbed up to the first limb, but I chickened out going any higher. My middle name is not Grace for a reason. One day I still might climb it, but not on the spur of the moment when my husband is not around to rescue me if I can’t get down. So I did what I think is the next best thing. I took several pictures from beneath the tree looking up into the branches as though I were about to climb it. Below you’ll see what that looks like. Quite a different feel from the one above, wouldn’t you say?

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Before this revision of my book, I was looking at the world of my story as I always had, from afar. I was looking AT it rather than being inside the story looking out from it. Before I was telling the story, reporting it rather than inhabiting it with my characters. To understand my characters and what they see and feel, I’ve learned I must see from the perspective of each of them . They will show me what is important to them. I must be present in the story with them and feel what they do, see what they do, love and hate what they do. I must be with them in their world rather than looking at it from afar.

Pantster or Plotter? Maybe Both

How I feel when inspiration strikes!

I’ve started a new writing project! It has been a long time since I thought I had a viable idea, but now I think I do. At least I hope so. I’ve spent the morning researching my idea and can’t find anything that remotely addresses my topic!

My trouble is that when I get an idea that I really like, I tend to start writing before I really know where I’m going. That isn’t bad in and of itself, but I could save myself a lot of backtracking and changing if I planned just a bit, which is what I am trying to do this time–at least to begin. 🙂

My Plan:

1. Research my topic (which I’ve started already) and the related titles. This is not something I did before I started writing my first book, The Scent of Jessamine. I would have saved myself some time, but I also would have had a better idea who was writing books similar to mine.

2. Do a preliminary Hero’s Journey to flesh out the idea. Christine DeSmet introduced me to Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey five years ago. Here’s a link for The Writer’s Journey that gives explanations and examples to follow. I used Vogler’s template for my last book (changed my life!) but not until I had written about 60-70 pages. The previous book contains perhaps 100 words from my original pages, but that may be a stretch.

3. Create a character sketch for each of the characters. This is not something I did when I wrote my first book. Since then I realize how important knowing my characters is, their motivations and quirks, what they think is important. The trouble is that bits and pieces come to me. That’s how my muse works. All I know is the name of my main character so far! I am of two minds on character sketches too. I love the act of discovery, of seeing what my characters will do when they are under pressure, but perhaps that happens anyway?

4. Decide where to set the novel. For this book I’m really not sure. Jessamine was so oriented toward setting that all I had to do was inhabit that place in the book. This time I think the setting will be in the South somewhere, but I think the subject matter may determine setting and character to a certain extent. I have learned a lot about setting and how important it is from workshops I’ve attended such as Weekend with Your Novel and Writer’s Institute, both in Madison Wisconsin. So I know I will spend a lot of time on setting and may have to go there to get a good idea what the place feels like as I did with Jessamine. Field trips are a perk I like!

5. Write when inspiration strikes as I proceed. I still plan to do this. I can’t contain myself when inspiration strikes me. I have to to record that initial “lightning strike before it’s gone. It seldom reappears if I let it slip away.

6. Create an outline of scenes. Doing this will be new for me. My writer friend, Geri Gibbons, put together a beautiful outline of a book she is working on. I remember seeing it at a class I took with her and was impressed with how much detail was depicted. I envied her knowing exactly what she would write about. I’m going to try this (she says doubtfully). I’ll see how far I get. I’m notoriously poor at planning.

7. Put my butt in my chair and write! Treat writing like my job, which it is in the summer and, one day, may be year-round!

When I started The Scent of Jessamine, I had no plan to speak of. I knew where I wanted to end up, but no idea how to get there. However, I don’t want to spend another five years on this book, so I am planning before I write. I will not be a complete pantster this time! When I started Jessamine, I had no idea what I was doing! Although I don’t profess to know what I’m doing now, I do have a better idea now, thanks to the tutelage of Christine DeSmet, Kristin Oakley, Laurie Scheer and many others who’ve taught me so much about writing and the business of writing.

I’m not giving up on The Scent of Jessamine. I still believe in Faith and Josiah and their story. I will still try to find a home for them with an agent and a publisher, but I miss the creative process.

Revising is an entirely different beast from writing; a whole other part of the brain is required, and it doesn’t leave me fulfilled afterwards the way that the act of creating does. I need to connect with my creative side, and I’ve missed that lately. I won’t give up my pantster ways entirely, but plotting will make my life easier so I can spend more time writing and less time revising! Is there anything you think I should add to my list? I’m so excited about this new project!

Seven Things I learned at Write by the Lake Workshop and Retreat

Revision is Hard!

Everyone who writes must revise. It is a universal problem we writers have that we can’t see the errors in our writing or we are so involved in our writing we can’t see when we aren’t saying what we think we are saying. That is why I signed up for a conference in Madison, Wisconsin, last week called Write by the Lake. I’m FINALLY finished writing my book and knew it was time to revise it, but I had no idea where to begin.

I applied to be in Christine Desmet’s master class called Finish, Polish, Publish—Mainstream, Literary, Genre novels. Best decision I ever made. Not only did I meet other writers who were in the same position of revising their pages, but we also were at the same stage of our writing journey and understood the struggles each other faced in the revision process. I never realized how critical that understanding was until this week. All of us were writing different books and fleshing out different genres, but we were tackling the same basic elements in our writing. So here is what I’m working on for the rest of the summer!

What I Learned About Revising My Book

  1. Make Setting Vivid: My setting needed to be almost another character because the book hinges around saving Winterhaven, my main character’s home. I had description in there, but it wasn’t full and lush. I am working on adding more setting details to my book so readers experience the setting with all their senses. I want them to know it as well as they know the characters in my book.
  2. My villain must be in the action throughout the book: My villain is baaad, really baaad. I need to give him more time on the pages so readers can see all aspects of his character, even his tender side. He also must be more involved in the trouble my main character faces. I want him to be a well-rounded character, and I want him to be human rather than a cartoon villain. I’m working on all that.
  3. Backloading: I have learned about this term before, but it didn’t really sink in until this week! I think I must be thick or hadn’t reached the point where backloading mattered. Anyway, I am trying to end my sentences and paragraphs with a “loaded” word. For instance, when I am describing the house in my book on the opening page, I say this: “Deep green ivy crept up the red bricks and into the cracks between the windows and under the eaves where the lead flashing had been removed to make bullets for Confederate guns.” I ended with “guns.” That’s backloading, ending sentences or paragraphs with strong words to add emphasis and psychological impact.
  4. Hooking my reader: This is a tough one, but I’m working on it. To hook the reader, the writer must end the scene or the chapter at a suspenseful or dramatic point. The writer must make the reader want to read on. For example, I originally ended my first scene with this line: “He tipped his hat to her, his expression smug, then cantered back down the sand drive toward River Road.” Bleh!!!! I revised it this way: “I’ll go, Thomas, but this isn’t over.” Much better!
  5. Clear the Clutter: Writing is ALL about voice, and voice is a tough nut to crack. One of the ways to improve your voice is to cut the clutter words from your writing. Words like felt, so, then, smiled, half-smiled, turns, slowly, walked, said, replied, thought, wondered, seems, just. The list goes on. I wasn’t even aware I was using some of these words until my classmates circled them! Do searches for words like this you haven’t even noticed you overused. I bet you’ll be surprised! I was. There’s a lot more to clutter than this, but if you do a Google search for cutting clutter from writing, you’ll have many articles to choose from which help with the concept.
  6. Objects: Make sure the objects you introduce in your book have significance. I introduced a bracelet in my book, but I realized it has no significance. I’ll write it out of my book, but later (about half way) in the story I introduce a handkerchief that my main character embroidered as a child. On her wedding day her nanny gives her the handkerchief back. It comes to represent my main character’s struggles and her home and the people who believe in her, and I need to play up its significance in the story.
  7. Endings: Beginning your book at the right place is important as everyone knows, but ending it at the right point is also important. My book’s last scene is very dramatic: it’s a shootout in which the bad guy is shot, but so is the heroine. OH, NO! Oh, yes. I don’t have enough of a resolution at the end to satisfy readers. Those who read it wanted to know more about the lives of the people who were involved in the story, so I need an epilogue. Christine suggested a point a couple of years from the last scene for the epilogue, so I need to write a bit more for my characters at a future date to complete my story. I’m working on that as well.

Attend a Writing Conference

If you are a writer serious about your craft and haven’t attended a writing conference before, I urge you to sign up for one as soon as possible, preferably one of the UW Madison Continuing Studies conferences like I did. I’m partial to those. I found my voice there. Here’s the link. http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/lsa/writing/wbtl/index.html  Christine Desmet is an awesome teacher and writer as are Laurie Scheer and Bridget Birdsall, the other members of the staff there. They are all published writers. In fact, Christine just signed a three book deal! Her first book of the three comes out in September. They are cozy mysteries set in Door County, Wisconsin, the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Here’s her website if you’d like to keep up with her release dates and any other news she might share! http://christinedesmet.wordpress.com/

Attend a writing conference at least once. I promise you will be inspired and energized afterwards.You will take your writing to the next level and spend quality time with wonderful people who think the way you do. Feeling like you’re among your own people is invaluable!