Mr. Jones

With a sample size of only one and a half novels, I can’t confidently say how my writing process works. I know what I’ve done, but I haven’t tried enough variations to see if how I’m currently working is the most effective method for me. Maybe in ten years I’ll have a better idea.


In the meantime, if I had to put words to it, when writing my one finished work, I did research when necessary, wrote an outline when it came to me, and tried to let the characters’ voices speak to me without letting them take my plotline too far away from the themes I’d hoped to create. Nothing too novel there, really (put intended, of course).


In college, I had a chance to hear Edward P. Jones speak about his wildly different approach. The quotes in this post are from an interview in the Washington Post, but the same ideas were there when he came to Boston College.


“I started thinking about the novel [The Known World, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction] and I just sort of took my own time. I didn’t have any sort of deadline. And I didn’t have a problem with sustaining any inspiration. It was always there. I took ten years or so thinking it up, and I only had 12 pages of hard copy. So when I first sat down to write, the first draft took 2 1/2 months. That’s the physical part of writing, but the ten years thinking it through counts as writing as well.”


I’m not sure his process is something I can emulate—when there’s an idea rolling around in my head, I’m nervous until I get it on paper, and it always turns out to be much less substantial by the time it hits the page—but for once I find an author’s perspective on the “how” of writing fascinating.


Here’s more, on researching historical fact for his fiction:


“ . . . I started out thinking I would read a whole bunch of books about slavery. But I never got around to doing that. I kept putting it all off. I started thinking about reading the books in ’92, but while I was putting off the research, I was also crafting the novel in my head. So in 2001, after almost 10 years of thinking about the novel, I had about five weeks of vacation with the day job I had then, and I decided, I could either spend that vacation time and the next year or so reading all those books, and I decided not to do that. I decided just to go with the novel that was in my head. Everything was in my head except for about 12 pages.”


I don’t think I have even 12 pages in my head, but there is something I’m playing around with up there. I really just want to read, read, read, but my submission to my writers’ group is due this Sunday. Something’s got to find its way to paper soon. With Mr. Jones in the back of my mind, I’m trying to give myself room to just let it be what it is and leave it at that. Maybe I’ll surprise myself. And isn’t that half of the fun of writing anyway?


P.S. Here’s another great interview with Jones:


Great Enough: Thoughts on Self-Publishing

Recently, I mentioned that I don’t intend to self-publish my work. (For the sake of this post, I define self-publishing as hiring my own editor, copyeditor, and perhaps designer; printing copies to sell, or setting up an ebook or print-on-demand structure; and marketing and selling the book on my own.) I’ve said before that everyone’s work has its place, and I mean that. For me, I don’t think that place is self-publishing, and today I want to explain why.

I admit there have been a couple points at which I have considered self-publishing. No matter what stage I was at in the process, all these moments had something in common: I was discouraged.

When I was still writing, I didn’t know if the manuscript was strong enough to get an agent. Now that I have an agent, her revisions show me the places where my writing is not yet strong enough to put its best foot forward to publishers. I will always have a lot of work to do. Sometimes I just wish it were over, that I could push a button and my book would be out in the world. Would it be perfect? No. But maybe it would be good enough for at least someone to read. Friends and family say they want to read it, anyway.

I’ve been the reader at an agency and a publishing house, and I’ve seen what comes through the door. Some of it is fantastic. Some of it is not. A lot of the agented material is good, but so often there is more work that could have been done prior to submission. For me, self-publishing would be a way to circumvent the challenge of constantly improving my work.

If my work is submitted to a publisher and deemed not strong enough for publication, I hope, hope, hope I have the humility to say, “Okay, what can I do to make it stronger?” I know from having worked with agents and editors that yes, they are the gatekeepers of published authorship, but it’s because they know what they’re doing. If those who are among the ranks of my former colleagues say I’m not finished yet, then I’m going to keep working until I get there. I don’t want to check out before I’ve given it everything.

It might take a long time. I might write a couple of books that never see the light of day. While I’m getting there, I welcome constructive criticism as a guide, lighting the way to achieving my goal: writing a book great enough to be sold to a traditional publisher.

Why would you self-publish? Or why wouldn’t you? Have you? What’s the experience been like? Would you do it again?

This One’s Really GOLD

You know that funk you get into from time to time, when you just can’t find anything to settle in and read? I have a to-read list a mile long, but in the past few weeks, I hadn’t been able to connect with anything.


Until I picked up Gold by Chris Cleave.


I read Little Bee about two years ago and enjoyed it. From that, I saw that Cleave is a talented, thoughtful, and honest writer. I saw Gold on the bookstore shelves when it was published last year, and added it to my ever-growing list. Recently I saw it again and thought I ought to give it a shot. Seriously, nothing was working for me—fiction, non-fiction, serious, light, memoir. Gold’s gorgeous cover was enough to convince me to give it a good shot. A few pages in, I was hooked.


I read it in a matter of days. My husband read the jacket when I was two-thirds through. He was surprised that I was so obsessed interested in a novel about cycling. I’ve just taken up running, and he probably thought I was going to start researching bikes.


But the beauty of this book—the beauty of any great literature, I think—is that it takes something specific and makes it universal. This is a book about cycling, yes, but it’s also a study of character, of loss, of healing, of relationships, of marriage, of parenthood, and of the way all of these things intersect in the thing we call life.


There were so many lines I wanted to hang on to, remember, reconsider, and ultimately review the craft it took to create them. The story moved along at a perfect pace, building suspense at just the right moments. I know very little about cycling, especially at the Olympic level, where this novel takes place, but the research Cleave did was worked in so fluidly, it didn’t matter a bit.


I’ve been struggling with how much and where to include backstory in my completed novel, and it was fascinating to watch Cleave’s structure unfold. I’ll try not to give anything away here, but if you’ve read Little Bee (or perhaps Incendiary, but I haven’t read that . . . yet), you’ll understand: somehow over the course of just a few days in present time, he manages to write in years and years of back story. And it works. So well. You think you know what you’re getting into in the first few pages, but somewhere later on, you realize you only knew half of the story. Cleave’s stories twist in on themselves and then reach out to the reader, so we can see what we will make of them.


Gold is the kind of book you can’t wait to get to the end of, and then you’re bummed when there isn’t about page left to turn. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to read more. It’s the kind of book I want to write.

Watching TV Is Good for Your Writing

Being in a writers’ group is great because:

  1. You get feedback on your writing.
  2. You practice your editing skills by giving feedback on other people’s writing.
  3. You get book and article recommendations from folks as serious about writing as you are.


Today I’m sharing “Six Things Prose Writers Can Learn From Television” by Matt Debenham. There’s gold in here, readers. Six elements of good television writing that can easily be transferred into a mini-workshop on prose writing. Take a look and see what you can apply to your current WIP.


I tend to get stuck on Item 2. My characters, especially my protagonists, start out really nice and well adjusted. I have to work to mess them up. A number of the writers I’m working with now seem to have the same problem. None of us wants to write about characters we’ve all seen before, some textbook psychology that we can all see playing out from page one. We want to create relatable characters, put them in challenging situations, and then have them behave unexpectedly. But at the same time, there must be a believable (not necessarily logical) motivation behind every action of every character for the writing to work.


Debenham says it well,


Active doesn’t mean always happy, or manic, or illogical. Active means a character who wants something, who does things relating to those wants — oftentimes when that is exactly the wrong thing for them to do.


That’s where tension, conflict, and just plain good writing come from.


Which piece do you have the most trouble with? How are you working through it?

Having Time Versus Making Time

A while ago, I made a conscious change in the way I speak. When I couldn’t get something done, rather than saying, “I didn’t have time,” I started saying, “I didn’t make time.” There is a big difference, especially for someone who is writing on the side, in between other necessary elements of life: work, family, friends, sleep.


“I don’t have time” is accurate in some cases. When a big project comes up at work, when a family member is ill, when there’s a new baby at home, there really isn’t time to write. That’s okay. That’s good, even. Priorities need to shift sometimes.


In other cases, though—and in my case for a long time—“I don’t have time” is a passive way of organizing one’s schedule.


I always knew I wanted to write. In high school, I took a creative writing class, but not until my final semester, senior year. In college, I majored in English, but again, didn’t take a writing workshop until my final semester, senior year. At this point, I saw a pattern forming, and one I imagine a lot of people fall into.


In most people’s lives, time for writing doesn’t just appear. It must be carved out, explained to others, and stuck to.


When I started my first blog, I made the decision to make time for it. I was newly married, and my husband and I were setting up our life together. My decision to make time for writing was not mine alone. I told him what I wanted to do, and we found a way to make it work.


Two years later, when I realized I needed a larger chunk of time to write—both to refresh myself after a week of being at home with our toddler and to help heal after losing a child in miscarriage—my husband and I made more time for me to write. For over a year, Saturday mornings have been my writing sessions. Even my friends know that I write on Saturday mornings. They’ll still invite us to come to the playground or run in the park, but it’s always with the understanding that I probably won’t come.


To this day, my husband and I continue to set aside to spend with each other each week, as well as time for me to sit with my computer and keep to my schedule. The balance shifts at times, but we’ve both made a commitment to my writing, and that unity of intention makes it possible to write a novel while caring for two small children—a time when you really don’t “have time” at all.


The details of my experience are not universal, but I hope the point I mean to make is: whatever your lifestyle, if you want to write seriously, you have to make time for it. It doesn’t just happen. Make your intentions known, understand that you’ll have to make sacrifices at times, don’t apologize for it, and shift your priorities when necessary.


It might not by physical, but writing is an active endeavor. Be intentional with it. Be accountable to someone, if not just to yourself. If you’re waiting to simply have the time to do it, you might never get there.

Cure for Doubt

doubt (noun): one of writers’ greatest enemies.


Last month I started to work on a new project. I’d had the idea for this novel for some time, and had begun it a couple of different ways, whenever the mood struck. Who doesn’t love a spontaneous and fruitful burst of creativity? The words were coming easily and I was looking forward to devoting more time to it. My writers’ group kept me moving after that initial rush.


Currently, I am three chapters in and have written a synopsis of all I think will happen thus far. Sounds good, right?


Unfortunately, I have almost no motivation to write more. I’m not as excited about it as I want to be. Add to that the minor tailspin that my recent notes for revision sent me into, and I am fighting a case of Doubt with a capital D.


This new piece is in the same genre as my first, and it’s one that I’m not totally convinced is salable. Of course, that is not the whole picture. Writing my first novel provided my invaluable insight into the worlds of writing and editing. Likewise, whether it’s publishable or not, I can see myself returning to this new project at some point in the future.


But for now, I am thinking seriously about traditional publication. I want to write something I enjoy and something I think offers something worthwhile to the marketplace. In other words, something that can sell. If I’m not excited about this new work-in-progress, why in the world would anyone else be?


The solution: Time. Time to put both projects aside and consider what motivates me. What inspires me. What excites me.


What can I create that will offer greater perspective? What’s not out there that I can add to the canon of contemporary American literature? Ultimately, what do I want to spend my time on?


Taking the time to let go of my current pieces and the desire to get something out to publishers as soon as possible is opening up the doors of my creativity. I have yet another new concept in mind—not one that’s ready to find paper quite yet, but one that has my brain and my heart moving.


I know I need to be writing for the right reasons to produce anything worthwhile. It’s hard to force that when the prospect of publication could be right around the corner—or not. That’s something I need to let go of this week. In its stead, I’ll have a  fresh notebook, a new story to consider, and a chance to let my imagination do its thing.


The more excited I get about this new idea, the more motivated I am to go back and finish my revision. Maybe I am capable of writing something worth publishing. Then again, maybe not. But either way, I can choose to write something I enjoy, something that makes me a better writer and a more thoughtful and compassionate person.


The cure for writerly doubt is hope. And published or not, I can have that whenever I want.

Two Months In and . . . the Liebster Award!

Today I’m excited to have been nominated for a Liebster Award by Dragonfly Dithers! Thank you! The Liebster Award is one that recognizes new blogs worth reading (and those with less than 300 followers). Upon acceptance of the award, a blogger must:


  1. List 11 random facts about him/herself.
  2. Answer the questions that were asked of him/her (by the blogger that nominated him/her).
  3. Nominate 11 other blogs for the Liebster Blog Award and link to their blogs.
  4. Notify the bloggers of their award.
  5. Ask the award winners 11 questions to answer once they accept the award.


Here we go!


  1. My favorite children’s book is Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. I still haven’t seen the movie.
  2. My favorite adult book is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Ordinary things made extraordinary—beautiful.
  3. I tried NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but only managed 25,000 of the 50,000 words required to claim victory. Maybe having a two-month-old at the time made this harder than it needed to be.
  4. While interning at Abrams Books for Young Readers, I met Tim Gunn. I was wearing a shirt I got on sale for $3 at Old Navy.
  5. Someday I hope to have a dog named Gutenberg.
  6. I like to watch The Biggest Loser, because I love to see people making positive changes in their lives.
  7. I like to watch Project Runway, because I love to see people grow and learn from constructive criticism (I could do without the occasional mocking).
  8. I own a minivan. We call him Frankie.
  9. I only listened to oldies until I was about ten years old.
  10. One of my favorite movies is Sister Act.
  11. Once spring hits, I get a hankering to watch The Sandlot with a glass bottle of Coca-cola by my side.


Here’s what was asked of me:


  1. How old do you feel?

I feel exactly as old as I am!

  1. What’s your favourite time of day?

In the summer, my favorite time is the evening—when it’s still light out after dinner and it feels like time just goes on and on.

  1. What do you like to do on long weekends?

Spend time with my husband and kids. Sneak in more writing time. Drink a latte. Go for a run in the park with my family.

  1. Do you like to spend time outdoors?

Yes! I have two little boys, so I spend a lot of time outside.

  1. When you read a book, do you peek at the last few pages to see how it turns out?

Not if I plan to finish the book. If I’m not invested enough to finish, but still curious about the plot’s resolution, I’ll look.

  1. If you are a writer, do you like to write longhand–with pen and paper– or immediately on your computer?

Computer. I write notes and outlines in longhand sometimes.

  1. Are you an animal lover, or you detest them?

I like them, so I guess I’m in between.

  1. Favourite dessert?

New favorite: chocolate-chip-cookie-covered Oreos. Mind-blowing.

  1. Ideal job?

Exactly what I do! Raising my kids at home while writing and freelancing around our family’s schedule.

  1. Do you eat out a lot?

About once a week, we order in for at-home date night.

  1. Top 3 things you would do if you won a million dollars?
  1. Donate a good deal of it to organizations that provide for people’s basic needs.
  2. Help those in need pay off debts to get on their feet.
  3. Eat sushi to celebrate!


For my nominees, I’m selecting the first eleven bloggers to follow WILWWN:

Monty’s Catablog





Joe Warnimont


Sham Jaff

TheCoevas Official



And here are the questions for those bloggers:

  1. How long have you been blogging?
  2. If you’re writing something other than your blog right now, what is it (title/genre/one-line synopsis)?
  3. Would you self-publish? Have you self-published?
  4. Are you a good proofreader?
  5. Which do you prefer, writing a first draft or editing it?
  6. Coffee or tea?
  7. Where do you like to write?
  8. What was your favorite book when you were a kid?
  9. What was the best book you read last year?
  10. If you were published, would you use a pseudonym?
  11. Have you ever entered a writing contest?


Thanks again to Dragonfly Dithers and to those who follow WILIWWN.


More next week. Until then, happy writing!