Above: a few of the resources on my bookshelf.
I’m knee-deep in revising my first draft of the Next Novel, which is at the point where I’m starting to share chapters with beta readers. (Hooray? Yikes?) While I’ve been in the midst of this, someone asked me to recommend resources for someone who wants to write a novel, but doesn’t know to begin. Which is a great question—hence, this blog post.
My first answer was obvious: National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. After all, if it wasn’t for the miracle that is NaNoWriMo, I seriously doubt I would have jumped off the high board into the manuscript that became A Gathering of Shadows. Beyond this, I was surprised to find myself flummoxed for answers. I mean, I have my favorite books on the craft, but I’ve been writing for as long I could set words to paper. Some of my earliest memories are taking out “how to get published books” from the adult section of my local library while my mother assured the librarian, that yes, I could read them, please let the kid borrow them already.
So, if in doubt, crowdsource! What follows is an edited list of books and other advice generously shared by writers who know their stuff.
Anca Szilagyi: ”Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. One is all about close reading fiction, and reading for courage to do your own writing. The other encourages writing in a more general/zen sense and has a “keep going” shtick that is helpful.”
Shelley Schanfield: ”A good craft book that has lots of practical instruction on character development and story arc is Janet Burroway Writing Fiction.”
Ellen Seltz: ”The Snowflake Method. Even if you don’t wind up using it exactly, it helps to have concrete tasks to keep the manuscript moving forward, so you don’t get so abstract and woo-woo that nothing gets accomplished. It’s a good tool. If you don’t already have a process, it’s a starting point to help you build one.”
Susanne Dunlap: ”I like Story by Robert McKee. And I love Janet Burroway’s book as well.”
Diane Brandt Wilkes: ”Here are the ones that help/ed me the most, in no real order. These are off the top of the head of someone who would much rather read books about writing than actually write.
”Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
If You Want to Write by Brenda Euland
Writing the Novel by Lawrence Block
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner (My favorite.)
The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand (She helped me finally understand what plot meant.)
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Becoming a Writer by Dorothy Brande
Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See
Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft by Natalie Goldberg
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block (He’s the best at the nitty gritty.)”
Melinda Belle Harrison: “For genre fiction, I recommend The Marshall Plan Workbook : Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish. If more beginning writers used it, they would leap years ahead in work.”
Melodie Rose Winawer: ”The Business of Writing, edited by Jennifer Lyons. Given to me as a gift by my editor. Great stuff.”
Libby Sternberg: “I recommend joining Romance Writers of America and one of their chapters, even if you don’t write romance. The romance community is the most supportive and encouraging writing community I’ve encountered, willing to share information and cheer you on. And some chapters — such as New Jersey’s — have terrific conferences.”
Claude Rothman: ”There are four books I consult permanently: How Fiction Works by James Wood, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston. The last one includes very smart exercises for the creative writers to which I come back when I have a problem.”
Stephanie Renee Dos Santos: “The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, Stein on Writing & How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein, The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long, and Between the Lines by Jessica Morrell.”
I hope this list helps and inspires! And many thanks to all who shared their wisdom.
First, ice. Photographed outside my kitchen window this morning.
This charred book is a relic from a fire that devastated my author friend Kate Quinn’s house last week. Yes, the title of the book is A Day of Fire, which has just been shortlisted for a Historical Novel Society best book award. Yes, Kate is one of the authors listed on the cover. And, as fellow author Sophie Perinot remarked, “In true Kate style, she appreciated the irony.”
This is all preamble to letting you know about a fundraiser to help Kate and her family get back on their feet. Thankfully, everyone survived the fire. However, her house suffered extensive damage, and all of their possessions were lost.
So, if you’re in the mood to do a good deed (and I hope you are), head over to the Kate Quinn House Recovery Fund. You can give as little as the cost of a latte, and it will give you the non-caffeinated buzz of Doing Good. Alternately, you can pre-order Kate’s latest historical novel, Lady of the Eternal City—pre-orders are just the thing to help an author out. And thanks!
I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel. During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!
This week I’m deep in preparation for the Historical Novel Society Conference, which takes place June 21-23 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Besides preparing for the panel I’m moderating on literary versus genre historical fiction, I’ve a Victorian tea gown to alter for the costume pageant (I’ve lost weight since I last wore it), novels to finish beta reading/reviewing for author friends, and even an amber necklace to restring. So, a busy time! Yet I’ve managed to keep moving forward on the Next Novel, even if it’s only 500 words a day with an hour here and there. Below is my novel bible so far. As you can see, it’s already quite overstuffed.
I know I’ve been deliberately withholding information about the Next Novel. The truth is it’s too early—too nascent—to share much without feeling intensely vulnerable. That written, I will reveal I do have a title for it that I think rocks. I’ll also confess that the Next Novel is set four decades earlier than A GATHERING OF SHADOWS, during the mid-nineteenth century. Much of it is written from the point of view of my male protagonist—the first time I’ve done so. On top of this, he’s a photographer specializing in post-mortem portraits, a particularly perculiarly Victorian obsession.
So, mid-Victorian setting+ male point of view + death photography = new things to master.
Even with these new creative challenges, I’ve found my second time writing a novel a far less mysterious proposition than when I first set out to write A GATHERING OF SHADOWS way back when. Since then, I’ve grown much more patient with the process. I understand my first draft is only that—a draft to be shaped as needed as my book develops. I know it will take time for me to know my characters—that they’ll only reveal themselves through process and perseverance. I’ve also spent considerable hours—heck, years—attempting to master the craft of fiction writing. I’ve taken workshops, read books, studied, beta read, and beyond.
All of this makes my experience of writing the Next Novel far less fraught with fear than A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. However, my second time experience led me to wonder whether it was similiar for other authors: Were their second novels easier to write? Harder? Or just different?
To find out, I asked these questions to several authors I know via the Historical Novel Society. To my delight, they were generously forthcoming with their responses.
Donna Russo Morin, author of THE KING’S AGENT: “There is a change with the second, that mental shift between ‘I want to be an author, and I am an author.’ For me, it gave me the courage to take some risks, to take my plot places I may have watered down with the first. There was a confidence that gave my pen greater power.”
Susanne Dunlap, author of THE ACADEMIE: “My second novel ended up being much harder than my first. I think mostly because I was writing to a one-page proposal that my publisher accepted. I kept trying to make the premise work, and it simply wouldn’t. I knew it was crap. Then I finally decided I had to break free of what I told them I would write and just do what worked. I set the novel a year earlier, during the cholera epidemic in Paris, and everything just fell together. It was a lesson for me: write what gets you going, don’t try to write to a brief!”
Anne Easter Smith, author of ROYAL MISTRESS: My first novel was written in stolen moments while holding down three part-time jobs, moving three times to different states and having not a clue how to structure a book. I just wanted to tell Richard III’s real story, and if my husband and children ended up reading it, I would have been thrilled. It was 960 pages long when I came to its end and I was exhilarated that for once in my life I actually finished a project. So when astonishingly, someone wanted to publish it, I found myself facing a two-book deal that was not expected at all. I had no intention of ever writing another book once Richard was down on paper. So the second novel was a bit of a chore–for me the difference between writing your passion and writing as work. However, chore or not, my second protagonist, Margaret of York, ended up one of my favorites through this whole series. The difference between no deadline for the first (took me seven years), and an 18-month deadline for the second.”
Lynn Cullen, author of MRS. POE: “I have come to the conclusion that it never gets easier to start a novel, be it first or fourteenth. The blank page still holds its terror. I think the main difference is that while there is terror, there is not panic. You know that somehow, from some magical place, words will come. I find, too, that books are like your own children in that you love them all equally. It seems impossible when you have that first story/child that you could never love the second as much, but you do. You love each one for what makes them unique. The last thing I have to say is that I am no more organized about writing now than I was for the first novel. I like to tell myself my messiness is part of the creative process. I don’t completely buy that but it sounds good.”
And there you have it: four multi-published authors on their second time writing a novel. I’m so grateful to Donna, Anne, Susanne, and Lynn for sharing their experiences! Though I’ve listed only their latest novels here, I hope you’ll take a moment to learn about their previous ones—they’re all fabulous.
So new year, new you? How are those New Year’s resolutions going thus far? For myself, as I mentioned last week, one of my intentions for 2014 was to offer more author and artist interviews on this blog. I’m delighted to introduce Lisa Alber, author of KILMOON: A County Clare Mystery. Lisa will be generously sharing about creating a positive moments jar, one of her favorite tools for keeping herself encouraged and inspired.
You might be wondering what a positive moments jar is. It’s exactly as described: a jar to collect scraps of paper upon which you write positive moments. What I especially like about this simple concept is that it makes happiness visually tangible. And what could be better than that?
Without further ado, here is our interview. And thanks, Lisa, for helping me keep my resolution!
Kris Waldherr: My pleasure! What inspired you to create your positive moments jar?
LA: I have Facebook to thank! Last year someone mentioned it on a post. I wish I remembered who because I’d thank her. I thought it was the perfect idea. I was completely swamped and stressed because KILMOON, my debut novel, was jetting its way toward publication in March — so much to do! — and I knew that if I didn’t take one little concrete step to memorialize all the good things, they’d slip past me in a blur.
And? I’m prone to depression, which means I tend to linger on the negative. So, a happy jar felt like just the thing. The act of taking that extra minute to savor a good feeling was helpful. And, of course, reliving the moments at the end of 2014 was a blast.
KW: How long have you been doing it? How often do you add to it?
LA: Last year, 2014, was my first year. I’m proud of myself for filling the jar because I’m not always consistent with rituals and routines. That said, I wasn’t consistent through the year, and I forgot a bunch of great things too. (Some of my book launch week festivities, for example.) But that was OK — making any part of the practice mandatory would have soured the experience.
So, I added to the jar as I remembered. There were times when I was more aware of my happiness than other times. For example, I didn’t write any notes in July and August. Zero. This seemed odd until I remembered that I was practically psychotic from lack of sleep around then. I was miserable, barely functioning, and working a lot with my doctor. I’m sure I had happy moments during that time, of course, but I wasn’t on the happy jar wavelength.
I also had a period of about two months, April through June, when I didn’t drop notes in the jar. This corresponds to post-partum book launch depression (which I’ve since heard is pretty common!) and putting my beloved dog, Luna, to sleep.
Seeing the larger pattern to my year comforted me — the two downer periods passed and they weren’t actually that bad even if in my memory they take up the whole year. Hardly!
KW: Has the jar influenced your creative process, especially as you published KILMOON? If so, how?
LA: I don’t think the happy jar influenced my creative process — not in a direct way anyhow. I can tell you this though: I’m starting 2015 in a positive frame of mind. I feel some energy around my writing, and I’ve already done some great work on my work-in-progress. I suspect that reminding myself about the good stuff in 2014 has helped me begin 2015 on an optimistic note, which is great for my creativity. The benefits of the happy jar will be in the long run, I think. I hope that the practice of happiness will become easier over time. There’s that saying about what we pay attention to flourishes. Sometimes these things take practice.
KW: How do you use the jar? Is it only for moments when you feel discouraged? Or is it to keep you going?
LA: I didn’t use it when I felt discouraged — just the opposite. I wrote notes when I was legitimately happy or proud of myself or elated or awed, not when I was trying to manufacture a happy feeling by, say, reminding myself to be grateful for the roof over my head. Gratitude lists are a different thing. (I do those too — in a journal.)
Seeing the jar fill through the year did buoy me up sometimes, but mainly it was an exercise in savoring the happy moments. If I was down, I didn’t put anything in the jar.
KW: Anything else you care to share?
LA: This year, I’m doing two things differently. One, I placed the jar in a central location where I see it all the time. Two, I have scraps of paper and a pen sitting right there. I seem to be forever scrabbling for pens or paper.
A few examples of my notes:
Jan: GOOD REVIEW FROM KIRKUS!!!! (I can tell how happy I was by the capitalization and exclamations points.)
March: Surprise and delight to see a lone viola blooming on my neglected deck.
April: LAUNCH PARTY. Owner of Annie Bloom’s said she’s reading KILMOON and loving it. Said their best launch party ever — set a new threshold. Woohoo!
June: FAWN!!!! (my new dog)
September: Such glorious sun and shadows and golden light.
September: Another authorial milestone to add to honorarium library talk and award nomination: XXX asked me to blurb his novel!
Thank you, Lisa, for an inspiring interview! I think I see a positive moments jar in my future.
More information about Lisa and her debut novel KILMOON: Lisa Alber’s County Clare mysteries feature Merrit Chase, a recent transplant from California, and Detective Sergeant Danny Ahern. KILMOON has been called “utterly poetic” and a “stirring debut” and received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant. Ever distractible, you may find Lisa staring out windows, dogwalking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Visit Lisa online at LisaAlber.com.
Top photograph: Lisa’s positive moments jar—I like that it has a big bow on it, like a gift.
Here at Chez Art and Words apre le NaNoWriMo, I’m deep into design and holiday projects (see above). Like many in December, I’m on a push to finish everything up between now through the end of the year. Regardless, I can’t let the following friends’ and colleagues’ news go uncelebrated:
1. Congrats to my friend Heather Webb whose new novel RODIN’S LOVER was featured in January’s Cosmopolitan magazine (right). They wrote, “You’ll be drawn into this story of obsession and passion between the artist and his apprentice/muse.” High praise indeed!
2. Author Robert Goolick (A RELIABLE WIFE) has just published a Christmas story entitled THE FINAL BALL OF ORIANNE DE PREMONVILLE. It can be found on Amazon under the Kindle Singles section, and involves the most beautiful red dress in the world. (I workshopped my opening chapters of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS with Goolrick at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat.)
3. There’s a massive giveaway of 22 books going on at the Historical Fiction Co-op. To enter the giveaway, click here. I’m a member of this wonderful group, along with C.W. Gortner, Lynn Cullen, Michelle Moran, and other notable authors.
4. Finally, on my author friend Christy English’s blog, I loved her thoughtful, funny interview with indie author Ellen Seltz (MR. MOTTLEY GETS HIS MAN). When I contacted Ellen about featuring the interview, she wrote regarding her decision to self-publish: “I think publishing is going the way of music and film—content with a broad appeal is going to benefit from that large distribution network, and niche content is better off in a focused channel.”
Other sage advice from Ellen:
Being an unpublished novelist may or may not correlate with being an inexperienced writer, or creative professional. If you have already developed your artistic sense and professional distance, great – go on and start learning the specifics of the form and the business side. If you don’t yet have a reliable sense of what professionalism is, or more importantly, how to tell whether you have written crap or not, then put publishing on hold till you get your crapometer calibrated. Put your stuff in front of strangers (Strangers! Not your friends!) and see how they react. This is one of the benefits of the query/rejection/polish/resubmit process of legacy publishing, it forces you to see and relate to your work differently.
Read the rest of the interview here.