*With a tip of the hat to Whistler, who named his paintings similarly. Photographed in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn on a rainy day.
As I mentioned last week, I recently took a half-day novel writing workshop with Donald Maass at the Backspace Writers Conference. The workshop was based on his new book on 21st century fiction writing techniques; it definitely left me excited to continue working on the Next Novel. However, the morning session was a three hour talk by bestselling science fiction/thriller author Jonathan Maberry on various aspects of writing novels—everything from researching fight scenes to making a living as an author.
Maberry’s advice had something for everyone. How do you write about the first time a character is involved in a fist fight? Maberry’s insight: first fights are lost because of psychological shock. Want to know how to cross genres as an author? Try writing a young adult (or YA) novel instead of an adult novel. You’ll have the advantage of being more easily discovered: YA novels are usually shelved together in a bookstore, instead of by genre. I especially appreciated Maberry’s acknowledgement of the financial implications of pursuing a career as a novelist. Unlike nonfiction authors, who usually receive a book advance based on sample chapters and a proposal, novelists are paid after the book is completed and sold—a process that can take years, if at all. This can make writing fiction seem an especially precarious venture.
To circumvent discouragement, Maberry offered one suggestion I particularly liked: to encourage yourself to work on your novel every day, set a low minimum word count goal you can’t possibly not make unless you actively try to. Say, 250 words or 500 words. (250 words is approximately the word count of one double-spaced typed page.) When you make your daily minimum word count, you put a dollar, or whatever financial value you want to set, into a jar.
Once you finish your first draft or another goal (I like the goal of completing a month of writing, so it’s more accessible), the accumulated money in the jar must be spent on something pleasurable to you—no responsibilities. A new book, a meal out, a facial. Whatever floats your boat. However, if you miss a day’s writing, you have to withdraw a week’s “wages” from the jar, which must be used to pay bills or similar.
The concept is to train your subconscious to associate receiving money for your writing, since it can take so long to write a novel and sell it. To reward the process rather than the result.
Easy, right? But clever. I think I may try this myself for the Next Novel.
As for the Donald Maass workshop, I’ll aim to post my notes from it for my next Publishing Monday post.
Snippet Sunday is a monthly meme organized by author Stephanie Dray in which fellow historical authors post six sentence snippets of their novels. For the sake of organization, I’ve decided to post mine on the first Sunday of the month. You can read my previous snippet here.
My excerpt is from THE LILY MAID and takes place in late 1888. In it, my protagonist Elizabeth re-encounters the artist who’d invited her to pose for his painting of The Lady of Shalott after a long absence:
One afternoon when the heavy rain precluded any chance of a walk and pummeled the last of the chrysanthemums into dropping their spiky, ruddy petals from the window box onto the sidewalk, St. John Dulac reappeared in my life.
My mouth dropped when I opened my front door; just as before, he’d sent no note. Dulac looked exceptionally elegant, his public persona a sharp contrast to his more informal studio attire. He wore an expensive-looking sage green sack coat with a yellow iris tucked into his lapel. Under his arm was a black leather portfolio embossed with his monogram; I wondered if he’d been out to meet with a collector now that he was painting again. He looked rested though perhaps more gaunt.
Now that I’m back in the studio after a brief break, I’ve been wondering if are there rules for embarking on a new book or creative project—a subject brought to mind after a writer on Facebook mentioned his set of rules. After mulling a bit, I realized that I do some. Though my rules no doubt differ from others, they’ve proven fairly consistent over time.
Rule 1: I shouldn’t be bored. I should be able to fall in love with the book completely and desperately. Both of these qualities are essential since I may be spending years living with it. (Though DOOMED QUEENS took me just over a year to create, THE LOVER’S PATH entailed almost a decade of on-and-off work. That’s a hefty chunk of time.)
Rule 2: The process of creating the book, or its subject matter, should scare me a little. Or a lot. I look upon the presence of fear as a sign that I’m growing as an artist. Sometimes my fear may be in an “oh my god this project is going to challenge me. I’m not sure if my skills are up to it.” (I definitely felt this way when I began writing THE LILY MAID. Thank goodness for National Novel Writing Month, which pushed me beyond my initial “I don’t know how to write a novel” resistance.) Or my fear might be due to the subject matter. For example, when I first thought of the concept for DOOMED QUEENS, it scared me to death: a humorous book about how royal women were disempowered throughout history? Who would want to read this? Would people be offended? Fortunately, my literary agent pushed me to embrace the darkness amid the light. Voila, DOOMED QUEENS was born and went on to became one of my most critically praised books.
Rule 3: Finally, I need to have fun while working. If it’s not fun, what’s the point?
So, my creative rules for choosing to work on a book come down to:
- no boredom
- embracing the fear
- having fun
That’s my formula. However, I haven’t included my biggest rule of all: to produce the best publication I possibly can, using all of the artistic knowledge and skills I possess.
What about you? Do you have any rules for choosing your creative projects?
Above photograph: Craft project by Thea for her clubhouse.
Photographed at the restaurant at Kinokuniya Bookstore in Manhattan—one of my favorite browsing stores in the world.