WFMAD Day 31 – End of the challenge

The 3rd Annual Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge has reached its last day. We made it!

How did you do?

If you did not write every day this month, do me a favor. Instead of beating yourself up, or lining up the excuses why you failed despite the best of intentions, take that energy and turn it into writing. Today. If you messed up, it’s water under the bridge.  No worries. Start over.

I saved some of the hardest writing questions I received for last.

How do I weed out the “fluff”, to see the forest for the trees, so to speak, no matter how awesome the fluff may be?

It’s very hard. Putting your manuscript away for six months can sometimes help, if you can steel yourself not to look at it. When you finally take it out, you will have laser vision for the fluff.

How do you know when a story is worth the time of others for a critique?

You don’t. You take a leap of faith and ask the members of your critique group to be gentle.

How do you maintain confidence when success rate is like 0.1%????

If you quit, your success rate is guaranteed to be 0%. Which odds do you like better?

All three of these questions touch on a central element of the writing process.


It is uncomfortable to have this writing dream and not know what to do with it. So you try your hand at crafting a few chapters and they suck and that’s uncomfortable, too. So you try a different story or you revise what you’ve written, and while you might see some improvement, for the most part, reading what you’ve written is akin to dancing in hellfire. It usually takes years of work to write that first book that is good enough to be published. That is a very long time to be in discomfort.

This is one of the many, many reasons writing is like running.

Runners know a great deal about discomfort. (After yesterday’s run, I feel I might know more than most.)

It doesn’t matter if you are Olympic caliber or that funny-looking lady who shuffles down the street singing loudly (that would be me), if you are trying to run faster or run a longer distance, you are going to have endure some discomfort.

Notice I did not say pain. There is a world of difference between actual pain (hamstring tear) and discomfort (tender hamstrings from extra mileage). The runner learns to identify the difference if she wants to continue to move forward.

Writers must do the same thing.  You have to live with the discomfort of less-than-perfect 24/7 if you are a writer. Even if you write a book that is published, you will probably have paragraphs in it that eventually make you cringe. Or you’ll look back at in 5 years and you’ll be stunned that people read it, because you are five years older and wiser and you have a new bunch of writing techniques that are sharp and shiny in your tool belt.

When you sit down to write, greet your discomfort like it is a slightly annoying office mate who smells. Stay upwind, if at all possible. You don’t want to engage this person in conversation because then you’ll hear about his diabetic gerbils and the bugs in his walls and the transmission issues in his car and… and… and… Grab your coffee, rush back to your desk and keep your head in your writing.

Singing loudly helps, too.


“The first draft is a skeleton–just bare bones. It’s like the very first rehearsal of a play, where the director moves the actors around mechanically to get a feel of the action. Characters talk without expression. In the second draft, I know where my characters are going, just as the director knows where his actors will move on the stage. But it’s still rough and a little painful to read. By the third draft, the whole thing is taking shape. I have enough glimmers from the second draft to know exactly what I want to say. There may be two or three more drafts after the third to polish it up. But the third is the one where it all comes together for me.” Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Set… pretend it is the first day, not the last

Today’s prompt:

For the love of all that is holy, write out the creative dream that is in your heart.


WFMAD Day 30 – your time is your currency

My friend Susan Campbell Bartoletti has a new book out: They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group.

You should buy it and read it. Five reviewing publications have given it stars (so far). Sue has written a fascinating account of her research trip to Arkansas to attend a KKK Congress. (They don’t call them rallies anymore.) She wrote four blog entries from 8/23 – 26 with details of the trip.

Thank you all for the questions you’ve been sending in. I will keep answering them in the coming weeks.

I’m impressed by all you accomplish: your writing, gardening, running, and family time. Could you discuss what you give up to make this happen -or- perhaps share your typical schedule?

This is an awesome question. And it has a partial connection to Sue.

Sue Bartoletti is one of the friends with whom I’ve had ongoing conversations (for years) about how to balance writing with life. And how to balance life with life.

If I do – occasionally – have my life in balance, it is because of friends like Susan, and Betsy Partridge, and Deb Heiligman, fellows writers and travelers on the creative journey who share my values. Lesson One: Seeking out kindred spirits is one of the most important things you can do for your own spirit and for your writing.

The second piece of my balancing act happened on September 21, 1981. That was the day that Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed as the first female Supreme Court Justice in the history of the United States. If you are younger than 40, this probably does not seem like a big deal. It was HUGE.

I heard the news when I was driving home from my community college classes. I was 18 years old. The news was so shocking and amazing and world-changing, I pulled my car over to the side of the road and cried. In an interview later, Justice O’Connor said (paraphrasing here) that women can do everything, they just can’t do it all at the same time. I think that applies to both men and women and I think it is advice that applies throughout our adult lives. Lesson Two: Most of the time you can’t do everything that you want. So you have to be really clear on what your true priorities are.

The third piece of my balance started on a very scary night in a hospital about 12 years ago. My life was completely out of balance at that point and (not surprisingly) I was sick. A lot. One lung infection got out of hand and landed me in the hospital, jacked up on meds that made breathing easier and sleeping impossible.

The old woman in the bed next to me couldn’t sleep either. She spent the entire night talking to the very patient nurse’s assistant who held her hand. The old woman talked about how she regretted all the mistakes she made in her life that had brought her to that point. She was dying and none of her children or grandchildren would visit her.

I kept watching the second hand whirring around the clock on the wall. By dawn, I decided to change the way I’d been living. Because, Lesson Three: You’re going to die. So you might as well take charge of your life while you can.

It did not happen overnight. I was very good at taking one step backwards for every two steps I took forward. But I started to write more. To read more. To vent in my journal. To think about the kind of life I really wanted to live. I exercised. I explored art. I made peace with some broken relationships.

What did I give up? I gave up the bullshit. I stopped volunteering for causes I did not truly believe in. I stopped watching most television. I stopped trying to mold my life into the plastic suburban dream that I had deluded myself into believing would fit me.

And somehow I wound up here.

How you spend your time tells you as much (if not more) about your life than how you spend your money. If you have to dedicate 40 or 50 hours a week to a job that pays the bills, or to the care of people who depend on you, or to your education… or a combination of those three things, then I hope you have the integrity to pour the right amount of energy into those tasks.

Most of us squeeze our writing into the cracks of time that appear around the edges of our major responsibilities. Your time for your writing is precious and rare. How can you protect it?

I promise I’ll post about my daily schedule soon. Right now, you need to get to work.

Ready… “I’m a rewriter. That’s the part I like best…once I have a pile of paper to work with, it’s like having the pieces of a puzzle. I just have to put the pieces together to make a picture.” Judy Blume

Set… find a quiet place. If you keep a calendar, pull it out. Just for the month of August. After you read the prompt, turn off the Internet so you can ponder in peace.

Today’s prompt: Answer the following questions:

In the last month:

1. How much time, on average, did you write every day? Every week?

2. What did you have to give up to do that writing?

3. Do you wish you wrote more? What could you have done to make that happen?

Looking forward…

4. Who are your kindred spirits? How often can you get together with them?

5. What are the essential priorities in your life?

6. What habits steal time from your priorities?

7. In anther ten years, which of those habits will have brought you a deeper sense of satisfaction in your life?

8. What do you need to change to create time and space for writing (and other art) in your life?

9. What is holding you back from making those changes?

10. How do you feel about that?


WFMAD Day 29 – Question Day Two

More questions today, with the added bonus of answers!!

::shoos chickens out of way::

Not sure if you can answer this, but how do the covers of books get chosen?

It’s kind of a mystery to me, too. Publishers have departments of people who are artists. They have other departments filled with sales and marketing people. Near as I can figure, when it’s time to design a cover, the members of the three departments gather in a secret location and hold a massive game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine which dept. gets to take the lead on the design. The other two depts. have input, but too a limited degree.

I don’t know how much input other authors have on their covers. I seem to have none. I like most of the covers of my books and love a couple of them. Whenever I have tried to make suggestions about cover art, I’ve been gently reminded that I am an author, not an artist or a member of the sales and marketing departments. So my approach is to focus on what I can control – my writing – and leave the other stuff to the people who know more about it than I do.

1st person verses 3rd person ~ or do you feel it matters?

How do you know which character’s person if first person?

The point of view (POV) from which you tell your story is hugely important. But sometimes you might not be able to figure which POV to use. Or, in the case of 1st person POV, which character is your POV character.

This might help: Do a quick and dirty draft in the third-person POV – from the first page to the last. By the end of the draft you’ll know who the most important person is in the story. Experiment with writing a few chapters from that person’s POV. If it feels natural, then run with it – turn your first revision draft into an exercise of shifting the narrative from 3rd to 1st POV.

I wrote the first eight drafts of FEVER 1793 in 3rd person. Then I shifted to 1st person, did another five revisions and finally wound up with a book that someone wanted to publish.

Yes, it seems like a lot of work. But sometimes it’s what you have to do.

How do I weed out the “fluff”, to see the forest for the trees, so to speak, no matter how awesome the fluff may be?

How do you know when a story is worth the time of others for a critique?

How do you maintain confidence when success rate is like 0.1%????

These questions are all connected. And I will answer them all… on Tuesday.

Ready…. “Ideas are the cheapest part of the writing. They are free. The hard part is what you do with ideas you’ve gathered.” Jane Yolen

Set…. three days left in WFMAD – you can do this!!

Today’s prompt:

1. Write out the steps you need to take in order to finish your current work in progress. Be as detailed and precise as possible.

2. Give yourself deadlines.

3. Now double the deadlines and write the dates down on a calender. Do you have a writing buddy you can share this with? Someone who will hold you accountable to your deadlines?

4. Write out your vision of the most perfect things that could happen to your story and to you after you submit it for publication. Be detailed and precise about this, too. And have fun with it!


WFMAD Day 28 – Question Day One

As we wind down the 3rd Annual WFMAD Challenge, I figured I should probably finish answering some of the questions you guys have asked this month.

Without further delay…

How do you find dependable research for your historical novels?

I find out which academics have done the most current research, I read their books, and use their bibliographies to get me started on the path to primary sources. I also look to see if there are other academics who disagree with the first writer’s approach. There are as many interpretations, it seems, as professors. But finding the primary sources and reading and interviewing enough to understand the context and significance of the primary sources is the most important thing.

When the characters demand that you write on a topic that you’re not comfortable with, how do you find the courage to not stifle them? In this case, it is important to the story, but it makes me squirm. Furthermore, how do you find the courage to show it to others, let alone ponder the possibility of publishing it once it’s polished?

You have total control over this. It comes down to this – which idea makes you more uncomfortable: the notion of not telling the story or the idea of telling the story and getting distressing feedback? If you are spending a lot of time worrying about feedback, I don’t think you’ll do a great job with the writing. Work on a different project until you are feeling stronger.

I hate my first 10 pages! I’ve rewritten them a few times, knowing that they’re aren’t working. The last time, I liked what I did (and my friends @ the LA Schmooze did, too) but my critique buddy, who’s read the other 100+ pages of the novel, passionately believed the new opening didn’t live up to the rest of the novel.

I left it alone for awhile, concentrating on later scenes in the book, but the revisited the opening because I thought I’d enter it in the Ventura/Santa Barbara Writer’s Day contest in October. And now…I hate it. I absolutely see what my critique buddy was talking about before. Problem is – I have NO idea how to fix it. Any suggestions?

Laurie? Anyone??

Have you written all the way to the end of the book? If you haven’t, stop fussing with the beginning and finish it. There’s a good chance that what happens at the end will let you know how the book should open.

In my experience, trouble with opening chapters usually means they can be cut. What adjustments do you have to make to the first third of the book if you lose those ten pages completely?

Ready…. “Write only what you want to write. Please yourself. YOU are the genius, they’re not. Especially don’t listen to people (such as publishers) who think that you need to write what readers say they want. Readers don’t always know what they want. I don’t know what I want to read until I go into a bookshop and look around at the books other people have written, and the books I enjoy reading most are books I would never in a million years have thought of myself. So the only thing you need to do is forget about pleasing other people, and aim to please yourself alone.” Philip Pullman

Set… how many hours can you stay away from the Internet today?

Today’s prompt:

Characters are put in motion by outside events. They also determine their path through a story by their internal and external reactions to outside events.

If you are stuck at the “what happens next” stage of writing, this one is for you:

1. Brainstorm twenty (yes, I said twenty, veinte, vingt, ishirini) external things that could happen to the character. F. Ex, in SPEAK, Melinda pulls the assignment of “tree” in art class. In WINTERGIRLS, Elijah takes Lia to the diner after the wake. Complications ensue.

2. Pick the five most intriguing ideas.

3. Write your character’s reaction (internal and external) to the outside events. HINT: if your character does not have a strong feeling, this is probably going to be a boring scene. Does matter what kind of emotion, it just have to be at least a little intense.


WFMAD Day 27 – Friday five for your writing

Bookavore, bookseller extraordinaire at WORD in Brooklyn (and my oldest kid) has weighed in with a resolution to remedy the mud-slinging that seems to be heating up between adult “literary fiction” authors and adult “genre fiction” authors. (You haven’t heard about the feud? Details here.) If you, too, were a Model UN nerd in high school, this will completely make your day. Even if you weren’t a Model UN nerd, this will make you smile.

Ready… “Too often, as we leave the tribal culture of childhood – and its sometimes subversive tales and rhymes – behind, we lose contact with the instinctive joy in self-expression; with the creative imagination, spontaneous emotion, and the ability to see the world as full of wonders.” Alison Lurie Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Why Kids Love the Books They Do

Set… before you tell the world to go away so you can write, make sure you have blocked out writing time tomorrow and on Sunday.

Today’s prompt:

1. Go for a walk. Bring something to write with and on whilst walking. (Bonus points if you can walk in a park where kids are playing.)

2. Write down five things of nature you see on your walk. F. ex: brook, dead salamander, clouds.

3. Write one sentence about each item from your POV (point of view).

4. Choose the face of a child from this website.

5. Write one sentence about each of your items from that child’s POV. Then choose the item that is most intriguing to that child and write as much as you can about how it came to be there, about what its purpose is, or about what is going to happen next to that thing. Don’t judge your work, don’t impose your adult vision on the words. Be more chill and let them tumble out.

Scribble… Scribble…Scribble!!!