A Book—How Long Does It Take?

DSC07192The other day someone asked when I’d last written a book. I quickly replied last year. But that’s not really accurate. Yes, I finished a book last year, but I worked on it for several years before declaring it completed. Even then, I only ever refer to it as a manuscript. (Not a book until it’s published.)  I have several manuscripts in various stages of completion, ones that go back many, many, many years. It’s the nature of writing, I think; the ability to simply pick up and start or stop or even change directions. I don’t wear blinders when I write. Sometimes my eye wonders. I see a potential story some place else and I quickly jot things down—a paragraph, a sentence, a page—for a later date.

I’m not an organized writer. And I have periods when I’m not nearly as productive as others. I get in slumps. I procrastinate and often wonder what’s stopping me from writing more. Exactly why do I procrastinate when writing is something I absolutely love doing, something that’s a part of me? I’ve asked myself that question a time or two. But then I remind myself that creativity isn’t something that can be rushed. It comes in its own good time, the same way a story idea or character suddenly arrives right out of the blue when I’m washing dishes or stirring pots.

I don’t produce outlines or write character sketches. I don’t decide what my characters likes or dislikes are before heading into a story. In fact, it’s more like they tell me. This is the place where some people start looking at me a little strange. Characters tell you things? They might even suggest an evaluation of sorts—just to make sure everything’s okay. They might even pat me on the head. But yes, with every book I’ve written, every short story, I feel a connection to a character who then leads me through their story. Occasionally I have a certain topic I want to write about, even then I have to wait for some character to show up and guide me through to the end.

I know one author who wrote a book in eighteen days. I’m still in awe of that feat although she told me she wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. I’m willing to bet she didn’t get a whole lot of sleep during those eighteen days. While I’m not expecting to write a novel in anywhere near that time I’ve learned to never rule anything out because, really, who am I to say what will and won’t happen. I don’t like putting restriction on life. I like to stay open to any possibility. Who knows, a character might show up one day, a character so strong and insistent and impossible to ignore and I’ll be at their mercy to write, write, write. I’m sure this certain author didn’t decide she’d write a novel in a few weeks, it probably just happened. When you’re open to all possibilities anything is possible.

So, how long does it take to write a book? It takes as long as it takes—at least for me.

What kind of writer are you? Do you write with an outline or simply fly by the seat of your pants? How long does it take you to write a book?

Why Writers Need to be Listeners

In this world there are talkers and there are listeners. A writer is both. Many may not agree with me, but here are my thoughts on this.

A few months back, a friend and I spent the afternoon together. About half-way into our visit she said, “I’m doing all the talking.” And it was true, I suppose. But seriously, I didn’t mind. I was simply enjoying listening to what she had to say. It had been awhile since we’d last talked. I knew what was going on in my life. I wanted to hear about hers.

What my friend didn’t know is that all writers talk and most times we’re the centre of the conversation, and…. monopolize? Oh yeah, we monopolize alright since there’s usually no one else around, we, and our characters, are the centre of our attention.

Writers do a good deal of talking in their heads. We talk to our characters and sometimes we talk to ourselves. We also do our talking on the page. We talk and we talk and we talk, talk, talk, talk. We say the same things over again but in a different way, and then the next day we start all over again—same conversation since we didn’t get it right the day before! So while the words may not come out so others can hear us, you can be sure we writers talk. My friend had nothing to apologize for. Sometimes with all the “talking” I do in the run of a day it’s simply nice to let someone else take over for awhile.

So with all the talking that takes place in a writer’s life I firmly believe that writers also need to be listeners. We need to fine-tune our hearing so that we can allow the story to come through to us from that place where stories reside before the writer breathes life into them. We have to be conscious of the wants and needs of the characters we write about. We need to listen to what they have to say even when they say things that are not to our liking. We need to listen to the hearts of our characters and find out what makes them tick. What are their likes and dislikes? Their biggest fear? We need to be their best friend or, in some cases, their worst enemy, and we do that by listening. An author who is a good listener learns to respect their characters and give them the freedom to tell their story in their own words, and in their own time.

So to my friend who thought she was being selfish and dominating the conversation all I can say is that sometimes there’s a time to talk and sometimes there’s a time to listen. Hopefully, we tap into that balance somewhere along the way. A writer is both talker and listener. We’ve mastered both of these arts and if we haven’t yet mastered them we’re constantly working to achieve it.

I’m taking a bit of a break from blogging until the New Year. My life will be much less complicated then. I’m looking forward to catching up on my blog reading and I’d like to check out some new blogs from the followers I picked up this past while.. Have a wonderful Holiday and I hope to see you in 2015!

The Voice

There are times when I feel as though my blogging voice is gone, and lately this has been the case. I can tell you this doesn’t feel like a permanent condition, and I’m not planning to go anywhere soon. It just means I might find it more difficult to blog on a regular basis. Truthfully, I sometimes wonder what difference blogging makes to my writing life except to take time away from writing fiction. But no sooner do I have that thought then I remind myself of all those faithful readers out there who come by to visit, and the other bloggers I’ve come to know. Blogging shouldn’t be about accumulating a huge number of followers and racking up hundreds of comments, but engaging with those readers we do have. What that means is you’re all important to me and I appreciate your visits.

While I’m on this subject, I might just as well mention that, along with my reluctance for blogging, the same has been true for Facebook. I pop on by times, mostly to see any updated photos of Miss Charlotte, but when it comes to updating my status, I find I rarely have anything I want to say. I do try to update my page more often, but days sometimes go by before I feel the urge to post something there. Does it sound as though I’m whining? I sure hope not. As a 96 year old Grace once said, “I”m just stating facts.”  BTW Grace is an amazing woman who shared a room with my mother-in-law at the nursing home.

Don’t worry though, all this doesn’t mean I’m not writing, in fact just the opposite is true. I’ve been busy every day working on my next novel, and as any of you writers know, it can be an all-consuming task. Did I say task? Well, not so true. Writing isn’t and shouldn’t be a task. Expressing our creativity should be a must for all of us.

Sometimes our writing lives seep into our everyday lives, and people start to wonder just what the heck is wrong. That faraway look we have might not be one of indifference, but our minds busy creating those imaginary worlds that feel all too true. For a writer, our characters are real people who exist in a parallel universe. If we didn’t feel this way about them we couldn’t possibly make them come alive on the page.

Hopefully, once I have the first draft of my novel completed my blogging voice will return, and just so you know that first draft feels quite close to being done.  Believe me, I’ll be doing a happy dance at that point.

 Do you ever feel as though you’ve lost your blogging voice? Do you have times throughout the year when you devote less time to blogging?

Let me Streeeeeeeetch Your Imagination a Little:

As a writer, I like to stretch my imagination. For me, this sometimes means looking at life from both sides of the coin. I like to analyze people’s behavior, determine what motivates them. I like to step inside their shoes, try them on for size, and be that person for a brief moment in time. I like to forget my opinions on subjects and think about how someone else might view the exact scenario. We all see life though a different set of eyes. Writers often speak about wiggling inside the skin of their characters, becoming them, breathing and laughing, feeling their emotions, understanding what their reactions to life’s circumstances are. One of the most important qualities a writer can posses is the ability to become that other person, to view them as people( take them or leave them) without passing judgment. Our characters can not always be the people we’d like them to be. Not if we want to write stories that keep our readers turning the page. Characters who are too good, too perfect are good for little more than putting the reader to sleep. We all have faults, some of them big, some little, but they are there nonetheless. And these faults that we seem to despise in other people, we love to read about. It’s interesting, what can I say?

Remember when you were a child and played make-believe?  Perhaps you took on a specific role to play. Were you a character who was looked up to? A villain perhaps? Did you act out scenes? Did you become angry and upset over some of the perils your character faced? Did you feel those emotions for yourself? Were they real?

I can vividly recall those feelings of anger, frustration, hurt, happiness as the character I was portraying in my games went through a series of life altering events. Who knew imagination could be so strong or evoke such emotions?  But our characters can not always chime out our own preferences or opinions, they can not view the world the same way that we do, or else we’re simply creating characters that mimic ourselves. Little mini-mes, if you will. I tend to think that would get a bit boring after awhile. I’ve got news for you all; I’m just not that interesting, seriously. So quite often I like to take a reverse role and try to imagine life through the eyes of someone totally opposite from myself.

This was partly the reason why I asked the questions I did in last week’s post, Cast Out the Writing Sob. I was hoping to have you reverse roles and view this subject from someone else’s point of view. Just because I don’t believe myself to be a writing snob, I was curious as to whether or not someone else might see me as one. Is it possible, I wondered? I have a awful lot of non-writing friends who maybe don’t understand why I have a blog or why self-promotion is pretty much a given once you’re a published writer. Maybe they see all these things as simply bragging on my part. Hey, you never know! Then again, I was also thinking (I  tend to do a lot of that sometimes) that perhaps the non-writing community can relate to what we writers go through just a bit more than we writers give them credit for. I received some great replies. Thanks! You’re all awesome and so very articulate. I love throwing out tough questions to you all, challenging you and asking you to stretch your imaginations.

So, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you to stretch your imaginations a bit by asking some tricky questions from time to time. I really like what you all have to say.  While I won’t admit to being nosey, I’m always curious as to what your thoughts are, not just my own.

Do you enjoy a good challenge and the chance to streeeeeetch your imagination? Or do you just enjoy life the way it is?

Playing the Name Game

Do you ever play the name game?

Sitting here with my current WIP, I’m shuffling around for character names. I’m terrible when it comes to choosing names, last names in particular. I’m not sure why. I didn’t really have any problems naming my kids, although to be honest, I hadn’t decided upon a name for my second daughter until right after she was born

Some characters seem to find their own name, something that fits them right from the start. You give them a name and it fits like a glove, and that’s a good thing. To be honest, I find it difficult to change a character’s name once I’m very far into a story, so I’m usually hoping I get it right from the very beginning.

There have been a few times when I’ve stubbornly wanted to use a particular name and yet it didn’t seem to fit the story at all. Kind of like trying to shove a square peg in a round hole. No matter how much you want it to fit, it just doesn’t.

I have a book of baby names that I like to check from time to time. Checking the meaning of the names is helpful too, as sometimes that will help determine what name I end up with. Often, something on the unusual side will appeal to me as I feel it makes the character more memorable. The names I choose are not always ones that I particularly like, or wish I’d named my own kids. I’ve always secretly felt that people with unusual names seem to be recognized in the world in a way that maybe those with very common names are not. That probably sounds silly, but sometimes secret thoughts have no real basis. That’s why we keep them secret.

There are some great sites with names as well that I have bookmarked and like to check out from time to time. A quick Google search will help you track some of these sites down. Gah, what did we do before Google?

One thing I have learned from another writer is to make sure not to give your characters names that begin with the same letter as it can be confusing to the reader. I think it’s a good tip, one I like to stick to.

For last names I usually check the telephone directory or the obituary column in the Halifax paper. While at a book signing for Bitter, Sweet, one lady bought my book because I’d used the last name Burbidge for the family in the story. She wondered where I’d found the name as she said it was her last name and not very common in these parts. Got that name from gleaning the telephone book, I told her.

After I make a list of possible names I begin to narrow the list down. Deciding what would sound appropriate for a particular character and which names I can immediately mark off the list. I like to get a feel for the name, get used to in my own mind, decide if it fits in with the setting and plot before I start using it. It kind of sounds a bit more complicated than it is. Still, if it’s a main character, I want to end up loving that name as much as I do the character I’m writing about.

How do you come up with character names? Do you have any special tips about naming your characters that you’d like to share?

Books That Go Bump in the Night

How many of you have been haunted? Was it a good experience or a bad one?

Okay, just so you know, I’m not talking about spooks or ghostly apparitions, ghouls or even goblins. I’m talking about books and characters, and those haunting stories you just can’t seem to shake. It’s not about horror or Stephen King, or any specific genre. A book capable of haunting you can be a book of any genre because it’s not the genre, it’s the book itself. You know what I mean, those characters brought to life on the page by their thoughts and actions, leaving you wondering just how the author was able to create such believable, and memorable characters.

Characters who live on after the story has expired, who leave us wondering and thinking about their actions, especially if it’s a character we’ve grown fond of, is not always an unpleasant experience. As a matter of fact it can be kind of fun as we speculate what might have happened had the story continued on. Sometimes we replay our favourite scenes one more time or relish a particular phrase or sentence. Have you been there, done that? I sure have.

This weekend we made a trip to New Brunswick. It is a four-hour drive so I took along a book to help pass the time. The book is one of those stories that haunted me from the very beginning. I was immediately drawn in. The main character wouldn’t leave me alone.

I feel sympathy for him. He’s the underdog. He’s being bullied and it’s horrible. I want him to do something to retaliate, to get back at those who are bullying him. But he takes matters into his own hands because he can’t think of a better way to deal with his situation and emotions. I don’t want him to, in fact I’m appalled at the action he does take, but it does little to change the fact that this book, this character haunted me on the trip home even after I laid the book down. He’s still the underdog and I’m still sympathetic. I’m entering Part Two, my feelings toward this character may change. My feelings should change, I even want them to, but I’m not so certain they will. Is there something wrong with me?

I’m a bit curious about my own emotions concerning this book.
As I read through the story, I’m reminded that for every criminal act we hear about in the news, there is a real person who committed this act, someone who has their own story to tell, who may be trying to deal with life the only way they can. There are things we don’t know, and aren’t privy to. That’s the way life is. We can’t be everywhere, know all things. It’s impossible. Life isn’t a book, a small sliver shaved off a few people’s lives and presented to us. Even if it were, it still wouldn’t make their criminal actions right. It would only inject a bit of understanding and reasoning to it. The book I’m reading does just that, and maybe that’s why it’s haunting me. The main character is so believable. He could be someone I’ve met or have known about. Perhaps he is even me, if I were in that same situation at that age. I can’t be sure.

I’m not certain what my best line of attack is, how best to deal with this haunting. Do I plough through the story just to get to the end, face whatever is awaiting me, get it over with? Or do I read a bit here and a bit there, let the story settle a little at a time, find ways to distract myself in the meantime, stretch it our for a week or more, and hope my main character atones for his actions?

How many of you have been haunted by a book you’ve read, by characters you just can’t shake, characters who get inside your head and don’t want to leave? And how did you tackle the book, a little at a time or in one big smash?

Those Two Little Words: The End

I just wrote a book, but don’t go out and buy it yet, because I don’t think it’s finished yet. ~~Lawerence Welk

I’m pretty sure most writers can relate to this quote. Two tough words for me to write has always been “the end.” As soon as those words are down I begin to have doubts. Is the masterpiece I slaved over for months or years truly finished, or have I just talked myself in to believing that this is the best I can do? Maybe, instead of writing “the end” I should simply write, “The End, I hope.”

This winter, while I was hard at work on my WIP, I thought I had come to the end on several occasions. In fact, I stubbornly declared at one point that no matter what, I was calling it complete, and nothing, but nothing, was going to change my mind. I mean, after all, if we don’t stop writing at some point we could continue to write on the same piece for the rest of our days. Let’s face it, there’s always something that can be improved upon.

So right when I thought nothing was going to change, that I was to write no more ( I delared it, I truly meant it so it must be so) something made me have a change of heart.

After feeling pretty good about coming to the end, I woke up one morning with a thought in my head that I needed to change a part of the story–a substantial part. Did the thought come to me in a dream? I’m pretty sure.

Now, how can you ignore something like that? I figured I might just as well experiment and see what I came up with even though I had my doubts. How was I going to show certain scenes in the story if I changed the POV to first person? How?

Although I do like first person it is limiting to some degree. The person narrating the story is not privy to everything that is going on, and yet life goes on around them and their own lives are impacted by the actions of others.

Sometimes when I have a story all figured out I forget the fact that nothing is written in stone. So what if a few things have to be changed in the plot, no big deal. A writer has to be flexible and a story needs to bend and sway sometimes.

Keeping in mind that it was something I was going to try on for size, I knew if I didn’t like it there would be no harm done. Almost immediately, I felt it was the right choice. Even though this changed some of the scenes in the story, I came to realize it was a matter of figuring how to tell this same story in a slightly different way. Sometimes the challenge in writing is figuring out the best way to tell the story, and it’s not always the way I thought it was going to be. And you know what? I don’t always get it right the first time, and neither will you. Sometimes it will take many attempts before I write those two little words and mean it, really mean it.

The end..

Have You Got Trouble?

“Every writer I know has trouble writing.”
Joseph Heller

Found this quote today. I nodded. Feels true– some days more than others. Okay, so writing doesn’t always feel like you’re being dragged through a knothole backwards. Sometimes the words flow smoothly and ideas jump onto the page, but there are times when you come upon those brick walls. Ouch! Those brick walls kind of hurt.

Last year I hit a brick wall. I was working on a new young adult novel. Things got off to a great start and I was totally into the story. Then one day I looked at what I was writing and became quite bored by it all. I couldn’t even be sure if what I’d written was complete drivel or not.

Sometimes boredom strikes me quite suddenly when I’m working on a story. It’s as if I can’t muster up the enthusiasm to keep going. Maybe I don’t know my characters well enough, maybe the plot feels stale, or maybe it’s just me being cranky and hard to get along with. Doubt starts drifting in. Is there any point in continuing? Does my writing suck? Are my characters one-dimensional? At that point I either decide to give myself a break from the story or else trudge on through.

Not every idea pans out but we can we give up too easily. You know, when the going gets tough…. And it’s likely to get tough at some point. It if doesn’t then you’re one lucky writer.

Sometimes we make it a bit too easy to back away from challenges. We don’t want to do what it takes to see our story through to the end. We abandon it, sometimes forever.

Luckily, the little break I took last year from my novel was exactly what I needed. Did I stop writing during that time? Not at all. I’ve got plenty of stories on the go, ones I like to work on in between times, and if all else fails I have some work that can use revising.

Sometimes taking a bit of a break is the right thing to do. We return to that stale piece of fiction with renewed enthusiasm.

A few months later, I returned to my WIP. I looked at what I’d previously written and decided I wanted to continue with it. I really liked my main character. I just had a lot of hard work ahead of me. Mind you, it still took some time for me to decide just how I was going to tell that story. I had to try different things to see which ones worked and which ones didn’t. Even after the story was written I couldn’t decide it the POV was just right.

Did I have trouble writing it? Oh yeah. I’m happy to say that I finally made it through to the end. Not only did I make it through to the end, I made it through with that same enthusiasm I had when I first started. Yay me!

Do you agree with Joseph Heller that every writer has trouble writing? What do you do when you’re experiencing trouble writing, do you trudge though your first draft or do you take a break?

Who’s Really in Control?

I love starting a new story. A blank page, or computer screen in today’s world, is filled with so many possibilities. I usually begin with a character. If I’m lucky that character might just pop into my head right out of the blue, and start speaking to me the way Pru Burbidge did when I wrote Bitter, Sweet.

Once I have my main character in place I have faith that the plot will eventually unfold. I usually have a broad sense ahead of time of what’s going to take place. It’s just a matter of moving from one scene to the next. I know— it sounds so simple. Doesn’t it?  Things tend to go along quite smoothly when we stay in control and we writers do have complete control over the page.

Um…Did I say complete control?

Maybe not so complete.

Sometimes a writer may have one idea about the story they’re working on, but one of their characters might not be so cooperative. Easy to get in a tug-of-war over some seemingly small issue all because some know it all doesn’t want to do things our way. We say go left but, oh no, they insist on going right. Who do they really think they are? Talk about ungrateful!  I mean, we’re the ones who create these characters, we breathe life into them, give them names, we are right there when they utter their first words on the page. But then we let them take those first few steps unattended, and the first thing we know they want to run the whole show.

I’m pretty sure most writers have come up against this exact scenario at one time or another. It might sound rather strange to those of you who do not write fiction, but I can assure you that many of the writers who are reading this are likely nodding their heads. Sometimes a writer thinks they have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen in a story, and right when we think we have it figured out we discover that we were totally mistaken.The story takes a completely different turn altogether. We end up scratching our heads in dismay.

I’m reminded of how in “real life” we become exasperated with the people around us for these exact reasons. We can’t understand why they make the choices they do or, why they fail to take our advise or, live up to our expectations. Why won’t they just do it the way we would? Why do they insist upon going their own way?

A good writer must sometimes  just allow a character to choose their own path, especially when said character is totally capable of making their own decisions. Just as a writer might have to relinquish control over their plots, so is it true in real life. There is no point in our becoming annoyed at someone simply because we cannot control the decisions they make. It is their life after all. As I write this I’m reminded of a particular person in my life, whose failure to meet  with change, often causes me grit my teeth. But I know it is my own selfishness, my own need to control their behaviour, that causes me irritation. I know that my annoyance really has nothing to do with their behaviour at all.  So from now on I’m going to practise acceptance and understing. They are just being the person they are. and nothing more. I may sometimes need to remind myself of this  from time to time, but I’m certainly going to make an effort.

I’ll push aside my own need to control, my own wrong beliefs that somehow I know what’s best for this person, just as I would for one of my character who keeps insisting left when I said right.

Acceptance often does lead to a peaceful ressolution. Doesn’t it?

Something to Talk About

This week has been a busy one. Yesterday I spent the day out in the beautiful Annapolis Valley with two friends. We did some shopping, had lunch and spent the day laughing and being silly. Days like that usually remind me that I really need to get out more often. During the winter months I tend to live like a hermit. So thanks Judi and Bonnie for your gift of friendship. It means a lot to this hermit!

Of course a day out would hardly be complete for me without a trip to the bookstore. I had a pleasant surprise yesterday as we were entering the mall for the second time. I ran into someone I hadn’t seen for many years. She wanted to show me that she had just bought two copies of my book for her kids. So I ended up signing them for her. She asked me about a character in the book, if he was so and so, who would have lived in the community years ago. Apparently she had already read the book, and she and her sister were curious about it. I guess it caught me of guard because I never dreamed anyone would see any resemblance between my fictitious characters and real people. (The story happened years before I was born.) I assured her, I had made everyone up, but I thought it was interesting that it had kept them wondering and thinking. She was also curious as to who the “busybody” in the story was. Nothing wrong with having folks discussing your book, I say.

I’ve had many adults contact me to tell me they’ve read the book. It’s something that all authors appreciate hearing. Earlier this week, I received an email from a young adult who was reading the book—the first feedback from my target audience—so it seemed like a noteworthy event. I was thrilled! It was one of the signed copies I’d left behind at one of the bookstores I visited last fall, and was purchased as a Christmas gift.

So I’ll end this post with a thank you to those who take a moment to send along their thoughts on my book—young or old or in between. Your comments are a welcomed addition to any day!!

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