My Writing Process

People often ask me about my writing process. I’m almost always working on two novels at any given time–one in the first draft stage, and one in revisions. Since NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow, I thought this would be a good time to put into words how I work on my stories.

I typically let an idea roll around in my imagination for a long time before I put anything down on paper. The idea will marinate and grow, and some characters will come into focus. This can take weeks or months, depending on the idea. If I like it well enough, I’ll type up a quick summary and save it in a folder on my desktop titled “Novel Ideas.” Sometimes an idea will stay here for years before I do anything with it.

There is supposedly a big divide between “Plotters”–those writers who plot our their stories in advance–and “Pantsers–those who write by the seat of their pants. In reality, many writers fall somewhere in the middle. I’m no exception, though I’m pretty minimalist in my planning, so I’m probably 90% Pantser.

Once I decide I want to write a particular story, I’ll type out a two-page summary of what the story is about–all the things I’ve been imagining about this story and its characters for the last several months (or years). I include major plot points, character names, how characters are related, etc. I like to have a pretty good idea who my main characters are, so I’ll include lots of biographical details about the main characters (that may or may not make it into the final version of the novel). Sometimes I’ll write up a one-page bio of a main character; and sometimes I’ll skip that step. Then, after that minimum of planning, I jump right into writing the first draft.

NaNoWriMo is a great way to start or expand a first draft, since it’s all about turning off the internal editor and just letting your imagination run wild on the page. You just write, and don’t worry about it. It really is fun, and I often surprise myself with what comes out of my brain. With my little two-page summary as a guide, I can usually keep from blowing too far off-course, but I still have lots of wiggle room for creativity and wild subplots.

After November, it usually takes me a couple of months to finish a first draft. I’ll do some clean-up as I go, but no major editing yet (unless I have to fill a major plot-hole). Meanwhile, I’ll submit the story ten pages at a time to my monthly critique group. They get first pass at edit suggestions, and their comments always help me with my second-draft (and sometimes third-draft) revisions. And meanwhile, I’m usually starting a first draft of something else.

It usually takes me about a year to eighteen months to get a story cleaned up enough that I want to give it to a handful of beta readers to review the entire thing, start to finish. This is always a bit of a nerve-wracking time, though also kind of exciting. I have been fortunate to have some great beta readers for my stories, who have provided all kinds of helpful feedback. They help me improve the story in ways that I couldn’t do alone.

Even after all of that, I usually give the story a couple of more read-throughs, catching little things I want to change. An out-loud read always reveals something that doesn’t flow quite right, even after many sets of eyes have been over it. And even after a book is ready to publish, I get a Proof copy of the print edition, and I give it still one more read-through to check formatting, and usually catch one or two little errors here.

So there it is. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to write a good novel, and why it always takes writers so long, this is why. I hope you enjoyed this little insight into my process!

UW-Madison Writers Institute

I just came home yesterday from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writers Institute, and it was a very good conference. I learned a lot, met a lot of very nice people, and came home energized and excited about writing and being a writer.

The conference was very welcoming, everyone was friendly, the staff were helpful and nice, and the conference director (Laurie Scheer) was accessible and always available. There were a variety of topics covered, something for every writer, and for the most part I found the presenters knowledgeable and helpful (a couple of them could have been better prepared or practiced, though). At any conference, some of the sessions will be better than others, and occasionally one won’t live up to your expectations of what it would be, and that’s normal–but the presenter should always be polished, and I suggested that as a (minor) future improvement.

I was pleasantly surprised by the level of support and encouragement the conference and its presenters gave to different pathways to publication, not just the traditional–self-publishing was touted equally with traditional publishing, the pros and cons of each path were outlined honestly and without bias, and there were discussions of the different ways to independently publish (do-it-yourself and hybrid/assisted). I found that wonderfully supportive, and notable.

The one big critique I had–and I pointed this out both in person to the director, and on the evaluation survey–is that the faculty/presenters were not very diverse. Of the 38 speakers, all but one were white. There was slightly more diversity among the attendees, but I still found minorities to be under-represented.

When I brought this up in person to Laurie Scheer, she was very receptive, and said that in the past they have had more minority speakers (racial/ethnic as well as LGBT) on the faculty, and it is something that they strive for. She explained that they put out calls for proposals, and send the call to a diverse group of authors/agents/editors; but that this year almost all of the proposals had come from white individuals. I can empathize with her frustration, and know it is not easy, but at the same time I feel that more can be done to ensure a diverse set of voices.

I chose to attend the Writers Institute this year after receiving the sad news in January that the Midwest Writers Workshop for 2018 was cancelled while they restructure and rebuild the conference. I have written previously about what happened with MWW this year, so I won’t rehash any of that here. Overall, I found the Writers Institute had the same general structure and feel as MWW, similar size and format, same Midwestern hospitality, but with a few notable differences.

There were about 300 attendees at this year’s Writers Institute, which is very close to the 330 or so who usually attend MWW. The panels and break-out sessions were structured similarly, and covered a similar range of topics. If pushed, I would say that MWW does a slightly better job of ensuring good presenters, but overall it was very similar. On the flip-side, I would say that the Writers Institute does a better job of spotlighting different paths to publication; I know Jane Friedman always covers this in her annual mid-conference speech at MWW, but otherwise MWW focuses pretty heavily on traditional-publishing. Incidentally, Jane will be one of the presenters at next year’s Writers Institute.

Midwest Writers Workshop is still my “home” conference, and my hope continues to be that MWW comes back in 2019 better than ever–but time will tell. Regardless of what may come with MWW, I would be happy to attend the UW-Madison Writers Institute again in the future, and would recommend it to others.

Concerning Midwest Writers Workshop

The time has come to put together my thoughts and feelings on the recent conflict that has surrounded the Midwest Writers Workshop (MWW). I have allowed myself a good deal of time to absorb and process all of the news, and it has not been easy. To say the least.

It’s no secret that I’ve been a devoted fan of MWW, and have attended every year since 2012. I’ve encouraged other writers to check out MWW. I have made so many good friends at MWW over the years, and it has come to be my “home” writers conference. I always felt it to be a warm and welcoming conference, and a very friendly and welcoming group of people–which only makes it all the harder to realize that this may not have been completely true. I am not exaggerating when I say that the recent revelations have been heart-breaking, and difficult to work through. I haven’t always known how to feel, as what I read seemed so contrary to what I had experienced personally. It’s really hard to look behind a beautiful façade at the ugliness that is hidden from view, which I am sad to say is exactly what has happened. The truth has brought me close to tears several times.

For those who are unaware, here is a brief recap:

Sometime last fall, a young woman who has been a dedicated and hard-working intern at MWW for five years was nominated for the planning committee, along with another individual. Someone on the Board of Directors made the comment that MWW shouldn’t have someone who looked like her representing them; and for clarification, specified that he/she meant someone “fat.” Apparently only one person challenged this, and the intern in question was voted onto the planning committee, along with the other individual. She was never offered the seat, however; the other individual was.

Word of this got out on Twitter on January 9th. The intern in question had been informed about what happened by her friend on the Board who had spoken up. She vented to another writer friend, Roxanne Gay, who called MWW out publically in a twitter thread. It went viral. Writers, agents, and editors who were slated to be on the 2018 faculty pulled out (some publicly, others quietly). Much of the response was ugly. The call-out was completely justified, but as often happens on social media, the vitriol of the response was not entirely warranted. MWW at first attempted lame half-apologies that were later deleted, only making matters worse, and finally posted a lengthy and–I thought–sincere and heart-felt apology on Facebook and Twitter the next day (1/10/2018).

Like many fans of MWW, I was relieved. They offered to work with the victimized intern to make things right, and issued her an “invitation to help us define what ‘making this right’ looks like for her.” I had hope that things could heal.

Fast forward one week. The Board member who had informed the intern of the issue (someone I ‘ve known since 2012) was fired from the board on January 17th for “betrayal of trust.” I was shocked. Any hope that MWW could “make things right” disappeared when they fired the whistle-blower. Many of my friends had already said that they would not attend MWW this year, and our group had on-going discussions about alternatives–but I had still held hope that MWW could make corrections and move on. Now, that hope had been shattered in one stupid move.  It was heart-breaking.

On Friday (1/19/2018), MWW announced that they were cancelling the 2018 conference while they “put together a board and planning committee that are more representative of the population of writers we have been honored to serve.” Much about their statement was good–admitting fault, taking concrete steps to address the underlying issue of lack of diversity on the Board–but they screwed up yet again by focusing in part on how hard this was for their “all volunteer” board and committee. They also failed to address the firing of the whistle-blower.

With all of this considered, I have to say that at this point I can’t see myself participating in MWW in the future. I hate having to write that. I can’t describe how much I hate it. MWW still has a LOT of work to do to regain the trust they have lost in the writing community. The best thing about writers, something I love about most writers, is how supportive we are of one another. To find out that my beloved “home” writers conference does not actually support all writers, is just heart-breaking. I know I’ve used that term “heart-breaking” a lot in this post, but I have no better word to describe how this all feels.

I will be fine. The other writers I know and love will also be just fine. There are a lot of good writers conferences out there, and this has prompted me to spend time investigating more of them. I hope and pray that someday, Midwest Writers Workshop can regain our trust. With what we’ve seen this month, however, I am not going to hold my breath.

Writers Digest Conference 2017

I just got home from the 2017 Writers Digest Conference in New York, and what an experience! The presenters were fantastic, and I learned so much.  I went to WDC determined to learn more about the business of being an author, and I was not disappointed.  Of course, I also learned more about the craft of writing, and met some amazing authors and future authors.

I have been to many writers conferences over the last eight years, but this was my first WDC.  I’ve wanted to go to this conference for many years, primarily because of the location (I love New York) and their famous Pitch Slam.  I was not disappointed.

During the pitch slam, 150 attendees are released into a big room with about 60 agents at tables around the perimeter, and you pitch a project to as many of these agents as you can in one hour.  You have three minutes with each, and then they ring a bell and you move on to the next agent you want, usually waiting in line.  I did some research before, and narrowed my list to eighteen prospective agents who seem to like the kind of work that I write, some higher on the list than others.  I didn’t have any serious strategy going in, having never done this kind of thing before, and in the end I was only able to pitch Gray Paree to five agents during the hour–but four of them requested pages, and two were very enthusiastic about the story and said they were looking forward to it.  I can’t tell you how amazing that feels!

Other writers I talked to afterward pitched to anywhere from five to eight agents during the Pitch Slam, and most got requests from at least a couple.  I felt very good about getting requests from four, so in the coming days I will be working on that.

The conference was much bigger than Midwest Writers Workshop–about 1,000 attendees as opposed to about 400 at MWW–and as a result it felt a lot less intimate, not as easy to get to know other writers, a little easier to get lost in the crowd.  At MWW, you run into your friends all the time, and can chat about sessions, where they’re going next, what they’re doing for lunch, etc.; at WDC that happened a lot less–I would occasionally run into people I’d met, and have to make my way to them through the crowd to chat for a few minutes, but if it was sort of haphazard, and not easy to make plans, even with people I had gotten to know beforehand through the Facebook group page.  Even so, I’m pleased to have met a handful of people with whom I’ll keep in touch.

WDC and MWW are very different conferences, and there were things I liked better about each.  The content and the energy at WDC were amazing, and the Pitch Slam was well worth it–and who knows what future impact those agents may have on my career? I got four requests, y’all! The nurturing atmosphere of MWW, its location close to home, and lower cost mean it will continue to be my “home” conference that I attend every year, without fail.  I will most likely go back to WDC in the future, but probably after a few years.

All About the Characters

Almost a year ago, I received a very nice personal rejection letter from a literary agent that I had met at Midwest Writers Workshop, and in it he described Gray Paree as “literary fiction,” which he does not really represent.  This really surprised me–I have always queried or pitched agents who represent historical fiction and mysteries, and have always considered my work to fall in these genres.  I expressed this surprise to a writer friend (who also happens to be represented by this particular agent), and she said that he was almost certainly correct.

Fast forward to May of this year.  This same friend served as a beta reader for The Jade Dragon.  Among her many awesome and insightful comments, she noted that the story reads to her as upmarket/literary historical in style, more than genre mystery.  She noted as example all of the complex character development, and the focus on the character arc more than the mystery itself.

I have long strived to write good character-driven fiction, and I love exploring the psychology of my characters, and especially how their family and/or religious backgrounds inform the way they interact with others (and themselves).  To me, that’s some of the most fun in writing fiction! For some reason, though, I just never made the connection between this as my personal style, and the label “Literary Fiction”–which carries with it both status and baggage for a writer.

Wikipedia notes that literary fiction generally focuses on:

  • “concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition”–Check!
  • “a focus on introspective, in-depth character studies of interesting, complex and developed characters, whose inner stories drive the plot”–Check!
  • and “concern with the style and complexity of the writing…”–OK, not so much.

Still, two out of three should tell me something, right? It’s Pride Month, a time to be ourselves openly and honestly, so in that spirit I’m embracing it, and even celebrating it–I write upmarket/literary historical fiction! That’s me.  That’s who I am as a writer.

And that feels good.

Spring 2017 Update

It’s been a while since I posted an update, but there is a lot to report for this spring.

First, In a Safe Town has been well-received, earning five 5-star reviews on Amazon in its first three months. This has been very gratifying, and I am so happy that readers are enjoying the story.

I have been working on two manuscripts since November–The Jade Dragon, and the prequel to The Swiss Conspiracy that I wrote during NaNoWriMo this year–and both should be in the hands of Beta readers in the next few weeks.

On March 25, I attended the Indiana Writers Center’s annual Gathering of Writers. It was great to reconnect with some local writers, and to meet a couple of new writer friends. Bryan Leung delivered a great keynote address, and as usual there were insightful tips in the breakout sessions.

I’ve signed up for not one, but two writers’ conferences this summer. I’m excited for my sixth annual trip to Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie in July, which is always a highlight of the year for me. I will also attend the Writers Digest Conference in New York in August, and I am very excited about this new opportunity, especially their much-lauded agent pitch slam. This will allow me to pitch Gray Paree to dozens of prospective literary agents in a very exciting atmosphere. Plus, I love going to New York.

The Jade Dragon should be available for purchase on Amazon by the end of May. My hope is to have the yet-to-be-titled prequel published in June or July. Watch for future posts!

Release This Weekend

I am very excited to announce that In a Safe Town (fka Murder at Sutton’s Pond) will be released in eBook format this weekend, and available on Amazon. The paperback edition will be released next week, and will also be available on Amazon. I have been working on this novel for many years, and I am so happy to finally make it available to readers.

I continue to work on The Jade Dragon, my next mystery, and plan to have it ready for release in early 2017.

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and I plan to use the month to write the noir-style mystery prequel that I began this summer featuring Martin Schuller, who is the protagonist of my (unpublished) WWII spy novel The Swiss Conspiracy. I have a basic plot in mind, along with some secondary characters; I’ve done a little research, and I’m excited to see where the frantic pace of NaNoWriMo takes this story. This will be my fifth consecutive NaNoWriMo, and it is always a thrilling experience.

It is a very busy, but very exciting time!