On Writer’s Block

I’ll let you in on a secret: I haven’t written a word in two months. This is a highly unusual state of affairs for me. Even when the words aren’t flowing easily, and there have been lots of times when they haven’t, there are words most days, or at least most weeks. Only deliberate vacations, when I’ve needed to refill the well and spend time with family, have kept me from writing for any length of time, and never two months. Even when I do take an intentional break, I jot down some notes about the holiday as a way of keeping the writing muscles limber while I step back from fiction. As a writer, I’ve bemoaned the frustrating times when what shows up on the page is wrong, wrong wrong; when nothing I type is worth keeping; when things just aren’t going well. But I’ve never gone two months without crafting even one fictional sentence. Valid stuff knocked me off my game, and I knew I’d have to be patient with myself in finding my way back. But I did not know it would go on long enough that starting again would be so very difficult. I spent hours yesterday doing Anything But Writing, when I’d promised myself I was going to dip my toes back in the pool, even if only for fifteen minutes. The avoidance infuriated me, even though I was the one guilty of it, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. I can only think it must be rooted in the fear of the words never coming back, of trying and failing for good. But the truth is it’s not easier not to try. It’s excruciating. I’m a big fan of the idea that writers write. If you’re a writer, you sit down and do the work, day after day, week after week, year after year, like anyone in any other job. But I also know that life happens. To writers. To everyone. And there are times when life gets in the way of work, no matter how hard you try to keep doing a decent job. I managed to keep the day job on track when life got in the way, but I lost the writing for awhile. This week, I’m getting it back. Even if it means a few days of doing all the laundry, cleaning all the fountain pens, dusting all the bookshelves, running all the errands, and participating in whatever other avoidance strategies my subconscious can come up with, there will be words this week. The time has come. And those words will breed more words. And so on, and so on, like a shampoo commercial. I only have to get started. If you’ve been struggling to get words on paper, know you’re not alone. It happens, even to those of us who would prefer not to have to believe in writer’s block. The important part is not letting the inertia win. It’s hard to get the ball rolling when it stops, but once you get it going, keeping it moving is so much easier than starting over. That’s my plan: lean against the ball until it shifts just a smidgen, then push it a little more and a little more until it’s rolling smoothly again. Share...

Mastering Writing Craft?

I was skimming through a bunch of blog posts recently, and came across one that said an unnamed “famous” writer had mastered his craft and no longer needed editorial help. I’ve since lost track of where I read it, but the sentence stood out to me, making me want to yell various things at my computer screen. When the feeling didn’t go away, I figured I’d write about it instead. Ask a dozen writers how to write, and you’ll probably get a dozen different answers. But among the plotters and pantsers, the morning writers and the middle-of-the-night ones, one consistent piece of advice almost always crops up: learn your craft. The thing is, though, that learning one’s craft is not a finite thing. The more we write, the more we improve. True of most things in life that we work at, no? There’s a reason why you’ll find professional development conferences or courses available to people already working in just about every field, including writing. At the conference I coordinate, it’s very common to find multi-bestselling authors sitting alongside beginners at workshops, both of them equally eager to learn, even if what they take away from the sessions is completely different because of what each of them already knows going in. There is no such thing as total mastery. Mastery, yes. Perfection? No. There is always more to learn, just as there is in any other job. As writers, we all have our personal blind spots. We can learn to catch a lot of them in our own edits, sure, but we’re too close to our own work to ever see it as clearly as fresh eyes can. Even the very best writers among us rely on good editors for that. The stronger we get as writers, the more the nature of the editorial help we need changes, but it doesn’t disappear. Look at the acknoweldgments page of books written by the most successful authors you know, and you’ll often find first readers and editors thanked by name for making the book better. That’s not an accident. We should never get so enamoured of our own words on the page that we think we no longer need an editor. The truth is that if you become a bestselling author with a name that sells books, what you need is not no editorial help, but rather a strong editor, one who’s willing to speak up, even if you’re famous and successful, to ensure the book that goes out with your name on it shows your mastery of craft to best advantage. This is equally true in traditional and self-publishing. Author Diana Gabaldon is often quoted for her three rules of writing. She says, “Read. Write. Don’t stop.” That’s it. Don’t stop. And for the love of good books, don’t ever stop believing you need an editor. Share...

Three Things on a Friday Afternoon

This topic came up in a random conversation the other day, and I thought it was a fun one to put on the blog, mostly because I’d really love to hear your own answers to this: what are three things most people probably don’t know about you? I found it hard to come up with three, being a relatively open book with people who know me, but I gave it a shot: 1. I can read (phonetically, but mostly not for comprehension) Cyrillic. So if it’s written in Russian or related languages, I can sound it out, even if I don’t know what it means. 2. When I was ten, I won a poetry contest with a poem written from the POV of a harried new mother. Seems an odd thing for a ten-year-old to write about, in retrospect. 3. I have never smoked anything, unless you count the salmon we caught and put in the smoker when I was a kid. Do tell. What three things don’t I know about you? Share...

Catching up on Links

Today is one of those rare days when I’m taking an hour to catch up on reading all the cool links I’ve clicked through to and left sitting open on my browser until I have so many windows open my computer is struggling to breathe. Among them is stuff that might be of interest to you, so I thought I’d share it here. I’ve lost track by now of who pointed me to which link, but thank you to all who post interesting things I do eventually find a few minutes to look at! Jennifer Weiner on what she calls “Goldfinching”: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/24/good-books-women-readers-literary-critics-sexism K.M Weiland offers a useful Story Structure Database where you can have a look at the plot structure of books and movies you’ve already read or seen to see how they do what they do: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/story-structures/page/31/ This giveaway on smartbitchestrashybooks.com is over, but the comments it inspired are wonderful snippets of people’s lives. Well worth a read: http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2015/11/giveaway-grape-escapes-memoirs-and-a-market-basket/ An interview about how Mary Robinette Kowal learned to tell good stories. This line resonated with me particularly: “So back up a little bit, remind yourself why you were excited about the story in the first place, and then write that story. It sounds very flippant, but it really makes a difference when you start thinking: ‘what is it I want to read?” http://www.wiltgren.com/2015/11/23/learning-to-write-good-stories-reliably-an-interview-with-mary-robinette-kowal/ Share...

Women’s Fiction: Your Favourite Quiet Reads

I write what are typically called “quiet books”, women’s fiction with character-driven stories about relationships and the choices we make and human emotions and all that good stuff. Not surprisingly, those are also the kinds of books I love to read. Thanks to (the perfect) thank you gift I received in the form of a Chapters gift card, I have no choice but to buy books. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Like there is EVER any choice about buying books!) So I want to know what I’m missing. What quiet books or otherwise great women’s fiction have you read this last year or so that you’ve found yourself thinking about after the fact and recommending to friends? Who are the characters who’ve stayed with you long after you closed the book? Please share! I know there are many great books out there I haven’t yet heard of, and I’d love to know what some of them are. Thank you! Share...

SiWC 2015

As anyone reading this likely already knows, I have just wrapped up a full year of work that culminated, as it always does, in the gathering of hundreds of writers at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. It’s always bittersweet for me when the conference is over. It’s wonderful to experience the conference through the eyes of the attendees, volunteers, and presenters who take the time to share with me, and it’s gratifying to see people discover the nugget that makes the whole event worthwhile for them. I love that. But it’s also sad to see it end, and to know, much like cooking a very complicated meal and watching it be eaten, that it will live only in memory, fully consumed and never to be experienced in exactly the same way ever again. This September, I had the privilege and pleasure of participating in the Writing Excuses Retreat with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and more than a hundred other writers aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Over drinks one night on the ship, someone asked me about SiWC. When I finished talking (probably too much) about it, one of the guys told me I light up when I talk about it. I have no doubt that’s true. It’s because this work is a labour of love, and it means more to me than I can express, almost entirely because of the people who come and make it special for me and for each other every year. Every year, I do my best to slow down every now and again in the midst of the craziness to be present for conversations and to really hear what people have to say and to get to know them a little. This year, that resulted in a lot of teary eyes – mine and theirs – and some lovely connections, too. These are the things that make the conference especially meaningful for me. Thank you to all of you. I won’t come close to mentioning you all here, because there are more of these moments over four days than I can possibly mention in one post, and I don’t want to betray any confidences, but here’s just a tiny, anonymized (how do you like that made up word?) sample of my own personal highlights of this year’s conference. I think those of you who find yourselves described here will know who you are. – Talking to a first-time attendee who’d decided by Friday night that we’re going to be her annual conference, in part because she felt at home and comfortable and safe with us. When I hear something like that, it makes me feel very much like we’re doing something right, and it meant the world to me. – Discovering that a repeat attendee I already like very much took it upon herself to invite newbies to sit with her at meals and join her in the bar. I don’t know if she knows she made me cry listening to her talk about that, and what it meant to her, but she did. – Managing to say the exact right thing at the right time to someone doing a very good job who needed to hear it. (Yes, more tears.) – Meeting new people who felt like old friends. – Meeting old friends who came into my life through this conference or the Compuserve Books and Writers forum and finding once again that we pick up where we left off whenever we get together. – Being blown away by the lengths people – attendees and presenters alike – went to to contribute to our silent auction or simply to get to the conference when the odds were stacked against them. – Watching a dear friend speak bravely to a captivated audience, and hearing afterward about some of the people who’d really needed to hear what she had to say. – Seeing attendees connect with others, light up because a workshop resonated with them, shine because they got work requested or had a blue pencil that went especially well, and go home exhausted and inspired all at the same time. And of course there is so much more. I hope some of you know who you are and what you and the moments we shared at SiWC mean to me. Thank you to all who came to the conference and added to the magic this year. I appreciate each and every one of you. You make this job a very special one I am very lucky to have. Share...

Scotland Photos

A few people have been asking me to see photos of my trip to Scotland in May. I flew to Edinburgh, and from there worked my way up to Elgin, where I met up with my parents, who were touring around, too, to spend several days touring all the family history areas of the country in Morayshire and the West Highlands. After that, I worked my way down the west and back to where I started, ending my trip in Dunfermline, with a day trip to St. Andrews on my last full day before I flew out of Edinburgh for home. You can see a gallery of my pictures here, if you’re interested. Share...