On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stephen King: On WritingI read two books on writing in the last month or so: The First Fifty Pages by Jeff Gerke and On Writing by Stephen King. Two very different books with very different messages. I talked about The First Fifty Pages in one of my posts last month – it reads more like a how to manual or a recipe book which kind of suits me, because for over forty years I have done little without a step-by-step manual. Everything is concrete, this is how it’s done, don’t stray from the recipe for fear of, I don’t know – maybe World War 3 is going to break out or something. Don’t get me wrong, I love this book and I think it has real value.

“Be honest in your voice…” S.K.

On Writing is just the opposite. Stephen King writes about himself from childhood to the present. Half the book is memoir, maybe more than half, and I have to admit I was wondering what all the hype was about. But then came the connection.  Bring out the artist. Just write what you want. Be honest in your voice, don’t write for others or the buck. Write the truth, write well, be smart and it will happen.

“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot…” S.K.

When I started writing I realized I needed to limit things that consumed my writing time – TV, mindless surfing, and reading. Stephen King gave me the okay to read again, insisted on it actually, saying, “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.” I like that.

“By the time I was fourteen…the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. ..I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” S.K.

What a relief. Stephen King (and probably every other author) has been rejected. This is normal. And the creative process takes time. This is normal. Stephen King started writing when he was in his early teens, but his first book, Carrie, wasn’t published until a couple of years after he finished University.

What else is normal? There will always be those who just don’t understand:

Teacher: “What I don’t understand, Stevie,” she said, “is why you’d write junk like this in the first place.”

“Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.” S.K.

“My wife made a crucial difference…If she had suggested that writing stories …was wasted time, I think a lot of the heart would have gone out of me….whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”

And whereas many people and books will tell you that plot and outlining and theme are the most important things, Stephen King says he’s never plotted: “I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” I wanted to jump for joy when I read that. The story comes first “…and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.”

Ironically, Stephen King, who writes horror books, makes me feel normal. He’s a writer, I’m a writer. He’s been doing it for a very long time. I haven’t. He’s been through it all: rejection, waiting, acceptance. I haven’t.

What he’s given me is some more tools for the tool box and now it is time to get back to writing.

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One Week in A Writer’s Life

A Week of  Writing, Head Stands, Ice Skating, and Aha Moments. Don’t worry – I’ve left out the boring parts.

December 3

  • Post blog December Update  in which I write:  I think I’ve finally decided what the first chapter will be and that’s actually a HUGE ACCOMPLISHMENT.

December 4

  • Receive six critiques on Chapter 1. Lots of really nice comments like this one:

“…First of all I would like to say it is exciting to see someone who has lived in India for two years rather than a vacation but still has the outsider’s perspective writing about India. I also thought your writing was excellent….”

Some that made me laugh like this one:

“…LOL- now that is not an Indian accent. Sounds more Mexican…”

And a couple like this:

“…This seems like an anecdote. There needs to be more tension…”

I nod my head and make note to self: Add story to anecdote. Laughs…sort of.

December 5

  • Now reading: The First Fifty Pages: Engage Agents, Editors and Readers, and Set Your Novel Up For Success by Jeff Gerke

December 6

  • The First Fifty Pages makes a lot of sense. There must be a story question. What does the main character want and does she get it? Racking brain, I know how India changed me but did I really go there looking for something? It’s not as easy as Eat, Pray, Love – miserable, divorced woman searching for love and she finds it. Or Holy Cow, which was all about a woman who goes to India and explores spirituality.
  • I need to explore what was going on in my life before we went to India: I had Meniere’s disease for six years, I had to quit work (Operating Room Nurse) because of it. I was bored – housework, grocery shopping, driving the kids around to activities. I started taking writing courses and published a few articles.
  • I won’t bore you with the rest but I’m delving into myself. Came across this funny and posted it on Facebook with the caption:

“Watch out parents I’m writing about myself today (laughs hysterically)”:

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Oh, don’t worry, it’s not that kind of book. I’m just figuring it all out.

December 7

  • Read some more of The First Fifty Pages.
  • Go to a friend’s house for dinner. Walk inside and friend says, “Bad day.” I hear the sound of a young child projectile vomiting. The Exorcist comes to mind. Friend’s husband says, “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s just Norwalk.” Notes to self: 1) Don’t touch anything, and, 2) Possible short story?

December 8

  • Half way through The First Fifty Pages. Getting a grasp on it. Many options.

December 9

  • Finish 3/4 of the book (The First Fifty Pages)
  • Break time: Go ice-skating outside!

Ice Skating

  • Listen to Macklemore Same Love.
  • Finish The First Fifty Pages.

December 10

  • Procrastinate – now I’m a real writer!
  • Watch WestJet Holiday Miracle Video. Isn’t it wonderful? I’m crying. Tears fall onto touchpad – touchpad stops working. What the…? Panic.
  • Do headstand  and contemplate deleting Facebook “Author” Page. Of course, I don’t want to lose my Facebook Followers. Ideally I would prefer people to sign up on my website for email updates.

practice.1

  • Now that I have finished The First Fifty Pages I’m off to Starbucks create the best first sentence, the best first page: The Best First Fifty Pages and Beyond.

Any words of wisdom? What’s important to you in The First Fifty Pages of a book? Would you sign up to receive email updates instead of Facebook? Let me know what you think in the comments section. Thanks!

December Update

Writing

I am writing. My book is still untitled, but coming ever-closer to THE END. Since I began writing a couple of years ago, I’ve pounded out more than 100,000 words. Now, as I revise and rewrite a second and third draft, I know that a good chunk of that hard work will not end up in the book. But I had to write it all down. I had to go through the process.

I have agonized over the beginning of the book and I think I’ve finally decided what the first chapter will be and that’s actually a HUGE ACCOMPLISHMENT. Now I can work on putting the chapters in order, though I know I still have to work some things out with the story itself – the theme and the purpose – and weave it all together. And that is probably my biggest goal right now.

Social Media

Social Media is a love hate relationship. It  really sucks the life out of me. Strangely, I like it – maybe too much. Everyone says “you must have a platform” and yes, I think it’s probably true. But it’s time-consuming – blogging, tweeting, posting updates. It definitely takes time away from writing.

Learning

I am always learning about both writing and social media. I’ve always been an avid reader, but I’ve never really thought about how books are constructed. Where in the story does the book start? Is there backstory? What is the message or theme and how does the author make us care? So now I’m spending some time reading other books in my genre and dissecting them.  Grammar  and punctuation – writing well – is a big part of it, too, and I’m always checking the proper use of tense, apostrophes, italics, and well, just about everything.

The web plays a big part in learning. Jane Friedman’s is one of the few websites I read regularly for all things writing and publishing. And online writing groups are awesome. Ask a question day or night and it will be answered. Post work, have it critiqued, learn lots. Conferences and workshops are valuable too. The web is awesome but getting out and meeting real people is good for the soul.

I’ll keep you up to date on my writing, but let me know what’s new with you too. Also if you have any website recommendations – I’d love to hear about them. Happy Writing!

The Bliss Point

Candy

In the food industry The Bliss Point is the perfect balance of sugar, fat and salt in processed foods – the ultimate taste that hooks consumers and keeps them wanting more.

A good writer creates a different kind of Bliss Point. It’s the perfect balance of imagery, dialogue, characterization, pacing, and plot  – the ultimate combination that hooks readers and keeps them turning the pages.

Books

Scientists go to great lengths producing palatable foods that people will hunger for. Writers go to great lengths scrambling and unscrambling black specks on white paper. Revising. Rewriting.

Too much or too little brings about The Goldilocks Syndrome. Whether it is sugar or fat, description or dialogue. Too much or too little and the consumer will be unsatisfied or bored. A perfect balance is needed to bring fulfillment – it’s just right.

Of course, The Bliss Point created by the food industry is only a matter of taste. The effects? Short-lived with no benefits. It’s all a sham. On the other hand, The Bliss Point created by a writer educates and entertains, captivates and delights. The effects? Long-lasting with positive outcomes. It nourishes… for real.

Aspiring Voices Interview: Nancy Zrymiak

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Here’s a snippet of the interview I did for the Aspiring Voices Series:

This week’s Aspiring Voices guest is Nancy Zrymiak, bringing a welcome look into the non-fiction scene. She’s working on a book about her time spent in India and I was thrilled to get a chance to ask some questions about how the project got started.

Paul: You’re currently working on a book about your two-year relocation from your home in Canada to Bangalore, India. Can you describe a bit about the events that led up to the decision to make the move, and how you arrived at the conclusion that you should transplant your family halfway across the planet?

Nancy: Give me an opportunity and I’ll take it. When my husband came home and told me there was a job possibility in India, I thought it was a crazy idea. But his timing was good. First, it was November, the rainiest, dreariest month in Vancouver. Secondly, I was tired of the rat race and the routine that comes along with living and parenting in the western world: carpooling, commuting, grocery shopping, packing lunches, making dinners. When I thought about India, I thought about adventure, culture, and travel. Once I began to think of the move as an opportunity, the decision to uproot the family became much easier. The warm weather kind of lured me in too.

Bangalore Back StreetsAditya Mopur via Creative Commons

Paul: You blogged pretty extensively while you were living in India. What made you want to write a book about that experience as well? Are you finding the book is more an expanded version of the blog or is the blog more a framework you can use to weave stories through that you didn’t discuss at the time? Or are they completely independent of one another?

Nancy: My India blog was more of a travel blog with photos. In the book, I delve into the lives of the people I met in India, especially the locals, and the roller coaster of emotions that they bring to the story. You’ll meet some interesting characters and learn about their daily lives as well as mine. I also write about the misconceptions that I had about India before I went, what I learned about India and what I learned about myself. Read the rest of the interview.

Tips from the Surrey International Writers’ Conference 2013

SiWC 2013

One comes away from a writers’ conference brimming with all sorts of new-found knowledge, a big to do list, a whole new set of friends and lots of inspiration.

Knowledge

I went to some interesting workshops:

Pitch Practice – a panel of four agents and editors gave us tips for a good pitch We listened to people pitch their books and find out the panels reactions. Most notable comments:

  • Don’t rehearse your pitch.
  • In sixty seconds tell the crux of the story, the genre, word count and title.
  • Don’t give a plot synopsis
  • Do say if you’ve been published or won awards.
  • Keep it simple and don’t be nervous.

Robert Dugoni’s Creating Plots for Page Turners

  • Does the beginning add value to the rest of the book?
  • Something interesting must happen right away.
  • Let the characters entertain, not the author.  In other words, don’t do these: narrative opinion, biography, info dump (too much setting), flashbacks.
  • Flashbacks are okay but only if they clarify something happening now. A good flashback goes back to a real-time present scene and must be necessary for the main story.
  • Anything that can be presumed can be cut.
  • There is action in dialogue, dialogue is action – it keeps the story moving.
  • The end does not have to be happy, but it must be satisfying.
  • Create empathy for your protagonist

SiWC Idol – first pages are submitted anonymously and read out loud to a panel of agents. They tell us when they would stop reading the submission and give their reasons:

  • No character development.
  • Too much scene setting.
  • Uses clichés.
  • Too much back-story.
  • The agent from the USA stopped numerous ones because they were too regional – mentioned the small Canadian town/province too often.
  • Started with someone waking up from unconsciousness.

Relationships

Just as important for me were the Blue Pencil’s where you can sign up for a fifteen minute chat with an author and have them look at three pages of your work. I got my money’s worth and did four. I think each time I was able to more clearly describe my book and ask more pointed questions. I got positive feedback on my writing and good tips on how to construct a novel. That’s sort of my main problem – where to begin and how to go back and forth in time – the order of the scenes and the dreaded back-story. So I’m doing a little research, reading other books in my genre and deconstructing them chapter by chapter.

Most important are the people who I met. Writers, all of them. Even if they also think of themselves as bankers and personal trainers and teachers and engineers. Whether they write full-time or part-time, they are all writers. Building confidence, helping others. Learning, connecting, writing. That’s The Surrey International Writers’ Conference in a nutshell.

Ten Things I’ve Learned (So Far) About Writing a Book

DSC_00401) Getting Started is The Hardest Part

Once I decided to write my book I had to figure out how to do it. A friend suggested reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s a twelve-week program, “a course in discovering and recovering your creative self.” I needed that because I’d never done anything creative in my life. The book helped me figure out a good writing routine, gain confidence as a writer and find my creative self.

2) Surround Yourself With Positive People

There are naysayers and there are supporters. It’s easy to tell the difference. One group makes you feel like you are wasting your time and not doing anything important. The other group makes you feel energized; they boost your confidence and take a genuine interest in what you are writing. Write these people’s names down. They are your go to people when you want to toss your work into the garbage.

3) Find a Routine, But Be Flexible

The Artist’s Way can help you get into a writing routine. Starting small is a good idea, maybe ten or twenty minutes a day. Find a good time and place to write. For me, it’s first thing in the morning when I have lots of energy. I write at home, wherever I feel comfortable, usually a quiet room with natural light and warmth. But understand that routines change with circumstances. Maybe you have kids, or you work shifts; you go on vacation, or there’s a tragedy in the family. Life happens and routines get messed up. Be aware and be flexible, but don’t give up.

4) Writing is Work

Writing is exhilarating, fun and creative, but it is also a lot of work. It takes a lot of time to write a book. No one just sits down and writes a book from beginning to end and thinks they are finished. That’s just the first draft. Now you must go back and read it and delete the crap and begin the revision. Repeat. Writing is hard work but it’s thrilling to see your book take form.

5) Procrastination is Real

Oh, yeah. There is so much to do. So many T.V. shows to watch, emails to write and Facebook statuses to update. There’s cleaning and cooking and kids to look after. There are books to be read. Okay, so turn off the T.V. Limit the surfing and even, dare I say it, the reading. Now get organized, know what your day looks like and schedule in your writing. Write. Stop procrastinating.

6) Procrastination is a Myth

On the other hand, if all you’re doing is writing, and you’re sick of it or even feeling a little depressed, it’s time for a change. Go for a walk, do something else that makes you feel creative. Go out with friends. Spend some quality time with your family. Don’t feel guilty about not writing. Even writers have to eat, shop for groceries and pay the bills once in a while. It’s not always procrastination. Live a little.

7) Reading Helps A Lot

Tolkien, Rowling, Shakespeare. Who inspires you? Reading improves one’s vocabulary, helps us write better dialogue, and shows us the many ways stories can be told. Recently, I read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. That book inspired me in so many ways. Not just to write, but to write well.

8) It is Important to Write Well

The first draft is all about getting ideas onto paper. You don’t have to write well. Each draft after that, you must edit, revise, and rewrite until it is polished. You can’t send anything to an agent or publisher that isn’t your very best. Read it out loud. Take some writing classes. Join a writing group (in person or online) and have other writers critique your work. You need constructive criticism from people in the writing world.

9) Social Networking Can Suck the Life Out of You

Some people call social networking procrastinating, and for good reason. It can be addicting and time-consuming and take you away from your writing. It can seriously suck the life out of you.

How do I know? Well, so far, I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and I have my website and my blog. I started them all at once and I found it pretty overwhelming. I think a better idea is to pick one and start with that. Once you’re comfortable, add another, and so on. Set aside a reasonable amount of time each day to do your social networking. Don’t let it consume your writing time.

10) Finishing is as Important as Starting

I admire anyone who has written a book, from start to finish.

And here lies the most asked question: “When will you be finished the book?”

And there is nothing I can say but, “When the creative process is finished and I am satisfied.”

Is My Book Doomed?

Doom

The opening sentence, the first page: they must wow. So I’ve been told and I must agree. I read a great deal, and the best books are the ones where I read one page and then I want to read it again – it is that good.

Take The Outsiders, “WHEN I STEPPED OUT into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

And Lord of the Rings, “When Mr. Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”

It’s not just the first sentence that must make me swoon, but the first page. And then I know we’re off to a good start.

Naturally, I want my readers to feel the same way when they read the first page of my book. And like all serious writers I researched the subject on Google. I came across a blog that turned out to be a satirical step-by-step guide for westerners writing books about India. The blogger advises:

“…Your piece has to start well. Therefore you first create, with good vocabulary, a nice paragraph on the social inequities in India. Keywords to be used are caste, poverty, illiteracy. Statistics like 80% of India lives on farms or 50% of India is illiterate or 70% of India does not use soap can be very handy…mention child marriage.”

That is why I fear my book is doomed. I have neither started my book by writing about poverty, caste or illiteracy, nor have I mentioned the above statistics.

I began to wonder, do all other books set in India start like that? I looked up my own reading list of Books set in India.

I found that The Toss of a Lemon author Padma Viswanathan is a pro. Her first sentence mentions child marriage right off the bat: “The year of the marriage proposal, Sivakami is ten.”

Author Suketu Mehta (Maximum City) is on the right track too: “There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia.”

The blogger (remember it’s satirical) also advises “avoid talking to maids…Try not to talk to people who are working hard so that their children are educated and their next generation gets out of poverty.”

Again, I feel my book is ill-fated. I have not mentioned child marriage once, but I do talk to maids, gardeners, drivers, photojournalists and chefs who work hard to educate their children and get them out of poverty. Oh look, I just mentioned poverty. Maybe I’m on the right track after all?

Into India – Is it the Best Book Title?

A Fine Balance Holy Cow

Okay, for starters, I am currently calling my book Into India. The key word is currently. When I started writing my book two years ago, I thought I might call it Sweet Lime, and then for quite some time I called it Immersed. For now, it’s Into India. And I think we can all agree it’s better than my husband’s favorite: Who Stole the Bananas? Yes, it happened – someone stole the bananas – and yes, I might even mention it in the book, but (thankfully) that is not what the book is about, nor will it be the name of the book.

There are two titles that are perfect for my book: 1) A Fine Balance and 2) Holy Cow and I’m a little bit miffed that others have already used them. There, I’ve said it.

I have to admit, I haven’t put a ton of time into thinking up a great book title, but I have put a ton of time into writing. It seems to me, that’s the way it should be – the title will come. And for now, I like Into India.

Here are a few other titles I’ve mused over:

Namaste India
My Indian Adventure
Between the Earth and the Sky
On the Go
Culture on the Go
More Than I Bargained For
In the Moment
Unpredictable
Living in India
Destination India
Change Happens
Bangalore Bound
The Overseas Women’s Club of Bangalore
Realigning the Stars

What do you think? Is Into India the best book title for me?