January Meeting Notes

What is your favorite book on writing?

We had a newcomer at today’s Saturday Writers Group. We always love seeing new faces.

New writers often ask, how do I learn how to write? How do I plan a novel and get that first draft written? These are big questions.

Luckily better writers than us have tackled them. Our discussion circled around several times to the same question, what is the best book on writing? We all had our favorites. Here are just a few we discussed.

On Writing

By Stephen King

Stephen King is definitely a master story teller and it’s no surprise that his book on writing is a favorite among several of our Saturday Writers.

Zen in the Art of Writing

By Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is another master story teller and his book on writing, Zen and the Art of Writing is another favorite of our members.

Heinlein’s Five Simple Business Rules for Writing

By Dean Wesley Smith

Science fiction author Robert Heinlein made his living writing genre science fiction by following five simple rules. Dean Wesley lays them out in this book.

How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method

By Randy Ingermanson

Wanting more practical advice? Try the Snowflake method.

The first two books on the list may help you with creative. Heinlein’s rules deal with the discipline of writing. The snowflake method deals with the bare bones of how to plot out a story, taking you from a single sentence to a fully drafted novel.

Those are our picks for best books on writing. What would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments, or come next month and tell us in person.

NaNo Fail

the turtle and the hare
Image by Trevor D. via Flickr

I am a NaNo Failure this year. Yep, I didn’t complete 50,000 words on my novel. I topped out at just over 12,000.

The reason I failed this year (after winning several years in the past) is because I had too many other projects of higher priority already going on in November.

I knew this when I started and still chose to sign up for NaNo. I was temporarily optimistic and somehow thought I would get it all done. I didn’t.

The smarter thing to do would have been to NOT sign up for another commitment. Not until I was actually ready to devote time to my novel. Because this novel deserves to be my number 1 priority. As does your novel.

Sure, you can write a novel in among a dozen other activities in your life, but it is hard. Hard to split your attention among so many priorities and hard to give your novel the attention it deserves.

My New Plan

I still plan to write my novel, but obviously it won’t be done in November. Instead, I’m going to borrow a page from Holly Lisle’s strategy book. She’s been writing a novel, a book of her heart, amid her other deadlines at the rate of 250-500 words a day. That’s only 1-2 pages. She’s deliberately taking it slow for a couple of reasons.

1. She has several other projects going on, including other book deadlines, so she can’t devote a solid block of time to getting this one special novel written.

2. She wants to demonstrate that you can complete a novel at a slow, steady pace. 250 words a day does add up to a novel over the long run.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

So that’s what I’m going to do. Set myself to writing 250 words a day on this novel. Even with so many other projects going on in my life, I can manage to write 250 words. If I already know what I’m going to write, that’s about 10 minutes of writing.

I can manage 10 minutes of writing each day. And so can you.

Care to join me?

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To Live Or Not To Live

Your mission should you choose to accept it is to write 80 to 100 thousand words.  Not just any words will do, they have to come together in a cohesive manner and must include the following.  Conflict, action, suspense, emotional highs and lows, secrets, revelations, tension and must come to a plausible–with the exception of a few unanswered questions leading to possible sequels–resolution.

Writing a book is similar to a military mission.  You have to plan, do research, and get to know your enemies as well as your allies.  It’s a war and your weapon may be the pen but I can’t guarantee you won’t have to kill anyone.  I’m not talking Casino here.  You don’t have to stab anyone but depending on the story, you may have to kill off a few characters.

Once you’ve set your plan in motion, it’s not a steady drive to reach your goal.  There are times you will have to retreat and regroup, use a different plan of attack, or even beg for a cease-fire.  I’m not just talking about the writing.

This is where you switch from a military to a civilian approach.  Life outside your story continues.  Sometimes you have to set it aside to handle things beyond your control or something more important.

You need that day job to pay your bills so you can pursue your writing.  Without the support of your family and friends, life becomes a lot tougher.  Don’t let your writing come between you and a loved one’s birthday or an excuse not to go see or help a sick relative or friend.  Letting your house fall into disarray only ends up being a bigger distraction.  Your own mental and physical health is vital to getting the job done.

Illness, fear, guilt and loneliness will hinder your writing.  You may even come to hate or blame it, but the blame is on you, because you can do something about it.  I’m not saying you have to stop the writing process—remember there’s more to writing than just putting words on paper–when a trivial crisis arises.  Some things work themselves out without you.  Commonsense can tell you when to ignore or when you need to do something.

Writers spend a great deal of time inside their own heads living vicariously through their characters.  Sometimes we neglect both the trivial and the important.  Yes, I know there are deadlines.  Life has deadlines also.  By spending so much time in our heads and worrying about deadlines, we sometimes forget to live.  If you break it down living is what makes the backbone of a good story.

Life will help as well as hinder your mission.  Live and you’ll have a whole lifetime’s worth of stories in your arsenal.

Showing Your Private Parts

There’s glitter on my laptop keys. Hmm. Wonder how that happened.

I’m knee-deep in the fleshing out of my latest humorous women’s fiction piece, tentatively entitled “Gemma.” I’m really digging where the story is going. The book idea came from a great opening scene that I’ve had forever, it just took a couple of years for the scene to tell me what it wanted to be when it grew into a novel. I know what Gemma’s arc needs to be, and I have other characters talking in my head telling me how they plan to contribute to her growth in both supportive and not-so-supportive ways. (*Note to self: Next month’s blog post to be about the challenges of starting with characters rather than story.)

Interestingly (to me), the more I work on this idea, the more I find that parts of my actual, real, often boring and sometimes comical life are making their way into the story. Of course there are autobiographical elements in nearly any work of fiction, even if they’re minor, like a character’s tendency to use a certain expression. But this time I’m taking big bits of Sara and assigning them to Gemma.

Starting right in the title, in fact. Gemma = Gretchen Elizabeth Mary Mueller Arnold (although her name was actually Mary Miller Arnold Mueller). That’s my mother and my grandmother’s initials, conveniently arranged. There’s a reason for that: my mother hid from life, and my grandmother chased life, and Gemma is the story of a woman’s progress from meekness to boldness.

There are more tangible connections. My grandmother makes an appearance in the story, setting into motion the external conflict. There are “Sara” details: during the two years my mother and I were on our own, we pretty much lived on breakfast. Since that was one of the happier times of my life, breakfast is something I hold dear and turn to during times of stress, and I pay homage to my love of all things breakfast by collecting waffle irons. Gemma, I’ve decided, also collects waffle irons, and there will be a scene with her having breakfast with her mother as a small child. I also have an unfortunate tendency to have funny but somewhat ego-bruising public calamities – ask me how I broke my leg in 9 places, or just last week ended up sandwiched between the treads of my staircase and a 300 pound sofa – and I’m assigning that talent to Gemma, as well.

In many ways, Gemma may be my James Frey novel, although I think there’ll actually be more truth in mine than there was in his. (My root canals have involved lots and lots of pain meds.)

As all this became more concrete in my mind, I began to wonder: how comfortable are you as writers really putting yourself in your stories? Could you put an emotionally raw personal experience on paper for the world to see, if you knew they might discover it was based on fact? What are you personal boundaries?

Nano is about more than just words

Since many of my writing mates wrote about Nano, I’m going to get in on the action, too. But from a different perspective. I’m going to write about the unexpected things I got from Nano. Hint: it wasn’t 50,000 words. Not this year.

                The first thing I got was the knowledge that I have some great writing friends. They’re supportive and knowledgeable and ready to jump in with an answer to some unexpected research questions or a plotting problem or to offer up a heartfelt yet simple “You CAN do it!”

                The second thing I learned was that I can, when motivated, write very quickly. If I always wrote as much and as fast as I wrote during timed sprints, I could have a book done in weeks. Which would be great, if my plots were ever cohesive the first time around. And that leads us to discovered item #3:

                The plot of my current WIP was MIA. I had a good grasp of my character, a potential premise, but absolutely nothing happened to her. She had experiences. Lovely, uplifting, life-affirming experiences. All great things, but not the things required to make a book. At least not a book anyone but my grandmother (who is passed, unfortunately) would find gripping. Come to think of it, even she would tell me it was crap and to figure out how to make it a proper book.

                So, in my Nano experience, I wrote a lot of scenes (23,000 words worth!) and in the process realized more than anything I was getting to know my character rather than actually putting steps into place. I’m not the least bit unhappy about it. Now I know what Gemma’s story is, and now I know what needs to happen in the other 75,000 words I need to write (and then cut, cut, cut and add, add, add).  

                The point is, Nano may have been intended to get a book out in 30 days, but I think you can consider yourself a winner if your novel benefits from the experience, 50,000 words or not. Building writing relationships, learning about your own writing capabilities, and finding the core of your story are as important as getting those words on paper (or in my case, screen).

Writerly travels

Does your writerly brain stay ‘on’ when you travel?

Last month I was lucky enough to spend 5 days in San Francisco. Being a “native” Californian, of course I’d been to SF before, but it has been a while, so I took everything in with new eyes… and I noticed my writer’s brain was engaged. It’s a place that’s so rich in experience and history, it’s hard not to come away with ideas for places, characters, situations.

My hostess, a recently transplanted Iowan now residing in an apartment near Fisherman’s Wharf, thought it would be a kick to take a couple of the double-decker bus tours. The first one lead us all through the major areas: Union Square, Embarcadero, the Financial District, Chinatown, North and South Beach, and does a drive-by of Lombard Street. The potential stories found in that 45 minute bus ride alone were amazing: did you know any flat part of San Francisco is built on landfill, and much of the landfill is the corpses of ships that were abandoned during the gold rush? Did you know the history of the phrase “Sugar Daddy” can be traced directly to a statue in the middle of Union Square? Do you know which celebrities now call San Francisco their homes? Then we took the “Golden Gate tour” – and there I learned that Mark Twain said of San Francisco “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent here.” The incredible Presidio, which was the oldest US military base, is now being turned into private (rented – at $10,000 a month!) housing, and parts of it are being taken over by Hollywood to become studios for the guys and gals who brought us Star Wars. The Golden Gate Bridge has to be repainted pretty much continuously… when they finish one section, the others have all gone ragged looking. Many potential story ideas here.

But besides the great tours, I came back with some fantastic impressions of life in general in this new city. My hostess gets up each morning, walks to Peet’s (Starbucks is only for tourists!), grabs a coffee and hops on the trolley which she then takes to work. By getting on the trolley two blocks west of her apartment instead of the one a block south, she avoids the throngs of tourists who don’t know they have other options. On the ride to work, she passes the incredible Ferry Building where people shop for olive oil, bread, specialty mushrooms, chocolate, cooking utensils and then finish it all off with a glass of wine at the wine bar. Tons of story ideas there, too… And then once in her office, she has a glimpse of the whole hilly city, all its inhabitants, all its flavor. Here I have some color for my character’s life.

I took notes. I grabbed brochures and flyers and BART maps and napkins and took photos. I have a new folder marked “San Fran” and have included my scribbled ideas, memories, and questions on the cover while it protectively encases my memories so that I can dive in and bring up something wonderful sometime when I need inspiration.

So, what vacations have filled your head with writerly thoughts and ideas?


Can Software Lead to Writing Happiness?

In my ongoing efforts to be a more organized writer, which in my fantasies means I’ll be a more effective writer, I’m test-driving various programs touted to help me structure my story, envision my plot, tackle my characters and organize my research. These programs hint that by using them, I’ll steer clear of the middle-of-the-book sag, the curse of the lifeless character and the gaping plot holes big enough to jump a herd of sharks through.

In my quest for organization, I’ve tested three programs, all in the $45-$80 range. I did not try Dramatica. As Amy, another Saturday Writer, so eloquently put it, “for the price you’d think it’d write the book for you.”

First up is Black Obelisks’sLiquid Story Binder XE. We try to pretend we don’t care about looks, but let’s make like John Edwards and tell the truth: we do. This is not a visually appealing program. In fact, whenever I open it, I feel a sense of dread because the page is so stark and demanding and cold it’s worse than starting a new file in Word. I don’t know how to explain it, but it makes me feel stupid and unworthy, that screen. Desperate to make it do something, anything, so I don’t feel so bad, I click on one of the pull-down menu options (Library, Files, Create, Open, Planners, Associations, Listings, Playlists, Workspaces, Shortcuts, Tools, Display, Preferences, About, aaaaaaahhhhhhggggggggggg! It’s just too much!). Under each menu option, there are at least a dozen more options. For example, under “Create” I can create a New Chapter, New Note, New Outline, New Checklist, New Builder, New Timeline, New Sequence, New Dossier, New Storyboard, New Image, New Song, New Gallery, New Playlist, New Recording or New Shortcut. Honestly, after muddling through all that I’m too tired to write. I want help, not a nervous breakdown. And what’s the difference between a Sequence, a Storyboard and a Timeline, I ask you? Even at the bargain price of $45.95, this isn’t the one for me.

Next up is Write Way. I like this program. It’s okay to look at… a bit on the Plain Jane side visually (and lord knows there needs to be a place for us Plain Janes of the world), but it’s well organized and not brain-scrambling in its complexity. It has many of the features I found helpful in the third program, with the added benefit of being able to write directly in it (you’d think that would be a core function of any of these programs but alas, it is not). This is a program for organizing your actual text more than designing a complete novel. One of the most helpful features is that you can store your book by scene, within chapters, within acts. This is great because if you decide to move a whole chunk around, you don’t have to retype, or cut and paste. You just drag it where you want it and et voila, it’s done. There are some cool printing features, too; you can choose Draft, Galley or Manuscript. The character charts are nice, again a bit plain to look at but plain has its place in the world. There’s a storyboard function but I haven’t quite figured out – so far it won’t play the way I like to play but I have hope. There’s a research area where you can store images, URLs, text, etc. Handy. Now, the good news is, this is the least expensive of the programs at $39 for the basic version. The bad news is that to get Outline, Storyboard, Synopsis, Research Folders, Future Book Idea Folders, the Galley print option and the ability to import your work from a word processor, you have to bump up to the Pro version which is the most expensive of all at $79.

Lastly we have Anthemion’s Writers’ Café, an attractive little program that can be had for under $50. Writers’ Café is attractive to look at. You wouldn’t think that was a big deal, really, but after working in Liquid Story Binder, you realize like size, it matters. At the main screen of the program, you have a number of tabs to pick from: Scraps (notes, photos, whatever); Storylines (visual and verbal storyboards that you can drag around, organize by plot line, color by character or scene type); Journal (doh); Notebook (a place you can type, but not like a word processor, unfortunately); Cookies (which are cute little quotes about writing and creativity – there’s a lot of cute going on in Writers’ Café); and Bookshelf, which is “help” plus the basics of writing, 101. There are templates for tracking character information. You can see your Storyboard in outline form. You can print it in manuscript form – but only the bits that appear in the Storyboard. Writers’ Café’s biggest flaw is a huge one, in my opinion: There’s nowhere to store your manuscript. It’s strictly a plotting and organizational tool. If it had but that one piece, I’d consider it as close to perfect as this sort of software can come.

Now if I can find software that’ll keep my butt in my chair and temporarily lock me out of any other program connecting me to the outside world (DSW is having a sale? I’ll just take a quick peek! I have got to unsubscribe from Harvey’s Horse Hut before I get one more hay sale email…)

Sara Ennis

Less Guilt, More Fun

One of the things I like most about our writers group, the Saturday Writers, is that we are each at different stages with our writing. And because of that we each bring unique insights to the group.

For me, I’m still in the hobby stage of writing. Writing has been with me for many years, but it is still a dream, not a goal. I dabble in it, I don’t seriously pursue it. And knowing that about myself I can throw off the guilt that we women take on too easily.

No “I should be writing more.” No blame, no guilt trips. Just writing for fun. Writing for the sake of writing. Because I want to work on a story, not because I have to. And that is an okay place to be. When I’m ready to make writing a bigger part of my life, it will be there.

But like any good hobby, I spend a lot of time thinking about writing and studying books on writing. If I pack enough writing knowledge into my brain, then when writing takes center stage in my life, all that learning will be there, ready to use.

The book I’m currently reading is One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers by Gail Sher. I really like her four truths. They are:

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

I understand #2. After all this study and reading on writing, I understand that writing is a process. You don’t just flip a switch and instantly become a bestseller. It takes time and effort, like any occupation or hobby.

#3 also makes sense. You have to finish the story to see what it actually becomes. It certainly never looks like the story I had in my mind when I started. But if it bears some resemblance, I’m okay with that.

#1 and #4 are my sticking points. I don’t have the daily practice of writing. When I did write daily, even just in a journal, I found that my “official” writing, whatever story I was working on, came out so much easier. So my challenge is to get back into the daily habit. Because I want to work on my story daily, not because I have to. Less guilt, more fun, more writing.

Where are you at on your writing path?

Querying Agents On the Super Technology Highway

I read somewhere that it’s very difficult to get an agent to look at a manuscript. In fact, people often spend big bucks to go to conferences just to have the chance to get in front of an agent for five minutes. That’s why, when it came time for me to consider looking for representation, I was a little – or a lot – lackadaisical.

I did my homework, poring over Publishers Marketplace to determine who might best help me sell my stunningly brilliant novel, Living in Bliss. I queried the deal database every way from Sunday to see who did well selling debuts, who was especially interested in comedy (nobody, it seems!), and who repped my favorite authors. Then I checked out each of their websites to learn whether my favorites were accepting new clients (alas, many were not), if there were other people at those agencies who might be a match, and if each individual agent as a whole looked like someone I would like to get into bed with, so to speak.

That task accomplished, I whipped up (okay, cried and slaved over) a query letter. Query letters are a challenge, but I felt good about mine: charming, fun, an enticing and brief overview of my plot, ended with a character sketch of who I am as a person and a writer. For good measure, I included the first 10 pages of the novel in the email; might as well tease them with my talent. Ta da! I was ready.

My logic was as follows: Send electronic queries to my top 4 choices. Wait weeks for them to respond, which would give me time to – ahem – FINISH THE BOOK.

That’s right. I was 90% done, but not completely done. Some twisted part of me thought that if I sent off agent queries, I’d have no choice but to finally wrap up the little bitty loose ends that had been torturing me for a year.

Let me tell you, this is not a good plan. Why? Because three of the four agents responded within hours, requesting full manuscripts and a synopsis. Holy crap. Those were my exact words (uttered at the top of my lungs as I jumped up and down, freaking out my dogs and cats and sending the bird into a tizzy of flapping wings). Woo hoo! I didn’t suck! Or, at least my suckiness wasn’t such that they didn’t want to read more…

And then it hit me: I hadn’t finished the darned book, much less written a synopsis.

Fortunately it was Friday. And I’ll admit, I used the Iowa floods to my advantage. (I wasn’t lying, exactly; my basement did have nearly a foot of water in it.) I asked each of the three requesting agents if I might send along the information on Monday… and then spent every waking moment of the next two days writing, editing, polishing, writing some more. I added 10,000 words that weekend. And that’s not counting the 7 page synopsis.

Did I screw up? I’m sure I did. I’m sure there were things I could’ve polished even more. In fact, I have a scene in my head that needs to be inserted into the final act, which I’ll probably do, although that makes me very nervous with the manuscript out. There’s a very good chance rushing like a madwoman lessened the strength of the book as a whole. But if nothing else, I learned a big lesson: don’t pitch a book that isn’t finished. Because in this era of super-fast technology, you never know when you’re going to be called upon to produce what you’ve promised. It may be a lot sooner than you expected.

Happy writing! Sara


Welcome to the Saturday Writer’s blog! We’re a group of writers in and around the Des Moines, Iowa area. We write in many different genres, but we all love writing.

Stay tuned as we talk about writing – what works for us and what doesn’t.