Here it is 2022 and we are in the middle of winter in southeastern Oregon. We experience exciting weather like freezing fog. We're still in a COVID pandemic going on two years. Life is different and appears to be the new normal. COVID has shaken up life as we used to know it. Some is for the better, some not. We muddle on. I have backed away from the four or five organizations I used to volunteer in. I don't miss the deadlines and the work or the insanity. I am still not working on a novel. I've written some poetry with a poetry group I zoom with in Houston, TX. I don't consider myself a poet but it is interesting to experiment with short form and structure. I've been reading about fungi and microbes and always about awakening. Here's my newest favorite Rumi poem:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Wishing you all a lovely, meaningful, and peaceful 2022.
These days I haven't been working on my next novel. I wrote a short story "The Last White Woman Alive" and had my rural collection of poetry published in Synchronized Chaos online magazine in July, 2021. I'm writing some other poetry and working on ideas for two short pieces. I'm thinking about the space/time conundrum that I ran into in writing the sci fi book "Return to the Stars" which is half written. All in the fullness of time.
I spent four hours on Friday and Saturday in front of Gallery 15 on Broadway in Burns, talking to people, signing books, encouraging them to visit the art gallery. It was fun! I made new friends and contacts. I sold some books. We advertised heavily and people noticed and commented that they had heard about the event. By 2 PM it got pretty hot so we moved inside. It was definitely worth the time and effort. Thank you everyone who attended.
Finish the Book! A Writer’s Guide to Exploring Creativity
By Marjorie Thelen
Copyright Marjorie Thelen 2012. Revised and Updated, 2021
By way of introduction
In 2012 I put together a workshop called Finish the Book! and presented it locally. Recently, several people have talked to me about their writing and asked about how I write. So, I dug out this guide I passed out at the workshop and revised, updated, and expanded it. It’s easy to read and glance through. It may help your writing whether it is novel, non-fiction, collection, or memoir. The focus is on getting the project finished. It’s geared to novel writing, but most selections apply to any writing project. It’s in four parts: Process, Craft, Publishing, and Marketing. Most is on process and craft with some thoughts on publishing and marketing. Everyone writes differently. This is just my take on the writing process.
Write the Book
This is a good piece of advice I have gotten from many writers in particular Catherine Coulter who spoke at a Washington Romance Writer conference I went to in the 1990s. The workshop was over, I'm heading down the hall, and she's right beside me. I gush over how good her presentation was, what a great writer she is, and whine about how much trouble I'm having with my writing, how this isn't working, that isn't working, no time, blah, blah, blah. After all that she says, "Write the book" and walks on down the hall. I have that taped on my computer.
I heard this quote from author Jane Kirkpatrick: only 1% of the people who say they are going to write a book ever do. That was an eye opener and got me to thinking. When I go to conferences, I like to ask people I meet what they are writing. Often they say, well, I'm writing a book. But it turns out they've been writing this book forever. That's why I decided to put together a course called "Finish the Book". In these posts I describe my writing process and have found it helps others to finish the book. What percent are you in?
The Secret to Finishing the Book
Write with a goal, write every day, and pay your writing first. Think, “Writing Is My Job”. Get this concept, and you will finish the book.
Write with a Goal
Have a daily page or word count goal. When I started writing, mine was one page (250 words, double spaced, 1-inch margins). I had just had a birthday. I still hadn’t completed the book and my birthday present to me was -- finish the book. I had no writing space of my own. The computer was in the living room in a cubby hole between the piano and the book case. I was working full time. So 9 to 10 PM at night I was sitting in my cubby hole trying to write one page. That’s how it started. I didn’t make the goal every night but I eventually finished the book. I also promised myself I would not go to another writer conference before I finished the book. I finished the book, went to the conference, told a well-known published writer how excited I was that I finished my first book. She said, “That’s a big one,” and kept on walking down the hall. Unfortunately, it was only the first draft. I didn’t know yet about the endless re-writes.
This is the advice all kinds of writers gave me, and this is the advice I give to anyone seriously interested in finishing a writing project. I recommend writing every day with a goal. Whether it is number of pages, number of words, or time slot -- have a goal. In my early days of writing when doing a first draft, I tried to write three to five pages a day (double spaced, 1-inch margins, Times New Roman, 12 pitch). My best time to write is mornings. Some writers like the middle These days on a first draft I try to write 1,000 words a day, single spaced. I sometimes write 1,000 words in one hour when I’m on a roll. If you can find an hour a day, you can make amazing progress. I don’t go on page count anymore because everyone’s pages can be different. I take weekends off usually. I take holidays and vacations. It works for me. Find your best writing time and stick with it to finish a project.
Pay your writing first
There is a concept in personal financial management called “pay yourself first”. In order to save money consistently, one puts aside a percentage of one’s earnings every pay day first. You pay yourself first. This is a good way to save money. Put it somewhere you can’t touch it for years. In writing the same concept applies. Write first, do everything else after. Pay your book first. In writing every day with a goal you make sure that you have your writing time cemented in somewhere in that day. Writing must become habitual. Do it in the morning first thing, or at night when the house quiets down and you have an hour to yourself. Do I hear whining out there? William Stafford, past Oregon Poet Laureate, got up at 4 AM every day to write his poetry, which he did lying on a couch. The rest of the day was for ordinary living.
Time? Who has time?
I’ve heard a lot of whining about not having time to write, myself included in the early days before writing became important to me. Make time. We’ve talked about how to do that. Set aside your time of the day to write. It does require discipline. But after the Muse takes over, it becomes more enjoyable. Notice I said more enjoyable.
Exercise your writing muscle
There is truth to the concept that regular daily writing exercises your writing muscle. Just like other muscles that build and grow and strengthen with regular use, so the writing muscle grows and strengthens with regular practice. Don’t ask me where the writing muscle is. It’s probably more like grooves in our brains. A piano teacher once told me to practice fifteen minutes every day for maximum learning. This wears little grooves in the brain so it knows what to do. Like practicing the piano, learning to ride a bike, learning how to cook, the brain remembers and improves through regular practice. We remember better how to do something. We improve with practice. I know. It has happened to me.
If you write every day at the same time the Muse will know where to find you, and says “Oh, It’s Time to Write”. Think about it.
Creativity breeds creativity
A fascinating thing happens over the years as one’s writing improves. The creative function grows and explodes. The creativity gleaned in writing bleeds over into other aspects of life. Ideas grow and spread like dandelions. New ideas spring up for new books, new ways to promote one’s work, new ideas for book covers. By feeding and watering the creative garden in one’s brain it spreads basic creativity into other arts and crafts. You might take up oil painting to paint an idea or sketching to illustrate your next book. It is an amazing process.
Writing Begets Writing
Need I say more?
Read and study a lot of books
In the days when I thought I wanted to be a romance writer I went to a romance conference and signed up for a group pitch with an agent. We went around the circle giving the elevator pitch (one line synopsis) about our books. The agent asked one woman what she read in the genre. The response was, "I don't read romance." The agent was literally speechless. I read extensively, mostly non-fiction now because I’m doing research for my novels. In the past I read a lot of fiction because that’s what I write. Mysteries are my favorite, and I have favorite authors. I like ones with a lot of dialogue like Robert B. Parker, because I find that when I read a book, I look for the story in the dialogue. I glaze over with long passages of description. Other people read differently, of course, but if you aren't reading and studying books like you want to write, I wonder how you are going to write the book. This goes for all writing projects. Read in your field.
Keep Track of What You’re Doing
I always keep a journal of every day I work on a particular project. I favor 8 x 11.5 spiral notebooks. I note the date and the work I did that day on the project. I also use this to list ideas as they come to me for the book. As I incorporate the ideas in the book, I check them off in my notes. I find this helpful because ideas come to me throughout the day for what to work on next or a new idea for plot or character. It is easy for me to walk into my writer room and make a handwritten note. Others may favor using digital notebooks. Use whatever it takes to keep track of your writing project.
Write for Publication
Not everyone would agree with me on this one, but I think it is important for a serious writer to write with the idea of getting published. It makes us stretch, go out on the limb, stick our necks out and all those other clichés. If I write for publication, I format my work so that if I want to send it out to an agent or editor, it’s ready to go. Self-publishing format is different. If I'm writing to publish, I think about my readers and the market I'm writing for. You can write for writing sake, but then your feet are not to the fire. You can diddle around endlessly. If you like to diddle, go for it. But I suggest writing to get published.
Why format? It is necessary for publication and so that others can read your work easily. Since I am a novel writer, I know novel formatting. Where does one get formatting requirements? From agent and publisher submission guidelines which are standard on publisher/agent web sites. Nowadays when I’m writing drafts, I write single space, 14 pitch, Times New Roman font, one-inch margins all around. Always check submission guidelines for the publisher/agent you are targeting to make sure you have the formatting they are requesting. When self-publishing, check guidelines for digital and print publishers. The publishing market changes just about every year. For poetry, short story, essays, etc. same advice applies. Check submission guidelines.
Everyone who writes needs to do a daily back up of their work onto a mini or flash drive or external hard drive. I do. Each day's work I back up on the mini and then carry it with me in my purse. I have one mini that has all my books on it. Cloud storage works, too. If you are serious about your work, you would never have it only on your computer. What if it crashes or gets a virus? What if the house burns down while you're away? Where would you be then?
To outline or not to outline
This depends on what kind of writer you are. Both are correct. If you need to outline a story, you should. But don’t think that you have to. I don’t. Some people call this the plotters vs. the “pantsers”. Some outline. Some write by the seat of their pants. I find that if I try to outline I start writing the story. I once tried to outline a book on the recommendation of a famous agent and writer on how to write the breakout novel. I ended up with an outline of a novel about the Oregon Trail. When I read over the outline I thought, “This is a stupid book”, and I never finished it. So don’t kill the writing process by outlining if you don’t need to. (Postscript: I eventually finished that novel, Wing of the Dawn, in 2021. I didn’t go by the outline. The characters told the story.)
When you are writing a first draft don't worry about getting the exact word the first time. Keep going. Get the story out. You'll get the right word in the endless re-writes. Then it becomes fun trying to find the exact word to express the scene, thought, character. I've even changed 'the' to 'a' to put a fine point on the writing. Don’t spend a lot of time looking for the exact right word to express a thought, scene, dialogue or whatever. Write down something and keep going. Highlight it to come back to if you want but keep going. Get the first draft done. Never hold up the first draft by trying to find the right word. There will be time enough to find that right word when you are doing the endless re-writes.
100/200 Page Review
In the first draft about every one hundred pages I go back and review, seeing what I've written, combing through the words, straightening out plot, embellishing description and characters. I have described it as straightening out rusty barbed wire. It helps keep characters and plot straight. It works for me. By page two hundred, if I'm writing a 300 page book, the story should be heading for a climax because I only have 100 pages to finish it satisfactorily. That's when the reader sighs and says, "What a great book. I don't want it to end."
The First Page
When re-writing, I spend a lot of time on the first page (the first 250 words), first paragraph, first sentence. It is of tantamount importance in our short-attention-span world to hook the reader with the very first sentence.
The Endless Re-writes
You finished the first draft. Now the re-writing begins and goes on and on and on. Some writers say this is where the real writing begins. This is where you sharpen everything about the book. This might take longer than writing the first draft. In re-writing my goal is about twenty pages (single-spaced) per day. But sometimes that isn’t possible because I may have to re-write an entire scene or add one, so it goes slower then. You start getting rid of unnecessary words like hey, well, here, there (change “there” phrases to real sentences where you can), just, so, etc. You get rid of clichés and hackneyed phrases. As a rule, never use clichés. Instead think up a new metaphor in the language of the story. Start fleshing out the characters. Slip in a sentence of back story. Beef up the emotion and get more into the heads of the characters. Get rid of adverbs and unnecessary adjectives. If the sentence meaning can stand without the adverb, don’t use it.The Final EditEvery word of your book does not have to be perfect. If you strive for perfection, you'll never publish the book. Get to your best effort. Then you have to take a deep breath and leap. Publish the book. Most readers will be reading for story and characters, not the perfect word.
Let’s try this scene
Many days when I sit down to write I feel a little panicky, wondering what I will write today. What will the characters do today? Some days I think to myself, “No one will ever read this dribble.” However, the persistent writer in me, or maybe it is the Muse says, let’s try the next scene. It doesn’t have to fit. Maybe we won’t use it. We can delete it later, but just write something and see where it goes. Usually that works to get me off dead center. Sometimes I think, “I wonder what so and so is doing? We haven’t heard from her in a while.” So I explore that, and the characters take over. Remember I don’t write from an outline.
Each Scene is a Snapshot or Video
If you are stuck, try looking at each scene as if you just took a snapshot or a video of that segment of the story and tell us about it. Who is in the scene? What are they talking about? Give a brief description of the setting, addressing the five senses where appropriate. Taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing. We usually address sight. But it is important to slip in the other senses to round out the scene and make it richer. Remember you don’t have to give the last detail of description. Give us traces and let the reader fill in the rest with her imagination.
Scenes are the highpoints of the story
In telling a story, what you as a writer are doing is giving us the most important scenes that convey the story. Sometimes we see the same story from different character point of view (POV). We don’t need to fill in exactly what happens between scenes. A transition sentence will do to carry us from scene to scene.
Don’t kill yourself
You’ve gotten into your writing groove. You have your daily writing goal. You’re making progress on the book. Here’s a new concept: don’t overdo it. I know this sounds counter-intuitive but in one day don’t go too far over your goal. Some days for me it is a struggle to meet my writing goal. Some days I write a little more. But I think it is important not to write until you are bleary-eyed and your back is killing you from sitting at the computer. Make of note of your progress in your daily writing notebook, make notes of what to do tomorrow and walk away from it. It helps if you end the day knowing where you’ll begin tomorrow. Then it is easier to get going the next day. Give your brain a chance to recover. Save some writing energy for the next day. You might find you’ll be fresher and more ready to start the next day, if you don’t think you have to kill yourself at every sitting. Accomplish your goal for the day. The book will get finished that way.
Or – go ahead and kill yourself
Some people have to write without stopping once the Muse hits. If that works for you, go for it. Forget all that I said about not overdoing it.
Just write something
One hard thing for some writers to do is focus. It is daunting to have that computer screen stare you in the face, the keyboard waiting for your nimble fingers to dance across the keys spewing forth an outrageously brilliant work of literature. When this happens to me (yes, I have been known to jump up and down, get a cup of tea, file my fingernails, check emails, start a load of wash), I tell myself, "Just write something. Anything. Just write something. You can always delete it later." It might only be one paragraph, it might not fit the plot or make any sense, but it gets me off dead center, breaks the log jam, and I can continue on with the story. I have to overcome inertia to get the fingers moving across the keys. Just write something.
Get oxygen to yourself first
This goes with pay the novel first. On an airplane you always put your oxygen mask on first. Then you put on the child’s. It is okay to do that with writing. Write first then do the housecleaning or change the oil. You’ll be so much easier to live with.
Writer's block doesn't exist
Don’t tell yourself it does. I think the whole idea of writer's block is vastly over rated. I come sometimes to places in the story that seem like a dead end. Slight panic ensues as I think that the story is going nowhere. Yes, this happens. But I ask the question: What do I want to know next about this character or about where the story is going? Usually, it gets me off dead center and I keep going. Just write something. Anything. Dribble. Get off dead center. Write a totally unrelated scene. Write something.
Body of Work
One thing I learned at writers’ conferences is having a body of work. Not just one novel but a collection. At least two. Readers read one book and if it is good, they will look for others you’ve written. If you only have one book to publish, readers will be disappointed. I've heard Nora Roberts, a prolific romance writer, speak several times. She said she has at least half a dozen novels written and in the queue for publication. Can you say that? Get to writing.
Go on a retreat
Several times our local writing group organized a retreat. One was at Rockaway Beach on the Oregon coast. Several of us spent a September week there. We wrote in the morning, walked the beach in the afternoon, read what we wrote in the evening. It establishes a nice rhythm to writing, and one learns what the writing day can look like. Of course, one has to play at these retreats. We ate lots of fresh seafood - Dungeness crabs, tuna, salmon, clam chowder, steamers. Heaven. Then there was Tillamook ice cream. At this retreat we discovered karaoke and sang our little hearts out. Consider retreating to bolster your writing and have a bit of fun with your fellow writers.
The rough translation of this Latin piece of wisdom is – don’t let the bastards grind you down. (This was a sign over the fireplace at our writer retreat beach house, which was owned by a bunch of writers.) This is good advice for life in general, but excellent advice for writers. Writing is a lonely, discouraging job at times. It may seem that the world is conspiring against us to finish the book. One has to guard a solid core of oneself. This means one has to believe in oneself and keep on going. One has to develop an inner strength, honed by rejections, and strengthened by the support of other writers. If you don’t have a writer group, start one. Writing is not for the faint of heart.
Find a Novel Buddy
One time I was lucky enough to find a writer buddy. We met once a week to read and exchange hard copy of our Works in Progress (WIP). It was a tremendous help to both of us. My buddy was writing the same novel for a long time and not getting very far. While we met, she wrote over 100 pages and finished the first draft. I was working on a local mystery. Since she used to write for the local newspaper, she was an invaluable resource for ideas about the local culture and people. She saw character relationships better than I. If you can find a writer buddy that you trust, set up a time to meet on a regular basis. It might only last for one project, but it might be another way to keep your writing going and not stall out.
Don't Compare Yourself to Other Writers
Someone will always be further along the path to success, whatever that means. If you compare yourself, you are wasting energy you need to write. Keep plugging away at your project. I used to go to writer conferences. If I compared myself to the success stories there, I might not write again. I congratulate them and keep writing, learning and stretching.
Write for readers
I’ve noticed that readers are much more forgiving of one's writing then writers are. I suggest writing for readers. In fiction they want a story and characters to love. They'll over look some grammar and punctuation errors and even bad writing. What they want is a story that keeps them engaged. A writer is going to try to re-write the story for you, given half a chance. Because that is what they do -- write and re-write and re-write. I say write for readers.
Establish your credentials
Before you start telling other people how to write a book, make sure you finish one. I cannot tell you how many conferences and workshops I have attended that are peopled with writer wannabees. I usually ask the wannabees what they are writing. Often, it is the same book that they've been writing for ten years and haven't finished, or they TELL me the idea for a book they want to write but haven't written yet. And then they tell me how to write. A book is words on paper or computer screen, not some story in one's head. Remember: only 1% of the people who say they are going to write a book ever do.
Do your homework
Even before you've finished the book, you should be following what is happening in the publishing world and in your field. Accomplish this through membership in writers’ groups and attending conferences where you can meet and network with other writers, agents, and editors. Writer magazines list tons of resources. Figure out what your market it. Don't write in a vacuum. Do your homework before the book is finished.
Are you having trouble getting started or getting on with the story? Invite a few writer friends over for a brainstorming session. Over tea and Christmas cookies one year some writer friends and I threw out ideas no matter how absurd about the story each of us was working on. One writer brought along brown paper, and we wrote down all the ideas for each story. It helped me get off dead center for my work in progress, and I was able to start yet another beginning for my second novel in the Designer Detective series.
Don’t write for the money
Don't write thinking you are going to make a lot of money, especially not novels. There is little money in novel writing, and there are a lot of people writing and publishing these days. Many are giving their first books away for free. Write for creativity. It will be much more emotionally fulfilling. If you happen to make money in the process, well, that's a bonus. Write to explore creativity, the inner you.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating book called Outliers: The Story of Success. One of the things he found in his research of successful people was that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become a master. Humbling. He gives numerous examples including how Bill Gates became successful. So you are not just learning how to write a book, you are becoming a proficient, accomplished writer. Do the math. If you write 10 hours a week and there are 4.3 weeks in a month (43 hours a month) times 12 months, that comes to 516 hours a year. Divide 10,000 by 516. It will take you 19.3 years to get in your 10,000 hours at 10 hours a week. Better get to writing.
Who's in the car?
I heard somewhere in a writing workshop about a screenwriter who pitches his story to the Hollywood producer and goes on and on about a car chase involving crashes, blow-ups, lots of noise, and action shots. After he finishes the producer asks him, "Yes, but who is in the car?" I try to keep this in mind when I write. Who is in the car? It’s important to understand that the story is about the people.
Where does the story start?
Never start a book with back story. Start it with action. Don’t give us paragraphs of landscape and weather description. Hook us. An editor friend of mine in young adult publishing said he always requested the entire manuscript from an author because the story usually started in the middle.
Point of View (POV)
The one thing the beginner fiction writer usually has a great deal of trouble with is Point of View (POV), or whose head you are in. First person POV is in the main character’s head. Some books are written in first person for the entire book. We see all the action through one person’s eyes. All the emotion, action, and reaction is in the main character’s head. We find out how other people feel through dialogue and what the main character thinks about the other characters. Third person POV is more flexible since you are able to tell the story from more than one person’s POV. You use third person for each character. Point of view changes at chapters or scenes. As a rule, never hop between heads in the same scene. It confuses the reader. It takes a while to catch on, but once you got it, you’ll never get yourself or the reader confused again.
Because I’m writing fiction, i.e. mystery and science fiction, the first page is vitally important. The first sentence, the first paragraph, first page have to have something in them to hook the reader, to make them wade into the story and want to keep reading. I would say the same is important in any type book whether literary, memoir, or even essay and short story. We live in a short attention span world. The first sentence is very important.
Writing is sculptureThe creation of a book is like sculpture. One has a story idea. At first it is more like a blob. Then as one writes, details appear, high and low points occur. The book takes shape and becomes something tangible. Add and subtract. Curve and make points. Grammar and punctuation can help shape a story. I find commas very exciting. I try not to use hyphens and colons. Semi-colons are weak and look awkward, although Patrick O’Brien used them very effectively. Adverbs are the lazy approach to writing. When I am re-writing, I try to use adverbs only when they are absolutely essential to the sense of the sentence. A good writer knows grammar and uses it to sculpt the story.
Paint yourself into a corner
When stuck on what happens next, paint your characters into a corner and let them get out. I heard this at a workshop and try to follow the advice. When writing a fast paced mystery it is particularly useful. It is amazing what ways the characters come up with to get out of a corner. The idea sounds daunting, but it works. Try it.
After a while you'll see a cadence developing in your work. This is what is called voice. My voice is lots of dialogue interspersed with a sentence or two of description of character and landscape. I layer in the character's thoughts depending on whose Point of View it is. The cadence or rhythm of the book is something special to you. Each writer develops their own voice.
Writing humor is tricky because we all have different senses of humor. I write humor in every book. It’s who I am. I have a tough time being serious. Reader feedback tells me it works with my loyal following. One reader told me the parrot I wrote into Wings of the Wings makes her chuckle every time she thinks of him. She loved the parrot because he was funny. If humor comes naturally to you, then try it. But be careful because the reading public is very fickle and might not have the same sense of humor.
I like memorable characters that the reader can love. I try to write books that are great escapes with compelling plots and characters so that at the end of the book, the reader sighs and says, “I love this book.” One way to do that is to let the reader know what the character is thinking through point of view. For me the characters take over the story and make themselves memorable, or not.
Where’s the Plot?
The trouble I have with literary fiction is there are all these beautiful words and sentences, some character development, and no plot. I always am looking for the plot and the characters. Needless to say, I don’t write literary fiction, and I seldom read it. I get bored. When I write, I don’t always know where the plot is going, so I write in sub-plots for different characters. In one novel I had one of the main characters getting pregnant. But by the end of the book, that didn’t work, so I took it out and the plot still worked. Plot is the overall arc of the story. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. Writers that outline know where the story is going. I don’t, which can drive other writers crazy who are listening to me read one of my drafts. One writer friend was flabbergasted when she asked where the story ended up, and I said I didn’t know. I kinda like it that way. I like open ended.
Ten Rules of Writing from Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard, a great crime writer with a terrific sense of humor, wrote Ten Rules of Writing that you can find posted on the web. It’s worth reading the entire article. (Search on WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle, By ELMORE LEONARD, published: July 16, 2001, New York Times) His advice I like best is: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."
Here's a summary of Leonard’s 10 tricks for good writing from that article: “Never open a book with weather. Avoid prologues. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose.". Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Don't go into great detail describing places and things. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” His most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, he rewrites it.
Take courses and workshops to improve your craft.
It seems every writer who has written something is offering workshops these days on how to write. If you aren’t near a local university, community college, or major city, online courses can be good. Writer’s Digest University has a plethora of courses. I took one on characterization, and it helped. You do them on your own time. Writer conferences are filled with workshops on craft taught by credible writers. You might try one when you realize you need help with some aspect of the craft. (And here I am, writing one more writer’s guide.)
Traditional vs. Indie Publishing
Traditional publishing is when an established publisher publishes your book. Indie or self-publishing is when you do it yourself. If the New York publishing gods, don’t want your book, self-publishing is a viable alternative. What I like about self-publishing is I have total control of the project. I write, edit, publish, and market the book. All credit or detraction is mine. I have come to enjoy it. I have a terrific graphic designer I work with who does my digital and print covers, book design, and for the latest book she did a book trailer. In traditional publishing one has to find an agent or editor who is willing to take on the book. The market is very competitive.
Develop the elevator pitch
This is the two or three sentences you use to tell someone what your book is about when asked in the elevator. You have to capture your story in two sentences that describe the essence of the story. Develop it early on and make it catchy enough that a reader or agent or editor or publisher wants to know more. You will use this in pitching to agents and editors at writer conferences, telling friends about your book, and on social media posts. It is an essential tool.
Write the dust jacket copy
Look at the back of any paperback book or inside the dust jacket of a hardcover book. You will see short copy that describes the book. You will use this short description of your book in query letters and wherever you need a short description like on your web site, social media, author sites, etc. You want to grab the reader with this description so they will want to buy the book.
Study books at bookstands, bookstores, and the library
You will do this because you want to see who is publishing in your genre or field, what is selling, and who is publishing. It will give you ideas what publishers to query. Look at book length. How many pages are books in your field? What does the author say in the acknowledgments? Do they mention their agent or editor? Maybe these same people would be interested in your book. Get ideas for book design if you decide on self-publishing.
Read writer magazines
Read magazines like Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poets and Writers. They have excellent articles on writing in general, trends, publishing and other writers.
Join a writer organization
Writer organizations and conferences are an excellent idea. There you network with other writers, pitch to agents and publishers, attend endless workshops to improve your craft and help you get published, find out what the latest trends are, learn how to self-publish. Writer organizations usually have good newsletters that give helpful tips. Genre writing groups abound. There are children and young adult writer organizations, poetry and memoir groups. You can search for them on the internet to find the group of interest to you.
If you go the traditional publishing route, you will need to write a one-page query letter using the submissions guidelines you will find on the agent or publisher web sites. In it you will use your dust jacket copy of the story, tell how many pages or words, what genre, and audience. You will need to include biographic information or tell what qualifies you to write this book. There are many sources giving advice on how to write the perfect query letter. Search on the internet and lots of advice will come up. Be sure to check submission guidelines to see what the agent/editor wants in the query letter.
The Wonderful World of Indie Publishing
I attended my first Willamette Writers conference August, 2011 and went to a workshop on self-publishing. I decided to give up trying to get the NY publishing gods to buy at least one of the six books I'd written and went the self-publishing route. Self-publishing has been a rewarding experience, and I like the artistic control it offers. About the same time I saw the PBS documentary on Woody Allen and how he always maintained artistic control over all his projects. I thought, well, I can, too, with self-publishing.
Put on your alligator hide
You will want to start reading and sharing your work for critique. Some writers understand how to offer constructive criticism better than others. You will want to put on your alligator hide when someone comes down too hard on your writing. Don’t take all critique to heart. You, as the writer, have the option of taking suggestions or not. I have shared my work to others many times, and they have offered advice. I don’t always take it. As an artist, I take what I feel will improve the book. If I don’t agree, sometimes I say so. The rest slides off my alligator hide. This is good preparation for when you finally publish, people start reading the book, and you get reviews. The reading public is amazingly fickle. Everyone will have a different opinion. Here’s a surprise for you: not everyone is going to like what you write.
The Web is made for writers
Social media is pretty much the place to be to market books. There’s lots of advice on the internet on how to market on social media. You, as a writer, have an advantage in using social media. You already know how to write, we hope. So you are in your element. Which social media you use depends upon what you are trying to accomplish. I have a web site which I maintain myself. But many other alternatives abound. You need content for a good web site. I didn’t put up a web site until I published my first book because I didn’t feel I had a lot to say. Now it’s hard to shut me up.
You market yourself
Unfortunately, in today’s market a writer has to do her own marketing. I don’t do much because if I’m marketing, I’m not writing. There’s only so many hours in a day. You have to decide what works for you. Which brings us back to why you write. I write to explore creativity. I don’t write to make money or have a large following. It’s whatever works for you.
Don’t put much store in reviews after you get published. Remember the reading public is very fickle. If you don’t fit into whatever is trending, you might not even get reviewed. My advice is to write for yourself. If you become an NYT best seller, that’s an added bonus.
This is only my take on how to write. It works for me. Maybe some of it will work for you.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!
I’m pleased to announce that my new historical fiction, Wings of the Dawn, is now available for purchase digitally through a number of outlets including Apple Books, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Scribd, Amazon, and others. In print it is available on Amazon. Locally, you can purchase print versions at Gallery 15, 405 North Broadway in Burns, Oregon. The gallery is open Thursday to Saturday 11 AM to 5 PM. We’ll have a sidewalk book signing there June 18 from 11 AM to 2 PM. Please join us if you’re in town.
Here’s the story of Wings of the Dawn:
Nicole Duval, a high-class lady with a past. She’s octaroon – a woman of one eighth negro blood. It’s New Orleans of 1853. Nicole has gained her freedom from slavery, sells out, and heads west to escape her past and the threat of being re-enslaved. In Independence, Missouri she meets up with her cousin Magdalena. Together they outfit wagons, engage drivers, and start the two-thousand-mile journey to California, admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850. Both cousins try to pass for white. They are helped by a few enterprising gentlemen, fellow members of their wagon train, and Indians. They are hindered by storms, dust, deserts, mountains, slave hunters, disease, and Indians. The people and the relationships they form along the way transform their lives, and they are propelled on their journey by the wings of the dawn.
This book is my eleventh novel. It’s been a long time in the making which you can read about on my blog on my website www.marjoriethelen.com or in the author’s notes at the end of the book. Slavery is a difficult subject, and I had to do a lot of research. I’ve spent most of the last eighteen months in the 19th century. In the whole process I learned a lot, which is one of the reasons I write. I’ve moved on to finishing the 5th book in the Deovolante Space Opera series, Return to the Stars. I’m now spend my time in the world of astronauts and galaxies.
Thank you for reading my books.
With all good wishes,
I finished this book during the pandemic of 2020 and during the time of the unrest following the killing of yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, by police in Minneapolis. I now understand systemic racism in our country. I now understand white privilege, but it has taken me a long time. The research on this book forced me to confront our horrendous past of slavery. Slavery and its aftermath have taken a terrible toll on our country. Systemic racism, white supremacy and privilege, social injustices, suppression of voting rights for blacks and people of color continue today. Will we ever stop discriminating against people because of the color of their skin, their culture, and their beliefs?
Octoroon society existed in New Orleans in the early 19th century. A small portion of mixed-race people - mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon - formed a select gentry. Some were well-to-do. Some even held slaves. (One drop of negro blood made you negro. Mulattos were half black, quadroons were one quarter, and octoroons were one eighth.) I first learned about octoroon gentry in a film at the Josephine School Community Museum in Berryville, Virginia where I am still a member. Thank you, Dorothy Davis.
Many, many books fiction and non-fiction have been written about the Oregon and California trails overland migration, roughly the years from 1840 to 1860 when the Great Migration took place in the United States. Many reasons are listed for this phenomenon: bank failure, crop failure, disease, wanderlust, crowded conditions, free land, opportunity to start a new life, gold rush of 1849, Manifest Destiny.
When I first started reading the biographies, travel books, diaries, and oral histories, my one thought was: these people were crazy. Crazy to put up with the travails and hardships of a good six months on the open road, traveling for the most part in farms wagons drawn by oxen, mules or horses. The early wagon trains in the 1840s had different hardships than those who followed in the 1850s.
Women’s diaries wrote of daily life and hardships. They never mentioned women’s problems, sanitation, or childbirth, which were taboo topics. Women often didn’t want to leave home. Their husbands did. As in every age, there were extraordinary women in the 19th century who never made it into history books.
Men’s diaries noted where they found feed for animals and what the trail was like, how long it took to get from one place to the next. They also wrote about the disagreements in the trains and frontier justice.
Danger came from accidents and disease. Most people died of disease. Cholera was a big killer. Danger from Native Americans was overstated. Fear fed fears. People repeated hair-raising stories of Indian attack massacres they read in the newspapers, which for the most part were unfounded. Whites did impersonate Indians in raids upon the emigrants. Emigrant men were armed to the teeth, fearing an enemy that for the most part didn’t materialize. More often than not they killed themselves in accidental gun incidents. Wagon accidents and drownings were common.
Native Americans played an important supportive role in the migration with little thanks in return. They shared information with the settlers about the best trails, sources of food and water, and helped them in dangerous river crossings. They traded much needed food and articles of clothing. In return, their food sources were killed and run off, grass eaten and trampled, water contaminated, wood supply used up. When they asked the overlanders for tribute or tax, they were given so grudgingly if at all because the overlanders believed that the indigenous people did not own the land or resources over which they traveled. It was theirs for the taking. They believed in Manifest Destiny, a term originating in 1845, that expressed the belief that it was the mission of Anglo-Saxon Americans to expand their civilization and institutions across North America.
Without the support of the Native Americans, there would probably have been no migration; or the number of emigrants would have been greatly reduced by disease, starvation, and accident. Many fewer would have reached their final destination. When the real effect of the migration made itself felt to the indigenous people, they fought back only to have their way of life and culture destroyed.
The people who availed themselves of the opportunity for migration were mostly white, arrogant in their claims and outlook on life, what was owed to them as a matter of birthright, all lumped in the convenient term of Manifest Destiny. It was God’s will and the right of “Americans” to expand west.
African Americans went west. Accounts exist of who they were, where they came from, and where they went. Some were free; some were taken as slaves. Oregon territory was not well disposed to admitting people of color, free or slave. The infamous lash law was effective at keeping blacks out of the state. California was more open and welcoming, but not without its prejudices. In 1850 California was admitted to the union as a free state.
Some of the characters in Wings of the Dawn are inspired by real life people like Biddy Mason (1818-1891). She was a nurse, midwife, real estate businesswoman, and philanthropist in Los Angeles. She was born a slave in Georgia in 1818. A Mormon family who owned her took her to California in 1851 where they would not free her. She petitioned the California courts and eventually won her freedom. She was one of the first African American women to own land in Los Angeles. She amassed a good fortune and shared it with many. (See Wikipedia, Biddy Mason)
Some of the events come from real life diaries. I have tried to be as historically correct as possible, but any errors are mine alone. Above all, this is a work of fiction. It is one fictional overland migration story based on a character I created in my historical romance, Wings of the Wind. It led me to places I would never have gone as much of my writing often does. It allowed me to take a chance and write about what I don’t know and in so doing I expanded my horizons.
2020 has been a pretty horrendous year for most people. The pandemic is still raging. Vaccinations are starting to be administered. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris got elected - Yeah! Through it all I continued to write Wings of the Dawn. On December 21 I finally wrote "The End". But now I go back and start the endless task of editing, polishing, rewriting. But at least I got a story complete and the plot worked out. I may be able to publish by the summer.
Meanwhile, I wish all of you a very healthy, safe, happy, and peaceful New Year. It's gotta get better.
I know I said I was working on my next science fiction in the Deovolante Series but I got sidelined. I usually have several projects started at once. I got hung up in Return to the Stars on the space-time thing so I put it aside and took out Wings of the Dawn which is an historical fiction featuring a character from Wings of the Wind. Fabienne Beluche now Nicole Duval goes west on the Oregon Trail to get away from her past in New Orleans which includes her life as an Octoroon. She's going overland to California to start a new life. It's turning into a book about transformation. I'm about halfway through and it is really getting interesting.
The other book I have started is a mystery, working title The Three Sisters set in Bend Oregon. I got hung up on something in that one, too. So it's sitting on the shelf waiting for me to return.
I also have a memoir started which I worked on to keep in writing practice while I waited to get interested in one of my fiction projects. Such is the life of a writer. It's a perfect profession/hobby during a pandemic. On my writing mornings I'm on the California Trail in 1853. I'm perfectly content working at home. I don't have volunteer/community/activist meetings to go to, although some weeks I have too many Zoom meetings. Even the Willamette Writers Conference this year will be online. Strange times we live in. I never thought I'd live to see this. Very surreal. Like living in the Twilight Zone.
Winter 2020 Reflections
I've published ten novels over the last ten years that include mystery, utopian sci-fi, and one romance. I've written poems, made a guest appearance at a high school poetry class, and created two workshops. One was Finish the Book and the other was Publish the Book. I produced a workshop on screenwriting and helped produce and fundraise for an actor-screenwriter workshop. I've attended Willamette Writers conferences, where I discovered self-publishing. I've attended a writer conference at Yachats on the Oregon coast in 2009 produced by Jane Kirkpatrick.
I started in Washington DC Romance Writers back in the early 90s. It was through romance writer workshops that I learned character development, voice, and plot. I belong to the local Harney Basin Writers group which is a great group for feedback on one’s work in progress. Past a point one has to just write. I no longer attend the weekly writer meetings. I'd rather write. I no longer go to workshops. I'd rather write. I no longer produce and fundraise for writer events. I'd rather write.
Now at the grand ole age of seventy-two, I'd rather pursue my art. I am in the process of backing away from community and civic volunteer involvement, opening up space for drawing, beading, writing, and music. From head center to feeling center. From certainty to exploration.
I love making interesting necklaces with beads. I love beads and the feel of them. I first learned beading from my friend, Marlis Hodges, who I met in the Houston Gurdjieff work. I used to work with seed beads. I used to make earrings and bracelets. I used to bead clothes, fabrics, and pillows. Now mostly I make necklaces with semi-precious stones like turquoise, rose quartz, agate, carnelian, tree agate, garnet, jasper, onyx, amethyst. I used to decorate necklaces with silver, Bali silver, copper, and some gold beads. But now I don’t buy semi-precious. I am using what I have accumulated over the years. I bought out my Aunt Nancy years ago when she got out of the beading business. I work now in less expensive beads like shiny, faceted glass beads and base metal spacers. I enjoy finding old necklaces, taking them apart, and using them for new creations.
I love writing. I have four different projects started. One is a mystery set in Bend Oregon, working title, The Three Sisters. I'm working on my memoir, The Ditch Witch Blues, which is a fun project. It won't be for general circulation. I'll include photos. Then I'm struggling with Wings of the Wind, a novel set in 1853 when an octoroon woman goes West on the Oregon trail. It has led me to study black history, especially William Loren Katz’s black histories for young readers that have lots of photos. I now read black fiction authors like Ta-nehesi Coates and Toni Morrison. I read Ibrim Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist. Toni Morrison is a huge influence and inspiration. I read Sulah. She helps me understand how black women think, feel, and view their world.
Another project is the fifth book in the Deovolante sci-fi series. I got stuck on space time after about 50,000 words. It wasn't making sense so I'm reading Carlo Rovelli, my favorite Italian physicist. He wrote The Order of Time, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and Reality Is Not What It Seems. I found his email on his website and emailed him to say how much I enjoy his books. He answered and said, “Thank you, Marjorie!! Carlo”. I was thrilled! He gets me to thinking about reality, space and time, which informs my science fiction writing. He says, “Space is granular. Time doesn’t exist. Things are nowhere.”
I am playing the piano again. John got interested in centers through a Cynthia Bourgeault post on Richard Rohr’s daily meditations. She points out that arts and music are the first thing cut from school curriculum. They come from the feeling center. It made me realize that I need to play the piano again. I am starting with the Gurdjieff/ De Hartman music. Working at the art gallery, I listen to All Classical Portland. I need more feeling center food.
I have stopped reading headlines because they are too depressing. Mass psychosis. On the way into town, which is half an hour drive, I listen to Portland jazz radio KMHD instead of OPB news. Tosca is playing now on All Classical as I sit at the art gallery. I see how it touches me. Bourgeault also talks about how white society is stuck in its head or the thinking center to the detriment of other cultures, who are more moving and feeling center. Black soul music comes to mind. White society has a lot to be remorseful for, and they aren’t. I am. I only recently came to understand white privilege.
I like to draw and have for years in sketch books and on drawing paper. I like colored pencils best then crayons then No. 2 pencils. I hope my friend Terry Keim, who is a fabulous artist and drawer, will help me improve my craft. I draw fences, trucks, trees.
I want to devote some of each day to beading, writing, music and drawing, to my art, to creativity. This is my wish.
In my inner work, I see that I cannot do. That I am asleep. I see my certainty. I ask the question “What is pulling the strings?” I wish for intentionality. Seeing my automaticity, I am freed to seek intentionality through self-remembering.
I'm working on the next book in the Deovolante Space Opera - Return to the Stars. The process entails rereading the first four books in the series to make sure I have everything in agreement. I have forgotten a lot! I also have a mystery set in Bend Oregon that I've worked on and a memoir that I started this winter which includes essays and poems and remembrances. I love writing. It helps me sort through ideas and thoughts that I have.
I'm a serious writer, meaning I have a regular daily writing habit, and I'm interested in sharing my work through publication. My favorite literary form is the novel. I write to entertain myself and my readers.