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I’m getting  a lot done on my work+fun trip to Australia. Here is one of the best photos I’ve taken. Just a casual phone snap as I was standing in line to visit the Old Melbourne Gaol. (Note to American readers–that word is pronounced “jail.” Swear.)

There is a whole story in this image. The bride, the insanely huge humvee limo, the driver, the groom…and don’t get me started on the wedding party that poured out after. Suddenly I wasn’t so interested in the gaol.

Melbourne bride

What’s she thinking?

That’s how it works when writing fiction. You think you’re after one thing–some historical details about the outlaw Ned Kelly, for example–but then the world offers you something else.

A story begins where it ends. And it ends where it begins. For me, the key is to follow the emotional pull. And obviously, this image is a lot more interesting to me than Ned Kelly. I’m excited to see where this writing journey takes me.

Where will your writing journey take you today?

 

 

If you’ve ever taken a trip on a train or ferryboat, you know what I mean. You’re forced off the grid, leaving you 2 choices: read or write. It’s singularly relaxing. This is known as reader (or writer) heaven. From Paris, we took the TGV (tres grande vitesse) train to Aix-en-Provence. 3 zippy hours in a comfy seat with France out the fenetre.

Paris gare de lyon

What did I write on the train?

Sometimes productivity is overrated.

Sometimes productivity is overrated.

And what did I read? An international bestseller called THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND… by Swedish author Katarina Bivald. It will be published in the US in January, and you’re going to love it.

I am on a working vacation. When you’re a writer, it’s not a contradiction in terms, because your job comes with you in your head wherever you go. So if you go someplace awesome, you’re still working. But trust me, it doesn’t suck.

First stop–Paris. I finished FAMILY TREE (coming in 2016) and started research on my next book. Here’s the Jardin de Luxembourg and it doesn’t look much like Paris but when I see beehives, I have to take a photo because, well, beehives.

paris-beehives

I love discovering strange shops that sell things like mushroom hunting knives. Here’s one on Boul’ St. Germain called Le Prince Jardiniere:

paris - le prince jardiniere

My amazing husband Jerry takes the best people-watching shots. Check out this French kid taking a selfie in Place des Vosges, aka the prettiest square in Paris:

paris-place des voges

Wow, people. I’m thrilled–and also humbled–by your response to Starlight on Willow Lake. The most frequently-asked question about this book is “How did you come up with a character like Faith?” (She’s the protagonist.)

Pleased to meet you!

Pleased to meet you!

It’s a good time for me to answer this question, because I’m meeting with a bunch of writers at a Seattle7Writers event on Bainbridge Island. Here is how to make a fictional character seem very real to the reader. Get her talking. Make sure she’s talking in her own voice, not your voice. If you want to write a lot of different characters, you don’t want them all to sound like you.

The key for me is to have her speak in first person–on paper. I’m quirky, as you know, so I write this out in longhand as a free-flowing conversation with my newly-invented character. If you’re a writer, give it a try. If you’re a reader, move on! Go read something wonderful! Then come back and tell us about it!

ANSWER IN THE CHARACTER’S VOICE:

My ordinary world looks like:
The first time the reader meets me, here’s what I’m doing:
My most relatable trait is:
The problem I’m facing right now is:
The thing in my head that’s holding me back is:
The thing in my world that holding me back is:
If I don’t figure out my problem, the consequences are:
Show the reader this image to suggest where the story is going:
My person history in three sentences:
At this moment, I look like:
In school, I was:
The people in my family origin are:
Here’s how I make a living:
Here’s the person I love most in the world:
My favorite thing is:
My least favorite thing is:
I’m aware that I have this personal problem or issue:
My friends and family would say I have this personal issue:
I would finally feel complete if:
The thing I need right now is:
My deepest desire is:
My biggest goal in life is:
I have an emotional wound that stems from:
My greatest regret is:
The way I defend myself is:
My weakness:
My strength:
The single characteristic that could destroy me is:
The single characteristic that could save me is:
What I want the reader to know about me right this moment is:
The one thing that is going to get me going on my journey is:
I’m reluctant to change my path because:
My biggest fear is:
I express that fear by:
If I don’t go on this journey, here’s what will happen:
If I do go on this journey, here’s what will happen:
The greatest danger to me right now is:
My mentor is:
I do have a code of ethics. Here is its, in one sentence:
Something that bothers my conscience is:
Here’s what it would be required to make me take a leap of faith:
My worst enemy is:
My greatest ally is:
In order to achieve my goal, I would be willing to sacrifice this:
The difficult choice he must make as my journey comes to an end is:
My emotional breakthrough would be:
I’ll know I’ve completed my journey and mastered my problem when I _______________________________________________________________________.

Happy Writing!

strengthen your premise; check this out.
Premise in fiction. Your undergrad English professor probably taught you a fancy definition for this concept, but every novelist will tell you this: The premise is the cool thing your book is about.
Simple, right? Like, a crazed fan holds an author hostage and forces him to write a novel (Misery by Stephen King). The lives and loves of best friends through the years (Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy). A forbidden love that lasts a lifetime (The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough). A Navy wife whose marriage is in crisis learns her husband is missing at sea (The Ocean Between Us by my favorite author).
In The Art of Dramatic Writing (1977), Lajos Egri (who seems to have been obsessed with the concept of premise) states:
“Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there…Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.”
I envy the writer who comes up with fantastic ideas again and again, using the same method–listening to music, going for a drive, staring out the window, reading the paper, brainstorming with a friend.
For me, coming up with a premise is like going shopping without knowing what you’re looking for. “I’ll know it when I find it,” you tell yourself. Figuring out exactly what “it” is can be all-consuming. All I know is that “it” will be the driving force that sends me on the longest walk in the world, every day for the next six months to a year–that deathly commute from the couch to the blank page. So “it” had better be good.
The funny thing is, the harder I try, the more elusive “it” becomes. I think myself into a dither. I fiddle with things. I “what-if” myself into a state of confusion. I go on personal quests in search of the Cool Thing.
Sometimes I get lucky. I might discover it as I take my dog for a walk on the beach. Suddenly, I might think, “a child with Aspergers.” And I’ll think about a writer friend of mine and his sweet son, who has this condition, and its curiously gentling effect on the father. Or I’ll be digging in the garden or Windexing the kitchen, two activities that any writer will tell you have enormous appeal when confronted with a blank page. Maybe “it” will smack me upside the head as I stand at the refrigerator with the door propped open, contemplating the merits of leftover mac-and-cheese for breakfast.
Then I’ll have to test the idea in a thousand ways, figuring out what the most compelling elements are. Where will the tension come from? What will the reader see on the page and how will I make myself–and then the reader–happy to be reading it?
For most books, my story premise is cobbled together the way a magpie gathers things for its nest, with a shiny object here, a twisty thread there. At some point, maybe while making a story collage, these seemingly disparate pieces will coalesce into the Great Thing I’ve been seeking, the thing that will consume me through the next year: IT.
How serious am I about nailing the premise of my next book? So serious, we’re having a meeting about it. I’m not kidding. I have a brain trust coming to my house today and we’re going to brainstorm our book premises all day long.
What’s a brain trust? Well, it’s my writers’ group plus the world’s best story consultant, Michael Hauge. Some of you might remember he has a lifelong connection to the place where I live–and I have a rockin’ private guest house. He’s ours for the day. We’re rolling up our sleeves…I’ll report in on our progress. Stay tuned….
nice view, but whats the real story?

nice view, but what’s the real story?

Premise in fiction. Your undergrad English professor probably taught you a fancy definition for this concept, but every novelist will tell you this: The premise is the cool thing your book is about. Simple, right? Like, a crazed fan holds an author hostage and forces him to write a novel (Misery by Stephen King). The lives and loves of best friends through the years (Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy). A forbidden love that lasts a lifetime (The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough). A Navy wife whose marriage is in crisis learns her husband is missing at sea (The Ocean Between Us by my favorite author). In The Art of Dramatic Writing (1977), Lajos Egri (who seems to have been obsessed with the concept of premise) states:

“Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there…Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.”

I envy the writer who comes up with fantastic ideas again and again, using the same method–listening to music, going for a drive, staring out the window, reading the paper, brainstorming with a friend. For me, coming up with a premise is like going shopping without knowing what you’re looking for.

“I’ll know it when I find it,” you tell yourself. Figuring out exactly what “it” is can be all-consuming. All I know is that “it” will be the driving force that sends me on the longest walk in the world, every day for the next six months to a year–that deathly commute from the couch to the blank page. So “it” had better be good. The funny thing is, the harder I try, the more elusive “it” becomes. I think myself into a dither. I fiddle with things. I “what-if” myself into a state of confusion. I go on personal quests in search of the Cool Thing.

Sometimes I get lucky. I might discover it as I take my dogs for a walk on the beach. Suddenly, I might think, “a lonely woman who runs a beachside restaurant.” And I’ll think about why she’s lonely, and what it feels like to own a place where marriage proposals happen on a regular basis. Or I’ll be digging in the garden or Windexing the kitchen, two activities that any writer will tell you have enormous appeal when confronted with a blank page. Maybe “it” will smack me upside the head as I stand at the refrigerator with the door propped open, contemplating the merits of leftover mac-and-cheese for breakfast. Aha, I’ll think. How about a struggling young widow and a bazillionaire?

Then I’ll have to test the idea in a thousand ways, figuring out what the most compelling elements are. Where will the tension come from? What will the reader see on the page and how will I make myself–and then the reader–happy to be reading it?

For most books, my story premise is cobbled together the way a magpie gathers things for its nest, with a shiny object here, a twisty thread there. At some point, maybe while making a story collage, these seemingly disparate pieces will coalesce into the Great Thing I’ve been seeking, the thing that will consume me through the next year: IT.

Do you have a favorite story premise to read or write about? Share below! My inquiring mind want to know.

I hear it from emerging writers all the time. I’ve got a great idea for a novel. I’m going to sit down and write it as soon as I…

  • …get my day job under control
  • …get my final kid into kindergarten
  • …into college …out of jail
  • …get my finances in order
  • …fix my marriage
  • …finish painting the house
  • …pay off the car
  • …clean the can opener
  • …clean the rain gutters
  • …get the puppy housebroken
  • …retire from my job
  • …finish watching the third season of “Weeds”
  • …get my Bachelor’s…Master’s…PhD…LLB…MD
  • …pay off my student loans
  • …read all the Outlander books
  • …check in with my nineteen thousand Facebook friends
  • …upgrade my computer
  • …make tenure
  • …landscape the yard
  • …take a vacation
  • …host my book group
  • …teach my teenager to drive
  • …finish knitting this sweater
  • …forgive my parents …forgive myself
  • …get over my fear of failure …get over my fear of success
  • …get permission from my parents/spouse/children/therapist
  • …hire an agent
  • …learn to use the subjunctive case
  • …quit worrying about what my family will think of my story, especially the dirty parts
  • …stop smoking/drinking/playing online games
  • …figure out the business of publishing
  • …lose 20 pounds so I look good in my author photo…

You name it, and a procrastinating writer has said it. Here’s a dirty little secret. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the cruel reality is this. There will never be a good time to write. Life will always intrude. That’s what life is. Be glad for that. If you have no life, you have nothing to write about.

The good news is, there’s a simple solution. Make time for the things that are important to you. If writing your story is important, make time for it. Simple as that. Turn off the TV, leave the dishes undone, close your e-mail, grab a notebook and pen, and tell your family, “Don’t interrupt me unless your eyes are bleeding.” You’ll be surprised by the respect they give you.

The way you spend your day is the way you spend your life. So quit being your own worst enemy and start being your own best friend. Make time to write, even if you don’t have time.

I have procrastinated my way through the writing of many books. Somehow, the story emerges. The Beekeeper’s Ball hits the shelves next week. There’s a lot of love and food in that book. Let me know what you think.

Step one – open shitty first draft.
2 print out in word draft mode, light colored ink. 3 put on extra
strong glasses and lamp. rewrite every single page until it looks
like it’s bleeding. Be aware that you might need a lot of physical
space for laying out the pages. clothespins are key. 5. type in
handwritten edits. 6. go back to step 2 and do it all again. lather
rinse repeat.

Step one – open shitty first draft.

Step two –  print out in word draft mode, light colored ink.

Step three – put on extra strong glasses and bright lamp. Rewrite every single page until it looks like it’s bleeding. Be aware that you might need a lot of physical space for laying out the pages. Clothespins are key. So are Post-It notes.

ugly stuff

ugly stuff

Step five – type in handwritten edits.

smells fishy to Barkis

smells fishy to Barkis

Step six – go back to step 2 and do it all again.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

everyone's a critic

everyone’s a critic

Barkis is not too subtle when he wants to go for a walk….

The secret? See below:

So after telling you about the process of writing a novel, I promised to talk about cover art. How does a publisher get that sucker all spiffed up and ready for the bookstore?

Oh, so carefully. Most publishers have an entire dedicated art department whose sole purpose is book design–the image, the fonts, endpapers, you name it.

Back when I was self-publishing, I designed my own.

bringing you bad books since the age of 8

bringing you bad books since the age of 8

p10603411

Art was not my forte, clearly.

Book cover art is the topic of endless and passionate debate among writers and people in publishing.

Because it matters so freakin’ much. It’s the reader’s first glimpse of your work. You’ve got a split second to grab her attention. And in that split second, you have to convey that a) this is YOUR kind of book and b) it’s a particularly great read and c) she should just ignore all those other books on the shelf nearby that are vying for attention.

How does a book get from the mess on my living room floor…

Barkis is bored. He just doesn't get it.

Barkis is bored. He just doesn’t get it.

…into the reader’s hands?

Buy a book from Wendy!

You need not just a beautiful cover, but the RIGHT cover. For example, this cover is beautiful:

Where's the romance?

Where’s the romance?

…but it doesn’t scream “sweep-you-away-historical-romance” the way this one does:

Sexy tiiime!

Sexy tiiime!

The Drifter reissue

They’re all nicely done, but guess which one sold the best? Yep, the one that looked the most romantic, dramatic and compelling to the reader most likely to enjoy that kind of book.

After the original edition of The Drifter was published, the art department took another look at what my books were about and what my readers love–romance, fantasy, passion. So my next book, THE CHARM SCHOOL, went through a major transformation. Here is the cover-in-progress:

I sent my editor a little thumbnail image from a book of clipart. I just thought it was pretty. The main character was a bookworm with a rich fantasy life, and this image made me think of her:

Clip art that inspired The Charm School cover

Thanks to my very smart editor, she got this sketch out of the art department, and I knew we had a winner on our hands:

sketch for Charm School cover

I was hoping it would turn into a pink valentine of a book because, well, we readers love pink valentines. And Lo:

Now, THAT's a cover.

Now, THAT’s a cover.

Flowers, purple foil, generous endorsement from iconic romance author. It even had a peek-a-boo window with a glimpse at the illustration inside. And although the real Isadora looked like this:

Isadora, the main character of THE CHARM SCHOOL

Isadora, the main character of THE CHARM SCHOOL

…she got a makeover for the cover art. This image is inside the front cover. It’s known as a “step-back.”

ready for action

ready for action

I’m proud to say, The Charm School was my first national bestseller. The book got good reviews, won some awards, made some best-of lists, but I credit the sales to the right cover on the right book. 

Oh, and here–with apologies to the redoubtable Erik Larson–is my nomination for the worst book cover ever. On one of the best books, ever.

Foreign edition of Erik's iconic work, Devil in the White City, with unfortunate cover art.

Foreign edition of Erik’s iconic work, Devil in the White City, with unfortunate cover art.

Writers always get questions about the writing process. I don’t blame you for asking. I ask other writers about the process, because I’m convinced they have a better way. One of my better known quirks is that I write my first draft of a book in longhand, using a fountain pen, peacock blue ink and Clairefontaine notebooks. It’s not an affectation. I’m a lefty, which means my hand (and sleeve) drag across the page behind the handwriting. But the Skrip ink dries instantly, thus saving my sleeve. The header above illustrates this.

Other Qs about process: The Examiner recently asked me some tough questions. Okay, they weren’t tough. I love answering questions. If I don’t know the answer, I just make stuff up. Don’t judge. I’m a fiction writer:

Q. You hand write your original drafts! Holy Cow…. Why? Do you just like communing with ink? The feel of the paper? You feel more connected to the book? Tell us about your process.

SW: Its a habit I started since before I even knew how to read or write. At age 2-1/2, I used to scribble on paper and tell my mother, “Now, write this down.” And bless her, she did. All my stories were about a girl who was chased up a tree with Bad Things after her. To this day, that’s pretty much what all my books are about. 

As a teenager, I lived in Brussels and then Paris…I used to carry around notebooks (cahiers) filled with terrible angsty poetry. Later, when I started writing novels (grad school), I was so broke that I had to use half empty cahiers left over from high school. Since I hated (still hate) to type, I only wanted to type up each page once, so I would get the story down by hand and then transcribe. These days, I use Dragon Naturally Speaking and read the text into the computer. Ann Tyler once said writing by hand is like knitting a book. Its crafty! And you don’t save the wrong version or lose text (unless there’s a house fire). So the habit has stuck with me. 

Q. How I Planned Your Wedding is such a sweet, charming and romantic idea. Tell us about the book you wrote planning your daughter‘s wedding.

SW: This book was my alternative to being murdered by my daughter. We drove each other crazy during the wedding planning, but discovered that a sense of humor can rescue even the biggest disaster. Elizabeth started a blog which was howlingly funny and went viral, so she brought that snarky voice to the book. As the mom, I got to chime in. Some of the brutal honesty in the book still makes me squirm, but we both found a way to tell the story that every bride (and her mom) can relate to. Even those not planning a wedding will relate to the conflict and craziness of the mother-daughter bond.

Q. It seems you started the way many authors start: by thinking, “Hey, I can do that.” Since you had such great success for so long, besides the obvious advent of e-books, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the publishing industry?

SW: Honestly, the essence of publishing hasn’t changed. Since the days of the cave man carving stuff on the cave walls, people have wanted stories, and storytellers have wanted an audience. That is still the case. The changes are really a matter of format. Publishers consolidate, methods of publishing change, but readers and storytellers are forever. Thank God.

Q. Since you so enjoy keeping your toes wet in the teaching pool, if you had to pick the most important piece of craft information you’d like all new writers to take away from a conversation with you, what would that be?

SW: Tell the story that’s in your heart, and don’t hold back. Write a book the reader will want to melt into. And for Gods sake, learn your craft. Do NOT try to publish anything until you have nailed the basics (grammar, spelling, usage, syntax) and the refinements of writing. Readers deserve your very best, always….There are practical techniques a writer can use to keep the pacing of the novel strong, by introducing

unexpected emotions, twists and turns, actions and reactions. You want to leave out the stuff the reader is going to skip, anyway.

Happy New Year to All!

I believe traditions remind us of who we are when we’re in danger of forgetting.
Both The Goodbye Quilt and How I Planned Your Wedding (a funny memoir I wrote with my daughter, Elizabeth) are about letting go and moving on in the most loving way possible. As the school year comes to an end, the fact that your nest is empty stares you in the face.
If your daughter or son has gone away to college, like Molly in The Goodbye Quilt, she is now coming home as a “guest” in the house where she grew up. When this happened in my life, I finally understood the whole point of family traditions that revolve around food. A strong tradition, no matter how unconventional, is a bit like a short cut. It’s a cue to remind us to slip back into celebration mode without having to reinvent the wheel.
I wasn’t prepared for those odd moments of awkwardness when Elizabeth walked into the house on her first trip home from college. After a gleeful reunion with the dogs, her old favorite things and the freakishly neat room that used to be such a mess, she didn’t quite seem to know what to do with herself. Should she unpack that suitcase full of dirty clothes? Call her friends, play the piano, go for a walk? It was like being in an alternate reality. For a moment, we were unhappy, uncertain.
Then I said, “Let’s put on music and bake cookies.”
Within minutes, we’d fallen back into our roles–mom and daughter, goddesses in the kitchen, legends in our own minds, singing at the tops of our lungs. It was the start of a wonderful homecoming, and a reminder of who we are…at our brightest and most kind.

Speaking of cookies, here is my most-requested holiday recipe from a previous novel, Lakeshore Christmas:

Jane Bellamy’s Mint Meltaways
“My old family recipe was a secret, until we realized everybody else knew about this perfect pairing of chocolate and mint.”
(48 cookies)
Ingredients
¾ cup butter
1 ½ cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons crème de menthe liqueur or water
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
2 eggs
2 ¾ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
24 Andes Mints
Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. In a saucepan, melt together the butter, brown sugar, and crème de menthe liqueur (or water), stirring occasionally.
Add the chocolate chips and stir until melted. Let stand 10 minutes to cool. Add the remaining ingredients and combine with a spatula to form a soft dough.
4. Wrap the dough and chill at least 1 hour.
5. Roll the dough into 1½ inch balls and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet, leaving ample space between the dough balls. Bake 8 to 9 minutes.
6. Remove the cookies from the oven, and on top of each cookie, place half of an Andes Mint. Allow the mint to melt and then swirl with the back of a spoon.

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